Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Free Agency Problem

One problem that the NHL will have to deal with is the problem of the potentially huge free agent pool when the lockout is over. I wrote one of the first posts in this blog on this topic.

The problem is that according to the rules of the last CBA, all players who were unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2004 and have not yet signed a contract will be UFAs. Also, all the players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2005 will be UFAs. Also, all the players eligible for the 2005 entry draft will be UFAs if the draft is not held. Also, players drafted in 2003 who have not yet signed contracts (and they cannot sign contracts during the lockout) will be UFAs. Also, all players who become restricted free agents in 2005 will become UFAs if they are not tendered qualifying offers by July 1st (and they cannot be tendered qualifying offers in a lockout). Also, all players who became restricted free agents in the summer of 2004 who have not yet signed a contract will become UFAs unless they can be tendered qualifying offers (also they cannot be tendered qualifying offers during a lockout). All told the vast majority of NHL players would be unrestricted free agents.

Teams would be left with only a handful of players under contract. They would have to go out and sign the rest of their team from the huge UFA pool. This is one of the worst possible scenarios for continuity in the NHL. Not only would a season (or more) of NHL hockey be gone, most of the players on your team would also be gone. It would be the first time in NHL history where a team could successfully buy a championship (as long as they can find a way around any slary restrictions in the new CBA). Even with a restrictive salary cap, the big market teams would have a better chance at buying a winning team. These teams would be the first choices for many of the players and their cities would be able to offer much better advertising and merchandising type monies for their players. This type of scenario would be a big boon to the New York's and Los Angeles's of the world and seriously hurt the Calgary's and Columbus's. According to the NHL public relations, the exact opposite was supposed to be the reason for the lockout. This scenario would really hurt the fan.

This scenario is definitely not a given. In a lockout, pretty much anything can be negotiated if the sides agree to negotiate it. Some of these potential UFA players might not be given unrestrictive free agency. Possibly, contracts for last season will be deemed to be in place for this season. This is a huge mess. The longer we wait until there is a deal, the bigger the mess becomes.

It is a significant bargaining chip for Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA, because in return for concessions on these issues, the NHL would have to offer something in return. With problems like this to be negotiated, where their negotiation hasn't even begun yet, I am not confident we will see a deal any time soon.

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