This year's free agent frenzy is unlike any the League's ever seen before for obvious reasons, with around 2/3 of all NHL players without contracts as of today, and there seems to be a recurring theme: the players - and not the owners' wallets - are for the most part going to decide who goes where. It only makes sense under the salary cap.
Take Gary Roberts, for example. He made $4.25m in 2003-04. That puts his 2005 value at somewhere around $2.5-$3m, certainly no more than $3.25m (and those numbers are likely quite generous). Assume that teams get in a bidding war for him, with the Leafs offering $2.5m, the Senators offering $3m and a team like Florida going off the deep end and offering $3.25m. Where will Roberts sign? Wherever he wants. For a Canadian-born player at the end of his career, is an extra $250k going to get him to go to South Beach to play for a team that hasn't contended for anything this century other than the top draft pick annually? Probably not.
This is nothing new - players have been able to choose where they want to ply their trade as long as there's been free agency and a willing buyer of their services (the 13th Amendment, along with Curt Flood 200 years later in the sports world, pretty much put an end to the days when a man could be bought and sold and forced to work). But what is new to hockey is the salary cap and, with it, reductions in both the range of a player's value and of what teams can pay for players. Whereas before an owner could try to turn his franchise around by simply opening his checkbook and signing a big-name free agent (or every big-name free agent), now money alone is less likely to land top talent. Whereas before a player agent would try to sell teams on his client, now teams will have to sell players on their organization. For some teams, that will be easier than for others. Watch players fall all over themselves for the chance to play for the Habs or the Leafs, who they'd see every Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada as a kid. Watch them line up for a chance to win a Cup in cities like Ottawa or Detroit or to play for or alongside Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemiuex in Phoenix or Pittsburgh. But don't expect to see them in Washington. Or Atlanta. Or Buffalo.
The model for the new NHL is the NFL's New England Patriots. Build a team that can afford to lose just about anyone - because you will - but make sure to lock up the one or two guys you can't do without. Easier said than done, of course. Win, you say, and the free agents will beat a path to your door. Maybe. But with the lowered age for free agency, it will be harder for teams to develop (and more importantly to keep) young star players who will be able to walk after their first contract, so the circle of futility for the bottom feeders may well continue.
Which leads me (finally) to my ultimate point. I'm not suggesting that the "old" system was better. Certainly no League in which Bobby Holik makes $9m is sustainable. But the thought that the new salary structure will allow all teams to compete on a level playing field is not realistic. And as floundering teams continue to flounder both on the ice and on the balance sheet and there is no longer a "quick fix" via the desperate seat-filling move, the League will quickly grow tired of sharing revenue with these franchises that can't carry their own weight. At some point, they will cut that dead weight loose.