Thursday, July 28, 2005

Goodenow resigns, Saskin promoted

Many expected this announcement to come sooner or later, but today, Executive Director of the NHLPA Bob Goodenow stepped down from his position, wishing the players "success under the new CBA". (Whether or not he was being snide is an assumption best left to the reader.) In his place, Senior Director Ted Saskin has been promoted.

It has been reported that Saskin was the lead executive pushing for a deal, whereas Goodenow was insisting the players wait longer for more concessions from the league. It would appear this was his major downfall; that is, his inability to gauge the attitude of his constituents and act accordingly. Many have wondered about this negotiation whether Goodenow was representing the players, as is his job description, or the players were working for Goodenow. As more and more evidence comes to light, the latter seems more and more plausible.

In this new era of goodwill and partnership between the league and its players, Goodenow is very much out of place; as an old-school hardliner of the school of thought that the players and the league must always be in opposition, he would be a poor choice to lead the players into the future. Goodenow did a fabulous job in the old paradigm where that was the case, and for his sake it is unfortunate he will be remembered as a conservative hardliner; public perception is always a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately kind of atmosphere, and the defeated- and weary-looking Goodenow at the NHLPA press conference will forever be etched in the minds of hockey fans.

So long, Bob: hopefully the players remember you more fondly than hockey fans will.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Dynasties, Salary Caps, and Budgets: Oh My

It's a matter of some debate, and ususally only settled by personal opinion: what team was the NHL's last dynasty? Was in the '97-'02 Red Wings? The '94-'03 New Jersey Devils? The '91-'93 Penguins? Or was it the Oilers of the 80s? No-one will argue whether or not the Oilers were a dynasty: they were. But were the other teams mentioned?

All of them won at least two Stanley Cups, in a short time frame, with relatively the same roster and play-style. Granted, the Devils' Cup in '95 featured a markedly different roster than their cup winning team of '03, but at least several of the key components -- Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, and Scott Stevens -- remained.

If these teams don't pass the litmus test for dyntasty-hood, one can only assume that the criteria would be several back-to-back cups (in which case the Red Wings would still apply.) Since the expansion era, as talent gradually began to distribute evenly around the league -- and by evenly, I mean relative to the disparity between the 70s Canadiens and the 70s Kings -- it's become harder and harder to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. With the advent of unrestricted free agency and colossal salaries, it's much more difficult to keep a championship team together, and it almost takes an alignment of the stars and planets for it to occur.

But what about in the era of cost certainty? One of the weightier arguments in favor of a salary cap is the parity promoted league-wide: one need only look at the free agent talk this summer, where you hear rumors of Eric Lindros going to Calgary, Scott Niedermayer going to Edmonton, and Markus Naslund going to Florida, to grasp this sudden and drastic climate change. Instead of the usual suspects being players in the free-agent market, they are the ones forced to cut, buy-out, trade, and let go of big-named players. So does this mean it is even more difficult to build a championship dynasty?

The easy answer is yes. Last season's cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are going to be in-tough to keep together their high-powered offensive nucleus of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis and their star netminder, Nikolai Khabibulin. To add insult to injury, this nucleus was built through years spent in the basement of the NHL, and just as its potential was realized, the salary cap hits and possibly forces its deconstruction. (To be totally fair, however, the small-market Lightning would have been in-tough to sign these players merely from a revenue standpoint.)

A counter-example, though, might be the Ottawa Senators. What might have been had a $39-million salary cap been imposed in 2000? It's quite feasible that the Senators would have won at least one championship, and possibly more: they were always the whipping boys of far-larger-budget teams in the playoffs (Toronto and New Jersey). In common with last year's Lightning, too, is the Senators spent almost a decade as the weak sister of the NHL, slowly amassing a staggering degree of talent from high draft positions and excellent scouting.

So perhaps all it takes is a couple of losing years in the basement coupled with brilliant management and drafting?

Well, not so fast.

The stipulation here is that a team spends a long period of time losing. It is entirely possible that turnover will be so quick and so regular that it might be unrealistic to expect a team to be so bad as to have multiple consecutive first-overall (or even top 5) draft picks. With the number of free agents bound to be on the market each and every year, even the worst of teams will have a glut of available talent with which to bolster a sagging roster.

"Ah, but," you say, "teams don't have to sign these guys if they're rebuilding." True, they don't. But when a profit is practically guaranteed with the new economic system, fans will be clamoring for a return to success after a losing season, and will be expecting management to take action. The only way to guarantee losing is to situate yourself at the salary cap limit with an underachieving roster, and this, obviously, is not much of a strategy.

