Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Free Agency Problem

One problem that the NHL will have to deal with is the problem of the potentially huge free agent pool when the lockout is over. I wrote one of the first posts in this blog on this topic.

The problem is that according to the rules of the last CBA, all players who were unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2004 and have not yet signed a contract will be UFAs. Also, all the players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2005 will be UFAs. Also, all the players eligible for the 2005 entry draft will be UFAs if the draft is not held. Also, players drafted in 2003 who have not yet signed contracts (and they cannot sign contracts during the lockout) will be UFAs. Also, all players who become restricted free agents in 2005 will become UFAs if they are not tendered qualifying offers by July 1st (and they cannot be tendered qualifying offers in a lockout). Also, all players who became restricted free agents in the summer of 2004 who have not yet signed a contract will become UFAs unless they can be tendered qualifying offers (also they cannot be tendered qualifying offers during a lockout). All told the vast majority of NHL players would be unrestricted free agents.

Teams would be left with only a handful of players under contract. They would have to go out and sign the rest of their team from the huge UFA pool. This is one of the worst possible scenarios for continuity in the NHL. Not only would a season (or more) of NHL hockey be gone, most of the players on your team would also be gone. It would be the first time in NHL history where a team could successfully buy a championship (as long as they can find a way around any slary restrictions in the new CBA). Even with a restrictive salary cap, the big market teams would have a better chance at buying a winning team. These teams would be the first choices for many of the players and their cities would be able to offer much better advertising and merchandising type monies for their players. This type of scenario would be a big boon to the New York's and Los Angeles's of the world and seriously hurt the Calgary's and Columbus's. According to the NHL public relations, the exact opposite was supposed to be the reason for the lockout. This scenario would really hurt the fan.

This scenario is definitely not a given. In a lockout, pretty much anything can be negotiated if the sides agree to negotiate it. Some of these potential UFA players might not be given unrestrictive free agency. Possibly, contracts for last season will be deemed to be in place for this season. This is a huge mess. The longer we wait until there is a deal, the bigger the mess becomes.

It is a significant bargaining chip for Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA, because in return for concessions on these issues, the NHL would have to offer something in return. With problems like this to be negotiated, where their negotiation hasn't even begun yet, I am not confident we will see a deal any time soon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Bettman failing in leadership on Bertuzzi

Its no secret that I am not a fan of Gary Bettman. The NHL has been driven closer and closer to obscurity during his reign as commissioner. One case study of Gary Bettman is how he has handled the Todd Bertuzzi situation. Instead of issuing a decisive ruling about how long Bertuzzi will be suspended, he has left Bertuzzi drifting for over a year now.

It gets even more ridiculous. Yesterday, Bertuzzi met with Bettman. You can read about it here. The meeting has been over for a little over a day now and Bettman still has not made a ruling. How hard is it to show a little leadership and either announce that Bertuzzi has been reinstated or has been suspended for X amount of time longer? Apparantly it is too hard for Gary Bettman. He must think his meeting with Todd Bertuzzi was like a CBA negotiaiting session with the NHLPA where they can spend hours talking to one another and accomplish nothing and have nothing of substance to report.

Even NHL apologist Bob McKenzie says the ball is in Gary Bettman's court. Bettman lacks the leadership to do anything significant about it. He's had over a day since the end of his meeting.

No wonder the business of the NHL is screwed up with a man like that in charge.

Sidney Crosby (+ others?) to Europe

It shouldn't suprise anyone that Sidney Crosby's agent Pat Brisson says that Crosby is considering playing in Europe next year should the NHL labor dispute continue. Apparently they have had talks with Sweden, Switzerland and Russia about Sidney playing there next year. TSN's story about this is here.

This scares me a little bit because if Sidney really enjoys himself in Europe given the expected limitations on entry level salaries in the next NHL CBA, there exists a faint chance that he will never come back. There exists a faint chance that we will never get to see him play in the NHL.

