Wednesday, August 10, 2005

National TV deal completed

The NHL and media giant Comcast have reached a two-year, $100-million deal to nationally televise NHL hockey.

This, on the heels of ESPN declining its option to continue their previous agreement, is a good sign for the rebirth of the NHL. There have always been lingering doubts about the draw of an admittedly regional sport on American national television; those doubts, however, are well tempered by the valid questions over the quality of ESPN's broadcasts. Several NHL executives, including fiery Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, lambasted ESPN for being "poor for hockey": it seemed, frequently, that they were trying to make the network the star of the broadcast, as opposed to the players and the game itself.

Another shot in the arm of ESPN is Comcast has recently expressed interest in launching a national sports network akin to them -- quite obviously a rival; many expect this to replace Comcast's existing Outdoor Life Network, which is likely to air their hockey coverage until this launch is underway.

Should ESPN determine this threat to their sports programming hegemony to great to ignore, they have a right to match Comcast's offer.

NHL off to a poor start with disciplinary action

Earlier this week, Gary Bettman lifted Todd Bertuzzi's indefinite suspension and allowed him to return to NHL ice. His reasoning cited Bertuzzi's inability to play hockey anywhere in the world during the locked-out '04-'05 season, as well as his emotional, financial, and legal damage sustained as a result of his attack on ex-Avalanche forward Steve Moore. Moore sustained facial lacerations, a concussion, and broken vertebrae in his neck; doctors have apparently recently cleared him to return to hockey, but that report is in dispute.

This morning, there is word from Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher's camp that the 3-game suspension incurred during the Red Wings' final playoff game before elimination as a result of a vicious elbow to the head of Calgary Flames forward Matthew Lombardi would be waived, also as a result of the previous season being locked out. Lombardi missed the remainder of the playoffs and a significant portion of the next season with post concussion syndrome.

"I really don't even remember what happened, but I just know that they said if the season was canceled, my suspension would be wiped away," Hatcher told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Perhaps you should ask Matthew Lombardi what happened, Derian? I'm quite sure he'll remember. After all, he had trouble tying his shoes or reading for almost a year. To add to post concussion syndrome, many players are never the same after returning from a serious concussion; understandable, considering the compounding nature of those injuries. Adam Deadmarsh and Jeff Beukeboom are good examples of players that chose a clear head for the rest of their lives over another few seasons of hockey.

How is the '04-'05 lockout supposed to serve as a suspension? From Bettman's comments regarding the Bertuzzi suspension, one of the larger influences on his decision to repeal it was because of the entire locked out year. Disciplinary action is supposed to serve as a deterrent, not only to the offender but to potential offenders as well; repealing suspensions because all players didn't play is not an effective reminder that thuggery will not be tolerated in the new NHL. Perhaps the most press the NHL received in the United States during the '03-'04 season was because of the Bertuzzi incident; the distates in the US for hockey's more violent incidents has long been documented. Given Bettman's insistent desire to promote the game in the US, you'd think he'd take that more seriously.

Insisting upon Hatcher's suspension being served, and extending Bertuzzi's sentence -- perhaps even for 5 or 10 games -- would serve as both an effective disciplinary reminder as well as an indication that the desire of the NHL to showcase its talent and the greatness of the game also includes putting neanderthal goonery to rest for good.

That didn't happen, and there has to be at least two NHL players shaking their heads -- carefully -- over this decision.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Power players

Edmonton trading for Chris Pronger and Mike Peca?

Canadian teams being front-runners (though ultimately unsuccessful) in signing reigning Norris trophy winner Scott Niedermayer? Mike Modano circumventing his agent and signing for $3.5M per year? For five years?

Columbus landing Adam Foote? Atlanta signing Bobby Holik?

Who are you and what have you done with the NHL?!

The dizzying array of free-agent and transactional activity since August 1st has officially announced the arrival of a new economic order. Marquee talent has already dispersed significantly around the league, with normal weak-sisters and sellers such as Columbus, Florida, Atlanta, and Edmonton acquiring rather than selling talent and salaries. Edmonton traded prospects and a young defenseman for arguably the best blueliner in the game: either I woke up in Oppositeland or the new CBA is already showing significant promise for economic and competitive balance.