With all that said, it's not impossible. Shrewd management and hawk-vision scouting can produce a young nucleus, and key free agent signings can provide the last pieces of the puzzle. The ultimate reality, though, is that championship teams tend to have to reward success with higher salaries, and the window to produce back-to-back championships is quite small. The Patriots of the NFL have succeeded with stellar coaching, management, and defensive play. Will the NHL find its Patriots? Or will the record books show turnover in the 'Stanley Cup Winner' column to rival that of the free-agent markets?

As always, time will tell.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Steel City Saviour?

TSN is using the Steel City Saviour tagline to refer to Sidney Crosby now, after today's draft lottery awarded the 1st overall selection to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Isn't it perhaps a bit early to be referring to him as a saviour of a franchise for which he hasn't even donned the jersey yet? Expecting greatness out of Crosby at his age is hardly a new thing: he's been touted as the next Gretzky, unfairly, since he was 14 and 15.

But this isn't on-ice success we're talking about. The Penguins financial woes, their shoddy arena, and their city's recalcitrance at committing to a new one are not fresh problems. For all that Mario Lemieux has done for that franchise, they are still flirting with bankruptcy and continue to be plagued with arena problems; one of the three or five greatest players of all time couldn't prevent or cure these ills, but Nova Scotia Sid can?

Don't get me wrong: I would love for him to turn that franchise around. Crosby and Lemieux playing together is the hockey equivalent of a Harlequin Romance. The Penguins are a storied franchise and enjoyed tremendous success in the early 90's with, perhaps, one of the best NHL teams ever assembled. They have a great young core of players, not the least of which includes last year's 2nd overall pick Evgeni Malkin, for Crosby to mature with and build around. However, tying Sidney's success with whether or not he can save the flightless birds is a colossal mistake. Crosby should be judged solely for his on-ice endeavors. It is entirely possible that the Penguins cannot remain viable in that city and need to move to a Houston or a Portland, and there is not a great deal that Sidney Crosby can do about that.

If Mario Lemieux and the star-studded cast that surrounded him in the 90s couldn't fix that sinking ship, how is an 18-year old kid going to?

It seems sad that on the very day when the business side of things can finally be put behind us and we can focus once again on what happens on the ice, business and the game are pinned together yet again on the shoulders of poor Mr. Crosby. (Perhaps his nickname should be Atlas?) Best of luck, Sidney: apparently you have a franchise to save.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

NHLPA Ratifies CBA

It's not terribly surprising, but the NHLPA has voted in favor of ratifying the proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Perhaps what is more surprising is the public dissent among players. Reports have it that Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi confronted several players that have made statements condemning Bob Goodenow and the negotiating tactics of the NHLPA. Both Los Angeles King forward Sean Avery and Detroit Red Wing backup goaltender Manny Legace took very public exception to the Players Association negotiating a CBA which they not only claimed to have opposed for several years, but likely could have had without losing a single game to a lockout. While they have a point, for those on the outside of the negotiations that seemed obvious from the beginning and you have to wonder why it took so long for them to figure it out.

More importantly, at a time when solidarity couldn't be any more vital, not only between the players and owners, but amongst the players themselves, the comments might have been more diplomatically timed. While Tie Domi's ability to bite his tongue has long been in question, he seems to have a legitimate point in this regard.

Meanwhile, Bob Goodenow continues to be slammed by the hockey press, with the latest being The Hockey News. There was a very condemning article in the Sports Business Journal outlining several key moments of the lockout and bringing to light just how stubborn and perhaps erroneously ideological Goodenow had been in negotiations. The NHLPA executive director had long been accused of lacking a backup plan should the owners not capitulate; while it was speculation previously, increasingly that speculation is being confirmed.

One of the areas to watch in the fallout of the CBA finalization is leaks from those involved very closely in the process as the gag order is loosened, and the history of the talks leading up to the CBA being signed becomes public. In one startling article, (ex?)-hardliner executive committee member Bill Guerin is revealed as one of those pushing hardest to finalize a deal.

All that remains now is the NHL Board of Governors meeting tomorrow, at which time the owners will conduct their ratification vote and the draft lottery. Their vote should be near-unanimous as what we know of the CBA is almost exactly what they were looking for all along. At that point, the long-awaited words "game on!" will be heard on television screens and streaming audio feeds across North America and even in those isolated hockey niches around the world. Let's drop the puck!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Ovechkin commits to the NHL

Up-and-coming Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin announced today he was waiving his contract with Russian Super League team Omsk because he would rather play in the NHL.