Given that Sidney is a North American player who grew up in our culture with dreams of playing in the NHL, this is an unlikely possibility. However, for European players this is quite a bit more likely. If the money isn't going to be there in their entry level deals why should players like Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin move to a new continent in a different culture to play hockey? Maybe they won't ever do it. If they don't then hockey fans lose out. They don't get to see some players who might be really special. This is one of the nightmares that I think will likely develop out of the lockout.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Allan Cup

Another major non-NHL hockey trophy was won yesterday. The Canadian Senior Mens championship the Allan Cup was won by the Thunder Bay Bombers they defeated Les Sentinelles de Montmagny 4-3 in overtime.

Congratulations to Thunder Bay players and fans.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Best Player in the World 2004/05

Most years around this time hockey fans debate who has been the most valuable player of the year. I would like to debate that this year also, but it is extrememly hard. The best hockey players in the world who played this season were spread throughout several leagues in the world. Many of the players did not play the whole season - they joined European clubs in mid-season. Many of those players joined the team in less than playing shape and took a while to get themselves in top shape. Its not an easy question.

In North America, Jason Spezza was MVP of the AHL and Scott Gomez was MVP of the ECHL, but neither played the calibre of competition that was in some European leagues.

In Europe, I am much more dependant upon statistics to decide who was good - because I haven't been able to watch any European games this year. The Swedish league had the most NHL players. Henrik Zetterberg lead it in scoring ,but it was a close race. In Russia, Maxim Sushinsky (former Minnesota Wild) lead the league in scoring. Many of the NHL players who played in this league were not there for the whole season. The Czech league also had many players join it with the season underway, Michal Mikeska lead it in scoring. The Slovak league was lead in scoring by Pavol Demitra. He was quite dominant. Several NHL players went to play in Switzerland also, but this league has a much less strenuous schedule which cuts into their ability to dominate. In Finland, Steve Kariya lead the league in scoring. Arguably, the remaining European leagues are secondary to these ones.

I am a bit uncertain who to declare has been the best player in hockey in the world this year, largely because the players were spread in so many leagues and I was unable to watch many of them. However, I will make my pick nonetheless. I think because of his dominance in the Slovak league and given a good amount of NHL talent playing there I will go on record that I think Pavol Demitra may have been the best hockey player in the world this season. I expect there should be some discussion on this choice because the circumstances of hockey this year make the choice so hard to make.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Another Example of how Bettman is bad for Hockey Fans

The professional players involved inthe last two winter Olympiads have made for great Olympic hockey. Arguably, this is the best hockey fans have seen under Gary Bettman's run as NHL commissioner. If Gary Bettman was concerned with making the fan happy, he would be trying to get NHL players into the future Olympics at all costs. Even if the lockout finally came to an end 3 weeks before the beginning of the Olympics, it would be in the best interest of hockey fans to have the NHL further delay the start of their season to allow their players to participate in the Olympics. This would build up good will with the long ignored dedicated hockey fan. Also, this would boost the publicity of hockey. Olympic watchers who are not regular hockey fans would see our game showcased. As a further bonus, a strong showing by the Ameircan team would help Bettman in his long failing dream of selling the sport nationally in the US.

Of course, this isn't the way Gary Bettman works. He has never been too supportive of stopping the NHL season to allow NHL players in the Olympics. Once again he is on record obstructing this process. Read about it here. He states that the lockout is jeopardizing NHL participation in the Olympics. Of course if the NHL is still locked out at Olympic time, then NHL players would be free to go play there if they felt like it. Bettman is referring to a situation where the lockout ends, but possibly after delaying the start of next season. He would not want to give up the time when games would be played - and the money he assumes can be made by playing those games.

Its clear to me that hockey will need something big to lure back some of the fans they have lost. They will need something similar to the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run race that baseball had after their strike. The Olympics could provide these moments. Passing that up is stupid. Most importantly, it further alienates those hockey fans that remain who want to see the best players in the world play in the Olympics. Gary Bettman's regime has held the game of hockey hostage long enough. Now he is threatening to take more hockey away from us even after the lockout ends.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

State of the lockout

With yesterday's official announcement that NHL will not go forward with replacement players and thus wants to negotiate a settlement with the NHLPA, there is a lot of optimism in the blogosphere. One of the most credible optimistic threads is from Tom Benjamin.

