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HOCKEY'S GREATEST PLAYERS AREN'T THE ONLY ONES GETTING RICHER

Geoff Sanderson scored 11 goals in 74 regular-season games last season. He had all of 29 points and was -- on one occasion -- a healthy scratch for the Buffalo Sabres in the playoffs. All in all, it was his worst season in pro hockey.

Yet he recently signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million -- the same salary he earned when he played 82 games, scored 36 goals (tied for 14th among all NHL players) and had 67 points.

Brian Holzinger had 14 goals and 35 points last season and played in only 69 games. That's down from 22 goals and 51 points in 81 games the season before. Holzinger recently agreed to a two-year deal worth $1.8 million. That's $900,000 per season. Holzinger last season made $345,000. His goals, points and games played dropped and he was a minus player on the plus-minus charts. His salary skyrocketed.

Paul Kruse, who's known more for his physical presence than his goal or point totals, didn't play much for the Sabres last season after coming over in a trade with the New York Islanders. He had one goal and one assist with 49 penalty minutes in 12 regular-season appearances and played in one playoff game (one goal). The winger was injured late in the regular season and sat out almost all of the playoffs.

Kruse recently signed a two-year deal with the Sabres worth an average of $575,000 per season, an increase of $75,000 from his salary of a season ago. In addition, bonuses for games played and plus-minus ratio could net him an additional $25,000 per season, giving him a $100,000 per season raise.

Of course, Dominik Hasek got the mother of all pay hikes. The league MVP certainly can't play any better than he has in each of his last two seasons (Vezina and Hart trophies as best goalie and best player), but Hasek next season jumps from a base pay of $4 million to $8 million ($1 million of which is a signing bonus). He will make $7 million in 1999-2000 and $7.5 million in 2000-2001. Should the club wish to retain his services for 2001-2002, it will be a cool $9 million.

And believe it or not, except for the Hasek deal, the Sabres have done pretty well in holding down costs so far.

An arbitrator recently awarded San Jose Sharks defenseman Marcus Ragnarsson a two-year, $1.675 million contract. Ragnarsson, a 27-year old journeyman, will earn $750,000 this season and $925,000 the next. He made $410,000 last season. That's a $340,000 raise for next season, more after that.

Ragnarsson, however, didn't come close to making the big bucks via arbitration. That honor went to former Sabre Pierre Turgeon. An arbitrator this summer awarded the St. Louis Blues center a one-year deal worth $4.65 million. Turgeon last season scored 68 points (22-46), down 17 points from a season ago (26-59), but got a raise of $1.65 million.

What's going on?

Several things, really.

As usual, owners and general managers are a big part of the salary spiral. In signing players like Hasek and Eric Lindros to deals in the $8 million range, average salaries are driven up. It gets more inflated when teams like Philadelphia, Carolina and the New York Rangers make inflated free-agent bids for players like Chris Gratton, Sergei Fedorov, Ron Francis and Joe Sakic.

Rarely does a team get a player with a bid for a restricted free agent: It's usually matched. Yet the price of the player still goes up. The Red Wings were forced to come up with some $38 million over six years to keep Fedorov from the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Francis to the Hurricanes for $20.4 million.

Each time one of those deals comes along, it drives up the average per-player cost in the NHL. According to the NHL Players Association, the estimated average NHL salary for the 1998-99 season is likely to come in at about $1.3 to $1.4 million. Last season, it was $1.167 million. The season before that, it was $986,500 and for 1995-96, it was $892,000.

Clearly the NHL isn't getting the drag on salaries that commissioner Gary Bettman trumpeted after the 1994-95 lockout that shut the game down for 105 days.

With the ever-increasing average in hand, players go to general managers or arbitrators and point to what other players are getting and argue that since they have similar stats, they deserve similar pay. The GMs and the arbitrators can't knock that argument down, so salaries and awards keep going up.

The cycle is seemingly endless.

"We have to look to ourselves as a big part of the problem," Boston Bruins president and general manager Harry Sinden said. "We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We can't blame the arbitrators for this. They (the arbitrators) don't know a single thing about the players except what they made last season and the comparables (what other players in their range of experience and accomplishment get).

"They don't know one thing but the comparables and they go by that."

And who gives them the salaries those comparables are based on? The general managers.

"We created the comparables," Sinden said. "We have no one to blame but ourselves. We could show a little courage in that regard, but it's hard. A lot of teams don't want to do it."

Sinden has been better than most. So has Edmonton general manager Glen Sather, but it usually takes only one general manager to raise the salary bar. Once they do, nearly everyone follows suit.

That carries over into arbitration.

Even when players lose there, they still win. Philadelphia forward Rod Brind'Amour filed for arbitration thinking he would get Turgeon-like money. The Flyers, fearful of such an award or more (Brind'Amour is looked upon as a more complete player than Turgeon), quickly jumped in after the Turgeon award was announced (and before the Brind'Amour hearing opened) and offered Brind'Amour a three-year $11.25 million package.

Brind'Amour will make $3.5 million in each of the next two seasons and $4.5 million in 2000-01. That averages out to less per season than Turgeon gets, but Brind'Amour trades off a little cash for long-term security. Besides, by the time the pact expires, he'll be 31 and free to shop his services as an unrestricted free agent. That's when the money really gets huge. Brind'Amour made $1.6 million last season. He more than doubled his salary.

Ottawa's Shawn McEachern lost his arbitration hearing and still came away richer than when he went in. The American-born forward was asking $1.65 million for one year. The arbitrator sided with the Senators and ordered McEachern to sign a two-year pact worth $1.1 million in the first year and $1.3 million (U.S.) in the second. McEachern told reporters in Ottawa he was "disappointed" even though, in the first year of the new deal, he gets a $250,000 raise over last season's contract. It's $550,000 in the second.

"It's still a helluva lot of money, more than I ever thought I'd make playing hockey," McEachern said. "But it's a game of keeping score. You go by a number."

Last season, McEachern's numbers were 24 goals and 24 assists for 48 points.

The scary part? The big-ticket restricted free agents, Alexei Zhitnik and the like, are still to come.

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