With two of two potential superstars committing to the NHL -- both Ovechkin and Sidney have chosen North America -- despite much media speculation to the contrary, it seems as though the doom and gloom about young stars bolting to Europe for "more money" is a fabrication. It never took an expert to realize that in the long term they would make far more money by staying in the NHL, yet salary-cap and CBA cynics have been warning all along that the NHL would lose countless up-and-comers because of the apparently inadequate $850,000 rookie cap provision.

The two biggest names (and biggest risks, if these prognostications proved true) have chosen the bright lights and stiffer competition of the NHL despite an initially lower salary. Perhaps there's something to be said for playing in the best hockey league in the world after all?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hockey media and promotion

Terry Frei of the Denver Post (and other outlets) has penned a fantastic article for ESPN.com dealing with growing the game in parts of America where hockey shares as much of the collective sports psyche as celebrity Cricket.

His article, I think, is fantastically poignant given the position the NHL finds itself in currently. It has given itself a unique opportunity for a realignment, a rebirth; it can, with a little luck, start over and let some of its nasty bygones be bygones. It is a pro-sports league on parole, and I think it will prove to not be truant.

The NHL and Gary Bettman have recognized at least some of the flaws that make the game a tough sell. Defensive hockey can be unexciting at times, I'll give it that. But it certainly doesn't help that various media scribes constantly pound it into our skulls that defensive hockey is always boring and nobody wants to watch it. Ever. Have you ever read an article praising a fantastic defensive play or stellar coaching and system play? Defensive hockey can be appreciated, but we're very much trained to hate it.

Perhaps, instead of pining about the 8-5 barnburners of the 1980s, we can discuss the development of the modern goaltender and coaching styles and what they bring to the NHL. It's a little more nuanced than the adrenaline of a shootout, perhaps, but no less remarkable if viewed in the right light.

Why are so few scribes optomistic about the outcome of the lockout? Why are there more griping, negative cynics like Larry Brooks and Al Strachan than there are hopefuls like Terry Frei? Why, instead of embracing this new beginning for the NHL, are many of us -- many of us with loud voices -- griping about this and that term and that the salary cap will destroy 'what little excitement there is left'?

It's no wonder hockey is a hard sell when Joe Sportsfan reads nothing but negatives about the league. How many times is he going to stop on ESPN to watch the Flyers play the Leafs when he's heard countless times how boring and defensive hockey is? Never mind that a Leafs/Flyers tilt is always a good game, he's not going to give it the time of day.

So, to Al, Larry, and the other NHL-hating journalists out there: if you love the game, so will the people who read your work. For many people, it starts with you.

Poking a hole in spending sprees

It has long been speculated that performance bonuses will count towards the reported $39M cap figure. This has essentially been a given else the richer teams would simply sign a Ziggy Palffy or a Peter Forsberg to a $2M/year contract and load on expensive and easy-to-reach bonuses. (You've played 10 games! Here is $5 million dollars.) However, several rumors have emerged today that the cap space must always be available during the year. For example, if the bonus in a player's contract is $1 million for reaching 40 goals, that team can only effectively carry $38M in "salary" for the entire year, whether or not that bonus will be paid out.

However, from all reports, the bonus structure is standardized league-wide and applies to all contracts and is not something negotiated individually between teams and their players. Consequently, there has to be a certain amount of cap space allotted by each team in case any of their players reach these bonuses, whether the player is Jaromir Jagr or Colin White (with no disrespect intended to Mr. White). Speculation has it that roughly $4-6 million dollars per team must be allocated under the cap for these bonuses, meaning team payrolls will be more in the neighborhood of $34 million than $39 million.

The biggest impact this has, if true, is on the supposed spending sprees that certain teams and their fans -- er, that is, their beat writers -- assume they will be engaging upon. Will the endless UFA speculation out of Toronto finally come to an end? One would hope reality will finally catch up but a certain degree of cynicism in this regard is understandable.

A second impact of this development is that the (poor beleaguered) large market teams will have to pare more payroll than many have been speculating to get under the "effective cap" of ~$34 million. That means buying out one more Lang, Nolan, Amonte, or Foote than expected, for those of you keeping track.

