08/01/2010 at 10:37pm EDT
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
Training camps are a mere five weeks away, and yet numerous NHL veterans remain unsigned, actively searching for work in a league that has priced them out. While the current CBA has seen salaries skyrocket at the top of the league, the middle and bottom-end players have been pinched. Though it’s difficult to have any actual sympathy for folks making millions to play a game, the facts are undeniable: record setting long-term contracts for the Kovalchuks, Luongos, and Keiths of the world, while solid NHLers such as Bill Guerin, Paul Kariya, Andy Sutton, Eric Belanger, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore remain on the sidelines. Sure, these guys may be past their prime in many cases – but they still make a difference. Unfortunately, if Mathieu Darche is available and willing to play for $500k, or a rookie at $750k, why sign a 3rd or 4th line plugger like Belanger for $1.5 or $2 million?
It’s even worse for goaltenders. How is Jose Theodore expected to find someone to pay him the $2 million or so other NHL contract comparisons suggest he should make, when Jeff Deslauriers will play for half of that? Sure, Theodore may have the edge experience and talent wise, and he did go almost 20 games without a loss last year, but let’s face it – a backup goaltender in today’s NHL is likely to play only 20 or 30 games. After watching Philadelphia and Chicago make the Stanley Cup with cheap options between the pipes, teams are more reticent than ever to invest in two solid goaltenders. Many teams are taking the low-cost approach and arguably going with two backups.
While some of these vagabonds do not surprise the hockey minded, other players remain unsigned to the surprise of many fans and media. Consider Lee Stempniak. He played like a man on fire for the last 25 games of the season and scored more goals in the last month than anyone else in the NHL - no contract. Willie Mitchell, who despite his concussion problems is one of the better shot blockers in the game, has no contract. Maxim Afinogenov, a 60 point player last year, has supposedly been deep into discussions with teams but has yet to find a home.
And then there’s Marc-Andre Bergeron, who may have set the precedent for the future of this CBA and mid-tier NHL signings. Last year he entered the season without a team; that is, he was unsigned and started the year on the sidelines. Soon enough, or perhaps too soon for Montrealers, Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov went down with his semi-annual serious injury, this time a sliced tendon, and the Habs were left short-handed on the power play. To the rescue, to the surprise of many, came Mr. Bergeron.
A defensive liability at the best of times, Bergeron went on to score 13 goals and record 21 assists with Montreal. He scored a key goal or two in the playoffs as well, and proved to be an important component of the Montreal offence. Sure, he was probably to blame for almost as many goals as he helped generate, but he rescued the Montreal power play and helped it remain second best for most of the season.
How does it feel?
So where is Mr. Bergeron today? Unsigned. Again. Waiting in the wings for an offer that may not come – until an injury makes it necessary. Just as baseball has seen Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez enter seasons as late signings and make a difference, the NHL had Mats Sundin. While the Bergeron situation is a bit different, in that it’s forced, the result is the same. Players start the year without a home, and slide in to fill holes where they are required. It’s a byproduct of a CBA gone wrong, an agreement the NHLPA was told would help raise salaries, but has instead done what so many such agreements do – fed the rich and robbed the poor.
Well, ok, it hasn’t robbed the poor. Bill Guerin made over a million bucks last year. Theodore, too. Paul Kariya? He’s made tens of millions over his career. But the fact remains that with an NHL season fast approaching, dozens of bona-fied NHLers remain unable to find work, wandering the North American hockey landscape, a group of rolling stones on skates.
To be on your own?
So what’s the end result? Maybe, just maybe, the recessions in Canada and the United States have taken their toll, and unemployment figures in the NHL are rising. Perhaps as economic indicators improve, NHL jobs will appear and players will find homes this year and in years to come? Perhaps this offseason is an anomaly, some sort of professional sports enigma?
Or, perhaps, this is the new normal.
Like a rolling stone.