Bob Carpenter took a calculated gamble last summer when he refused to sign a new contract with the Washington Capitals and instead chose to play out his option.
He was betting that his fourth National Hockey League season would be substantially better than the first three, therefore commanding a far higher salary than General Manager David Poile was willing to offer in August.
After scoring 53 goals, an NHL high for a U.S.-born player, Carpenter obviously will savor his decision when his agent, Bob Murray, sits down with Poile soon to discuss a new pact. But Carpenter can only imagine what his dollar value would be if he played a sport where free agency has genuine meaning.
Should he reject Poile's offer and try to go elsewhere, he would be faced with a compensation system that has virtually stifled free-agent movement.
Besides offering a big salary to lure Carpenter, any club that signed him would risk losing a great deal. As he is under 24 and has played fewer than five years in the NHL, he is considered a Category One player and therefore falls under an outmoded compensation clause. The Capitals and any other team signing him each would make a compensatory offer -- in players, draft choices or money -- and an impartial arbitrator would select one of the two packages.
Because there was so little movement under that system, which previously covered all players, the NHL Players Association in its last bargaining agreement obtained a new format that applies to more experienced players. It stipulates specific compensation, depending on the last salary offer by the team losing the player. If the offer is more than $200,000 a year, the team signing a free agent would lose either two No. 1 draft picks or one No. 1, plus any player on its roster after it has protected five, including the newcomer.
"I call them worse and worser," Murray said of the two systems. "The old one, under which Bobby is covered, is the least attractive of the two. It's more difficult to sign a player, because a team has no idea what it might have to give up. It's easier to deal with certainty than uncertainty.
"The old system leaves both sides in a state of confusion, which is the big reason they got rid of it. Neither one provides much movement, as has been indicated by the lack of movement through the years."
In some circumstances, however, the old system would appear to give a free agent more hope of a big-money move. A team finishing low in the standings would not want to give up two No. 1 draft picks. A team high on the ladder would not want to risk losing its fifth-best player.
Under the old format, teams with stars would be deterred by fear of losing them. But what would prevent a mediocre club such as the New York Rangers from signing Carpenter and offering a package of players in compensation? How much could they lose if Washington prevailed with its bid?
"It would tend to put a little more pressure on Washington, because it could come out with a lesser player," Murray said. "If I had a choice in this particular situation, I'd have elected the old way.
"Compensation hurts the good player but a truly outstanding player may outdistance that. Bobby may be a player who outdistances the compensation and some team may be willing to take that chance. The big advantage Bobby has is that he's still quite young (21) . . .
"We are optimistic and hopeful that things will work out for Bobby to stay in Washington and we fully expect to reach an agreement with David Poile. Going elsewhere is not why he played out his option."
"I like it in Washington," Carpenter said, "and I have to thank management for doing so much to help me reach my potential this year. I played out my option because we were so far apart last summer there was no way to settle it."
Asked if he was concerned about the possibility of Carpenter signing with another club, Poile said, "You're always concerned . . . But it hasn't been brought up and there was no indication they had anything like that in mind when he played out his option."
Another NHL general manager said, "It may cost the Caps a lot of money, but I have to say Carpenter is almost certain to stay in Washington."