"My intentions today are not to tear you away from these fascinating facts but to deliver this little shred of news: The final eight games tumbled off the National Hockey League's master schedule Sunday. The Sabres would have ended their regular season Saturday against the Maple Leafs in what might have been a playoff tuneup.
Anybody notice? Or, better yet, anybody care?
You've had months to digest the facts, how the NHL became the first professional sports league to wipe out an entire season over labor strife, how the boneheads of the boardrooms shared neither enough common sense nor common ground to save the sport from massive self-destruction.
Now that it's officially gone, ask yourself: Self, what did I miss?"
- Bucky Gleason, Buffalo News, April 11, 2005.
Good question. What did we miss this season?
Gleason's article went on to point out a lot of the negative things of the NHL product that we didn't miss (boring trapping defensive hockey, overpaid underachievers, the high cost of attending the games), and noted the owners and players have done their league a huge disservice, possibly even irreparable harm, with this short-sighted labour dispute.
The critic of the league in me agrees with Gleason's observations, yet the fan in me noted some of the positives we may have missed from the lost season of 2004-05.
It's obvious the NHL product is in trouble and in dire need of improvements to bring back the excitement into what was once truly the coolest game on ice.
And no, I didn't miss those points Gleason raised.
But I did miss this past season, even if the current 82-game schedule is far too long, and I'll miss following the playoffs this spring, even if it is absurd that it stretches into the middle of June.
From a financial point of view, I miss it because my readership on this site is down significantly and thus so is the money I make from the advertising on this site, the bulk of which goes toward my webhosting costs.
But I don't fault those NHL fans who've tuned out of my site and many others, professional and personal, since last September.
They miss the game, but they're obviously taking a pass on following what often seems to be the self-destruction of the National Hockey League.
The die-hard fans will come back, but their numbers may not be quite as high as before. The numbers of the casual fan base may take more of a serious hit whenever the league returns.
But for all the faults of the current NHL product, I do miss it. I miss the excitement of the opening month, the trade and free agent rumours and signings, the mid-winter grind when NHL hockey can at times be the only excitement to beat the mid-winter blahs.
I miss the run-up to the trade deadline, following the scoring races, and the final weeks of the season when teams jockeying for the final available playoffs berths crank up their intensity to playoff levels.
I also miss the morning highlights on TSN and The Score, when it was still possible to see some pretty scoring plays.
What I want is what all NHL fans want: to see the league return next season, not with replacements, but with their real players, with a new long-term CBA in place, and most importantly, with real changes in place that improve the quality of the on-ice product and hopefully, some relief from the high cost of attending the same.
Because if the next five or six NHL seasons are simply a re-run of the last ten years of the previous CBA with little or no improvement, I may not miss the NHL if it engages in another labour war with its players.
And I have a feeling other NHL fans will feel the same way as I.
So have you missed NHL hockey over this past non-season?
Write in and let me know, yes or no, and I'll post up the comments in a future Fans Speak Out.
- By the way, I haven't ignored or forgotten the latest labour news regarding the next meeting between the NHL and NHLPA, set for next Tuesday, April 19th, nor the speculation over what PA director Bob Goodenow may be up to, and the possible reasons why the NHLPA called a major meeting for May 20th of their entire membership.
I'm saving that for today's Foxsports column, which should be posted up later today.
- From TSN and Canadian Press:
TORONTO (CP) - There will be a battle for the Stanley Cup this year - at least in court.
With a lockout having killed the NHL season, a group of recreational hockey players has launched a legal fight in an effort to let other teams have a shot at winning the storied trophy.
The Wednesday Nighters led by Torontonians David Burt and Gard Shelley and represented by lawyer Tim Gilbert filed a claim against the NHL and the Cup's trustees in Ontario Superior Court on Wednesday.
They're seeking a court order declaring that:
- The Stanley Cup is being held in trust for hockey's benefit;
- The trustees are under obligation to award the Cup every year;
- The NHL does not own the Stanley Cup.
To which I say, good luck, gentlemen, because you're going to need it.
Sure, it would be terrific if the little guys, a couple of average hockey fans, were to actually win this thing and the NHL had to relinquish the Stanley Cup, but realistically, I can't see this happening.
And even if they do win this case, there would be weeks of rangling to determine who the Stanley Cup should actually be awarded to.
But hey, at least these guys found a way to use the time they would've spent following the NHL season in a productive way.
- A 50 metre x 30 metre mural of Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, which graced one side of the Cadillac Tower in Detroit for the past two years, is being painted over.
Sure, it's a little sad, but Yzerman already stands as tall as that mural in the hearts of Red Wings fans in Detroit and throughout the hockey world.
No paint job will ever cover that up.
- Philadelphia Flyers veteran forward John LeClair will go under the knife once again for his ailing back. He hopes to return to action with the club in September should the lockout be over by then.
What struck me, however, was that LeClair will still have one season at $9 million left on his contract if the league returns to full action this October.
If Flyers GM Bob Clarke couldn't find any takers for LeClair with that salary under the old CBA, he won't be able to give the former 50-goal man away under a hard salary cap.
$9 million is a big chunk of change out of anyone's payroll, especially if the league gets its way and the cap is set around $37.5 million.
But nobody put a gun to Clarke's head to re-sign LeClair to that stunning amount.
- Tom Benjamin makes a good point about the kinds of "legal obstruction" that will still be prevalent in the NHL should it finally crack down on uncalled obstruction.
Still, in far too many NHL games I've seen over the past ten years, there was still plenty of interference, hooking and holding going on that went uncalled by the officials.
Very little of it was the "sneaky" kind, but rather so blatant I couldn't get through an entire period, even in the playoffs, without screeching, "aw, c'mon, ref!" at my television screen at the missed calls.
Call the blatantly obvious, and even with the type of legal obstruction Tom speaks of, the flow of the game will noticeably improve. Indeed, much of what Tom referred to was also common in the NHL back in the 1980s and early 90s (think the Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns-coached Montreal Canadiens and the Devils under Lemaire's first two seasons).
The difference, of course, was there wasn't the kind of uncalled obstruction so common to today's game.
-It's been quiet on the lockout talk front...almost too quiet.
Ok, it's a hackneyed cliche but you get the idea. This time last week, we were being bombarded with columns suggesting "cautious optimism" was in the air following last Monday's meeting between the NHL and NHLPA.
Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow apparently held a short meeting last Thursday night where they agreed to meet again at some point this week, thought to be this Tuesday.
Well, here it is Wednesday, and so far, nada, zip, no mention of any further talks.
Meaning either both sides are keeping deliberately going out of their way to keep their discussions out of the public eye, or they haven't been meeting or talking since last Thursday's tete-a-tete between Bettman and Goodenow.
At this point, does anybody really care?
If they are in talks, I hope they keep it out of the media as much as possible so we're no longer bombarded with phoney news of progress, non-progress or whatever.
The next news I wanna hear from these two sides is an announcement from both, set for the same time at the same place, to proclaim a new CBA is in place.
Until then, I could care less what's going on behind the scenes. And I think most hockey fans feel the same way.
UPDATE: Sportsnet claims there will be no new talks slated for this week, along with the usual stuff about "a sense of frustration" amongst some from the NHL camp whilst the PA is merely blaming scheduling conflicts and are shooting for next week.
Blah, blah, blah, yammer, yammer, whatever. Until we start hearing real news, from reliable sources willing to be quoted in the press, that real progress is being made, nobody cares about the "non-news".
- So much for the Great One returning to Broadway, at least according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, who quotes Wayne Gretzky:
"I'm not going anywhere and I don't believe Slats is going anywhere. I'm still in negotiation with Phoenix to stay on with the Coyotes and I'm hopeful we'll get something done here in the next few weeks. As I've said all along, my plan is to stay in the southwest with Phoenix."
McKenzie does point out that, until Gretzky actually re-ups with the Desert Dawgs, the rumour mill will keep churning.
Meaning there really isn't much to report on the hockey front these days.
Normally at this time of year, I'd be focussing on the Stanley Cup playoffs, but given the absence of that event this year, the World Championships will be getting the attention. Let's face it, gang, it'll be the only action with NHL talent that we'll get to see this spring.