In addition to smaller markets suddenly becoming competitive in the free-agent market, players are signing for not only far less than they made under the old CBA, but also making contract decisions not purely based on the bottom line. Instead of the number preceeded by the dollar sign at the end of the contract, players are making decisions based on where they want to play, who they want to play with, and how competitive the team they are signing with will be. Jarome Iginla, after signing a 3-year, $21-million pact with the Flames, said: "as a free agent, you take into account the pay, no question, then you take in the living and then comes winning and winning might be near the top." While similar platitudes may have been uttered in the last 10 years, one gets the feeling that the athletes actually mean it these days.

Jarome Iginla is not the only star talent that could have opted for a short term deal to make use of the liberalized free agency rules but signed for the long-term instead: Chris Pronger in Edmonton committed for a 5-year tenure that had Oilers GM Kevin Lowe's harshest critics nodding their heads approvingly.

It is interesting to note that the Flames' splashes in the UFA market, Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty, both seemed contingent upon Iginla committing for the long term; General Manager Darryl Sutter noted that "we wouldn't have been able to sign Tony Amonte or Darren McCarty without them knowing that Jarome was under contract." Reports out of Anaheim note that Scott Niedermayer's signing there was partially influenced by -- or was the influence of -- brother Rob Niedermayer also committing to a four-year deal there. By all accounts he could have settled for similar, if not more, money from the Devils but opted to play slightly closer to home and on the same team as his younger brother.

The two best free-agent signings so far? This writer will nominate the Atlanta Thrashers' signing of gritty two-way center Bobby Holik, and Philadelphia's surprise acquisition of Peter Forsberg on the cheap (relatively speaking). The Thrashers have long needed a player such as Holik to tend the defensive zone while wunderkinds Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk put the puck in the net at the other end; a player like him might be what they needed to make that push for their first-ever playoff spot. The addition of Peter Forsberg to what was already arguably the deepest and most balanced line-up in the NHL has pushed the Flyers into the spot for early favorite Cup contender. While they had to move media darling (cough cough) Jeremy Roenick to make space under the cap, signing one of the league's top-3 players for under $6 million per year -- yes, you heard that right -- is going to make the Flyers' Atlantic division rivals more than a little unhappy.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Free Agent Mayhem Begins

Today, at noon EST, those players whose contracts are expiring who don't have qualifying offers or meet various criteria become unrestricted free agents: and like starved dogs thrown a juicy steak, the 30 NHL GMs will attack the phone lines with vigour in an attempt to land some of these free agents to build a team.

The list of big-named unrestricted free agents is long: Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Gonchar, Adam Foote, Miroslav Satan, Brian Rafalski, Glen Murray; that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Almost as interesting as who-ends-up-where is the dramatic change in dynamic of the free-agent market. No longer will it simply be about 'in what city can I get the most money for the longest term'; with all teams on a relatively level financial playing field, the amount of money one team is offering won't be substantially larger than others. Instead, priorities such as team competitiveness, closeness to home, whether the city is good for raising a family and settling-down-in, and -- if you believe rumors about Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund -- perhaps even the ability to play with friends.

Instead of a player taking $9 million per year for 5 years to play in Dallas or New York, you might even see a player take a 3-year, $5 million deal in a competitive, hockey-friendly market over a 4 year, $6 million deal to play in obscurity on a bad team. Because gone is the ability to buy a contender, many of the pricier free agents this year will be relied upon to provide a veteran presence or galvanize a young roster and turn them into a contender.

Also interesting is that there is a fixed amount of cap space to spread amongst all players. Will players hold out to find the most competitive offer? Or will they be eager to jump at the first acceptable deal because as teams and cap budgets fill up, that deal might disappear? Players holding out for the best offer might, instead, find their offers steadily decreasing as teams get closer to the 23-man number and have less and less money to add that last missing piece.

It's an entirely new market, and it's never seen this level of talent before. Who needs a dispersal draft when you've got the next best thing?