- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This is supposed to be the weekend where the spotlight is on the NHL’s annual amateur draft. Many have come for the draft but the primary focus is on something else — a fire sale sweeping through the assembled hierarchy of the hockey world.

Virtually each of the 30 teams appears intent on lowering salary — drastically in some cases — in anticipation of what is expected to be a work stoppage of at least a full season beginning with the 2004-05 season.

The primary issue is clear and has been since the 100-day lockout of 1994. The league’s owners are demanding a salary cap in some form, mainly to police themselves; the NHL Players’ Association is saying it will never be a party to such restrictions, that it’s not the union’s job to prevent owners from spending freely.

Educated guesses believe a cap eventually will come in between $30million and $32.5million. The New York Rangers raised the record for excess spending to more than $80million in salary this season and failed to make the postseason for the sixth straight year. The Washington Capitals were in the top 10 in the salary derby at about $50.4million. Very few teams would come in below the projected cap right now.

It is in this type of market that the Caps are trying to peddle the league’s highest-paid player, right wing Jaromir Jagr, who has five years plus an option year to go on his contract at $11million per. Suitors for Jagr were not lined up outside general manager George McPhee’s door yesterday.

McPhee has said nothing about the Jagr situation, on or off the record, since reports concerning a possible deal surfaced during the first week of June. It was thought the Rangers were still interested in the Czech star — they were the only bidder two years ago with Pittsburgh before the Caps entered the picture — offering to take him if the Caps would pick up a large portion of his contract for a season and take Eric Lindros in exchange. Interest may be wavering in New York, but Dallas is now thought to be a possible landing spot for Jagr.

“Every team is trying to move money — that’s the only thing anybody is talking about,” said one general manager. “And that’s a shame because this is the best draft pool we’ve had in years.”

McPhee agreed that the overall level of talent available today and tomorrow far exceeds that of any recent draft, if anybody notices.

“A lot of people seem to be trying to prepare their payrolls for the future and would like to move high-priced players,” McPhee said. “So there seems to be less discussion on the young players that are to be drafted and more discussion on veteran players and moving contracts.”

Who’s safe? Who are the untouchables in Washington?

The only truly safe players on the Caps’ roster are the very young who also happen to be very good — center Brian Sutherby and defenseman Steve Eminger, to name two, and forward Boyd Gordon, who is on the verge of signing a contract with the team and will graduate from juniors to the pros this summer. But that makes financial sense — a rookie salary cap tightly controls the first three years of an NHL players’ contract.

Goaltender Olie Kolzig is as close to being untouchable as there is on the Caps’ roster. He’s been a member of the organization since he was drafted in 1989. But under the extraordinary circumstances the team is now confronted with, virtually any other member of the club is available if the price is right, or even close. McPhee may try to peddle some players in an effort to land some of the youngsters who will be drafted today.

“It’s a very good draft,” he said. “There are a couple special players at the top and a good number of players right into the third round who are going to play. The draft is unique in that regard and if we can acquire more picks, we will.”

Washington drafts 18th in the first round but not again until 83rd, midway through the third. Other picks come at 123, 155, 217 and 249.

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