Gap widening between haves, have-nots

Where does it say this in the NHL's collective bargaining agreement?

"In the final season of this agreement, as the NHL and NHLPA each leak equally preposterous opening bargaining proposals and publicly excoriate each other for ignoring said equally preposterous proposals, inferior teams can pack it in early. Moreover, however, this shall not be perceived to refer to an on-ice strategy in the first period. Rather, this shall be interpreted as license for said franchises to give up long before it is mathematically justifiable. They shall surrender. Wave a white towel. Say: 'No mas, no mas,' 'No lo contendere,' and 'Caveat emptor.' "

Three weeks before the beginning of the Christmas shopping season -- at least for those of us who enjoy doing it under last-second pressure -- some franchises already are acting as if the ridiculously late trading deadline is imminent.

The CBA/lockout/salary cap bogeyman is providing the rationalization.

On the one hand, the absurd figures being bandied about would seem to provide encouragement that a Brave New World might be imminent, in which universal restraint is legislated.

But that's in the future, perhaps after a long lockout involving both limited obligations and revenue.

As the season goes along, the teams in that twilight zone, with payroll commitments that in theory could leave them in position to be make moves with the salary cap and/or luxury tax in mind, can carefully position themselves. For potential playoff teams, that requires a delicate balance, deciding whether to add short-term payroll with the potential postseason return in mind, or to pare.

It all adds up to a combination of inertia and an even quicker-than-usual onset of fire sales.

Partly intimidated by the massive financial commitment it made to Marc-Andre Fleury simply by keeping the rookie goaltender around, the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday unloaded Martin Straka to the Los Angeles Kings. It especially makes sense for the Kings because Adam Deadmarsh has been unable to shake the cobwebs that have been around ever since his fight with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ed Jovanovski. The undermanned Kings have done an amazing job this season, but general manager Dave Taylor knew that the smoke would thin and the mirrors would crack if Los Angeles didn't make an aggressive move or two.

So the Kings looked for an easy mark, and found one in Pittsburgh. It's hard to blame Penguins general manager Craig Patrick for this, of course, because he has been like the guy playing in those championship poker tournaments who always gets dealt a deuce and a four in different suits. He has no shot.

The Chicago Blackhawks, still trying their darndest to ruin the sport in one of the league's greatest markets, are refusing to pay fired general manager Mike Smith what he is owed in the year-plus remaining on his deal. That's a matter of honor. This is a matter of competitiveness: When the workhorse goaltender, Jocelyn Thibault, underwent hip surgery in mid-November and was deemed out until at least the first of February, Chicago could have made a move for a veteran goaltender.

Even succumbing to the Phoenix Coyotes' plaintive cries of "Take Brian Boucher, please," would have been better than the Hawks' commitment to go with the two 22-year-olds, Michael Leighton and Illinois-born Craig Anderson. They don't get a lot of help, but they also both are below .900 in save percentage and above 3.00 in goals-against average. And in the past three weeks, the Hawks' slide has been precipitous. As of this writing, neither goalie has won a game since Thibault's exit. Chicago's surprisingly decent first month of the season has become irrelevant and misleading.

The Washington Capitals' unloading of Steve Konowalchuk to the Colorado Avalanche in the first month sabotaged the chances of a Washington recovery. It wasn't so much that Konowalchuk is indispensable, as it was that he was valuable and a leader. And his departure was a signal on the MCI Center marquee: "WE GIVE UP!" It didn't even save a mind-boggling amount of money -- a little over $600,000 -- given that Washington took on Bates Battaglia.

Now you know that Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig is wondering if his status as the leader in the clubhouse to be Colorado's veteran goaltending acquisition, if the Avalanche make a move, has him feeling every night as if he is trying to show he isn't washed up.

With Jaromir Jagr on the market as well, we're witnessing the transformation of the Ted Leonsis ownership from excited, do-whatever-it-takes, to acknowledgment that even financial aggressiveness requires a coherent plan to make it pay off. The disillusion and the retrenchment in the Washington ownership box are sad to behold.

Granted, Curtis Joseph isn't universally hailed as an elite goaltender, especially with the playoffs as the final test. Yet in any other year, some team would have figured out a way to creatively work a deal with the Detroit Red Wings to get him out of Detroit and bring him in. Is Cujo an $8 million goaltender? The answer: Of course he is, because that's what his contract says. But with the Wings already signaling they would pick up part of his salary, and telling everyone that it doesn't make any difference that he will make $8 million next season (because there won't be a next season), that should have made him marketable. In that sense, the impending lockout enhanced his value.

But there are no takers.

We're not about to blast anyone for not following the traditional NHL lazy way out of scapegoating coaches for managerial ineptitude. That said, it's obvious that Paul Maurice finally would have been put out of his misery in the mess at Carolina, and Bruce Cassidy would have been ousted at Washington, if the ride-out-the-season mentality wasn't taking hold.

The biggest problem in all of this is that it could make the regular season even more of an overshadowed prelude than it usually is, and even render it more irrelevant. The fire sales and player movement over the next three months are going to be frantic, even more so than usual. Players' professionalism will be severely tested: If management doesn't give a darn about doing anything other than saving bucks here and there, and is simply positioning itself for the lockout and perhaps a new order, the attitude could be infectious. The gap between the haves and the have-nots could be widened by attitude, not just talent.

And it's just getting started.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."