Sports This Week - Hockey sport focus as July arrives

In the world of sports, at least for most Canadian sports fans July 1 is a big one.

We are just past the National Hockey League a few days, and July 1, will mark the day teams start actively signing free agents.

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The two days are actually the opposite in terms of effect on a team. The draft is about building a team a year or two, or more into the futures.

Certainly Jack Huges, selected first overall by New Jersey is likely to be in the line-up this fall, contributing to a resurgent Devils effort, most of the 200-plus players taken over the two-day draft are at least a year, or two, away from skating a regular shift with their new NHL clubs.

The lower into the draft a player is taken, the more that is true.

It is interesting that the first draft held in 1963 would have had the 30th player taken as a first rounder in 2019, going last in the fifth round back then. So the landscape of the draft, and what a particular pick might mean overall has changed significantly.

After the first third of the first round, what makes a player go higher than another is often an educated guess by the team making the selection, which can be influenced by elements such as organizational needs as well as a player’s skill set.

As a result I don’t get overly excited about the players taken by my team unless they are drafting high in the first round – which this year was not the case of Winnipeg, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver.

The feeding frenzy of free agent signing July 1, are of greater interest, not that I will be sitting in front of the television all day to hear rumours repeated 100 times until some deal gets done allowing for more over analysis.

But, the day does allow teams to address their needs by signing a player to fill the most glaring holes.

Of course deals today are not made simply based on the needs of a team. The salary cap is the giant vice squeezing teams and often preventing the best hockey trades and signings.

The NHL has done an admirable job of creating parity rather deep into the league, with the top-20 teams closer in on-ice performance than they have been in years. The salary cap plays a role in that for certain.

However, it becomes a monotonous lament around the league when the salary cap is often the primary reason for a deal, a signing, or missing out on a player that was obviously the answer to a need.

Take Patrick Marleau, he is aging to be sure, but still useful. He would be a nice piece on a contender. But he will end up on a team mired low in the standings because they have some cap room to pay what Marleau’s contract is currently worth.

One might argue Marleau’s contract was too long, or for too much, and that might be correct in the current cap world, but it is hardly unique. Older players have in some ways earned longer deals and bigger money based on performance, but the capped NHL is pushing many veteran players to the sidelines because of their impact on the overall dollars a team can spend.

So July 1, when Toronto and Vancouver could both use a top defenceman to strengthen their teams, will either one have the cap room to go after the top rearguard?

And, even if they have cap space, will they risk it on the best player available, knowing in a few years the contract might be a drag on things just as the Marleau deal was?

Still, fans can hope July 1, their teams stickhandle the cap issue, and bolster their favourite team in a meaningful way.

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