I think its too early to declare the lockout over. There is still fundamental disagreement between the owners and the players. It will take quite a while to hammer that out. Still maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I think that the players have already given up too much to the owners. I have strong reservations about the next CBA being better for the hockey fan - I think it could be worse - but without exact details that is mere speculation. It is clear that the new CBA agreement will likely be similar to if not less than what the owners could have negotitated in January or February. The loss of a season accomplished what?

The possibility of new NHL hockey is a good thing, but the ugliness is not over and it remains to be seen if the new CBA (and proposed rule changes) will not make the hockey worse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bettman Confirms He Is On Plan C

After the Board of Governors meeting today, Gary Bettman confirmed what I reported on Saturday . Basically, he is confirming that the NHL is not going forward with replacement players (plan B) and since they failed so far to make the players accept a new CBA under their terms by locking them out (plan A), the NHL must attempt something else. One story with Bettman's comments is here.

The best option that remains is for the NHL to actually negoatiate with the NHLPA. Imagine if they took this bold step at this time last year...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Raising the Draft Age?

The most recent trial balloon that Bob McKenzie floats for the NHL can be found here. He says that the NHL wants to raise the draft age by nine months. I think this is a contingency plan. I think that in the event there is no draft this year due to the labor dispute, the next draft may have a raised eligibility age. This would still be a Sidney Crosby draft, but it would be one year later.

There are benefits to the NHL to this move. The older players get drafted, the easier it is to project their abilities into the future. This help to reduce costly mistakes when high draft choices do not pan out. This is a move that many in the NHL would like, however under normal circumstances it is almost impossible to make this change without there being a draft with significantly less talent then normal.

There will still be the occassional player who comes along at age 18 who is good enough for the NHL. Recently, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Gaborik have been famous examples of this. Historically, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are high profile examples. No draft age can fully prevent this. Once in a while there will be a phenomenal young talent that is the exception to all the rules. The problem of how to deal with these players may be solved by the lockout. If there is no NHL next year, it is almost certain that Sidney Crosby will go play in Europe. If he is successful doing that other players may follow him if they reach the current NHL draft age but are not yet eligible by new NHL rules. Given the expected entry level salary restrictions that would accompany a new CBA, it may lead to such players staying in Europe and not making the journey to the NHL. This possibility increases significantly for those players who are already European. Its not the increased draft age that is directly to blame if such a loss occurs to the NHL talent base, its the restrictions places on players in the new CBA, but an increased draft age might contribute in an indirect fashion.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Its Playoff Time!!

Unfortunately, not in the NHL. The AHL playoffs begin tomorrow.

Here are the first round series:

Atlantic Division
1. Manchester (LA Kings) vs 4. Providence (Boston Bruins)
2. Hartford (NY Rangers) vs 3. Lowell (Carolina/ Calgary)

East Division
1. Binghampton (Ottawa Senators) vs 4. Wilkes Barre/Scranton (Pittsburgh Penguins)
2. Philadelphia (Philadelphia Flyers) vs 3. Norfolk (Chicago Blackhawks)

North Division
1. Rochester (Buffalo Sabres) vs 4. Hamilton (Montreal Canadiens)
2. St John's (Toronto Maple Leafs) vs 3. Manitoba (Vancouver Canucks)

West Division
1. Chicago (Atlanta Thrashers) vs 4. Houston (Minnesota/Dallas)
2. Milwaukee (Nashville Predators) vs Cincinnati (Anaheim Mighty Ducks)

Should be some good hockey!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Bertuzzi: A Case Study in Bettman

The Team Canada roster was completed with the announcement that Scott Walker would be the 23rd player on the roster. The story is here. It was believed that this spot was left open in hopes that Todd Bertuzzi could hold it. Bertuzzi had been suspended for his vicious attack on Steve Moore that occurred on March 11, 2004. At the time Bettman suspended him for the remainder of the season announcing that he (Bettman) would review the case in the future before reinstating him. It was assumed that Bertuzzi would be reinstated for this season.

Of course, there was no this season. The lockout occurred, so Bettman never had to make the decision to reinstate Bertuzzi. This decision would possibly give hockey some bad public relations as somebody somewhere who likely has no interest in hockey and the NHL would pull out the tape of Bertuzzi's attack on Moore and be outraged that Bertuzzi is getting reinstated at all. He didn't need to make the somewhat hard decision, so he didn't.

