Friday, September 27, 2019

Playing ‘what if?’ on the 25th anniversary of the 1994 lockout that changed the NHL

The hockey world has spent the last few weeks on a familiar topic for NHL fans: work stoppages. And for once, the news was mostly positive, as the NHL and NHLPA have decided not to end the current CBA early. That means we won’t have a lockout in 2020, although one could still happen two years later when the CBA expires as scheduled.

A 2022 work stoppage, if it came to that, would be the fourth of the Gary Bettman era. Just about all of us still have fresh memories of the 2012 lockout, which wiped out half a season. And we all know the story of the 2004 version, the most divisive and protracted in North American pro sports history. That lockout saw the owners win their ultimate goal of a hard salary cap while becoming the only league to cancel an entire season in the process.

But while the impact of those fights, both good and bad, are still being felt around the league to this day, the original NHL lockout seems to have largely been forgotten. That one came way back in 1994 when Bettman was in just the second year of his new job. It dragged into January 1995 and ultimately cost the league half a season. And in hindsight, it didn’t achieve all that much, with an eventual agreement that mostly retained the status quo. At the time, that deal was seen as a win for the owners, but it quickly became apparent that they hadn’t gained enough. As trilogies go, Part 1 of the NHL’s lockout series didn’t pack in much in the way of drama or major plot twists, but it did introduce the important themes and characters while setting the stage for the bigger productions come.

Next week will mark the 25th anniversary of the official start of the NHL’s first lockout. To celebrate, let’s look back on what happened a quarter-century ago, and how the league might look if things had played out differently. Here are five “what if” scenarios to ponder.

What if: The owners had held firm for a salary cap?

Let’s start with the big one. The owners headed into the 1994 negotiations looking to remake the league’s economic system. Bettman was hesitant to use the words “salary cap,” but he’d been hired two years earlier at least in part due to his role in helping the NBA create a cap system. It wasn’t hard to read the writing on the wall.

But any talk of a hard cap seemed to fade early in the negotiations, with the two sides instead focusing on a payroll tax. The league’s reported proposal was punitive enough – more than a dollar taxed for every dollar spent over a set limit – that Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA viewed it as all but a de facto hard cap, a scenario they weren’t interested in accepting. So the players sat back and waited for the owners to fold. Eventually, they did.

That came as a surprise to Bettman, who’d gone into the battle with assurances from his owners that they had his back and were prepared to strap in for a long fight. He’d certainly acted like a guy who was willing to play the villain, firing the first shot in August by unilaterally withdrawing some player benefits. The animosity between the sides got so bad that at one point, Chris Chelios even appeared to threaten Bettman’s safety, a moment for which he later apologized.

As the lockout dragged on and games were canceled for the first time in league history, the owners continued to put on a united front, even authorizing Bettman to cancel the entire season. But behind the scenes, that solidarity was crumbling. (For a more in-depth look at the politics of the 1994 lockout, I highly recommend “The Instigator,” Jonathon Gatehouse’s must-read look at Bettman’s tenure.) It eventually became clear that Goodenow and the players weren’t going to cave, and the league’s richer teams began to wonder if losing an entire season was really worth it. The players had offered a handful of concessions, including a rookie salary cap. With the deadline to cancel the season looming, the owners decided that those small wins were enough.

What if they hadn’t? What if the owners had remained united behind Bettman? Or maybe more realistically, what if Bettman had done a better job of making sure that his owners had no choice? The commissioner learned a tough lesson from the 1994 lockout, and made sure that he went into the 2004 version with more power and less vulnerability to his owners getting cold feet. What would have happened if he’d been able to get his charges to hold the line in 1994 instead?

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Puck Soup: Over/under season preview

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast, it's our season preview show. Greg, Ryan and I work our way through the odds for all 31 teams and figure out which teams will exceed expectations and which ones are in for a long year.

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

From bottom feeders to contenders, my best guess on where each team ends up

We’re now just one week away from opening night. And you know what that means: If you can go just one more week without putting your predictions for the 2019-20 season in writing, you can pretend that everything that’s about to happen was stuff you knew all along.

Unfortunately for me, no such luck. So today, I’m unveiling my annual attempt to break the NHL down into four divisions. Not the Central and Metro and all that. I mean real divisions. As in the Bottom-Feeders, the Middle-of-the-Pack, the True Contenders and the always popular Your-Guess-Is-As-Good-As-Mine group.

That’s it. Unlike some poor folks I could mention, I don’t have to predict exact point totals or even who’s going to make the playoffs and who won’t. Just four relatively simple divisions. How badly could I screw that up? (Narrator’s voice: He would screw it up very badly.)