So far there's only been two rosters made official, that of Canada and the United States. The lineups are as follows (courtesy of TSN):
Goaltenders: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils; Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers; Marty Turco, Dallas Stars.
Defence: Dan Boyle, Tampa Bay Lightning; Scott Hannan, San Jose Sharks; Ed Jovanovski, Vancouver Canucks; Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators; Wade Redden, Ottawa Senators; Robyn Regehr, Calgary Flames; Sheldon Souray, Montreal Canadiens.
Forwards: Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes; Kris Draper, Detroit Red Wings; Mike Fisher, Ottawa Senators; Simon Gagne, Philadelphia Flyers; Dany Heatley, Atlanta Thrashers; Kirk Maltby, Detroit Red Wings; Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks; Brendan Morrison, Vancouver Canucks; Brenden Morrow, Dallas Stars; Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets; Ryan Smyth, Edmonton Oilers; Joe Thornton, Boston Bruins.
Goaltenders: Ty Conklin, Edmonton Oilers; Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders; Tim Thomas, Providence Bruins.
Defence: Hal Gill, Boston Bruins; Jordan Leopold, Calgary Flames; John-Michael Liles, Colorado Avalanche; Paul Martin, New Jersey Devils; Aaron Miller, Los Angeles Kings; Andy Roach, Lausanne (Swiss League).
Forwards: Erik Cole, Carolina Hurricanes; Matt Cullen, Carolina Hurricanes; Brian Gionta, New Jersey Devils; Jeff Halpern, Washington Capitals; Mike Knuble, Philadelphia Flyers; David Legwand, Nashville Predators; Mike Modano, Dallas Stars; Richard Park, Minnesota Wild; Mark Parrish, New York Islanders; Doug Weight, St. Louis Blues; Mike York, Edmonton Oilers.
For both clubs, a mix of NHL players who spent the lockout in Europe and of others who saw little or no action.
Going by depth alone, I'd give the Canadians the edge at all three areas. particularly in goal and on the blueline. The Americans will definitely be lacking in star power. Even without many of their top players, the Canuckistanians will still be icing a formidable team...at least on paper.
Expect the Yanks to rely heavily on Leopold and Miller to anchor their defence corps, and look to Modano and Weight to carry the load offensively and to provide leadership.
The true wildcard for the Americans will be their goaltending. It was surprising they neglected Robert Esche, who did a good job for Team USA during last fall's World Cup, but they wanted to go with goaltenders who've seen action in Europe this season.
Of course, what will make the obvious difference here will be how well those players who saw little or no action during the lockout can adapt and round out into game shape.
And that's where it could tell the tale for Team Canada. Their top netminders and much of their blueline corps saw little action this season compared to those of Team USA, and that could provide an advantage to the latter as this tournament goes on.
More analysis as other rosters are filled in the coming days. Naturally, I welcome any feedback from my readers and my fellow writers.
- Seems the "Wayne Gretzky to become Rangers team president" rumours won't go away. The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons did his part yesterday to keep the speculation alive of the Great One spurning an extension with the Phoenix Coyotes to take over the reins from Glen Sather.
Blueshirt Bulletin carried more on the story yesterday, with links to both the Coyotes intention to re-sign Gretzky and further speculation as to whether or not his selling his LA home is indicative that he could decide to move on.
Is Rangers owner Jim Dolan seriously pursuing Gretzky? Who knows, as most news involving Dolan is either about his waging war with the NY Jets and the city of Manhattan to prevent a new stadium being built that could encroach on his territory or his feuding with his father over the direction of their company Cablevision.
Rebuilding the Rangers is a serious challenge, for even though they possess plenty of money, the last seven NHL seasons have proven that it's impossible to buy a winner.
It's going to take seasoned hockey men to run this team in the roles of team president and general manager. Gretzky may look like a genius for the way he built two international championship teams for Canada, but he had the pick of the litter in building those two squads.
As he's discovered in Phoenix, it's not so easy to do that on the NHL level. Still, the 'Yotes are staffed with plenty of promising youngsters who simply need time to mature under an experienced coach. Part of that is Gretzky's doing.
Thus far there's no word from the Great One, and the Coyotes maintain they're going to retain him. Until we hear differently, that's the way things are going to go.
- There was considerable hue and cry in the Canadian media over the Canadian women's hockey team being denied a ninth straight World championship because they lost this year's championship game in a shootout.
As Jes Golbez pointed out, this means "Canada falls to something like 2-372 in International shootouts all time (men's and women's hockey)."
And yes, he's being facetious, but he does make a good point:
If Canada is the King of the hockey world, than the shootout is the poison in the royal sirloin.
Yes, we do tend to get wrapped 'round the axle over shootouts, don't we, my fellow Canadians?
Of course, nobody was that upset when Canada won the 1994 Worlds via shootout, now were they?
As for how the shootout applies in the NHL, I believe that shootouts should be employed to settle tied regular season games, but shouldn't be used to settle a playoff or Stanley Cup finals game.
As I noted on Tom Benjamin's blog yesterday, "someone could make the argument that a regular season shootout could also decide if a team makes it into the playoffs or not, but I'm of the opinion that an NHL team has 82 chances to make the playoffs, and a much limited opportunity to win a playoff series or title."
So, shootouts for regular season - ok. For playoffs - not ok.
As for international competition, it's their rules and if the IIHF wants to employ shootouts to settle games, even championship games, then that's the way it's gotta be.
Everyone should just live with it and stop whining if their favourite team loses in international competition that way.
- Seems not every NHL team is in a rush to hire replacements players should the league head down that route.
Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier told ESPN he hasn't started looking at potential replacements. Neither have the Edmonton Oilers, whose GM Kevin Lowe said he's awaiting "direction or confirmation" and been told to stand pat and await a league decision.
As ESPN columnist Scott Burnside put it:
Many (general managers) are former players to whom the idea of replacement players is repugnant. They understand -- and will quietly acknowledge -- that replacement players would be an abomination for a league that already has a massive credibility problem. And, to a man, they lauded the players for setting aside their labor differences in favor of improving the game.
Going the replacement route is not a wise option for the NHL. If there is actual progress being made in recent talks between it and the NHLPA, then the league should shelve any plans for replacements and focus hard on getting a deal with the PA.
Replacements will only serve to make the NHL more of a joke than it already is.
- Oh, just so you know, the 2004-05 season would've officially ended yesterday.
I must admit, I misjudged the resolve of the NHL owners throughout this lockout with the players.
I honestly didn't believe when this thing started last September that I'd be sitting here in April without having seen an entire season of NHL hockey. I believed their nerve would crack, that they couldn't afford the losses the cancellation of a season would bring down upon them.
Sure, there's rumblings that some of them, perhaps even a majority, were or are pushing Commissioner Gary Bettman to come up with a solution with NHLPA director Bob Goodenow in time to market their teams for next fall.
Heck, there's even talk a significant number of them haven't considered using replacement players next season, nor do they even want to.
But give credit where it's due, they've managed to show a united front publicly, proving to the players that this time, they're very serious about the changes they want to implement.
But if you ask me, this owner unity is only a short-term thing.
It's easy to be united in a common cause, that being waging war against the players in hopes of, if not breaking their union or forcing out Goodenow, than in minimizing their power and effectiveness.
Wait'll the teams get back to action, however, and then watch how fast the owners turn against each other.
One need look no further than to what happened during the general managers meeting last week when the topic of this year's draft was raised and how it would be determined who would get first crack at promising young junior Sidney Crosby.
"The temperature got high very quickly," New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury said, describing the brief but "heated debate" that he believes will be settled by commissioner Gary Bettman and the league's board of governors.
How it'll be settled is apparently by way of a lottery whereby all thirty clubs would be eligible but it would be weighted in favour of those teams with the worst records over the past four or five seasons.
"Every GM in the league can make an argument for having the first pick," Los Angeles Kings GM Dave Taylor said.
Here's some of what Toronto Sun columnist Lance Hornby reported on Saturday (sorry, no link):
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, clubs which finished last and won the 2004 draft lottery, respectively, could be in the driver's seat if 2003-04 results are used as the format. But 100-point teams such as the Maple Leafs argue that it's now 2005, the equivalent of a season is gone, and all teams deserve an shot at the Rimouski phenom Crosby.
