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Crazy UFA spending points to CBA doom

Former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff got a whale of a contract from the Sabres.(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Former Canuck Christian Ehrhoff got a whale of a contract from the Sabres.(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

If you had asked anyone in hockey six months ago if there was going to be a lockout, you likely would have been greeted with a sense of optimism that this time the two sides had at least a decent chance of solving their differences without another labor disruption. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was talking of “tweaking” the CBA and new NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr turned out to not be the bogeyman everyone portrayed him to be.

Pose that same question after the first weekend of free agent insanity in 2011 and you’re likely to get much different, far less optimistic answer. If throwing more than $400 million at 58 players in just the first two days of free agency is any indication, the NHL owners almost certainly once again need to be saved from themselves.

All it takes is a look at some of the outrageous contracts, but if you want an even more telling portent, look a little closer at the breakdowns of some of them.

To be sure, Brad Richards and his agents, and probably the New York Rangers, think there’s a pretty good chance the players will be locked out after next season. Otherwise, why would Richards and his agent, Pat Morris, insist that $8 million of the $12 million Richards is due to make in 2012-13 be paid in signing bonus and not salary? If Christian Ehrhoff isn’t playing hockey in 2012-13, he’ll likely be able to keep busy counting and spending the $5 million he’ll get from the Buffalo Sabres. James Wisniewski will make $3 million in signing bonus that season and even the Florida Panthers got into the act, paying Scottie Upshall $500,000 of the $3.5 million he’s due in 2012-13 in signing bonus. (Of course, the Panthers will likely be more than happy to pay that money since they’ll be saving more money by not playing hockey than by playing hockey that season.)

Not bad work if you can’t get it.

In fact, July 1 and 2 of the year 2011 could very well be remembered as the tipping point for the next lockout. Like all tipping points, it won’t have been the sole factor, but it will simply have been the one that removed all shadow of a doubt.

But the interesting thing about the dynamics of this battle is it won’t even be player vs. owner. In fact, it probably wouldn’t make a difference whether a hardliner such as Fehr is running the NHLPA or not. That’s because this battle will pit owner vs. owner, with the big-money owners in one corner and those who are losing their shirts in the other. The ones who are losing money are being forced to spend money they don’t have and they’re sure to take that battle with them into the next CBA.

One agent suggested to me recently that things are all ass-backward now in the NHL. Back in the day, it was the Detroits and New York Rangers of the world that were the driving force behind escalating salaries, but now it’s actually the small-market teams that are forcing the cost of business up because they’re being forced to pay run-of-the-mill players – yes, you, Tomas Kopecky – far more than they’re worth just to get up to the cap floor.

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That’s certainly part of it, but it’s hard to argue that’s the only thing driving up salaries when the Buffalo Sabres, who are suddenly flush with money, are throwing it around as though they’re playing monopoly.

In exactly what world is Ehrhoff, who has never scored more than 50 points in a season, worth $10 million in real money next season and $40 million over the next 10 years? And can anyone explain how a player can play just one full season in the NHL and have 30 career goals and get handed a six-year deal worth $27 million, the way the Sabres did with former Philadelphia Flyer Ville Leino?

We get it. The Sabres have found their savior in gazillionaire owner Terry Pegula. It was wonderful to hear him say that the sole reason for the Sabres existence from now on is to win the Stanley Cup and we really believe his intentions are to do just that. But Sabre fans should watch what they wish for. The Sabres are poised for better things, no doubt, but most people would agree they’re not a true Stanley Cup contender yet. If Ehrhoff and Leino don’t turn out to be quite as good as their salaries suggest, the same guys who are giving Sabres fans so much hope now could be millstones around the Sabres payroll once they are good enough to contend.

And let’s not forget, the Sabres have been one of the more successful teams in the NHL since the lockout. And they did it by drafting and developing their own players and being fiscally responsible. Everyone gives them grief for letting a guy such as Chris Drury walk away, but would you want to be paying him $7 million a season? The Sabres have been successful because they’ve been forced to make hard decisions on players they couldn’t afford and replace them with their own young talent, which has for the most part been terrific.

Now that GM Darcy Regier has blank checks and carte blanche to spend, does that philosophy go out the window? Perhaps not, but of all those guys they brought in, none is a sure thing and they’re going to take roster spots away from players who have been brought up through the system.

But the Sabres are just one of a whole bunch of teams that believe making a splash and throwing money at players is going to translate into success. It doesn’t, but the owners in the NHL seem intent on continuing to learn that lesson the hard way.

And nobody would be surprised if they come to grips with it just in time to lock the players out in the fall of 2012.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

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