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NHL agents among those trying to figure out what economy will do to game

NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly smiles after leaving an annual meeting with player agents  in Toronto on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly smiles after leaving an annual meeting with player agents in Toronto on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO - Paul Kelly is finding out that there's no precise weather report for an economic storm.

The executive director of the NHL Players' Association still isn't sure exactly how much impact the crumbling economy will have on the league beyond next season.

Kelly presided over an annual meeting with certified player agents on Thursday and spent plenty of time addressing economic issues.

He figures the salary cap will be between $54 million and $57 million next season, but he can't say what will happen in 2010-11.

"It's like predicting the weather - you get about three or four days out and you can't do it reliably," said Kelly.

There seems to be little question that it's going to drop. The answer many in the business are looking for is by how much?

One of the primary roles that agents perform for clients is negotiating their contracts. With overall league revenues expected to decline, the pay cheques for players will decline right along with them.

Understandably, that's a cause for some general concern.

"There was a lot of time spent on where the economy is and how the economy will affect escrow and the (salary) cap," said J.P. Barry of CAA Sports.

"Obviously, it was a cautious message: 'We don't know what's going to happen, but if certain things happen this is where it could go."'

Added Pat Morris of Newport Sports: "You can't help go through a meeting like that (without discussing the economy), it's talked about everywhere in the world in any business."

One thing the union will monitor closely is what mechanisms teams use to stay under the cap. Some might start burying NHL players in the minors; others could elect to buy more guys out.

Even with a poor economy, many agents remain optimistic that they'll be able to get their big clients signed to lucrative deals when the free agency opens on July 1.

"The UFA market and the general economy have never really been in sync," said Barry. "Certain teams need to win.

"I think the real top players in the league will always benefit from unrestricted free agency."

If anyone suffers, it might be the mid-range player.

There's also speculation that many NHL teams will shy away from the long-term deals they were handing out like candy after the lockout. However, Kelly believes there will also be a limit to that.

"What we're hearing is that, yes, there are some teams in particular that are pushing for shorter-term contracts," he said. "Longer-term deals are not going to go away.

"If you've got a star player, if you've got an Alexander Ovechkin, you don't want to sign him to a two-year deal.

"You want him on the roster just as long as you can keep him on the roster."

The NHLPA also took time during the meeting to inform agents of issues relating to internal organization, international play and the collective bargaining agreement.

And, with the trade deadline looming next Wednesday, there was plenty of talk between sessions about what might happen in the coming days.

One player looking to find an NHL home is Sean Avery. He needs to be on a team's roster by March 4 in order to be eligible for the playoffs.

Morris is Avery's agent and believes his client is ready to play at the highest level again.

A key reason for that is the time Avery spent away from the game earlier this year.

"I think an absence tells you what the game means to you," said Morris. "He had to get his personal life straightened out, which I think he's done.

"He's shown going to the American league and playing hard and interacting with teammates, coaches, trainers and fans in a real refreshing way from what he used to do - I think that shows what hockey means to him."

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