Leafs' John Ferguson isn't about to be Mr. Nice Guy to the struggling Caps and Penguins and agree to diminish the value of a possible Crosby ticket.
"That's fair and equitable," Ferguson said. "Everyone understands that you have a one in 30 chance reflective of our finish in 2004-05 ... which is no finish."
Among Crosby's options in the absence of a CBA is declaring himself a free agent, a scenario that would see the richer clubs get into a potentially divisive bidding war after Bettman declared a lockout to underline the league's supposed financial hardships.
Ah, how quickly the worm turns, eh?
Don't give me the argument that's just the general managers talking and their views aren't reflective of the owners. The GMs speak for their owners.
Everybody wants a shot at Crosby, and those clubs that usually place among the top twenty of the league wish to use this lockout and the cancellation of the 2004-05 season to their advantage in hopes of landing the most-prized draft pick since Eric Lindros back in 1991.
Can't say I blame 'em, but it does speak volumes as to what's in store whenever the NHL gets back to work.
The owners and their team management are competitive, and we're seeing that in the squabble over who gets the top pick in 2005 and the right to draft Crosby.
Consider it a prelude to what we'll see regularly regardless of what takes shape in the next CBA.
There are a lot of hockey fans who believe a hard salary cap will keep salaries within control and allow for small market teams to become more competitive.
Once the general managers get their bearings in the first year of the next CBA, you'll start seeing some of them finding loopholes, either on their own or with the help of player agents, to use to their advantage.
Small market GMs and owners will cry foul, just as they did under the last CBA, but just as we saw back then, Gary Bettman will be powerless to stop any of the big market clubs from doing whatever they want to land whoever they want.
Should Crosby opt to become a free agent, the bidding war that would occur would, as Hornby points out, make a mockery of the league's and the owners hard line stance in this lockout.
The salaries of the best players will remain high, perhaps not quite as high as they were in the past, but high enough to make it difficult for small market owners to retain their best, and all but impossible for them to bid competitively for the top UFA talent.
I'm sure the commissioner and the Board of Governors (re: the owners or their respective representatives) will sort out this draft issue via a weighted lottery system.
But if the general managers are squabbling about that, how can we expect them to stand on common ground when they start inking players under the next CBA?
That's when we'll see that the only time teams will agree on anything is whenever they want to paint the players as the bad guys for the league's real or imagined financial woes.
So there I was, relaxing on Friday evening, enjoying a Harvest Gold Ale from the best damn brew pub in Atlantic Canada, and doing some casual surfing to see what, if anything, I might have to write about on Saturday.
Surfing over to TSN, I was checking out Bob McKenzie's column when I was startled by the following:
(T)he most interesting news coming out of the GMs' meeting in Detroit on Friday is that it is highly likely the number of playoff teams is going to grow from 16 to 20.
The GMs seem to generally like the idea put forward by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday. The NHL governors, who actually call the shot, absolutely love it, so you can be reasonably sure 20 of the NHL's 30 franchises will see some playoff action when the Stanley Cup is next contested.
The potential new format is being dubbed as a "play in" to the playoffs. The top 10 teams in each conference would make the playoffs. There would be a preliminary "play-in" round in each conference, seeing the 7th seed play the 10th and the 8th play the 9th in a best of three series. The two winners would then join the top six seeds in the "traditional" eight-team conference playoff.
Oh, sweet sufferin' Jeebus!
Just when I think the NHL hierarchy can't possibly get any more stupid, they turn around and dream up another nightmare.
Oh, but Spector, what's the problem with adding four more teams to the playoffs? After all, it'll create more excitement for the NHL, and allowing more teams into the postseason will stimulate interest.
The problem is that it makes a farce out of the NHL playoff system.
Of course, I'm not surprised that the BoG loved the idea of adding more teams into the postseason. That means more playoff revenues, especially for those struggling clubs who would normally miss the post-season.
And what a shock! It was Gary Bettman's idea! Yes, Gary, splendid idea, let's make the playoffs longer and make it easier for teams to get in! Yes, by golly, allowing two-thirds of the teams to play their guts out for 82 games to make the playoffs is a spiffing thought! Action that yesterday!
The season is already far too long, but at least it seemed somewhat worthwhile knowing that roughly half of the teams would be eliminated by the end of it. I'd prefer to see only the 8 best clubs in the league to make the playoffs, but it's all about playoff revenue, and since the teams don't pay their players once the post-season begins, that goes straight into the owners' pockets.
And this is obviously what Bettman's wonderful plan is about. It isn't about generating interest in the league or creating excitement. It's about putting more money into the coffers of the owners of those lucky 20 teams who make the playoffs.
So what's the damn point in playing 82 games if two-thirds of the clubs make the playoffs?
Now I know that still doesn't mean it's easy to make the playoffs under that notion. Ten clubs will still be on the outside looking in, but let's face it, those teams will be those struggling to rebuild with young talent or aging rosters overdue for an overhaul. The very dregs of the league.
Maybe it's the beer, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist so it must be the beer, but I can't help but wonder if this rule wasn't brought about to give a certain big market team a leg-up into the post season.
Whether you love them, hate them or like me could really care less, the New York Rangers are an important franchise to the NHL. It would certainly help the league's visibility if the Rangers are playing well, or at least, are a playoff team.
Given the mess the Dolans and Glen Sather have made of that franchise over the past five years (and Neil Smith before Sather), maybe this is the league's surreptitious way of boosting the struggling Blueshirts into the post-season?
Easy there, Spec. There is no place for dark thoughts on a Friday night. All this'll do is piss off your Rangers friends, like Dubi and Ro and Hockeybird, and they've done nothing to you to deserve this.
OK, so suggesting this is Bettman's way of boosting his most important franchise is going pretty far, but you don't have to conspiracy lurking behind every corner to believe this is a way of boosting revenues of team owners.
One of the few good things about the NHL product in recent years was the final month of the season, called the "stretch run" by hockey commentators stealing a baseball reference.
The stretch was like watching a version of the playoffs, as the final two or three playoff berths in each conference would be up for grabs.
Those clubs struggling to hang onto those berths and those hoping to steal one of them would fight like mad dogs in the season's final weeks, beating themselves to snot just for the honour of clinching one of the few first-roundplayoffs berths and getting steamrolled by one of the better clubs in the conference.
Of course, there was always the possibility of one of those clubs donning Cinderella slippers, upsetting the favoured seeds and rolling to the Conference finals, or dare to dream, the Stanley Cup Finals. Where they'd inevitably be defeated by a superior team (hello there, Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, and Carolina Hurricanes).
Under Bettman's plan, there won't be as many clubs having to fight like hell to make the playoffs, and that's going to take some of the excitement out of the final month of the season.
But that's not even half the problem.
After playing a long 82-game schedule, now we're about to see the playoffs lengthened. Man, it's bad enough that the NHL playoffs already run into mid-June, now Bettman and the BoG are seriously considering stretching it toward the Canada Day long weekend.
Guys, I love hockey as much as the next fan, probably more than most because of my daily devotion to it both here and with my column on Foxsports.
But when late-June rolls around, I'd rather be outside enjoying the warm weather than sitting around watching hockey.
Unless Bettman and company plan on chopping half a dozen games from the schedule, this is a bad idea.
And don't think for a minute that it'll remain a "best-of-three" format for long. Under that format, there isn't as much post-season revenue to be made for the owners of those franchises, particularly the losing one, who would see one or two home games.
No, that format would be "expanded" to a best-of-five, and then eventually another best of seven, in order for playoff teams to draw more revenue. After all, that's what changed the formats of the playoff system of the 1980s.
It's news like this that only further confirms to me that those who run the NHL really don't have a clue. No wonder the product has deteriorated over the past decade.
By the looks of things, it ain't lookin' good for any serious improvement.
- Regular contributor "Go Sharks!" says, "Poets often poignently make the message" in sending in the following hockey poem by Richard Harrison.
- Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reports there are many minor league players waiting to see how the NHL lockout situation before deciding if they'll move to Europe to play next season.
Garrioch cites Peter Lee, GM of the German Elite League's Berlin Eisbaeren, who said there were up to 800 players waiting to see how this situation plays out.