And finally: that means less money in total for the players than perhaps some were expecting. It was unrealistic to assume that most teams would spend close to the $39M cap, as it is counter-intuitive (unless you're a salivating fan hoping to add Scott Niedermeyer) for a salary cap to act as a magnet -- else, league-wide spending might always exceed 54% and it would have to be given back through escrow anyway. What does this mean? People expecting Adrian Aucoin to sign for $4M might be surprised when he signs for $2.5M. People expecting Scott Niedermeyer to sign for $6M or $7M might be surprised to see him coming in closer to $5M. Players who may have made between $2-$4M in the previous agreement might be lucky to get $1M in the first years of the agreement while the salaries settle down and pull in line with the new economic reality.

It's not only the hot-air-balloon hopes of large market teams signing big-name UFAs that need have air let out of them, but possibly many of the players' egos and expectations come contract negotiation too.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The first overall pick of the 2005 Entry Draft goes to...

Wouldn't you like to know? It seems everybody does, because at stake is the most anticipated 18-year old to come into the league since Eric Lindros, and before him, Mario Lemieux. I speak, of course, of Mr. Sidney Crosby, the Cole Harbor, N.S. phenom that has the hockey world -- at least the surf-hockey-news-until-2:00 AM hockey world -- breathless in anticipation of the draft lottery which is to be held on Thursday if the CBA is ratified.

Hypothetically, of course, the pick could go anywhere -- that is, unless, you count yourself amongst the conspiracy theorists who believe the draft lottery is rigged, but that nonsense is the subject of another story.

So where should it go? The likeliest candidates are those teams who have three balls -- and I'm speaking lottery-wise, here; speculation on, erm, other possible 'meanings' is not my area of expertise. Those teams are the Rangers, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Columbus.

The New York Rangers seem the destination of choice for the aforementioned conspiracy theorists. Bettman is a New York native, the Big Apple is the largest potential hockey market in North America, and the height of the NHL's popularity was just after the Rangers' cup win in 1994. For those reasons, I would suggest that New York is an ideal destination for Sidney, but there are some downsides, too. First, there is little history to instill hope in the Rangers' development system; instability at the coach position and the potential nightmare of a dressing room full (though slightly less, now) of egos, won't help either.

I wouldn't worry, however, of the pressure of playing in a market such as New York getting to young Crosby; with his already meteoric rise to fame fully underway, he's showed no signs of cracking yet, so for him to do so once donning an NHL jersey would be most out-of-character.

Los Angeles, or its sister teams in Anaheim and San Jose, would be an excellent destination for many of the same reasons the Rangers would be. Los Angeles and Anaheim, in particular, boast an enviable cast of young players that Sidney could grow up around and form an up-and-coming nucleus that would make the team very competitive in the future. San Jose boasts higher-than-average development success as well as a (newly) stable front office and coaching staff, with the added benefit of being competitive in the here-and-now.

Several other teams boasting impressive crops of prospects include Columbus, Florida, Washington, and Chicago. Columbus, an emerging expansion success, could only benefit from adding #87 to the mix. Chicago is long-overdue for something to turn that franchise around and renew the fans' faith and passion; Chicago is one of the largest TV markets to boot. Washington would be one of the more intriguing destinations given the showdown between Crosby and the other wunderkind prospect of the new NHL, Alexander Ovechkin, in this past World Junior tournament. One can almost hear the collective moan of 29 NHL GMs when they think of those two suiting up under the same logo.

As for Florida and the other small-market expansion teams in the US, such as Carolina, Phoenix (though only small in the hockey fanbase sense), and their ilk, you'd have to hope that Sid coming to town might be that last push they'd need to fully embrace the team, despite the cynical among us having long abandoned hope for such a development. While a case can be made that if they don't currently care about hockey, an 18-year old Canadian kid isn't going to change that, people are always eager to latch onto an interesting story and the potential for that still exists.

Most Canadian cities are interesting destinations for a multitude of reasons. The Montreal Canadiens are not only the most storied team in NHL history, they are a relatively large market, and to top it off: they are Crosby's favorite team. If the Habs are the lucky ones to draw the first ball on Thursday, you'd have to smile for the kid (hey, we're trying to sell a story, right?). The Maple Leafs are possibly the second largets market in hockey, behind the Rangers, and are easily the most rabid fanbase; as such, I'm comfortable in saying that they don't need his services. (That the eastern hockey media in Canada would become intolerable has nothing to do with it, I swear.) Crosby would flourish under the offensive-minded coaching of Vancouver's Mark Crawford, and for a fanbase with a notoriously fickle attention, the presence of Crosby could be nothing but positive. While he'd flourish, too, in the small-market Alberta towns of Edmonton and Calgary, as both have successful development systems, managerial stability, and passionate fanbases, for the "good of the game" you'd have to wish he goes to a market that would attract more capital-D Dollars.