Bettman has delayed making a decision because he can delay. He delayed making it because sombody would be unhappy with its results. He probably will not address Todd Bertuzzi until he HAS to address it. This is becoming unfair to Bertuzzi leaving him in limbo so long. This type of management has lead to problems in the lockout. By delaying decisions when possible, some of the hardine owners are running the show. Had Bettman wanted to change paths and not lose the entire season due to lockout and accept an NHLPA offer, this would have been nearly impossible to him. The hardline owners would not have let him. The NHL has degenerated into a system where the loudest (in this case hardline) owners are running the show. Bettman would have a hard time trying to change the path significantly as is shown in part by his talks with the Leafs I wrote about yesterday.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Bettman trying Plan C?

In this lockout, I think it is clear that plan A for the NHL has been to lockout the players and wait until the NHLPA accepts the CBA offer that the owners want. So far that plan has failed. It has resulted in the cancellation of one season and the postponement (if not cancellation) of the draft. For Bettman it is pretty clear that plan B was an ill-concieved idea to use replacement players. Now that it is becoming a reality that plan B is necessary, it is becoming clear that this plan won't work. Bob MacKenzie writes about it here. Many owners do not want to use replacement players, not to mention the legal minefield that would have to be traversed to get there.

It looks like Plan C for Bettman might be to actually try to negotiate with the players. This is an unpopular position with the owners. Many hardliners want what they want and theplayers can be damned if the don't agree. Yesterday, Gary Bettman met with the Toronto Maple Leafs to discuss the idea of increased revenue sharing. Information can be found here. The bigger market owners want to part of revenue sharing. That would cut into their profits, and their idea has been that this lockout is a good idea because with a salary cap they will have increased profits. It makes no sense to jeopardize that after losing a season. At least Bettman is doing something, but at this point it will be hard to get the owners to change their tune. A good commissioner should have never let it get to this point in the first place. The NHL has fallen a long way under Bettman's watch - and I see no reason to imagine that this fall is over. That is reason enough to fire him isn't it?

Friday, April 15, 2005

Expand the Playoffs

One story I missed out in commenting on when I was away was the trial balloon the NHL is floating about expanding the NHL playoffs from 16 to 20 teams. In case you missed it here is where Bob MacKenzie floats this story (McKenzie is still doing his NHL public relations work in exchange for "inside stories" like this one).

My first thought is that this is a blatant cash grab. More teams in the playoffs mean more playoff revenue and they mean more teams stay in the playoff picture longer generating more revenue in the regular season stretch drive.

I am not too opposed to the idea if it is a short play-in round (much like the first game in the NCAA Basketball tournament), but I don't trust the NHL to keep the series short - even if it is at the beginning it won't be long before they become 7 game series.

The biggest concern is that if the NHL wishes to be considered one of the big four sports leagues in North America, they have to start acting like one. In the NFL, 12 out of 32 teams make the playoffs (37.5%). In Major League Baseball its 8 of 30 (26.7%). In the NBA, its 16 of 30 (53.3%). Currently, hockey has the same ratio as the NBA when the NHL plays a season. Twenty out of thirty teams would be 66.7%. The NHL playoffs are already tied to be the easiest playoff to make. This change would break that tie. It doesn't make a playoff berth as important an accomplishment.

Of course, many of the NHL's current problems have come from trying to imitate the other big pro sports leagues. They put franchises in weak markets with questionable ownership in an attempt to go national in the United States. So not following the other leagues might be a welcome change. Nevertheless, making it special to make the playoffs is an important thing.

A better situation is that the NHL loses a few teams teams and increases the playoff making ratio that way, instead of propping up failing markets and expanding the playoffs to help their chances at playoff berths.

