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Veterans Caught in Free-Agent Squeeze

Kings' Corkum is Part of NHL's New Order


Bob Corkum was having a banner season. There wasn't anyone who could match his skill on the ice. He dominated.

Of course, these was merely games with pals, followed by a few pitchers. Corkum, who played with the Phoenix Coyotes last season, was killing time in a recreation league in Newport, Mass.

"It was just a beer league," Corkum said. "I was playing a little defense and having a little fun with friends. Nothing serious."

Serious hockey was being played elsewhere. This was November and Corkum, a nine-year NHL veteran center, had to be satisfied watching pro hockey games on TV.

He finally latched on with the Kings in December. "It was good to be back at work," Corkum said.

Corkum was not alone. The summer came and went for many unrestricted free agents--forwards Pat Verbeek and Kirk Muller being two of the more prominent ones.

They were players perhaps an inch past their prime and a few bucks beyond what teams wanted to spend. But by December, Muller had signed with the Dallas Stars, Verbeek with the Detroit Red Wings and Corkum with the Kings.

Now each is contributing to a playoff drive and all three came cheaper than anticipated.

"I obviously didn't think it would drag on into December," said Corkum, 32. "Quite frankly, all the offers were extremely low.

"Call it fiscal responsibility or whatever, all the general managers were on the same page. They had the same agenda, to squash salaries."

The Kings certainly needed Corkum's bump-and-grind style, his abilities in the face-off circle and his never-give-an inch penalty killing. Those have been every bit as important as Ziggy Palffy's flash and dash.

And they got Corkum without digging too deeply.

"There is no doubt that things were handled differently by teams this year," said Steve Mountain, Corkum's agent. "Typically and historically, an unrestricted free agent was a premium because a team didn't have to give up a player or a prospect."

Whether this was a precursor of things to come is being evaluated by agents, players and general managers.

"I think everyone is looking for those feisty guys who drive to the net and compete in the corners," Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. "But I also know that everyone is watching what they spend more than they did a year or two ago. Everyone is keeping an eye on this situation closely."

Bargain Bin

An official from the NHL Player's Assn. said the number of signed unrestricted free agents--players 32 and older--did not drop this season, but their salaries did.

The New York Rangers signed center Tim Taylor for $1.4 million. It was one of the few financial victories for the middle-of-the-road players during the summer.

Corkum signed for a pro-rated $700,000, after making about $800,000 with Phoenix last season. He was believed to be seeking $1.3 million.

Muller, a 15-year veteran who was coming off back-to-back poor seasons with Florida, signed for a pro-rated $300,000 in December. Yet, Muller has become so important to the Stars that he received a $650,000 contract extension for next season.

Verbeek, who has scored nearly 500 goals in 18 seasons, signed in November a two-year deal worth a little more than $1 million per season. He made $3.2 million last season, when he helped Dallas win the Stanley Cup.

"I had a variety of different teams talk to me about Pat last summer," said Mike Gillis, Verbeek's agent. "But it was slow. I thought it somewhat unusual. In the past, quality players have always attracted a lot of attention."

This, some say, is the evolution of free agency, which came to the NHL later than to other sports. The owners and players agreed on unrestricted free agency as part of the settlement that ended the 1994-95 lockout. Since then, the average salary has risen from $733,000 to $1.3 million this season.

With a TV contract--unlike the NFL's, NBA's and Major League Baseball's--that doesn't crack the billion dollar level, general managers may now be trying to cool the market, although no one has said "collusion," just yet.

"The first couple years, those free agents were getting pretty big contracts," King General Manager Dave Taylor said. "I think that market is changing.

"Certainly the superstar players will do well. The third line forward and the fifth, sixth and seventh defenseman, those numbers are coming down."

Theo Fleury signed a three-year, $21-million contract with the New York Rangers. But Fleury had scored at least 27 goals each season and was coming off a 40-goal season.

"They don't seem to have any problems paying the top players," Corkum said. "It's the guys in the middle who are taking the brunt of it. It will continue to happen until we have a new collective bargaining agreement."

That won't come until 2004. Until then, the ice is shifting under everyone.

"This is still a new area for the NHL," Gainey said. "We haven't experienced free agency very long. It's hard to say whether a trend is developing, but things change."

Christmas Rush

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