Which, of course, brings us to big-market America: the Philadelphias, Dallases, Detroits, and Colorados of the world. The underdog, small-market-pity part of me cries foul at the prospect of the perpetrators of salary-inflation landing a future superstar, as does the part of me who firmly believes that managerial blunders need be punished. However, in light of the pursuit of a healthy league, one would have to agree that Sid the Kid would be a worthy successor to Roenick, Modano, Yzerman, and Sakic, respectively. Additionally, these markets have the financial clout to provide a strong team to support Crosby, which is something Florida et al. lack. (There is the possibility that Sidney becomes one of those NHL stars that works best not leading a team, but being an impressive 1B star presence: Forsberg to Sakic, for example.)

Finally, a note on the Pittsburgh Penguins: it is a romantic thought to see him follow in the footsteps of fellow QMJHL grad and ex-future-superstar Mario Lemieux, but the Penguins are such a mess at present that I think it would be a shame if they drew the first ball Thursday. Should Crosby require any time in the AHL (pending the new CBA excluding the previous agreement between the AHL and CHL which would prevent him playing there until age 20), the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins are, perhaps, the most mismanaged development team affiliated with the NHL. Rumors have been circulating for several years now that nepotism and ineptitude have made that team a chore to play for; which, obviously, is concerning for the Crosby fan club. Furthermore, I have little faith in coach Ed Olczyk and less faith in what Crosby's rather deplorable supporting cast would be on such a team. Add in the poor arena, questionable financial wherewithal, and the constant threats of leaving the city, and Pittsburgh is a three-ring circus sideshow that Crosby would benefit greatly from avoiding at this stage in his career.

As a fan of his, I wish Crosby all the best come Thursday. I believe he has the talent and the dedication to, if his team can develop and support him properly, truly be the herald, usher, and figurehead for the new-look NHL.

A Renewal

As the world turns, as the sand pours through the hourglass, as the days tick down toward ratification of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement: a new-era scribe will pen for you his thoughts and opinions on this rebirth of professional hockey.

For it is a new age; I think for too long the NHL and those who sit upon the various and sundry committees, boards, and panels associated with it in a first- or third- party sense are tied to anachronisms and antiquities. Obviously, as the phrase "think outside the box" has become a victim of itself and is but an ironic cliche, I cannot use it, but it vaguely points towards the promised-land of innovative thinking. And it is, in this writer's opinion, innovative thinking which the NHL has somewhat sorely lacked in the years previous to the new CBA, but has quite publicly wished for dividends from in the milk-and-honey realms of TV syndication and marketing.

Forward thinking, then, though I am intrinsically averse to that kind of management speak, is what I purport to offer my kind and gentle readers: critiques of the league, the players, and the media which cover them with this kind of innovation in mind. I have my traditionalist tendencies and do not consider myself an extremist for overhauling the league and making it unrecognizable to fans of its previous iterations; the trick, obviously, is to balance what exists in the game that makes its fans among the most passionate for any sport with the understanding that, for the NHL to be a successful, modern professional sports league, many drastic changes must be made. This milieu -- free of charge -- is what The New NHL will bring to your virtual doorstep.

Now, a note about me. (As, fans must have some sort of character to latch onto and identify with!) I am a passionate -- occasionally problematically so -- fan of NHL hockey. My team loyalties are to a small-to-mid market team, though I need not bother to say which one -- I'd hate to color my words with the colors of my jersey. Professionally -- irony intended -- I am a student and musician, living in the frozen wastelands (though some would say hockey Eden) of Canada. Politically, I lean somewhat markedly to the left, as all students seem to do; I like beer, chicks, and ethnic food -- though I don't recommend all at once; not only is such a combination messy, I dare not describe the unpleasant situation of sushi in the...nevermind. I am as avid an internet surfer as I am a hiker and as I am a hockey fan, and I am just as passionate about pucks as I am completely disinterested by North America's other major sports. (Base-what? Foot-who? And so on.)

I look forward to your feedback as a reader and fellow hockey fan; comments are always enabled and always encouraged. Thank you for reading and I hope you're as excited about the return of the NHL as I am!