All that said, I am a hockey addict. In my perfect dream world, we would have twelve months of playoff calibre hockey every year. I would watch and I would love it. I know that is an impossible scenario, players would probably literally drop dead with that kind of a schedule. So, I could live with more hockey. I would watch more hockey. However, for the general good of the game, probably less is more. Less games would make players more rested and more intense and less teams in the playoffs would make the playoffs more special and increase the value of a good regular season.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Free Stanley

I'm back after about a week of real life interfering with my chances to blog. Unfortunately, the NHL doesn't come back nearly that quickly. It will be gone for at least one year - and possibly indefinitely. As many people know, there is a group of people who would like to see the Stanley Cup awarded without the NHL. They have their website here.

This started out as a lark. But one that might have some legal merit. Its not clear that the NHL really does own the Stanley Cup. Now, it is getting serious. A case has been filed in Ontario Superior Court to try to get the Stanley Cup awarded. Information can be found here.

Its not going to be easy to win a court case against ther NHL. The courts are designed so that the rich can often win by delaying and trying to bankrupt the poor. It should be interesting. The NHL and NHLPA don't seem to be too likely to come up with a negotiated agreement in the near future without some prodding from outside sources changing the current situation significantly. Under ther right circumstances, this could change the negotiaion situation significantly.

I would likely watch a Stanley Cup played between two non-NHL teams if I had the chance. Of course if I was watching the best two teams in the world, my interests would increase.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Partial Rosters for World Hockey Championships

Usually, the World Hockey Championships are a forgotten tournament that occurs while the Stanley Cup playoffs are underway and few notice. They are usually played among players who played the season in Europe and NHL players who missed the playoffs or had quick exits from the playoffs. That is not true this year since there are no playoffs. Nevertheless, because many top players did not play any hockey this year and are not in game shape, some significant stars will be absent this year.

Today Canada and the United States named partial rosters. Both have significant star players left off the roster who would have played under more normal circumstances.

Canada's partial roster

Martin Brodeur
Roberto Luongo
Marty Turco

Scott Hannan
Ed Jovanovski
Chris Phillips
Wade Redden
Robyn Regehr
Sheldon Souray

Shane Doan
Kris Draper
Simon Gagne
Dany Heatley
Kirk Maltby
Brendan Morrison
Brendan Morrow
Rick Nash
Ryan Smyth
Joe Thornton
3 vacancies

United States partial roster

Ty Conklin
Rick DiPietro
Tim Thomas

Hal Gill
John-Michael Liles
Jordan Leopold
Paul Martin
Aaron Miller
Andy Roach

Erik Cole
Matt Cullen
Brian Gionta
Adam Hall
Jeff Halpern
Mike Knuble
David Legwand
Mike Modano
Richard Park
Mark Parrish
Doug Weight
Mike York

It looks like a good tournament. It will likely be the best hockey played in the world since last September's World Cup.

NOTE: This will probably be my last post for a few days. I will have visitors in town for a few days and then I will travel myself. It is unlikely that I will have either the time or ability to post for a while.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

On Scoring in the NHL

In general, I don't care how high the score is in the NHL. I have been very happy watching high scoring games. I have been very happy watching low scoring games. Given only the score in a game, there is no way to tell if it was a good game or not.

The idea that tight checking hockey is somehow bad and something (even something stupid) must be done to make the scores in hockey games go up is a crazy idea in my opinion. I've watched some great games starring tight checking teams like the New Jersey Devils over the years. For example, their Stanley Cup final in 2003 against Anaheim was very exciting. Last year was a good year for hockey. I watched countless very good games. However, the NHL cannot admit to that because they were trying very hard to sell that the game is broken and needed fixing (does a lockout fix anything?). There has been an anti-marketing campaign by the NHL higher ups to sell how bad the league is in order to sell the lockout.

At some point, Gary Bettman and his ilk decided that sun belt US fans must like high scoring hockey - I'm not sure I have been convinced of this fact ever. So in order to sell the game outside the region where it is strong, the game must be opened up and scoring must go up. It doesn't matter how this is accomplished. Bigger nets are fine. Don't let goalies handle the puck. Why not? It doesn't matter if the changes alienate traditional fans. They have been taken foregranted throughout the Bettman reign of error. The fan that means the most is the sun belt fan of the weak failing teams he added. This fan is not a hockey fan. There is no evidence this person even wants to be a hockey fan or ever will become one. However, Gary Bettman is willing to completely change the direction of hockey as we know it to suit what he thinks this fan wants.

