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Canadian Press
10/30/2006 3:53:36 PM

VANCOUVER (CP) - The age for free agents in the NHL "is a joke" and could result in the Pittsburgh Penguins losing Sidney Crosby when he's just entering his prime, Vancouver Canucks general manager Dave Nonis said Monday.

"Pittsburgh is going to put seven years of development money into him and he can leave when he's 25," Nonis told a B.C. Chamber of Commerce meeting.

"I think if you assemble a good team, fans want to see that team stick together for more than one or two years. Our current agreement does not lend itself to that."

Nonis also criticized the NHL's current unbalanced schedule.

"I hate the schedule," he said, answering a question from the floor. "It does nothing for us.

"We should play every team in the league at least once. We all pay the same dues and right now the western teams are getting it right in the teeth for no good reason. We fly as much as we ever did and the eastern teams don't do a bloody thing."

Under the collective bargaining agreement, a player aged 29, with eight seasons in the league, became a free agent for the 2006-07 season. In 2008-09, a player aged 27, or one with seven seasons in the league, becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Crosby, the No. 1 pick in last year's draft, was 18 years old when he signed with the Penguins. By the time he's 25 he will have spent seven years in the league.

The Penguins could also loose Jordan Staal, their No. 2 pick in the June draft, when he turns 25. Pittsburgh said Monday the 18-year-old centre will stay with the team this year.

"I think we have a free agency age that is a joke," said Nonis.

In a later interview, Nonis said lowering the age of free agency could make hockey like baseball, where players shift teams every year.

"If you are a team that is struggling, it's a good thing, being able to get new faces," he said. "It helps generate interest in your market.

"If you are a team that is having a hard time holding your team together because of free agency and players are leaving, then it's not necessarily a good thing. You may loose the continuity a lot of markets enjoy."

In the past, teams looked to build over five-year cycles. Increased free agency reduces that to two or three-year cycles, he said.

"The Detroit Red Wings could have a five-year run if they did a good job of recruiting, trading, drafting and developing," Nonis said. "You could keep those players together.

"You are going to see movement among players every single year. To me, that's the worst part of our agreement. Get used to it. It's not going to change."

In an example of NHL scheduling, Vancouver fans had their first chance to see Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, last season's top rookie, on Friday. Crosby and the Penguins didn't play in Vancouver last season and won't make a trip to GM Place this year either.

When the league announced the unbalanced schedule, the theory was it would help to build division rivalries and allow for more compelling television matchups.

Nonis disagreed.

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