With salary cap (and floor) rising, the NHL's economic landscape changes again

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Change is clearly afoot in the NHL.

It was only a year ago that the salary cap appeared to have killed the trade market. Impact players were available during the off-season, but there simply weren't any teams willing or able to take on the contracts.

That ceased being the case during an interesting few days at the NHL draft.

With the 2011-12 salary cap getting bumped by another US$5 million—bringing the floor up along with it—the trade market came alive and saw players once thought to be unmovable getting shipped around. It could also have an affect on how free agency plays out this week.

"It's an unusual landscape right now," Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney said Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. "Quite frankly, I'm not sure what's going to happen July 1. It might just go berserk and the people who have money just blow their brains out."

The spenders this off-season aren't only limited to the teams traditionally right at the top of the cap.

Florida still needs to add in the neighbourhood of $25 million to reach the $48.3-million salary floor—even after acquiring Brian Campbell and his $7.142-million annual salary from Chicago. Panthers GM Dale Tallon signed the defenceman to that massive contract while working for the Blackhawks and believes the addition will make his team better.

Interestingly, he doesn't think that will be the case for all the moves he'll have to make this summer.

"The floor is going to get in the way of us trying to become a good team," said Tallon. "The focus is not the floor, the focus is to become a really good team as quickly as possible without jeopardizing our future. The floor is going to accidentally get in the way.

"That's the way I'm looking at it—I'm not doing this (Campbell trade) to get to the floor, I'm doing this to become a good team. Period."

There are 18 teams currently sitting below the cap floor, according to capgeek.com, although a number of them will move above it once they sign the restricted free agents on their roster.

Even still, there is clearly the need for some to take on payroll. Campbell's deal still has five years remaining on it and would have been virtually untradeable prior to now. With the market shifting, could the likes of Wade Redden, Jeff Finger or Sheldon Souray find NHL homes after being buried in the minors?

It's not unthinkable.

After a couple seasons where trades seemed near impossible to make because of salary cap constraints, teams seem to be finding more common ground. Enough are looking to gain flexibility by unloading big-ticket assets (Calgary, Chicago) while others are more than willing to take on the talent.

That's the case even when the talent comes with serious commitment, as evidenced by the Kings acquisition of Mike Richards (owed $51.6 million over nine years) and the Blue Jackets acquisition of Jeff Carter (owed $58 million over 11 years).

Both came from Philadelphia—where GM Paul Holmgren is trying to shake up his team—and figured to be Flyers for life with no-trade clauses set to kick in next summer. Clearly, pricey long-term deals aren't as scary as they once were.

"Other teams know what they're getting," said Pittsburgh Penguins player development coach Bill Guerin. "They know what they're getting not in just the player, but they're signed. They're not going to have to deal with a UFA, it's right there in front of him.

"L.A. knows that Mike Richards has nine years left on this (deal)—they want him and they're happy to pay him that."

Even a no-trade clause doesn't stand as a barrier to a move. Two of the players dealt in recent days had to sign off on a trade that they didn't necessarily want to be part of.

In Robyn Regehr's case, he originally declined a move from Calgary to Buffalo before reconsidering. He spoke with Sabres owner Terry Pegula and was convinced to waive his no-trade. Pegula even went so far as to personally visit Regehr in Prince Albert, Sask.

The Flames were so desperate to gain flexibility that they were willing to part with a player who appeared in 827 games for them.

"It's the toughest thing that you do," Calgary GM Jay Feaster said of asking Regehr to waive his no-trade clause. "I went through it in Tampa with Brad Richards and I mean there was a guy that won a Stanley Cup for us. When you have a warrior like Robyn is, a guy who has been there as long as he's been there and has done as much for the franchise as he has, that's a very very difficult phone call to make.

"It's a difficult discussion to have."

It's particularly tough when a player gave a hometown discount on his contract before finding out he'd be spending some—or all of it—in a new home. That is arguably the case for Richards, Carter and Regehr.

Some teams have found success in the salary cap era by getting their top players to take slightly less money, forcing everyone else to fall in line on an internal scale. The Vancouver Canucks are a good example of that with twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin leading the way at a reasonable cap hit of $6.1 million. It should result in more loyalty.

"We feel that we have a covenant with these players in a sense that if they're willing to take less money to play in our organization we agree that we're going to keep them," said Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman. "Having said that, things change. Sometimes they change from the players' perspective as well as the team's.

"Coaches change, sometimes philosophy's change and when a player and a team make a deal at one point in time it may be different two, three, four, five years later. It's a very fluid business."

That seems true now more than ever.



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