PHILADELPHIA – And the small markets shall inherit the NHL.

When The Commish – Gary Bettman – announces his new collective-bargaining agreement with the players in the coming weeks, most of the revenue producers are going to be unhappy.

The word filtering down from both sides of the discussions is that nothing in the new deal works to their advantage. Then again, the lockout was never about them. It was about the small-market clubs.

When the CBA is finally announced, most big-market owners and general managers will put on a good face before the cameras. Behind closed doors, however, the Flyers, Toronto, New York Rangers, Colorado and Detroit will feel some sense of outrage that an entire season was lost so that a handful of clubs could obtain a salary cap well within their revenue range – even if they have no intention of ever approaching it.

Most high-revenue clubs virtually print money to spend money. They also happen to have the highest payrolls. And yes, these same clubs are partially responsible for the mess hockey finds itself in. Yet they prop up the rest of the league’s finances so teams like Nashville can join the fray, too.

The Flyers will return to the ice with a payroll commitment of $33.5 million – assuming a 24 percent rollback in salaries.

Let’s assume the salary cap, which appears to have shrunk in recent weeks by most accounts, is just $36 million. The Flyers are under. So what’s the problem? Simply this: They will still have up to nine players to sign and only $3 million to play with.

And we don’t know where the luxury tax kicks in or how much it would cost the Flyers to exceed the cap.

With the notable exception of the Rangers, the cost of being a perennial contender in hockey under the new CBA is that the high-revenue, high-salary clubs are going to have far less money, initially, under the cap compared to small market clubs.

Colorado has commitments of $21.7 million. Detroit comes in at $35.2 million. Toronto is at $25.1 million. The Rangers are at $20.1 million. It’s going to be harder for these clubs to sign free agents, including their own.

Small-market clubs are the guys who are going to have the most room to sign players.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ payroll is just $6.5 million. That’s what Jeremy Roenick was to have earned next season before a rollback!

Florida, a staunch low-cap supporter, will have a $7.6 million payroll. Buffalo’s payroll is $9.5 million. Washington’s is $5.9 million.

Picture how many free agents up-and-coming clubs such as the Penguins can sign with just $6.5 million committed under a $36 million cap.

The Penguins need to bolster their defense, plus sign a top centerman. The pickings are ripe on defense. Scheduled unrestricted free agents include Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Scott Stevens from the Devils, who are committed to $15.1 million in salaries.

We’re not saying any of those players will be out there. But the Penguins could very easily offer Niedermayer or Rafalski a better contract than New Jersey simply because they will have far more room under their cap.

Pittsburgh has done well over the years with European players, and Alexei Zhitnik and Sergei Gonchar are unrestricted. If the Pens don’t want to go that route, there are Adam Foote, Don Sweeney, Brian Leetch and Mike Rathje, among others.

Assuming a new arena is part of the long-term equation, the Penguins could become a small-market club that is able to compete quite well with revenue producers in the NHL’s new economic system.

Indications from general manager Craig Patrick and player/owner Mario Lemieux are that the Penguins intend to spend and compete once the ice surface is level.

By the way, the Pens’ No. 1 center priority remains Alexei Zhamnov, who snubbed re-signing with the Flyers last summer.

And in case you haven’t heard, the Penguins are about to be sold to Silicon Valley’s William “Boots” Del Biaggio, whose net worth is more than $100 million. Some think Del Biaggio might want to become a major “player” in hockey. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change in the “Burgh.

Indeed, the Penguins are Bettman’s NHL poster child coming out of the lockout as a team gearing up to transform itself from a “have not” into a “have.”

It’s enough to make Snider, Richard Peddie, James Dolan, Stanley Kroenke and Mike Ilitch wail in protest all through the long, hot, torturous summer.

Exceptions to the rule

The Bruins are one of the wealthiest teams in the league under Jeremy “Mr. Scrooge” Jacobs, the guy who proudly drove the lockout from day one like it was a Toyota Prius pace car at the Indy 500. The Bruins have just $4 million committed – the lowest payroll in hockey.

The good news for Flyers fans is that Jacobs has never been one to throw money at players in free agency. That allowed the Flyers to steal Mike Knuble last summer in free agency. Jacobs deserves to lose Gonchar, Glen Murray, Dan McGillis, etc. this summer. He deserves to lose Joe Thornton, too, but he’s a restricted free agent.


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