"They either think they're going to get the chance to play as replacement players or they're going to have a chance to beat out a third- or fourth- line player who hasn't been on the ice all year because they'll be in better shape. What we're trying to do over here is keep the players we've got because it looks like it's going to be tough to sign new players."
Can't say I blame those guys, but of those apparent 800, I'll bet that less than 100 will beat out a third-or-fourth liner for an NHL job. A lot more third-and-fourth liners were playing hockey this past season in Europe and in North American minor leagues. Heck, a quick rundown of the NHL'ers who went to Europe this season shows an overwhelming number of them were "third and fourth liners".
If they're hoping to land jobs as replacements, they'd better realize it's a long shot for those jobs to last an entire season, and a strong possibility they'll be unemployed by December, forced to scramble then to find whatever vacancies they can in Europe and elsewhere.
TSN's Bob McKenzie believes yesterday's meeting to discuss rule changes between the NHL GMs, which included Commissioner Gary Bettman, and several groups of players, plus NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow, may be the first step in clearing the poisoned atmosphere between the two sides created during this labour dispute.
McKenzie also insists the NHL use the simplest method to improving its on-ice product: enforcing the rules.
Of all the things discussed, and there were many, the one thing that will have a greater positive impact on the game than any other is simply to call more penalties, use the existing rule book and empower the officials to do their job.
Now I wonder where I've heard this from before?
McKenzie goes on:
In theory, everyone agrees with the notion...call the penalties, allow the stars to flourish, end the rodeo. But then the games begin, the refs blow their whistles, they call it tight and the entirely necessary parade to the penalty box to condition the players to behave differently is on.
And then it starts.
The players start complaining.
There are 'too many penalties.'
Then the coaches chime in.
Then the general managers speak up.
Then the owners throw in their hats.
Then the media gets in on it.
Don Cherry goes on Hockey Night in Canada and says he didn't come to the rink to watch the referee.
Next thing you know the fans complain: "Let the boys play. This isn't figure skating."
And then there's such a chorus of criticism that the league cracks, tells the referees to back off and that's it, it's officially a lost cause.
A few months later, when the rodeo is back in town, all the same people - the players, coaches, managers, owners, media and fans - who complained about the parade to the penalty box are the ones who are publicly running the game, their game, our game, into the gutter.
In yesterday's column I cited Harry Sinden as the Boston Bruins GM who signed Martin Lapointe in 2001. It was in fact Mike O'Connell, as Sinden had stepped down the year prior as general manager.
The latest leak on what transpired during the latest NHL-NHLPA negotiations comes courtesy of Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who yesterday told Kevin Paul Dupont he's "guardedly optimistic" over what transpired on Monday.
According to Jacobs, the players came out of a three-hour caucus on Monday with "several informal proposals on a hard cap system".
The various salary ranges suggested by the players, said Jacobs, were dollar amounts -- minimum and maximum -- based on the league's projected gross revenues.
Jacobs points out to Dupont that this isn't linkage since the PA isn't interested in any form of that.
Jacobs, noting the informal nature of the players' proposals and the sensitivity of the talks, would not divulge the exact figures bandied about Monday. In all cases, he said, the dollar spread from the low (or floor) figure to the high (or ceiling) figure remained the same. The higher projected gross revenues, the higher the floor and ceiling figures. The lower the gross revenues, the lower the floor and ceiling.
"My sense, overall, was that kind of system could work," said Jacobs. "The trick is getting that high figure in line, making it a much tighter spread between the minimum each team would pay, to the maximum each team would pay. We wanted that spread to be cut in half."
If the players are offering this, however, I suspect they're going to want something else in return, probably to retain a modified form of salary arbitration in place throughout the life of the next CBA, increasing entry-level bonuses and whatever else might come to mind (franchise player exemption, perhaps?).
I'm not the only one thinking this way. Mark Stepneski at Andrew's Dallas Stars page reached the same conclusion.
If we go by Jacobs' statements, as well as the PA's willingness to accept a de-linked hard cap last February, the players may be making a significant concession, provided the owners do the same.
So that puts the ball back into the court of Gary Bettman and his crew of eight hard-line owners, Jacobs among them.
If Jacobs is seeing progress, it might - MIGHT - be a positive sign. But they'll have to be willing to give a little, too.
...former GM and current team president Harry Sinden sounded off today to the Boston Globe about his fears for the NHL:
"I'll tell you something," Sinden said. "In the past few days, it's become almost a reality that there are some forces at work that could destroy this league. Now I might be overstating it a little bit, but after all these years of trying to build this game, it's pretty difficult to watch it devastated over one season. It's very depressing."
Yes, it is depressing, and yes, what's transpired over the past year could be devastating. Both sides deserve blame for that.
Sinden was particularly discouraged by the fact the Players Association met in Pebble Beach, Calif., recently and emerged without any resolutions.
"The fact they met at a place like Pebble Beach kind of says it all, doesn't it?" Sinden said with a chuckle. "But nothing comes out of it. Not a damn word. Every time something like that happens, someone will say to me, `Oh, it will be resolved soon.' But it makes me think they don't want to resolve this. Of course, I imagine they think the same thing about us."
Gee, Harry, ya think? It's not like your side has given the players much incentive, even though they've been the ones doing most of the giving throughout these negotiations. And again with the Pebble Beach thing. Would it have mattered if they'd reached the same conclusion after meeting in Toronto? Or Hoboken? Or Chattanooga?
Hell, the owners and GMs regularly meet every winter at The Breakers in Palm Beach, yet nobody has a problem with that, especially when so little came out of those meetings to actually improve the NHL product or its labour situation over the past ten years.
At least Sinden, a hardline traditionalist, is willing to test out some of the new proposed rule changes:
"It's a bit avant garde," Sinden said. "I don't know if it will pass. There are so many traditionalists in the game. But I'm going for it, and I'm as traditional as anyone."
I wonder, though, if seeing these traditionalists like Sinden siding for change is based on a real desire to improve the product, or because of pressure from NBC and ESPN, Gary Bettman is rallying the troops to the cause?
The NHL became the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire season. It seems inconceivable it would go two seasons without playing. The pressure is mounting, from within and elsewhere. ESPN boss Mark Shapiro recently noted some of his replacement programming had outrated hockey, and that it was a dangerous trend for the NHL. He also called for less talk and more action on rules changes. Naturally, Shapiro's comments did not sit well with the league.
"I don't blame the networks for not being happy," Sinden said. "When you're down you might expect to get kicked in the head, but not between the legs."
And Harry's comments doesn't really jibe with Jacobs comments a few months back over, where the latter suggested it was the players fault for the deterioration of the game.
Sinden also stokes the myth of the Bruins as one of the few teams swimming against the tide in terms of paying out large salaries:
"We've fought as hard as we could for eight or nine years against the system, but Mike felt for us to keep competitive we had to pay out more money than we brought in," Sinden said. "So we swallowed hard and did it."
Just like you swallowed hard when you set the precedent by exploiting a loophole in the entry level cap to sign Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, eh Harry? Here's what you told your fellow GMs when you signed Thornton, courtesy of "Money Players":
"I told them,'From now on, I don't care what happens to you because of this contract. I let all kinds of players go over the years because I wouldn't pay them. I tried to do the party line, hold salaries. but you signed your players at whatever.' Now they can tar and feather me. I got the best player since (Eric) Lindros, and he's come along real well. He has sold seats. Everyone is excited. We weren't going to sign him for nothing. We could not risk him going back into the draft."
Nor was he apologetic when he told Gary Bettman:
"He was disappointed when I told him. But he doesn't run a team."
So two wrongs make a right, Harry? And that last comment certainly speaks volumes about where "the commish" sits in terms of importance and influence amongst the owners, doesn't it?
Yes, he's great as their point man in labour negotiations, and he's done a fine job bringing endorsements to the NHL, but when it comes to how the owners run their respective teams, he's almost powerless to stop them from doing self-destructive things like driving up salaries.
And how about when Sinden signed career third liner Martin Lapointe to a stupidly high contract worth $20 million over four years, rumoured to be based on a feud between Jacobs and Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Illich? He certainly didn't swallow hard then.
If Sinden has "held the hard line" throughout the previous CBA, I could respect that. But history proves otherwise. Whenever it was suitable for the Bruins (Thornton and Samsonov) or to possibly flip the bird to a rival owner (Lapointe), the Bruins were more than happy to ignore their "hard line" rule.
