Commentary

Out with the old, in with the new? It's an emerging NHL trend

Updated: October 9, 2008, 1:35 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

The names aren't necessarily tied directly together, which makes cause-and-effect difficult to prove. One hockey player makes it here, another is told he's no longer wanted there, and the merry-go-round starts again.

But two intriguing trends have surfaced this fall on the eve of the NHL season, one producing great optimism about the future of the league, the other a gloomy sigh of nostalgia for best days gone by.

Somewhere in between those trends rests the four-year-old financial instrument that is the league's salary-cap system. In a theme familiar to other sports, and one familiar to hockey since the days when Gordie Howe's signing bonus was a Red Wings jacket, the size of a player's salary matters nearly as much as the tools and talent he brings to the rink. But the cap accentuates that equation and distorts it, as a player's financial number has to somehow "fit," regardless of past accomplishments or even his current ability to contribute.

Out with the old, and in with the new. As of today, seven of the top 10 selections from June's NHL draft will start the season on NHL rosters, an extraordinary, unprecedented number. Led by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 pick, this group includes a pack of hard-nosed young defensemen and a Danish-born forward, Mikkel Boedker, who may start the season skating on Wayne Gretzky's No. 1 line with the Phoenix Coyotes.

It doesn't even stop with that group. The 28th selection in the draft, forward Viktor Tikhonov, is also expected to make the Coyotes, a jump similar to the one made by David Perron of the St. Louis Blues last season when, after being drafted 26th in 2007 following just one year of major junior hockey, he cracked the Blues' lineup.

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, 18-year-old defenseman Luca Sbisa may have earned a spot in the Flyers' lineup after being the 19th pick in 2008. Sbisa's path was cleared to some degree by a shoulder injury to Philly blueliner Ryan Parent that will sideline him for 12-14 weeks. The Flyers did have 31-year-old veteran defenseman Bryan Berard, the No. 1 pick of the 1995 draft, but chose not to sign him out of training camp.

In all, there could be nine first-rounders on NHL rosters to start the season.

In a league that is already showcasing two brilliant, superstar talents in Pittsburgh's 21-year-old Sidney Crosby and Washington's 23-year-old Alex Ovechkin, the last two winners of the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, this latest surge of teenage talent further emphasizes the willingness of NHL clubs to open roster positions for remarkable young athletes who may not have even graduated high school.

Even as 46-year-old Chris Chelios nurses a broken bone in his leg as he attempts one more NHL campaign, the league seems all about kids and freshness and energy.

And, of course, the salaries those youngsters make in comparison to others.

The current NHL collective-bargaining agreement is flawed, but if the owners did well, it was in the area of fixing costs for young players. So-called "entry-level" deals are now three years in duration and virtually automatic; the notion of an NHL rookie doing a JaMarcus Russell and sitting out to get a better or longer-term deal essentially no longer exists.

In capped league, with the team limit now at $56.7 million, those fixed costs allow teams to substitute those contracts for the inflated salaries of veterans. So the influx of Stamkos-led talent this fall has also been accompanied by an unusually high number of veteran players dumped on waivers or released entirely as teams seek to get those salaries off their NHL payrolls.

They include goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin of the Chicago Blackhawks, whose $6.7 million salary and diminishing skills were a bad combination. Grizzled warriors felt the pinch; defensemen Rhett Warrener of Calgary and San Jose's Kyle McLaren -- each with more than 700 regular-season games under his shin guards -- were fed to the waiver wire. Ditto for Anders Eriksson, another blue-line casualty in Calgary.

Forwards Mark Bell (Toronto), Peter Schaefer (Boston), Matt Pettinger (Vancouver) and Boyd Devereaux (Toronto) were also cut loose, as was slugger Aaron Downey of the Detroit Red Wings.

In a similar-type move, the Lightning made a deal with Vancouver to move one of their more established defensemen, Shane O'Brien, along with minor league forward Michel Ouellet, a player carrying a major league ticket, in exchange for unproven defenseman Lukas Krajicek. Krajicek may give the Bolts the back-end mobility they crave, but the deal also helped Tampa shed about $1.3 million of salary at the same time the club is up against the cap. Helpfully, the 18-year-old Stamkos comes with a cap hit of $3.725 million (with his package of bonuses) and a $875,000 salary for the next three seasons.

McLaren, meanwhile, was chopped along with his $2.5 million specifically to help the Sharks get under the salary cap, not because he couldn't help the club.

"Kyle is an NHL defenseman," said San Jose GM Doug Wilson. "He deserves to play in this league ... other teams are going through the same thing. We're limited by the 23-man roster."

One of the oddities of the NHL cap system is that teams can simply waive a player whose guaranteed salary they don't like and, if he isn't picked up by another team, ship him to the minors and not have his salary count against their cap figure. Anaheim GM Brian Burke has long argued that this means the NHL doesn't have a cap at all, but rather is a league in which individual teams are essentially governed by the amount of "dead" salaries their owners are willing to carry outside their NHL roster.

Carrying entry-level salaries is another way to control costs. The Toronto Maple Leafs, after dumping the large salaries of defensemen Hal Gill ($2 million) and Bryan McCabe ($6.15 million) in recent months, will absorb a much lower cap hit of $1.25 million (his salary is $850,000) for 18-year-old defenseman Luke Schenn if he stays with the club all season.

St. Louis, which moved veterans like Jamal Mayers, Martin Rucinsky and Mike Johnson in the offseason, could have as many as five entry-level contracts on their payroll this season: Perron, the injured Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and 18-year-old rookie defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

The Los Angeles Kings likely will have the league's lowest payroll and will feature as many as four entry-level salaried players: Anze Kopitar, Jack Johnson, Thomas Hickey and 18-year-old first-round pick Drew Doughty. The Kings could have acquired Mathieu Schneider from Anaheim, essentially for nothing, two weeks ago before he was shipped to Atlanta, but preferred to carry Doughty's $3.475 million cap hit and $875,000 salary per season rather than Schneider at $5.75 million, even though the 39-year-old would have automatically become L.A.'s best defenseman.

The cap is a moving target, and suggestions are that North American economic woes might, after three years of successive cap increases, see the cap go down after this season, squeezing teams with contract commitments even more.

The trick, then, is to get as much out of entry-level players before having to pay significantly more on their second deals. L.A.'s Patrick O'Sullivan, for example, more than quadrupled his salary to $4 million after contributing 22 goals in the final year of his entry-level deal last season. Just as Crosby jumped to $9 million at the conclusion of his entry-level deal and Ovechkin to a 13-year, $124 million contract, it's the players moving into their second contracts that seem to have all the financial leverage these days.

High-salaried veterans and the middle class are the likeliest to suffer when the payroll crunch comes. The beneficiaries are talented teenagers and early 20-somethings, players without the history and record of past contributions, but ones who deliver freshness, energy and come in at the right salary figure.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.