March of Progress: NHL Competition's Steady Squeeze on the NHLPA

Snow doesn't want to flood his roster with veteran forwards. "We want to give a guy like Nino a chance to make our team," he said.

>>New York Post, Aug. 24

Outside of clawing and friending your way into the C-suite of North American corporations, where all your peers have golden backscratchers and you have to really pull a Rigas to leave without a golden parachute, there are few professional quantum leaps in lifestyle like the jump from the minor leagues (or juniors) to the top flight of North American pro sports.

Jumping from AHL salaries in the mid-five digits to the NHL, where minimum salary is over half a million dollars and average salary is around $2 million, must make the chartered flights, elaborate buffets and fancy hotels seem like, well, fringe benefits.

Which is why each year longtime veterans hang on until they're squeezed out, and competition intensifies to push very good young hockey players out with them. Every time room is made for a young up-and-comer like Nino Niederreiter to push from the rear, it poses both talent and budget variables that can leave veteran pros struggling to find the umlaut on their keyboard.

For fans, outside of hits to our partisan affinity for favorite players, this development is a bonus: With a decade since the last expansion, the number of jobs has remained static while the pool of competitors for those jobs keeps getting larger. The result, in theory, is a better league with deeper talent top to bottom.

It is how fans can flippantly say hockey players who are better than 99.9% of their age group still somehow "suck" at this game.

Just from players who have been regulars on the Islanders the past two seasons:

  • This summer Rob Schremp is headed to Modo in Sweden, for the ethereal "confidence boost." He follows fellow ex-Isle and -Thrasher Freddy Meyer there.
  • Two summers ago Richard Park took three years of security (and presumably, a great gig and a company car) in Geneva over a reported two-way offer to stay with the Islanders.
  • Jon Sim, a consistent scorer in the AHL but always a grinder in the NHL, followed Park to Switzerland mid-season in 2010-11.
  • After a career-high 42 NHL games last season, Jesse Joensuu declined his qualifying offer and has taken his bag back to Europe.
  • Meanwhile, still hanging on are 26-year-old Bruno Gervais and 25-year-old Jack Hillen, each let go by the Islanders this summer but finding near-minimum wage NHL work in Tampa Bay and Nashville, respectively. Gervais joins Nate Thompson in finding a second life with the Lightning, while Sean Bergenheim cashed in his Tampa chance for Dale Tallon's millions this summer.

With consecutive bottom-five finishes, you'd expect the Islanders might have more "quadruple A" players headed overseas to continue their careers each summer, and the above list is hardly a list of stars. But it happens to some extent for every team as big-spending teams try to navigate the cap and lower spending teams try to make smart, efficient evaluations.

An interesting contrast is captured with two members of last year's Flyers: Nikolay Zherdev is KHL-bound for the second time in three seasons, while teammate Ville Leino is a rich man in Buffalo. Such a thin margin. Zherdev remained his enigmatic self but managed 16 goals in just 56 games, while Leino put up 19 in 81. You'll find some Flyers fans who argue Zherdev was the more effective player when given the chance.

In mid-career after coming to North America to play juniors a decade ago, 2001 1st-round pick (11th overall, Phoenix) Fredrik Sjöström has returned to Sweden with Färjestad. (Presumably Freddie already had the umlaut thing down.)

At the other end of the age spectrum Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi, though still productive even at age 40, have called it quits the last two summers. It's a really hard game as it is, and the necessary summers workouts only get harder each year on an old body. (This is why Niklas Lidstrom at his age is a miracle but Teemu Selanne -- surviving the harder grind as a forward -- is some sort of singularity that mere "miracle" does not describe.)

The salary cap has of course intensified this trend, and that's probably demonstrated nowhere better than by looking at the list of unrestricted free agents still on the table -- and gawking at what their most recent salaries were. Sure, that list is filled with Jon Sims each summer, but there's a striking number of $2 million-plus salaried players there, some of whom could unquestionably still help an NHL team.

But to find continued one-way NHL work, many of them will have to accept training camp invites if not two-way contracts.

Which still isn't bad work. If you can get it.

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