''The Players' Association began today's meeting by rejecting the two proposals made by the NHL on March 17. Thereafter, we discussed the status of our current situation and, in general terms, possible concepts for moving the process forward. The meeting concluded with both sides agreeing to explore these concepts further internally, and to talk again later this week.'' - NHL Public Relations press release. April 4th, 2005.
It's been over 24 hours since the two sides wrapped up their latest round of talks, and while there's been some speculation in the blogosphere, very little has emerged in the media as to what those "concepts" may be.
Sportsnet.ca continues to hype the "optimism" coming out of these talks, citing the trademark "source close to the negotiation" that there was good dialogue and progress seemed to be made.
No offence to Sportsnet or any other media outlet, but I've grown jaded about any press report citing anonymous sources proclaiming good news.
Remember what happened with the Hockey News and ESPN this past February? Two days after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman shut down the 2004-05 season, both outlets breathlessly proclaimed that, not only were potential season-saving talks scheduled for February 19th, but that an "agreement in principle" had been reached between the two sides.
Both sources wound up not just with egg on their respective faces but wearing the frying pan they were cooked in.
OK, so Sportsnet's not proclaiming that a deal is coming, but it's best throughout this mess to err on the side of caution, as I sagely observed in a recent Foxsports article (yes, it's shameless self-promotion, but hey! It's my website and I can do whatever I want!).
A source for this "optimism" is the fact Boston Bruins owner and notorious NHL hardliner Jeremy Jacobs, who attended Monday's talks as part of the league's negotiating executive, stayed through the entire meeting rather than storming out in a huff whilst screeching to anyone within spittle range over how much he hates Bob Goodenow, the players and their agents.
Are we sure Jacobs just didn't nod off or something?
OK, ok, if Jacobs hung around through the entire thing, then that might be a positive sign. Either that, or Bettman for the first time is reining in his hardliners to at least listen to what the players are proposing. After all, gotta make it look good if this goes toward the NLRB, you know, to give that impression of bargaining in good faith.
Ooooh, Spector, you're so jaded today.
Yes, I am. Deal with it. I didn't sleep well last night, and at my age it tends to make me a cranky middle-aged geezer. And you kids quit playing in my yard or I'll call the cops. I know your dad....
Stan Fischler, who feels pearls of wisdom drip from the honey lips of Gary Bettman and believes Bob Goodenow is evil incarnate, is still touting Kevin Paul Dupont's apparently discredited rumoured offer from the NHLPA...the one the PA never made on Monday, but which they might, you know, maybe kinda sorta discussed anyway.
Maybe Dupont will still be vindicated, but we've seen very little coming from the usual media sycophants on both sides in actual leaked information. Perhaps the league and the association have decided to keep things hush-hush in a real attempt at negotiating this time around.
Meanwhile, Tom Benjamin makes a convincing argument that the league is still trying to link salaries to revenues.
So what's my opinion on these "concepts"? Quite frankly, I dunno what to make of this, although I am on record both here and on Foxsports suggesting the PA might come at the league with something we haven't seen yet that might give the owners something to mull over.
Perhaps what may be more in play here is the fact that both sides are staring into the abyss, and the abyss is staring into them. As Bob McKenzie noted:
There's no question, however, that both sides realize that the time for a negotiated settlement is now. If they don't get closer in the next week or two, then the owners will have to decide once and for all at their April 20th meeting if they are going to go the replacement player route, or the black hole route - which would be a repeat of this non-season.
The owners know that neither one of those options is something they want to do.
In other words, whoever "wins" this labour war will also lose.
So for now, we'll have to wait and see what the coming days will bring. Normally I'd speculate, but as I noted earlier, I didn't sleep well the other night so I'm not really up for it today. That and the fact that we've all been burned so many times in this lockout by supposed "good news" that I don't believe it worthwhile to theorize until more facts are in.
So much for all those rumours of a new proposal from the NHLPA based around a $39.8 million cap and a franchise player exemption.
In fact, so much for talk of a proposal from the PA at all.
Things got off to an ominous start yesterday when NHLPA Senior Director Ted Saskin shot down those rumours, calling them "fictitious". Tom Benjamin takes Boston Globe reporter Kevin Paul Dupont and TSN's Bob McKenzie to task, Dupont for citing "league sources" that this rumoured proposal was coming and McKenzie for blaming the blogs and the players for this rumour being spread.
That was subsequently followed up by the NHL filing another complaint against the NHLPA over internal policies regarding threats of decertifying player agents who choose to represent replacement players.
This complaint was filed apparently an hour prior to the start of yesterday's talks.
For my take on yesterday's talks, check out my latest for Foxsports.com.
LATEST RUMOUR ON NHLPA'S UPCOMING OFFER: From the desk of the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont (skip past the story of former Bruin Derek Sanderson opening a restaurant):
* Salary cap of $42 million (includes $39.8 million in salary and $2.2 million in benefits).
* Salary floor of $34 million.
* Franchise player, with neither salary nor benefits to be included in $42 million cap figure, but club to pay 50 percent tax.
* Unrestricted free agency lowered to age 27 from 31.
* Entry-level salaries to be capped at $1.2 million (including performance bonuses) per season.
* Qualifying offers for restricted free agents lowered to 75 percent (from current position of 110 or 100 percent, based on player's existing salary).
* Five-year limit on all individual contracts (currently no term restrictions).
* Team revenue sharing, of varying percentages, during regular season and playoffs.
We'll find out for certain later on today what the players have in mind. In the meantime, let's break this thing down.
According to Dupont, "If that indeed ends up being the crux of the players' offer, it should be enough to shape the foundation of a CBA. Had it been what the players offered a year ago, it likely would have been ratified in the first bargaining session, somewhere between the salad plate being removed and the main course dropped on the table."
I disagree. First, if the PA had offered a $42 million hard cap, the league would've rejected it as too high last fall because they were seeking a "floating cap" between $31 million to $34 million. The PA, of course, wasn't interested in a hard cap last fall, preferring a luxury tax system.
Second, the league wouldn't have accepted a $34 million cap floor. Third, the league wanted entry level salaries set at $850K with no bonuses, and finally, as we've since discovered during the course of the lockout, the NHL has no real interest in implementing a reasonable revenue sharing system, preferring instead to examine the option of drawing on a pool of playoff revenues.
But it's no longer autumn but early spring, the 2004-05 season has been lost, and the PA has conceded toward a hard cap provided it isn't linked to revenues.
If they offer up $39.8 million, their membership may be undoubtedly upset, but at this point it could also be indicative that a large majority of them want to return to action and are willing to accept a hard cap without linkage.
But if the NHL were to actually reject that offer, it'll have a tough time justifying it. Indeed, that would be seen as proof positive they're not interested in making a deal, but rather seeking to break the power of the NHLPA, that they want the players to make a deal on their knees.
I cannot see the small market clubs agreeing to the "franchise player" clause, but it would certainly be acceptable to most of the big market owners.
The remainder of this rumoured offer would be acceptable to the owners, except for the last one regarding revenue sharing. The big markets will fight that one tooth and nail, attempting to restrict it as much as possible.
WHERE SHOULD CROSBY GO? Larry Brooks of the NY Post speculated yesterday on the possible systems that could be implemented for the 2005 Entry Draft, particularly to determine which team will get the right to select junior sensation Sidney Crosby.
Larry seems to have a beef over the possibility that he could be selected by one of the "small market outpost(s)" like Columbus, Pittsburgh or Edmonton.
What would the league be afraid of, that Crosby wouldn't choose to assign himself to a small-market outpost such as Columbus, Pittsburgh or Edmonton for the first 12 years of his career? Heavens. Wasn't shutting down for a full season, isn't insisting on a restrictive hard cap, aren't these drastic enough measures to satisfy the apparently insatiable appetite of the small markets and their league enablers?
That's the whole point of the way the draft system is done. If you left it up to the top juniors and collegiates where they should play, small market clubs probably wouldn't survive. They'd rarely get a shot at a franchise player around which to build.
If Gilbert Perreault had been given the choice back in 1970, he would've preferred to sign with the Montreal Canadiens, for whose junior team he played for. The Buffalo Sabres never would've had Perreault on their roster to build around and never would've developed into one of the best clubs in the NHL in that decade.
