At this point in early September, the curtains drawn late at night, succumbing to my hockey withdrawal to watch a Whalers-Bruins playoff series from the 1980s (man I miss the Whale), the NHL Network's "bottom line" provides a moment of levity with its team-by-team list of what it calls NHL "unsigned free agents."
With the exception of Mats Sundin, who doesn't seem to know which shirt he'll wear in the morning, and Teemu Selanne, who is waiting for the Ducks to screw yet another teammate -- er, I mean clear cap room -- to re-sign him, the scrolling list is a collection of down-on-their luck vets being pushed out by the wonderful cost certainty of youth. After tasting the good millions, suddenly to stay in the NHL, these vets must accept the pride dent of a training camp tryout and "only" six figures.
Former Islanders are well-represented in this scene. Sean Hill is there, even though he's signed with a team in Switzerland. Bryan Berard is no longer there, thanks to his Flyers invite. I know you're sorry to hear Brad Isbister is no longer there, having inked a two-way deal (ouch) with Ottawa. And Mark Parrish is there, having been bought out by his home state Wild from the silly deal that took him off the Island. I've wondered but didn't see Josef Vasicek listed -- maybe because he's signed on with the KHL's Lokomotiv
, where he'll join a certain former Islanders captain who's still on our payroll.
These old vets are victims of the CBA, true, but also of something else: As the game of hockey's popularity and accessibility (for players) has increased, the pool of talented players has grown by far more than the number of jobs made available through NHL expansion. So for an NHL club, it is a fair bet to believe one of its many prospects can emerge to do a decent third- or fourth-line job for far cheaper than the veteran UFA looking for one final payday.
This is why I do not fear the KHL or European remigration: Thus far, they're mostly feeding on the "extra parts" pile of NHL veterans, which can be filled by the many kids who grow up dreaming of a chance at the Cup. And until North America's talented youth grow up dreaming of slipping on an ad-laden Bili Tygri Liberec jersey
we're gonna be OK.
If that sounds a tad dismissive, it's not meant to be. It's a wonderful thing that NHL vets like Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, or Andrei Zyuzin can return home (or closer to home) to finish out their careers and reward their old fans. (Besides, if you're not an elite player, isn't it great that you no longer have to be a continent away from your family/roots just for the money?) Likewise, it's great that a guy like Wade Dubielewicz can see the world and make money playing hockey.
It's a win-win to me. So good luck to all the former NHLers exploring or returning to Europe. And good luck to all of the spry youngsters who get the chance to take their place.