The teams aren’t listed in any particular order within each group, but in terms of the divisions we’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. Here we go …

The Bottom-Feeder Division

These are the teams that everyone with half a brain knows will be bad this year. Previous editions have included such obvious trainwrecks as the 2017-18 Golden Knights and last year’s Islanders.

Also, I’d just like to say that this is the section that makes me really regret going with a division-based format that forces me into groups of seven or eight teams. There aren’t seven teams that are definitely going to be bad this year. There are maybe three. The odds that at least one of these teams makes the playoffs and I never hear the end of it from their fans are like 90 percent. I hope you all appreciate the sacrifice I’m making here.

Ottawa Senators

Last season: 29-47-6, 64 points, dead last in the league

Their offseason in two sentences: They collected a bunch of ex-Maple Leafs, which was weird. But they re-signed Thomas Chabot, which was the important part.

Why they’re here: Because even the most optimistic Senators fan knows they’ll be bad this year. Could they be better than last year? Sure, they’re a young team that added a few pieces, so they could improve. But even an extra 10 wins wouldn’t get them anywhere near the playoffs. And since they won’t be getting three-quarters of a season from Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, it’s possible that they’ll be even worse. Everyone knew the Sens would be in this section, and here they are.

Los Angeles Kings

Last season: 31-42-9, 71 points, last in the West

Their offseason in two sentences: They hired Todd McLellan. That was pretty much it.

Why they’re here: They’re rebuilding, they say, even though they haven’t exactly been shipping out veterans. Still, that suggests that they’re willing to accept another bad year as the price to be paid for waiting on one of the league’s better farm systems to produce enough NHL talent to shift their fortunes. That’s a decent plan, but unless McLellan can work miracles, it won’t be enough to get them back into contention this year.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 32-40-10, 74 points, missed the playoffs

Their offseason in two sentences: The roster is pretty much the same and they used their high pick on some kid in a bowtie. Nobody really cares, because Steve Yzerman is back to save us all.

Why they’re here: The Wings are the third of the three teams everyone agrees will be bad, and like the Kings and Senators, it’s all part of a plan. Replacing Ken Holland was always going to be a tall order, but Yzerman will get all the time in the world. If that means this year is a write-off, so be it. And it will be.

Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 33-39-10, 76 points, missed the playoffs for the eighth straight year

Their offseason in two sentences: They made some nice deals and hired Ralph Krueger as coach. Same goalies, though.

Why they’re here: This is the first team where the ground starts to feel at least a little bit shaky. Unlike the last three teams, the Sabres aren’t still lingering in the patient part of a rebuild. Instead, they’ve spent the last few seasons pumping the gas in time-to-win mode. So far that’s just meant a bunch of tire-spinning, apart from last year’s early win streak that didn’t fool anyone who wasn’t a gullible sap. But at some point, they need to either make some progress or fire everyone and start over yet again. If that progress arrives this year, it could be enough to move them out of this section. But I’m not betting on it.

Chicago Blackhawks

Last season: 36-34-12, 84 points, missed the playoffs

Their offseason in two sentences: They made a few additions, mostly involving the blueline. But the biggest move was signing Robin Lehner.

Why they’re here: If the ground felt shaky for the Sabres, it’s basically breaking the Richter scale here, because I hate this pick. The Hawks had lousy goaltending and defense last year and still only missed the playoffs by three wins, and they just signed the reigning Jennings winner. Plus, they’re the Hawks. They’re going to make the playoffs and make me look dumb. I don’t know what to tell you, I have a few other teams in this range that I like a bit better and I have to have at least seven teams in each division. Also, I don’t trust Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to repeat their career years on the wrong side of 30, the defense still isn’t great and Islanders fans have assured me that Lehner isn’t actually good after all even though they all spent last year telling me that he was. But yes, future Blackhawks fans tracking me down to call me names after they win a round in the playoffs, I hear you.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Offering up some New Season’s Resolutions for 2019–20

A new year of NHL action is almost here, which makes it a good time for some New Season Resolutions. Nobody’s perfect, and whether we’re diehard fans, relative newbies or cantankerous media, we can all strive to be a little bit better. The start of a new season is a chance for hockey fans to begin the year right, by setting goals for some self-improvement.

While your own personal resolutions are of course up to you, I can offer up a few suggestions to get you started. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are a half-dozen potential resolutions for the new season.

Let’s not pretend that every bad team is this year’s Blues

Last year’s Blues were an amazing story. They went from preseason contender to first-half disappointment to dead last in the league to obvious trade deadline sellers to hey wait a minute to the Stanley Cup, all in one year. It was great. If you’re a fan of sports, stories like that are easy to love.

They’ve also very rare. Teams aren’t supposed to do what the Blues did last year. In fact, just about none of them do. That’s part of what made last year so fun.

