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Hockey This NHL preseason the focus is on players, not contracts

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri takes part in a video production as he reports to NHL opening day training camp in Toronto on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013.

NATHAN DENETTE/CP

Is it just me or do contract talks around the NHL seem far less acrimonious than they once did?

Not too long ago, players routinely skipped training camp or withheld services even though they had signed contracts; and the two sides in a lot of negotiations often sounded as though they were going to war.

Daniel Cleary's decision to sign a one-year, $1.75-million (U.S.) deal Thursday with the Detroit Red Wings got me thinking along those lines. Cleary could have made more money by jumping ship and joining the Philadelphia Flyers for three years – and had tentatively decided he would do just that.

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But after sleeping on it for a couple of days, Cleary had a change of heart and decided he wanted to stay in Detroit after all.

It was home; it was the organization that helped him get his NHL career on the rails; and it was where he wanted to play. Next year, when the salary cap is expected to soar and Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has more money to spend, Cleary will get some of it, provided he is still a viable player.

There is a risk for Cleary, but he made a choice based on quality of life, not because he was trying to extract every last dollar out of the negotiation.

That's happening more and more – teams actually "winning" the odd negotiation.

Presumably, Nazem Kadri would have liked to hit a home run in his contract talks with the Toronto Maple Leafs this week, but somebody alerted him to the fact he had little leverage at this early stage of his career and if he wanted to build a long-term relationship with the team, taking a discounted two-year, so-called "bridge" contract was the way to go.

P.K. Subban made a similar choice in signing with the Montreal Canadiens last season, after missing a half-dozen games; and ended up winning the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman. If Subban has another season like that, the onus will then shift to the Canadiens to pay him accordingly.

After Cody Hodgson re-upped last Wednesday with the Buffalo Sabres, there remain just a handful of unsigned players out there as NHL training camps opened with the first on-ice workouts Thursday.

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Derek Stepan hasn't come to terms with the New York Rangers.

Also, the Leafs and Ottawa Senators are negotiating hard with Cody Franson and Jared Cowan, respectively, and the St. Louis Blues appear headed toward a showdown with their best player, Alex Pietrangelo.

But that's it. Compare that to how things were in the 1990s, when it seemed every team had two or three annual contract skirmishes.

No Alexei Yashin negotiation ever went smoothly. Players would routinely hold out, miss big chunks of the season, never get their acts together and, frequently, it created irreparable rifts with their organizations. It got so bad eventually, the NHL got it written into the CBA: a deal was a deal. Players had to play out their contracts; renegotiating a deal because you weren't happy with it any more was not an option.

Pietrangelo's negotiations are interesting because they mirror Drew Doughty's with the Los Angeles Kings two years ago. Pietrangelo is from the same draft class as Doughty, but took two extra years to make it to the NHL. So while Doughty has five years under his belt, Pietrangelo has just three, meaning he is still in the entry-level system and doesn't have rights to salary arbitration. It is the one time in the current agreement where the negotiating leverage belongs to the team.

In terms of ice time (25 minutes 6 seconds a game), Pietrangelo might be the Blues' most important player. St. Louis wants the defenceman signed long-term, but right now they are stuck. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get unstuck.

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This is an Olympic year and Pietrangelo is tentatively pencilled into Canada's starting lineup. If he isn't playing, or he falls behind because he missed a portion of the season, does that change anything? Maybe.

But it is an interesting and welcome phenomenon – how few of these disputes actually develop any more. Now, more than ever, the focus in September is on training camps and player performance, not salary negotiations and performance bonuses.

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