Friday, August 05, 2005

To spend, or not to spend: that is the question

One of the more fascinating aspects of this free agent season has been observing which teams are the aggressors and which stand on the sidelines observing the others take action.

In some cases, clubs have little choice in the matter. A team like the Chicago Blackhawks cannot afford to not be spenders due to their situation. Once one of the most popular, successful, and well supported teams in the NHL, they've plummeted in every aspect to become a league laughing stock. Their attendance has hit rocket bottom, averaging 13,253 last season, placing them in 27th, down from 17,330 five years earlier. In a building that holds over 20,000. Not good.

To say the days of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, and Glenn Hall are long gone would be a colossal understatement. So with that said, it's understandable that they have to do something, anything, to get people interested. If that means overspending on Nikolai Khabibulin,Martin Lapointe and Jaroslav Spacek, so be it.

Meanwhile, some of the teams expected to be buyers have sat on their checkbooks, doing very nothing at all. Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Reiger told anyone who would listen that he would be very active on the free agent market. Hasn't quite happened. Instead, he's lost their top scorer and best defenceman, and added very little besides an aging defenceman who's been on the decline for years.

The Washington Capitals, with only six players signed for $7 million, were expected to at least make some noise. They haven't signed one player. No action has come out of San Jose, a team that one might think would be dipping into the free agent pool to compliment their Western Conference finalist team. Both those teams have seasoned, experienced GMs in Doug Wilson and George McPhee.

Here in Ottawa, some fans have frowned at the team's lack of movement thus far. Though we've heard that there is a glaring hole at left wing, especially when it comes to toughness, nothing has been done. Oh, there's been rumors, some of which were questionable (Lapointe for $2 million is far too rich for their blood). But no actual signings.

As a fan of the team, watching the Flyers and the Bruins load up, and then every other Canadian franchise but the Buds make significant moves, it's very frustrating. However, once you calm yourself, you realize, throwing money at players in a market that is operating much more like the old NHL than one with a salary cap may not be the best method. I forgive thee John Muckler.

And speaking of the Leafs, no team, no GM has taken more flack for their lack of free agent acquisitions than the Buds and their young general John Ferguson Jr.. JFJ already made himself the joke of the GMs with his signing of Ed Belfour to $6 million deal that paid him such during the lockout, finding out Belfour needed back surgery after the deal was done. He wasn't exactly on great footing with fans of the team as it was. Having let Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, and Brian Leetch slip away, and with Alexander Mogilny on a similar path, there probably hasn't been a less popular Leafs executive since Harold Ballard. Jeff O'Neill is a good pick-up at a great price and Jason Allison is a roll of the dice I'd take, but they're not exactly the kind of moves that will allow Leaf Nation to sleep better at night.

But maybe, just maybe, Ferguson Jr. knows what he's doing. A crazy concept, I know, but bare with me.

Eventually, when/if all the big spending slows down, there will be a little less than 100 players looking for new homes. By then, with most teams having signed their restricted free agents, cap room will be at a minimum across the league. The choices available to players won't be what it was for those who signed this week. As a result, they'll have to take less money with teams they maybe wouldn't have looked at previously. Their “market value” will be irrelevant because it will be about finding a place to play.

As well, many have pointed to next season's free agent crop as a young, better group of players. With the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, Wade Redden, Ed Jovanovski, Sergei Samsonov, Brad Richards, Ryan Smyth, Marty Turco, and Patrick Marleau all expected to be available to the highest bidder, maybe it is sensible to wait for those players, some argue.

Unfortunately, the inherent risk in both of these options is obvious. If you wait too long, you chance missing out on both this year's group of UFAs as well as next year's, ending up with nothing to show for your patience and virtue. Who's to say most of those highly touted free agents open to everyone and anyone next summer will even be available? Jarome Iginla's name was on that last a week ago, but he's since inked a multi-year deal with his team. You have to expect a few others will as well. Will it start a domino effect?

One point that hasn’t been given the emphasis I feel it should’ve is the fact that the salary cap is not set in stone. It will fluctuate based on league revenues. It’s $39 million this year, but next summer, pending a miracle that allows the NHL to not take a hit financially this year, it will be lower. Giving out four and five year contracts, which seem to be the norm this off season, might not be intelligent considering we don’t know where we’re going to be. It’s very possible a five year deal will be a financial albatross to a team in a few years, limiting what they can do when there are 26-year-old free agents available to them.

Because this NHL still has the new car smell, an argument could be made that it's futile to make an kind of criticism of the actions GMs take. Maybe people like me, throwing stones at the overzealous spenders, are out of line. After all, who's to say spending $4.5 million on Bobby Holik isn't the right move? But along those lines, maybe we also shouldn’t rush to castrate those who are waiting to see how this new world develops.

It might just be possible that the Leafs know what they're doing after all.

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