If Denis Potvin had opted to sign somewhere else, like Montreal, the NY Islanders wouldn't have built into a Stanley Cup dynasty.
The Pittsburgh Penguins never would've come within sniffing distance of a Stanley Cup if Mario Lemieux had been allowed to sign wherever he wanted instead of establishing himself in Steeltown.
The Atlanta Thrashers wouldn't have two of the best young players in the NHL to build around if Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley were allowed to sign with a big market team rather than be drafted by an "outpost".
And the Tampa Bay Lightning never would've won the Stanley Cup last year if Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards had signed where they wanted as junior players rather than be drafted by the Bolts.
This might come as a shock to our Mr. Brooks, but Perreault, Potvin, Lemieux, Kovalchuk, Heatley, Lecavalier and Richards all came to love the hockey backwaters into which they'd been plunked by the cruel fate of the draft.
The reality is the NHL has 30 teams, and in order to give the weakest of those clubs a shot at competitiveness and respectability, they must - based on where they place in the standings - be allowed to select the best young talent to build around.
Brooks observes "it appears as if adopting a lottery weighted by aggregate records over the last four seasons is gaining favor among league personnel."
Which is only fair. There's been much ado made about the placings for this year's draft given the absence of a season. I think that's a very sensible way of resolving it.
Brooks, however, believes otherwise:
Well, of course. Why not? Why wouldn't these myopic, small-minded people want to embrace a system that would award Columbus the most desirable spot in the lottery? Why wouldn't the league want to adopt a lottery that would give Columbus first shot, Atlanta second shot, Florida third shot and Pittsburgh fourth shot at this charismatic would-be healer?
Uhhh, Larry? Because it's fair, that's why. Those teams struggled because they're trying to build themselves into competitive clubs. The only real advantage they have is the draft, given their respective small market situations.
Of course. By all means. Devise a system that would all but eliminate the opportunity to place Crosby in a high-profile market. But what else has anyone come to expect from this lowest common denominator of a league, of its Board, of its owners' commissioner?
I can blame the league, its board and its commissioner for many of the problems facing the game. The draft system, however, was not and is not a problem.
Why should Crosby be placed in a high-profile market? Unless a high-profile team did so poorly that they deserved a shot at him, it is blatantly unfair for him to be available only to the highest bidder and thus robbing a struggling small market franchise from the opportunity to draft him and build their future around him.
Big market teams always have first crack at the best players in their prime. They pluck them from small markets who cannot or do not want to afford them via trades or unrestricted free agency. They retain them because they can afford to for as long as they earn the hefty salaries the big market franchises pay them.
If Brooks had his way, the best prospects would only go to big market franchises, including his beloved NY Rangers. Witness:
If the NHL were to weight the lottery on consecutive playoff misses, let's see . . . why, the Rangers would actually get the top spot by virtue of their seven straight failures to qualify for the postseason tournament. Lo and behold! Who could have guessed? Yes, the Rangers who have every bit as much right to Crosby as the recent expansion Blue Jackets, or anyone else.
And if the Rangers had done so poorly in the standings in recent years as the Blue Jackets, they would have every right to draft Crosby first overall. Indeed, given their low placements over the past three seasons (among the ten worst clubs each season), the Rangers were part of the draft lottery, which if they'd been lucky enough to be selected would've given them the rights to the first overall pick in each of those seasons.
Alas, they didn't do poorly enough, and with the lottery weighted toward the poorest-placing teams, they didn't get to select that high, unless of course they traded for one of the top five picks, as they did in 1999.
Under this system, the Rangers would be first. Atlanta, with five straight misses, would be placed second. Columbus and Florida, each with four straight misses, would flip a coin for third and fourth. Then Pittsburgh and Buffalo, each out three straight years, would flip for fifth and sixth.
So because the Thrashers (1999) and Blue Jackets (2000) haven't been in the league as long, they get punished while the Rangers get the advantage? Sorry, Larry, that dog won't hunt!
Especially when the best interests of the Rangers just happen to coincide with the best interests of the league. Even if the folks on Sixth Avenue don't know it.
There's no question the NHL would be well served by a strong franchise in New York. That being said, the Rangers don't get that because of divine right. They must build their franchise, just as the "outpost" of Tampa Bay built into a champion. Perhaps if Lou Lamoriello had been GM of the Rangers since 1987, rather than of the New Jersey Devils, the Blueshirts would've been the ones with the three Stanley Cups and four Cup Finals appearances under their belts since 1995.
The Rangers have the advantage of location, money and supposedly one of the best hockey minds in Glen Sather as their general manager. They have no excuses for the lacklustre performance over the past several years.
The complete and utter failure of this franchise to build and maintain itself into a Stanley Cup contender - heck, into a marginal playoff contender - is the fault of its owners and its management. Changing the draft rules as a means of helping it out of its front office imcompetence is not only unfair, it's ridiculous.
Oh, and here's a thought: what if Crosby doesn't wanna go to New York? What if he wants to stay in Canada and play for the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens?
And who says he doesn't wanna play for a "small market outpost"?
What if he wants to play in Atlanta alongside Kovalchuk and Heatley? What if he wants to play in Florida with Roberto Luongo, Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton?
What if he wants to play in Columbus with Rick Nash? What if he wants to go to Pittsburgh for the opportunity to play with Mario Lemieux and Evgeny Malkin? Or Washington with Alexander Ovechkin?
Or Tampa Bay, for a chance at playing alongside Lecavalier, Richards and Martin St. Louis. For a chance to play for a winner. You know, like the Rangers used to be?
See, Larry, it's a slippery slope when you start suggesting the top prospects should be willing to go wherever they want, or to the big market franchises, rather than to be drafted to the "outposts".
It's pointless to suggest the NHL should change the draft rules so the Rangers or another big market club gets first dibs at the best young prospects.
Perhaps the main reason why fans of small market teams have been supporting the NHL and the owners in this lockout with the players is their belief a hard cap system or the cost certainty as proposed by the NHL will benefit those teams.
Under the previous CBA, fans of small market franchises had to watch with mounting frustration what became a seemingly annual parade of their respective clubs' best players leaving town via trades or free agency for big market teams because their salary demands had grown too expensive for small market teams to absorb.
The NHL insists they need to bring player salaries under control so that all 30 clubs, including the small markets, would be competitive and healthy.
Unfortunately, the NHL is engaged in what I believe is a shell game with the fans of small market teams, and the reason why is because of the league's unwillingness to implement a reasonable revenue sharing program.
A hard salary cap, or tying players salaries to a certain percentage of league revenues, will not by itself allow the small markets to become competitive.
If a hard cap is implemented, regardless of the amount (although it certainly won't be below $30 million US), it will not make a small market team's best players more affordable to retain.
For example, take a look at the 2000-01 season, when the average payroll was $33.3 million US. The top 25 salaries that season ran from $10 million for Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg to $5.267 million for Rob Blake.
Now one must realize that there was no cap on salaries that season, thus the big market clubs were spending between $40 million and $55 million, making it easier for them to afford to pony out that kind of money to the top players.
Thus, it would seemingly make sense that, if salaries were capped at, say, $37.5 million as sought by the NHL in their latest offer to the NHLPA, that will prevent the salaries of the top 25 players from hitting those lofty heights of 2001, let alone of 2003-04.
Now, let's turn the clock back to 1998-99, during the midway point of which was when Gary Bettman first raised concerns about the rise in player salaries.
That season, the averge salary was $29.8 million, yet the salaries of the highest paid 25 players ran between $4 million and $8.5 million per season.
That season, only four teams - the Detroit Red Wings, NY Rangers, Dallas Stars and Philadelphia Flyers, had payrolls over $37.5 million. Only 8 of the 25 highest paid players played for those teams.
That punches holes in the argument that capping salaries below $40 million will significantly reduce the salaries of the highest paid players, or of the best players.
Yes, those salaries will come down, but they won't be reduced to the point where small market clubs can comfortably afford them.
Ah, but if payrolls are capped at $37.5 million, small markets will be able to afford to spend that much on salaries rather than at a cap set at $42.5 million, right?
