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Signing Steve Stamkos, Drew Doughty and other 2011 free agents will be a struggle with a new CBA looming

Dec 17, 2010, 5:00 PM EDT

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One thing I remember (and admire) about the way the Pittsburgh Penguins did their salary cap business is that they locked up their biggest stars immediately. Sure, spending $8.7 million each on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin means paying a hefty sum and showed that GM Ray Shero didn’t foresee the sneaky salary cap maneuverings of future “lifetime” deals. But the point was that the team locked up their two stars as soon as possible, even if they paid (close to) market value.

With that in mind, I was a little bit disappointed that the Los Angeles Kings didn’t lock up superstar defenseman Drew Doughty in July 2010, their first opportunity to sign the pending restricted free agent to his second NHL deal. After all, he’s clearly the future of that franchise; why wait a season to make that point clear?

Now, the Tampa Bay Lightning face a slightly different situation with Steve Stamkos, as many wondered if he could top his 51-goal season from 2009-10 season. Yet the point remains: next summer is going to be a season of uncertainty for NHL teams and free agents, whether they are restricted or unrestricted.

There are two big reasons why the 2011 free agent period will be tumultuous: the NHL is now on red alert about sneaky, salary cap circumventing deals after the Ilya Kovalchuk ordeal and the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire after the 2011-12 season.

The uncertainty makes negotiations a challenge and currently there are some high-profile players it could affect including Steven Stamkos, Alexander Semin and Drew Doughty.

“I lose sleep over it, honestly,” said agent Mark Gandler, who represents Semin. “This is, to me, much more serious than people realize. I see the way deals are being signed – we don’t even know what the landscape is going to be a year and a half from now. We have no clue, what’s going to happen, we’re both operating in the dark.”

Gandler believes that the uncertainty hurts the player more than the organization, but it’s something both sides are dealing with. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, in talks with Stamkos over a long-term deal, said the uncertainty is something everyone is dealing with.

“That’s an issue for all players and agents and organizations trying to build,” Yzerman told Sporting News. “None of us really– whether the player agent or manager – can say for any certainty what the new system is going to be. We can sit there and discuss it and throw out ideas, but we really don’t know.”

Ultimately, all this hand wringing will probably waste a lot of energy, except for the Gandlers of the world. The reason for that is simple: Doughty, Semin and Stamkos will get paid big gobs of money. It’s just a matter of how many sweaty piles of cash ultimately go their way and how.

Last summer was an odd sideshow with the Kovalchuk saga and big name goalies begging for contracts, but this next one could be a car wreck. You better believe we’ll have a lot of fun gawking and rubbernecking at the wreckage, though.

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