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NHL players rolling in dough

| Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jeremy Roenick was wrong.

Roenick was one of many in the hockey industry who labeled the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement a crushing loss for the players.

This was July 2005. The players, reeling from a lost season, were about to agree to a salary-cap system. Roenick was holding court at the Mario Lemieux Invitational.

"If people are going to chastise professional athletes who are making a lot of money, they need to look at the deal we are probably going to end up signing," Roenick said.

As if the players would be forced to subsist on food stamps and ramen noodles.

Now look: Thomas Vanek makes $10 million, and the average salary has officially cracked $1.9 million, passing the pre-lockout figure of $1.83 million.

A crushing loss for the players?

"If there were those who viewed it in the words you use," says player agent Don Meehan, "I don't know how they could view it that way now."

The salary cap is expected to climb to around $55 million next season, with a floor of around $40 million - which means the new floor will eclipse the ceiling ($39 million) of three seasons ago.

Player salaries are tied to league revenue (players get 56 percent), so a rising average salary means revenue streams are flowing. Not as many players make $1 million per year as compared to before the lockout, but the minimum salary has risen from $180,000 to $475,000.

More significant, young stars are thriving in newfound positions of power. That is because the age for unrestricted free agency has dropped from 31 to 29 to 28 and now to 27 (or seven years in the NHL).

This can cause a chain effect, as it did in Buffalo, N.Y., last summer, when Vanek was a 23-year-old restricted free agent.

Buffalo had lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency, so when the Edmonton Oilers enticed Vanek with a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet, the Sabres felt obliged to match.

"The lower free-agent age, combined with a cap system, made it ripe for the Thomas Vanek deal, which really changed the entire marketplace," says Vanek's agent, Steve Bartlett. "Before that, teams could generally sit back and feel pretty comfortable with restricted free agents. Once we did the deal, you saw an unusual flood of young players getting signed to long-term contracts.

"Normally, that class of player (early 20s, restricted free agent) would have been years away from having significant leverage. Now, teams have to be concerned somebody would take a run at a player like that."

You better believe somebody would take a run at Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who can be a restricted free agent July 1. That gives him immense leverage in his negotiations with the club.

Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal can be restricted free agents July 1, 2009, which is why the Penguins want to get them signed to long-term deals long before then.

Can you imagine what an offer sheet for Malkin would look like?

Meanwhile, defenseman Brooks Orpik, 27, and wingers Ryan Malone, 28, and Marian Hossa, 29 - all pending unrestricted free agents -- soon may reap the benefits of the CBA.

Under the old system, those players would have had to wait until 31 to hit the open market. Now, all three are in position to become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

No ramen noodles for them.

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