Jim Kelley
Thursday October 23rd, 2008

The usual song and dance regarding the worth of a possible unrestricted free agent hitting the open market come July is in preproduction these days. It may not make Broadway, but it's already getting a run in places like Minnesota and Atlanta.

In Minnesota, Ron Salcer, the agent for Marian Gaborik, is already making charges that his man is a victim of "character assassination" and is being disrespected by rumors that he is asking for a deal in the $100 million range. Salcer angrily reacted to published reports, clearly trying to downplay a growing perception in the media that his client is greedy. He also said he has not received reported offers of $85 million over 10 years, $90 million over 10, and $70 million over 10. "When and if they do get offered," he said, "maybe something will happen."

It's a little quieter in Atlanta where Ilya Kovalchuk resides (at least for the time being), but there are price-point questions about what is likely the league's most talented goalscorer, and an issue as to whether the always cash-strapped Thrashers can afford to keep him.

In Atlanta and similar cities, they are used to this kind of thing (see the Marian Hossa deal to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline last season), but there are two extenuating circumstances this time around. The first is the question of what exactly the market could be in a time of a world-wide depressed economy, shrinking income and a credit crunch that make a big, long-term contract a possible liability, especially if the salary cap takes a dive next season. The second is the question of market value for two gifted Top 10 players who, outside of their respective markets, have a name value that is substantially lower than Joe the Plumber.

Gaborik is 26 and the Wild franchise's leading career scorer with 415 points. That's impressive, but outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area he is virtually anonymous. Having missed almost a full season due to injuries that have plagued much of his seven years in the NHL, Gaborik is a talent who is often not in play when the Wild tour other NHL cities. Yet, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that he has been offered more than $80 million over 10 years. Neither the Wild nor Salcer have confirmed that figure.

Kovalchuk, soon to be 26, is also his franchise's leading scorer, with 466 points in his first 466 NHL games -- 254 of those points were goals heading into this season. He might be the best pure scorer in the game today and he's also not a huge name outside of Atlanta despite the fact that he was the MVP of the 2002 NHL Young Stars Game and a member of the All-Rookie team, played in the 2004 and 2008 All-Star Games, and was a second-team All-Star in 2003-04, when and shared the Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals in a season with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash (41).

The Wild and Thrashers are on record as saying they do not want to lose their biggest guns to free agency, but they are also known to be exploring the marketplace in the event that contract talks cannot be concluded successfully.

Hockey people are keenly aware of each player's talent and the fact that any team that lands one or both would immediately upgrade its talent level significantly. An already good team could envision a scenario like the one that lifted the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final after their acquisition of Hossa at the trade deadline last season. In the right circumstances, either player could be the difference between winning and losing the Cup. At the very least, a Gaborik or Kovalchuk is a difference-maker in regards to just making the playoffs.

The Wild and Thrashers have to wonder how much they could get in return, but the bigger question is how much to sign their stars for and for how long. Even the lowest rumored offer to Gaborik -- $70 million over 10 years -- is a lot of money over a lot of time. NHL contracts are guaranteed, and in the case of Gaborik, even a year-to-year deal is risky because of his penchant for injury. The Wild are a good team that often continues to win when he is out of the lineup, but they do it largely with defense and need either his offense or the offense they might pull in via trade in order to advance deep into the playoffs. But how much firepower can you get on the early trade market for a player who might not sign with anyone in order to wait for ultimate free agency?

There is a lot riding on the outcome for the league and the players. Lots of teams (Philadelphia is Exhibit A) signed a good many players to long term deals last season. That's a fine strategy as long as the salary cap continues to rise, but what happens if it goes down next year? Given the state of the economy, that's a real possibility.

Does the Wild want to have upwards of $100 million tied up in one performer? If so, it would likely necessitate moving other players to fit payroll under the new shrunken cap, and if the market is flooded with players because other teams have to scramble to get under it, too, the Wild could find themselves in a situation where they can't make trades and can't relieve themselves of salary.

Even a flat-out release doesn't guarantee cap relief, and a buyout only frees up some space while leaving a club paying players who are no longer on the roster. Last season, the norm was for a team to move the player, get something in return, and watch as he reaped massive rewards in unrestricted free agency, the result of the ever-rising cap. The problem for players now is that this time it's a truly dicey situation and no one is quite sure which way to go.

The only thing that is certain is that the team that makes the first move here may well live to regret it.

It seems the the new owners in Tampa Bay haven't just rocked the NHL in terms of trades, signings, and front office and coaching moves, but on the financial front as well.

There is concern about the Lightning's debt load. According to reports in the St. Petersburg Times, the new owners are having problems finding financing for a bridge loan they took out to pay the some $200 million to acquire the team. They got a loan from the seller, Palace Sports and Entertainment, to the tune of some $70 million, and another $30 million from a deal broker in New York --Galatioto Associates headed by Sal Galatioto, a former Lehman Brothers banker. The broker is attempting to find financing for the $30 million he put up and also for the $70 million that would go to Palace Sports which is, in essence, former owner Bill Davidson. However, the credit markets have dried up and getting that loan, at any price, has proved difficult.

The betting is that Davidson will simply continue to extend the terms of his loan to the buyers, but he likely won't want to do that forever, nor will the New York broker. Thus, there's an outside chance that Davidson could retake the team. That's speculative right now, but stranger things are happening in the world of high finance these days.

The other intriguing issue in Tampa is goalie mask rights.

The two goalies -- Mike Smith and Olaf Kolzig -- are wearing custom designed masks promoting the movie Saw V, a horror flick expected to be released next month and go directly to DVD. The movie series was made and distributed by Oren Koules, a movie producer and co-owner of the team along with Len Barrie.

The NHL prohibits advertising on player equipment, but OK Sports apparently got around that by designating some of the receipts from the mutilation flick to charity. The questions for the league are how much goes to charity, how much is profit, and should that ad profit go to the team or the player wearing the ads? If the league holds that this is not outside its rules, expect to see all kinds of equipment exploitation as virtually every team has a charitable foundation for that very purpose. You might also expect the Players Association to ask for a piece of that revenue.

One more interesting financial issue in Tampa has to do with business associates.

Lightning co-owner Barrie, a former player, owns a resort in Canada called Bear Mountain. Among the investors are Tampa Bay's goalie consultant Mike Vernon, forward Gary Roberts and recent waiver claim Mike Pettinger. That makes those three guys business associates of Barrie as well as his employees, an odd scenario indeed.

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