Look at the payrolls of the small markets for 2003-04. Teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vancouver Canucks and the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning were all over $30 million, averaging around $35 million.
Yet the owners and general managers of most of those teams have been complaining they can barely make do with payrolls within that range, that it's taxing them to the limit, that some of them are losing money and afraid of folding or relocating if salaries aren't brought under control.
If they're having a tough go of it with payrolls around $35 million, what makes anyone think they'll be willing to spend up to $37.5 million on a cap ceiling? Or $35 million. Or $32 million?
The answer, quite simply, is they either can't or won't, depending on their situation.
Now look at teams like the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Pittsburgh Penguins, who spent under $30 million - well under - on payroll last season.
What makes anyone believe those teams will willingly spend up to a set ceiling to keep their rosters together or to retain their best players?
Bottom line, folks: without an improved system of revenue sharing, which would allow these teams to spend the money to maintain their rosters, and thus increase their chances of building and maintaining a competitive team, which in turn would ensure improvement at the turnstiles, nothing is going to change from the way things were done under the last CBA.
So why are small market clubs buying into this? Why are they toeing the party line here when it's obvious that this system won't help them?
Who knows? Best guess, some of these owners honestly believe they'll make more money and increase their franchise values under a hard cap without revenue sharing.
Of course, they're failing to take into account that the big markets will emerge the big winners out of this. They won't have to spend huge to build and maintain their rosters, which means they'll make more profit, which was previously going to salaries.
That's if, of course, they play by the rules and stick within the cap.
Only the most naive of fans believe that, of which, sadly, it appears there are many.
The big markets will find some legal loophole in the cap allowing them to spend what they want whilst still giving the appearance of staying under the cap. Expect lots of prorated bonuses and incentives in the salaries of the top players they sign in the future.
That's why the big market clubs have bought into Bettman's cost certainty/hard salary cap demands. They'll make the most money without having to give up a significant portion to help out the struggling small markets.
Now I know some critics will argue with me and say that if a small market club becomes more successful, that'll bring in more revenue which in turn will mean more money to spend on salaries.
I can see a handful of small market clubs actually doing this, but I foresee most opting to pocket the extra for themselves and simply "make-do" with their budgeted salary levels.
The owners want to make money, and if some small market owners can make more money whilst sticking to a payroll well under the cap limit, they'll do it rather that invest the difference into building a winner.
In other words, many of the small market owners will be content to ice teams that can make the playoffs, but lack the depth to actually challenge for a Stanley Cup. They'll be what are derisively referred to as "one round and out" clubs.
The best players will always get the best salaries, regardless of whether that range is between $5.5 to $11 million or $4 million to $8 million per season.
The fringe players, well, they're the easiest to retain because even under the old CBA they weren't going to make more than the range of $325K - $800K.
It's the rank and file players, the large group in the middle of that pack, who are going to take the biggest cuts. Their salaries will become more affordable, but it won't mean much when small market franchises continue to lose their best players because they can't or won't pay for the raises they're seeking.
A good example of what I mean is Florida Panthers netminder Roberto Luongo, who at 25 last season emerged as one of the top netminders in the NHL.
Playing on a young, rebuilding Panthers squad, Luongo almost single-handedly carried this team, keeping them in games they would've been blown out of if not for his incredible goaltending.
Playing in 72 games, Luongo saw the most shots of any goaltender in 2003-04, a mind-boggling 2, 475, over 500 more than Marc Denis of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Yet he was third in save percentage with .931, a respectable 15th in wins, 27th in GAA with 2.47 (an incredible feat when one considers his shots against totals), and fifth overall in shutouts with 7.
Had he played on a better club, Luongo's wins and GAA totals would've been much better. As it stood, he should've won the Vezina last season, but finished third behind winner Martin Brodeur and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff.
His performance was so strong that he made Team Canada's roster for both the World Hockey Championships, where he backstopped them to a Gold Medal, and the World Cup of Hockey, where he backed up Martin Brodeur. During a critical game against the Czech Republic, Luongo filled in for an injured Brodeur, stopping 37 of 40 shots as Canada edged the Czechs in OT 4-3.
It's obvious Luongo is the Panthers franchise goaltender. Had the 2004-05 season gone off, he would've been paid $2.4 million US, a very affordable price for a goaltender of such talent, one whose best NHL seasons remain ahead of him.
That total also made Luongo the highest paid player on the Panthers roster.
Now, should he continue playing at that level whenever he and his fellow NHLPA members return to action under the NHL banner, it's a safe bet that at some point, he's not going to be satisfied with $2.4 million per season.
Now I know, fans will accuse him of greed, but set that argument aside and understand that this is the business of pro sports.
Luongo is going to seek being paid among the highest paid netminders in the game. Currently that sits over $6 million, but let's assume that the average for the highest paid goaltenders is a more affordable $5 million US per season.
That means Luongo will seek to double his salary. His agent will make many arguments on his behalf: Vezina contender (or even winner), franchise goaltender, principal reason for club making playoffs, strong playoff performance, international success, etc.
The Panthers last season paid over $26 million in payroll. Let's assume that, if the NHL gets its hard cap of $37.5 million, that the Panthers actually boost payroll to $30 million, assuming that salaries become more "affordable", especially for rank-and-file players.
Now, here's Luongo, seeking a significant pay raise to a salary comparable to the best goalies in the game.
Do the Panthers increase his salary by $2.5 million? It seems an easy jump, doesn't it. Seems affordable.
The problem, of course, is that the Panthers will be hard pressed to pay that increase. Even though we hockey fans have grown used to seeing raises like that for players, under the new CBA, small market clubs will continue to struggle with making major pay raises to their best players as they were under the previous CBA.
An assumption? Yes, but an easy one to make because of the realities facing the Panthers.
There's a good reason why they only paid out $26 million in salary last year.
They're still paying off the massive debts incurred by previous ownership. They'll also be trying to make up for their losses from missing the 2004-05 season. There've been media reports that they could be in trouble with their banks regarding their arena lease and other fallout from this lost season. And like most teams in non-traditional NHL markets, they're going to find their season-ticket base will likely drop as a result of the lockout.
Because of these problems (which are the only ones known for certain at this point), I can guarantee this, the Florida Panthers will not spend up to the cap limit, especially if it's at $37.5 million.
So they're going to face a potential problem whenever Luongo is seeking a new contract. Do they spend the big bucks to keep him, but sacrifice elsewhere on the roster to do so, thus harming their depth? Or do they trade him to a big market club more than willing to pay him what he's seeking, and accept the return of young players and prospects and hope the added depth will keep them reasonably competitive in the short term?
Because they won't be getting much money from the NHL's proposed revenue sharing plan, they won't be able to sink the money into their roster to keep their best players onboard.
And Luongo won't be the only player they'll have to face re-signing in the future. Team captain Olli Jokinen, their best offensive player, was unsigned prior to the lockout, having made $2 million US.
Given his strong play over the last two NHL seasons, he's going to seek a raise, probably in the neighbourhood of $3.25 million. Do they pay him the raise? Do they cut him loose? Do they attempt to wait him out if he stages a holdout?
They cannot afford to let Luongo hold out as he gives them their best chance to win, but can they afford to let their leader and top scorer sit out?
If there was a reasonable form of revenue sharing, the Panthers wouldn't face that problem. They could easily afford to spend up to a $37.5 million cap level, retain their best players, and even bid competitively for top-tier UFA players to provide their young roster with much needed leadership and experience, even if big market clubs were to find loopholes to exploit the cap.
But that isn't going to happen if the NHL implements the system it wants.
The Panthers, and most of their small market peers, aren't going to have realistic chances to compete for a Stanley Cup every season. As under the previous CBA, they're going to struggle to keep their rosters intact, which will become even tougher as the teams improve and promising youngsters blossom into stars.
That is the reality awaiting those teams under cost certainty or a hard salary cap without revenue sharing.
Since the announcement by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that the 2004-05 season was cancelled because of the ongoing labour dispute between the league and the NHLPA, coverage of the lockout has been slowly but surely fading in the media.
Each day, I scour the media sources in all thirty NHL cities. Up until September 15th, 2004, it was to seek out trade and free agent rumours. Since then, it's been to get whatever information I could on the lockout and to determine what effect it was having in those respective cities.
