New trends in the NHL, thanks to the CBA

If you're beginning to notice new trends in the ways NHL teams assemble their talent, you're not alone. As GMs begin to get used to the collective bargaining agreement, salary cap, and find new loopholes to defeat the purpose of that salary cap, you're going to see all sorts of new ways of putting together an NHL team.

Obviously, there's still the old-fashioned way of building from within. The Detroit Red Wings seem to have mastered that technique, and have proven that it can work in the new NHL. But it takes time, and it takes very good scouting and player-development staff--things not every team has.

There's also the free-agent acquisition way, which the New York Rangers are infamous for, and the Tampa Bay Lightning so horribly failed at last season. It doesn't seem to work nearly as well.

And new trends are certainly popping up. Teams don't want to lose their star players, and pay--or overpay--them to stick around. When working with a salary cap, though, this usually means bringing in some cheaper talent--prospects on entry-level deals playing in roles with more responsibility, undrafted players from Europe being wooed to North America, and undrafted college prospects joining the ranks of their drafted brethren on cheap contracts.

What does this mean for the league? Obviously, we're gettign some funny looking contracts. And it sure looks like the middle-class of players might be getting the squeeze in favour of expensive stars and cheap youngsters.

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On this past Wednesday, Steve Zipay from Newsday put together his 'All-Free-Agent' team, consisting entirely of players who, for some reason or another, haven't yet been signed to contracts for the upcoming season. It consists of some pretty big names and established NHLers:

Tanguay-Sundin- Sykora
Williams -Lang-Afinogenov
Pyatt-Malhotra-Satan
Bertuzzi-Betts-Grier

Extras? Your choices. Perrin, Niedermeyer, Comrie, Hinote, Shanny, Moore. I'm sure I've missed some.

Defense:
Seidenberg-Schneider
Morris-Bergeron
Alberts-Zubov
Murphy


Goaltenders:
Fernandez
Gerber
Legace
Biron

Not a bad team at all, in my opinion. And these aren't 'expensive' acquisitions, in most cases; anywhere from $2M to $4M, less in some cases, would likely be enough to get these players under contract. But with a good number of young players being brought into the league to fill out rosters, there's beginning to be less room for these middle-of-the-road veterans on NHL rosters.

These unsigned players are one of the new trends in NHL cap management: Most NHL teams are up against the cap, and aren't able to sign free agents, even those as attractive as some of the names above. My previous NHL 2K9 season demonstrated a microcosm of what's happening now, and that's that teams will spend to the cap keeping their team intact, rarely leaving enough room for much in the way of free-agent signings. It'll mean some lesser stars, including second-liners, will have to take serious salary cuts or wait it out until, half-way through the season, their cap hit won't be so high.

We've all also seen significant superstar movement, where players' contracts expire and they (or the franchise) decides to move in another direction. This past July 1, it was significant. But there are other more subtle occurences that are presenting themselves, and may become trends as the current collective bargaining agreement and salary cap force teams into coming up with creative solutions to difficult situations.

Something you might begin to see more of are signings such as that the Rangers made with centre Tyler Arnason, and the New Jersey Devils signed with defenceman Cory Murphy. Both players are NHL veterans who, due to in all likelihood new trends in cap-management, signed two-way contracts with their respective new NHL teams. Arnason, in particular, has played 487 games in his career, but signed his deal that would see him earn only $700k even if he stays in the NHL, and far less if the team re-assigns him to the AHL for budgetary reasons. Murphy has less experience, with 79 games played over his two seasons, but also signed a two-way deal for $975k if he stays in the big leagues. These two-way contracts reflect one thing, above all: Teams need flexibility. The freedom to send an NHL-calibre player back and forth from their minor-league affiliate is as valuable as the player himself.

One thing you'll definitely see more of, at least until the NHL closes the existing loophole, is heavily frontloaded long-term contracts, such as that given to Marian Hossa by the Chicago Blackhawks. Hossa's almost unprecedented 12-year , $62.4M deal has an annual cap hit of $5.2M but is structured so that it will pay him $7.9M for the first seven years, going down in the final five to $4M, $1M, $1M, $750k, and $750k--meaning that almost 89 per cent of the money will be paid to Hossa with the contract less than two-thirds of its way through, and Hossa will be 42 by the time that final year rolls around. Is there an expectation for him to fulfill the final years of that contract? No, but the frontloaded structure allows the Hawks to buy out Hossa for far less, if need be, and--because Hossa was under 35 when the deal was signed--those amounts won't count against the cap if the winger retires before the contract is up. The Cannon took a look at the precedent that set, and posed a question: Why not sign, say, Phil Kessel to a 30-year deal with a value of $71.25M, and a cap hit of only $2.375M per season.

We're also seeing a growing number of undrafted prospects coming out of either European leagues or the college ranks. Ottawa GM Bryan Murray has pulled plenty of players from college, including current Senators Jesse Winchester and Craig Schira, as well as Dustin Penner and Curtis Glencross, and it seems like every year there's another college player who's got some teams trying to acquire his services; last year the biggest name was Tyler Bozak, who was signed to an entry-level deal by the Maple Leafs (who also acquired Christian Hanson in the same way). The attraction to these players is twofold: One, they don't cost any assets to acquire, and two, they're cheap. In essence, the risk:reward ratio is lower than that of signing a veteran.

The Leafs have also made recent headlines signing European players to inexpensive entry-level deals, including most recently picking up alleged monster goaltender Jonas Gustavsson from Sweden, but also, during last season, Jonas Frogren to a deal. Even a player such as Fabian Brunnstrom of the Dallas Stars, who was signed late in the 2007-08 season, can be had for a lower cap hit than a similarly-skilled NHL veteran; Brunnstrom's cap hit this year was $2.25M. He might not have been as productive or consistent as Stars brass would like, but his salary is a lowly $875k and is littered with performance-based incentives.

What does all of this mean? Well, one could argue that the average age in the NHL will be going down. That hasn't happened yet, though; After a fairly steep climb in average age from the 1980s into the early 2000s, the trend has largely flatlined, according to statistics on QuantHockey.com. This could be attributed to the fact that undrafted prospects typically join the league at an older age than conventionally drafted prospects, usually in their mid-twenties, or because some these trends have yet to get into higher numbers.

One statistic that may be evident, however, would be the age rookies enter the league at, and that has been getting older in recent years. See the chart below, again drawn from stats on QuantHockey:

Decade Aged 18 Aged 19 Aged 20 Aged 21+
2000s 21 62 201 825
1990s 43 113 178 794
1980s 97 179 210 579

In both real and relative terms, rookies are getting older. But even with rookies getting older, we're also seeing a higher number of rookies: With 1,109 rookies so far this decade, compensating for the fact that the entire 2004-05 season was lost due to the lockout, we're looking at a steady increase in number and age of rookies playing in the NHL--although some of that can be attributed to the larger number of teams playing today than in decades past.

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