- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

A little more than 24 hours after the NHL free agent period started a year ago, the bulk of the big names available had moved from one team to another for mega-bucks and a new start.

Don’t hold your breath for that to happen this summer.

The stare down is officially under way. The free agency signing period started at midnight yesterday with scores of players available, far more than usual. But there has been no rush to get signatures on dotted lines.

And there won’t be, not until the league and its players’ union settle on a collective bargaining agreement. The current one expires Sept.15 and if no contract is signed by then, owners have said they will lock players out and put the 2004-05 season on hold.

With the possibility of a stalemate in mind, most clubs have pared rosters to the bone because they don’t know what the rules will be when a new CBA is reached. Will there be a cost-certainty clause (a salary cap) and if so, how much will it be? A cap figure of $31million has been mentioned but it seems unrealistically low, at least as a starting point.

The Washington Capitals have 17 players under NHL contract and another nine have received qualifying offers, binding them to the team and vice versa. Defenseman Jason Doig signed a one-year contract late Wednesday night but more than 30 other Caps are free agents of one form or another.

Additionally, 28 former Caps, starting with Peter Bondra and Jason Allison, landed on the free agent market yesterday and probably face massive salary cuts if and when they sign. Allison made $8million last season, did not play a game because of post-concussion syndrome and was not offered a new deal by Los Angeles. Bondra’s $4.5million option was not picked up by Ottawa.

It is not simply that these players — and hundreds of others like them — are not wanted by their teams (although that may be the case in some instances); it’s that nobody knows what the ground rules will be when a new CBA is signed. If the cap is $31million, for instance, a player like Allison can’t take up more than one-quarter of the total if the team is to be competitive.

“Teams will act in different ways,” Washington general manager George McPhee said yesterday. “Some teams will sign guys right away and others will stay out of it.”

McPhee indicated the Caps will stay on the sidelines until they are sure what framework has been established.

Another factor in not rushing into negotiations is that many of the unrestricted free agents signed during the past few years have not made the contributions to their new teams that they made to their former clubs, contributions that got them the big contracts.

Many general managers are taking a longer, harder look at free agents age 30 and above, especially after the recent Stanley Cup final between champion Tampa Bay and runner-up Calgary were between teams dominated by younger players.

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