Busy season, busy summer: Get ready for NHL draft, more buyouts, trades, free agency, Coyotes decision...

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

What will the NHL look like next season? What will the NHL look like next week?

We’ve already seen coaches switch cities, a controversial goalie trade and big-money buyout announcements. In addition to the finale of the Phoenix Coyotes fiasco and a deal for the 2014 Olympics, we could see more trades (Kris Letang?) and more buyouts (Brad Richards?) in the coming days. The draft is Sunday, and it’s supposed to be deep. The free-agent market opens next Friday, and it will be boosted by buyouts and big names – Vincent Lecavalier, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Danny Briere …

Thanks to the lockout, the schedule is scrunched. (Didn’t the Chicago Blackhawks just win the Stanley Cup?) Thanks to the new labor agreement, the salary cap is coming down. Teams will be assessed a cap penalty if players retire before the end of a long-term contract. They can buy out two players over the next two years. That’s why some are not bringing back free agents, looking to move players off their payroll and paying a few guys millions to go away.

But the root cause of all this craziness isn’t this lockout or this labor agreement. It’s the last lockout and the last labor agreement. After the NHL shut down the 2004-05 season, the cap was introduced, and the age for unrestricted free agency went from 31 to 27. The talent was spread throughout the league, and teams locked up their best players.

If anyone can win, everyone is expected to win – even though not everyone can and resources are limited. So teams change coaches when they can’t change players. They make trades when they don’t see a solution in free agency. They overpay in both markets when they don’t have better options. Same stuff as always, but more pressure than ever before.

[Related: Bolts buy out longtime captain Vincent Lecavalier]

“I think it’s going to be pretty busy,” said Jim Nill, the Dallas Stars’ new general manager, who has already hired a new coach in Lindy Ruff, traded for a pending free agent in Sergei Gonchar and signed the 39-year-old defenseman to a two-year, $10 million deal. “There’s less free agents available now. The difference between being a playoff team and being a non-playoff team is one or two wins. So there’s a real urgency to get better quickly.”

There is urgency to settle the Coyotes situation. The NHL has owned and operated the once-bankrupt franchise too long. After so many false starts, it has another buyer, and that buyer has drafted another lease agreement with the suburb of Glendale for the city-owned arena. But that buyer wants millions to operate the arena and puts a ton of risk on the city. It wants an out in the agreement after five years or $50 million in losses.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has long said stable ownership would allow Phoenix to reach its potential as a market, yet the owner wants outs in the lease deal? What kind of stability is that? If the owner won’t commit long-term, why would the fans commit? Isn’t this franchise still set up to fail?

Will the city council approve the lease when it meets Tuesday, because losing the team would be even worse than keeping it under awful terms? If not, will the league move the team in time for next season? Can it? When the Atlanta Thrashers moved in the summer of 2011, they started earlier, Winnipeg had an arena and organizational infrastructure in place, and the Jets still barely made takeoff. What a mess.

The Olympics seem like a foregone conclusion. The NHL will go to Sochi. It’s just a matter of finalizing everything. There’s a meeting on Monday.

[More: As time runs short, 'unresolved serious concerns' with Coyotes proposal]

As for the rest …

Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren told reporters he thinks “there’s going to be a lot of funny things happening” at the draft, and if he thinks that, look out. This is the man who traded cornerstones Jeff Carter and Mike Richards at the draft two years ago partly to clear cap space to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, only to watch Carter and Richards win the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings last year, only to buy out Briere and Bryzgalov this year. “It’s a very competitive league,” he said, “and we’re all trying to do what the Blackhawks just did.”

The cap is going from $70.2 million (pro-rated) to $64.3 million next season. No one knows what it will be in the future. Teams against the cap don’t have enough space, and teams in general don’t have enough certainty as they plan for the future. At the same time teams trim players, teams might have a hard time adding players. Moving money will go along with moving bodies.

“There seem to be a lot of teams that want to make changes,” said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis, who already has traded for goaltender Jonathan Bernier. “But it’s always a function of price. What does it cost to get somebody? This is the first time since we’ve had a cap that it’s come down, and that’s going to affect things, because your wants might be affected by your ability to take on those players.”

[Y! Sports Shop: Buy Chicago Blackhawks championship merchandise]

But the cap is expected to rise in future years, as it did in past years, because it is tied to league revenue. The league has bounced back well from the lockout, and revenue growth is projected to be strong. Nonis spoke from the perspective of a big-market, high-revenue, capped-out team. Listen to Steve Yzerman, the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He said this last week even though the Bolts were about to buy out Lecavalier, their captain, a Cup champion and a community pillar, and they will spent more than $30 million to do it.

“There’s this assumption that all these teams have to get under the cap and have issues,” Yzerman said. “If you analyze every team, there aren’t that many. So I think there will be fewer than a lot of people anticipate. I don’t know. There will be a few. But we look at all of the other 29 teams, and we don’t see that many that are in desperate need to have to do something.”

In the end, it will come down to what it always does under any set of rules under any sort of circumstances: good management. The Detroit Red Wings were supposed to crumble in 2005-06, when their payroll was cut nearly in half by the new $39 million salary cap. They won the Cup in 2008, went back to the final in ’09 and still haven’t missed the playoffs. The Blackhawks lost half their team because of a cap crunch after winning the Cup in 2010; they kept their core, rebuilt their supporting cast and won the Cup again Monday night. Meanwhile, others have been up and down – or just down.

What will the NHL look like next season? What will the NHL look like next week?

There will be lots of new faces in lots of new places – maybe even a new franchise in a new place. But for all the angst of the lockout, all the efforts to protect the owners from themselves and level the ice surface, it will still be a league in which competitiveness clouds common sense, in which some markets and managers struggle, in which only the smart survive and the smartest thrive.

NHL video from Yahoo! Sports:

Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
Marian Hossa won't be bought out by Blackhawks, but is Dave Bolland trade bait?
Blues lock up Kevin Shattenkirk with $17M deal
Should Boston's injury-ravaged Patrice Bergeron have played in Game 6?
Scouts rate the top 10 NHL draft prospects

What to Read Next