The sheer duration of the National Hockey League lockout places it among the most baffling stoppages in the history of North American sports, and it may well signal hockey's withering into second-tier entertainment. Owners claimed players' salaries were devouring 75 percent of revenue; reckless expansion had diluted the league; with TV ratings down, ABC and NBC dumped their hockey coverage, and ESPN plans to relegate the sport solely to ESPN2. Quagmires rarely carry silver linings, but at least a belt-cinching labor agreement will probably extend the life of the 30-team league. Not only that but in the likely event that the owners impose a salary cap, "small market" teams such as the Panthers may be able to afford some formerly exorbitant talent. The Panthers' 2003-04 player payroll was in the bottom tenth of the league, and only one player, right wing Valeri Bure, was among the league's 100 best-paid. If big-market teams dump expensive free agents to avoid a luxury tax, the Panthers (and the Penguins, the Oilers, et al.) figure to be in terrific position to add discount stars. Assuming hockey survives its own self-righteous cannibalism -- and the Panthers cough up some cash -- look for South Florida to boast an NHL team more competitive than that of recent seasons.