In the first months of the lockout, coverage was for the most part on a consistent daily basis.
The Canadian media, of course, had daily coverage from its usual hockey reporters.
The major US hockey cities, like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, also went with daily coverage. Even the "non-traditional" market like Nashville, Atlanta and Raleigh, could be counted on for consistent coverage several times a week.
Since the cancellation of the season, however, coverage has been falling off noticeably. In the non-hockey markets, for example, some on-line media sources haven't updated their hockey coverage in weeks.
One example is the Raleigh News and Observer, who prior to the cancellation could be counted upon for a daily "lockout diary", haven't made mention of the NHL labour dispute in their online coverage in weeks.
If hockey were such an important pro sport in the Raleigh area, one would think the N&O would have more regular coverage for Hurricanes fans.
But it's not just the non-traditional US hockey markets where coverage is waning. The online papers in Detroit, New York and Boston have limited amount of NHL lockout news, usually averaging one or two reports per week from their hockey columnists.
Even in hockey-mad Canada, coverage has been waning. It's possible now to go an entire day and not read something from the Canadian online media regarding the NHL.
Indeed, coverage has shifted of late from the labour talks to potential rule changes whenever the NHL returns to action.
It's understandable why this is happening. There's been little to really write about since the season cancellation. The league made a new offer containing two rehashed proposals with lowered amounts, the PA took its time to respond and it's expected when the two sides meet on Monday that the players will offer little more than their own rehashed proposals.
The only really noteworthy lockout news was the league's filing a complaint against the PA with the US National Labor Relations Board regarding the PA's internal policies regarding lockout stipends for its players.
Until April 20th, when the NHL Board of Governors is set to meet, the media is left to speculate over the possibility of the NHL declaring an impasse and hiring replacement players.
Since February this has been a sort of "dead zone" in lockout coverage, even though both sides have met twice and have another meeting prepared on Monday.
There was a worse period than this earlier in the lockout, from the announcement of the lockout last September through to early December, there were no proposals but plenty of mudslinging on both sides.
But it was early in the lockout and the anger amongst fans and media toward both sides provided plenty of fuel for columnists and talking heads, which kept interest in the course of the lockout at a high level.
Moreover, there was still a sense last fall that by January, real negotiations would happen and the season could be saved, just as in 1994-95 during the last lockout.
But now, with obviously no hope of seeing NHL hockey again until next fall, and with things up in the air as to what form that could take (replacements or not?), and no real progress made in this standoff between the two sides, there really isn't much for the media to write about.
The anger and bitterness toward both sides is still there, but has now gone from white hot to a slow burn, as fans and some in the media have grown weary of the situation and decided to move on and await whatever happens in the fall.
It's been pointless for pundits to engage in fingerpointing, having made their points last fall. There's been no point in rehashing where blame lies. Everyone has grown tired of the arguments as the lockout continues to grind on. Emotions are spent.
This, however, sets up a potentially dangerous situation for the NHL.
If the league is disappearing off the sports pages, it could be fading in the mind of pro sports fans.
Yes, the hard core fans will return, but one has to believe those numbers will be less than they were a year ago. How much those numbers will be down remains to be seen, but it's something that shouldn't be ignored.
And yes, in the traditional hockey markets, coverage of the league will return to its usual level when the league returns.
But for casual fans whom the league hoped to attract, that coverage may not matter. Out of sight, out of mind, even if you're a sports fan living in a big sports marketplace.
If the NHL returns after being away for a year, or returns with a crappy version built around replacements, what's the incentive for casual fans to check it out when all they remember is it shut itself down in a labour dispute?
In the non-traditional markets, however, it could be much worse. Those markets struggled to build and maintain their respective fanbases. Having lost an entire season, the big fear, and it's out there, trust me, is that those teams may never fully recover their fanbases whenever the NHL returns to action.
Again, out of sight, out of mind, and with other distractions of more interest in many of those non-traditional markets (NASCAR, football, basketball, baseball, etc), those teams will face a herculian task in getting those fans back.
With little or no media coverage as the lockout continues, even toward the supposed rule changes that the league is betting on will increase scoring and excitement in their product to bringing back the fans and attracting new ones, it's going to be a tough row to hoe.
If a deal could be reached before the summer between the NHL and its players, that would go a long way toward rebuilding fan interest. Teams could market themselves accordingly, and the off-season could go off as per normal, with even more heightened interest as teams restock their rosters via trades and free agency.
But if it's to return with replacements, particularly no-names from the minors, with no recognizable marquee names to entice casual or new fans, the coverage the league receives from the press isn't likely to be of the kind that can rebuild its fan base.
It remains to be seen just how much coverage the NHL gets in those markets whenever it returns to action. Usually the NHL rarely got front page coverage in those markets. It's possible it could see even less when it returns to action.
Out of sight, out of mind. When the media stops caring, so do its readers. When the sports media stops caring, so too will sports fans.
-It's no April Fool's joke. The lockout is still on, impasse appears a possibility, as do replacement players. Have a nice day.
Short 'n sweet today, folks, as I'm mentally drained from my day job this week, so I'm just gonna comment on a few points and look to tomorrow when I'm feeling more rested.
- Tom Benjamin has an interesting take on how the NHL could go about hiring replacements without declaring an impasse. I had wondered about this earlier and privately mused that the scenario could be the way Tom suggested. Alas, time and fatigue limited my chances to fully research it myself. That's why the growing number of Hockey Blogs are so important! If one of us fails to catch something, another will come through with the save.
- If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times and will say it a thousand times more: Shrink the goalie equipment and crack down, once and for all, on uncalled obstruction masquerading as defensive hockey, and watch how much the game improves.
I'm not suggesting, by the way, that today's goalies lack the ability, talent and conditioning to play their position well. I'm just saying that the goalie legends of the past, who weren't as great with those attributes as today's netminders, shouldn't need overinflated equipment to get the job done.
If you're that good, boys, then prove it. Don't whine about reducing equipment, just go out and stop the pucks, since after all, you're all supposed to be much better now than the goalies of the past.
- But hey, don't take my word for it, read what Scotty Bowman had to say, courtesy of Mark Stepneski at Andrew's Dallas Stars Page.
Is anyone about to doubt the great Mr. Bowman and his forty years of experience? If so, you'd better make it good, 'cause Scotty is one of the best hockey minds around.
- Dubi Silverstein over at Blueshirt Bulletin also chimes on the rude shock the NHL is in store for when its silly proposals to change the game blows up in their collective faces. And yes, it WILL blow up in their faces. It's like trying to treat a sucking chest wound with a band-aid.
Probably the real reason why the NHL won't crack down on obstruction is the fact that there are too many teams with too many players with too little talent to match up with the better clubs kicking around, so in order to level the playing surface, the league opted to look the other way on obstruction calls in order to bring about some "parity" .
Unfortunately, it's brought "parody" to the league, as in the parody of watching the dog's dinner of the past ten years passed off as "great" hockey.
- Heard a rumour that the NHLPA will offer up a $39.5 million cap proposal before benefits to the NHL.
Anything's possible, but I don't see it, unless Goodenow is about to take a big gamble by calling the league's bluff, hoping the league won't come up the $2 million.
- James Mirtle has a link to a great piece on Vincent Lecavalier's adventures in Russia. Definitely worth a read.
- I have no problem with shootouts, but while they'll settle tie games and inject some much-needed excitement into the game, we'll still have to sit through three hours of plodding trap hockey and four-on-four fiasco overtime to get to it.
Improve the four periods that precede the shootout and the NHL will have something. Then the shootouts will be the cherry on top of a delicious ice cream sundae.
Otherwise, it's garnish for a turd sandwich.
- Seems the NHL has decided to wait until next Wednesday before filing another complaint with the NLRB against the NHLPA regarding the supposed threatening to decertify agents who negotiate replacement player contract for the NHLPA clients.
That's nice, but considering they've already filed one complaint against the PA regarding repayment of lockout stipends of NHLPA members who become replacement players, I really don't think this makes any bit of difference.
- Hey, didn't I say this would be short and sweet? Amazing how much I can ramble when I'm fatigued. Just hope it makes sense. I usually don't like to say this tired saying, but THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY!
See ya on Saturday, gang.