NHL teams weigh reduced salary cap implications vs. players' ability

Monte Stewart, The Canadian Press

PENTICTON, B.C. - Todd Nelson has been to a few of these tournaments before, but this one feels different.

"There's a lot more opportunity," said Nelson, the coach of an Edmonton Oilers prospects squad competing in the five-team event. "It's up to (players.)"

As summer begins to fade and fall looms, Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks prospects have come to the South Okanagan Events Centre to pursue their pro dreams in advance of NHL training camps that start next week.

The annual pre-season tournament has resumed after last year's version was scrapped due to the NHL lockout.

Now, the salary cap negotiated in the new deal is slated to dip to $64.3 million from $70.2 million. According to a widely expressed theory, the lower salary cap will create, if not mandate, opportunities for younger, more affordable up-and-coming talent.

Nelson, coach of the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL, Edmonton's top farm club, feels a greater sense of urgency in his role of developing NHL-ready talent.

"It seems like there's a lot more importance to it," he said.

Such tournaments featuring other NHL prospects are being held elsewhere around this time. They have become increasingly common in different regions of North America over the past two decades, but the emphasis has often been on determining how a young player today will turn out a few years into the future. There has been a realization that not all players, who include draft picks and free agents, will reach the NHL.

And that is often the case.

But Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe said that clubs now have a greater onus to produce NHL-ready talent.

"Development in the salary-cap world is so critical," said Lowe. "You're trying to find pieces that fit within the organization. But every player that you have, whether through the draft or a free agent signing, they're all valuable assets, and you want to develop them as best you can.

"Even if they don't play for you, you want to create some value so that they can, perhaps, turn into something for you down the line or, perhaps, something for another organization (trade-wise) that would be of value to your organization (in return.)"

Lowe, the first-ever NHL draft pick of the Oilers in 1979, has been a player, coach, general manager and top executive with the club. Despite modern advances in scouting that now see scouts use computers, video and other technology for evaluation purposes, it's more difficult to grade talent than in decades gone by.

"There's more competition," said Lowe. "It's a much tougher business than it used to be, I believe, in terms of the (preparedness) on the ice. Everybody's spending money on development. This tournament is good from an evaluation aspect. But there's a lot of day-to-day evaluating as well."

But Lowe, who has had the luxury of drafting three No. 1 overall picks in recent years in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov and granting them NHL employment right away, does not express a future-is-now view in wake of the reduced salary cap this coming season.

"It's probably no different," said Lowe of the cap's effect on development time. "There are specific players that can jump in right away, but in most cases, it takes player a couple, three years after they become a pro to move along the ranks."

The Canucks, who have limited cap space, in part because of a 12-year, $64-million contract given to goaltender Roberto Luongo, have expressed a desire to identify players who might be able to step into their lineup quickly as a result of financial constraints and poor drafting in recent years.

As he watches Flames and Oilers prospects warm up before a game, Calgary coach Bob Hartley is also taking a highly-critical approach with the present in mind - something a coach does not always do with young prospects. But Hartley, whose team missed the playoffs last season and unloaded captain Jarome Iginla as part of a youth movement, bases his comment largely on the team's strong need to improve following a difficult season.

But after talking to team management and scouts, it's evident that the theory of the lower salary cap generating more young talent will be seriously tested, even in wake of young stars like Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane emerging in recent years - and the fact this year's draft crop is considered above average.

Toronto Maple Leafs pro scout Mike Penny said tournaments like this still give teams a chance to find diamonds in the rough. Teams can see how players respond after the puck is dropped and they can just play. Unknown players also get a chance to make a name for themselves with NHL dreams - and pro contracts - on the line.

"They have to start somewhere, and this is a good opportunity for these young guys to get noticed," said Penny, adding some players will take the experience back to junior and others who don't have contracts secured will earn invitations to NHL or AHL training camps.

Salary cap or no salary cap, he said, young players will only get the opportunity to skate in the NHL if they can perform at that level.

"You're not going to meld anybody in before their time," said Penny. "They'll work their way in."

It would be nice if the reduced salary cap enables teams to find more NHL-ready talent. But Penny is skeptical that it will lead to an infusion of new talent at the appropriate time.

"You'd like that to be the case," he said. "But if a guy's not capable of playing at the NHL level, you're not going to put him into your lineup if he can't do it. That's not going to work."

Even with all of the technology available and reduced salary cap, it's still important for teams to see their prospects perform over a considerable period of time, said Canucks scout Dave Babych.

"There's nowhere to hide anymore when you're out scouting," said Babych. "For me, personally, you can see someone and see that they have the talent to play. But then you have to watch them numerous times and see if their heart's in the same rank, and character and all that kind of stuff. When you see it's all put together, then you'll see them move up."

Boston Bruins scout Tom McVie said there is a greater sense of urgency to identify young NHL-ready talent because players don't get traded anymore - their salaries do.

"Your good players have gotta get the salaries and you've gotta bring new blood into your organization right away," he said.

But Canucks top 2013 choice Bo Horvat and Max Reinhart, who played 67 games last season, his first as a pro, with Calgary's AHL farm team in Abbotsford, B.C., and 11 games with the Flames, said they don't spend a lot of time thinking about how a reduced salary cap offers more NHL opportunities.

The Flames, said Reinhart, have been very clear in their expectations, and players know they have to meet them before sticking in the NHL.