Last year, the Stanley Cup finals were a great series. The final scores were: Calgary 4 Tampa 1, Tampa 4 Calgary 1, Calgary 3 Tampa 0, Tampa 1 Calgary 0, Calgary 3 Tampa 2 (OT), Tampa 3 Calgary 2 (OT) and Tampa 2 Calgary 1. It was a great exciting series. Anyone who doesn't think so must not have watched it or must not be much of a hockey fan. Scoring was hard to find and the hockey was great. I'm worried that if Bettman gets his way, the hockey will be not as great and it doesn't matter if the scoring goes up or not (maybe it won't go up much - it hasn't in the AHL)

Monday, April 04, 2005

This Can't Be Bargaining In Good Faith

The NHL and NHLPA meet today for the first time in a couple weeks. Naturally, the logical thing is for the NHL to file a complaint with the United States National Labor Releations Board before the meeting. Information about this can be found here. How can that possibly be considered bargaining in good faith?

This is actually the second complaint the NHL has filed. Information on the first one can be found here.

The NHL is complaining about "apparant policies" of what it thinks the NHLPA might do if the NHL tries to bring in replacement players this fall. The NHL seems to have already committed to that action and doesn't even bother to listen to what the NHLPA says in their meetings before complaining about what the NHLPA might do in a few months. Todays complaint is that the NHLPA might try to decertify agents who negotiate contracts for replacement players. Its not obvious that either NHL complaint actually holds water. The NLRB might rule against either of them. It is clear that the NHLPA has not yet done either of the things the NHL has complained about since there are no replacement players yet.

The worst part is that it appears that the NHL has decided to go ahead with replacement players regardless of what happens between now and then, which means they have already decided that the next 6 months or so of negotiations will be unproductive. Its going to get a lot worse before it starts to get better.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Demand for Properly Marketed Pro Hockey Remains Strong

There have been a few attempts to showcase pro hockey players in meaningless games that the fans have largely rejected. The Original Stars Hockey League and the Ryan Smyth and friends charity hockey tour are two examples of this. However, not all of these attempts are failures at the box office.

In Hamilton, Ontario, over 20,000 hockey fans attended an outdoor game in Ivor Wynne Stadium (CFL football stadium). They braved rain and snow to attend the game. A story about this game is here. The game was not a high level hockey game. Team Gilmour won 11-8 over Team Staois. There was a 60-45 shots on goal advantage for the Gilmour team. Curtis Joseph even says "Guys said they wouldn't backcheck against the wind." So it wasn't exactly a competitive high level NHL game. Still the fans came. Probably, most were intriguiged by the "gimmick" of an outdoor hockey game and missing NHL hockey. Still it shows that properly marketed hockey that does not have the NHL brand can draw fans in North America. The problem is that the games will have to start becoming more competitive than this one to keep them coming back. I think that this is a very realistic goal for a new North American startup league such as the WHA.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Replacement NHL Worse Than No NHL At All

Many fans seem to be happy that it looks like the NHL will be back next year, even if it is with replacement players. Next year, the replacement NHL (should it happen) will leave North American hockey in a worse state than it is this year. This year is arguably the greatest season ever for the American Hockey League. Players like Jason Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Jay Bouwmeester would be playing significant roles in the NHL this year if there was one. These players are starring in the AHL instead. They are there along with the career AHL players making the league exceptionally strong.

Next year, I expect that many of the AHL players who are no longer NHL prospects (Lonny Bohonos for example is on record saying that he will be a replacement player) will be playing in the replacement NHL. This will lower the calibre of the AHL.

The NHL will be filled with second rate AHLers as well as players scrouged from all over (ECHL, UHL, graduating NCAA players etc.). The replacement NHL will not be as high quality as the AHL of 2004/05. All the rest of the minor leagues will either have to cease operations or fill their roster with worse players who were not NHL replacement calibre.

This plan to go with replacement players in the NHL, should it go forward, will be worse for hockey in North America then no NHL at all. The people pushing for it cannot honestly claim to be looking out for hockey's best interests.

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