And it’s something we’re going to have to remember this year, because oh man, every team that starts out slowly is going to point to the Blues as reason for optimism.

You can already feel it coming. Heck, we’ve already seen it during the offseason, when GMs were eager to tell us that if the Blues could win, their team could too. And it’s going to be out of control once we get a few weeks into the season and teams that have stumbled through a disappointing start are insisting that it’s all part of the plan.

It’s not hard to picture, right? Some poor GM or coach or team captain will be asked to explain why his team is already seven points out of the playoff race and whether fans should be worried that everything seems to be falling apart. And instead of actually having to come up with a reason for optimism, or worse, accept that the team isn’t all that good, he’ll just point to the Blues. They were bad. They were even in last place. And they won it all, so everyone just be patient and everything will be fine.

Let’s not fall for it.

For one thing, the Blues were always a good team, at least on paper. They’d made a big trade in the offseason, in an effort to get better. When they started slowly, they made a big move by switching coaches. And they solved their biggest problem by, uh, finding an amazing goaltender in the ECHL. Might not want to put that last one on the recommended list, but they pulled it off.

The key point here is that Doug Armstrong and friends didn’t just shrug and say “Oh well, we stink, let’s just stay the course and hope for a miracle.” And we shouldn’t let bad teams get away with doing that over the next few weeks and months.

Have you made a blockbuster trade? Did you fire the coach? Did you switch out your starting goaltender? Fine, do all of that and then maybe you can claim to be a candidate for Blues status. But if you’re just standing pat and trying to buy time by pointing to some other team’s miracle season, the rest of us shouldn’t be falling for it.

Let’s accept that we’ll need a learning curve on player tracking

At this point, we’re not completely sure when we’ll get full puck and player tracking. It was supposed to arrive this season, then it was going to be the postseason. The league recently dropped its technology partner, but says that won’t delay the implementation. We’ll see.

But whenever player tracking does finally arrive, there’s one thing we can count on: Nobody will be quite sure how to use it.

The teams won’t know. The analytics experts you follow on Twitter won’t know. The average fan sure won’t. We’re all going to be figuring this out as we go.

That’s going to lead to a lot of confusion and to a lot of information being thrown out into the world without enough useful context. What if Connor McDavid skated further in tonight’s game that Auston Matthews did? OK. Is that good? Does it matter? Do any of these numbers tell us anything useful about who’s going to win?

While we’ll all be struggling with those sort of questions, they’ll especially apply to TV broadcasters, who are going to be flooded with new information that they’re not quite sure what to do with. TV is a visual medium, so you know we’re going to be inundated with flashy graphics and rapidly updating numbers about things like skating speeds and cumulative pass distances. Some will be helpful. Most probably won’t.

And when that happens, it’s going to be tempting to get up on a soapbox and put on a big show of complaining. Some of that will be justified, especially when our screens are all clogged up with obvious nonsense. But let’s resolve to remember that there’s going to be a learning period here for everyone, just like there was when we started getting better statistical data near the start of the cap era. We didn’t get it all right from Day 1 back then, and we definitely won’t now.

Eventually, we’ll look back on the first few years of players tracking and shake our heads at all the misplaced attention and useless red herrings we wasted our time on. We’ll figure it out. But in the meantime, let’s accept that some of this will get silly and that we won’t get anywhere if we don’t let people make some mistakes along the way.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Grab Bag: Good news on the CBA, new rules for 2019 and how to prank an L.A. King

In the Friday Grab Bag:
- This week's CBA news was a good thing, but let's not celebrate yet
- I try to stay positive about this year's new rules
- An obscure player with lots of (Scrabble) points
- The month's three comedy stars
- And Survivor contestant Tom Laidlaw pranks the 1991 Kings, a team he was not on

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Puck Soup: We're back

In this week's episode of the Puck Soup podcast:
- The weekly free shows are back for another season
- There won't be a lockout in 2020 after all, as the NHL and NHLPA decide to keep the peace for two more years
- Reactions to the Mitch Marner deal
- Thoughts on how Marner impacts Patrik Laine and the rest of the unsighed RFAs
- What's going on with Dustin Byfuglien, and what it might mean for the Jets
- Ryan tries to stump me with another round of "Is this a real movie?"
- An interview with director Gabe Polsky of the new hockey documentary “Red Penguins"
- And lots more...

>> Stream it now:

>> Or, subscribe on iTunes.

>> Get weekly mailbags and special bonus episodes by supporting Puck Soup on Patreon for $5.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The offseason Bizarro-meter concludes with a look at the Western Conference

Yesterday, we fired up the Bizarro-meter for our annual rundown of the offseason’s strangest moves, starting with the Eastern Conference. It barely registered a reading for the Capitals and Bruins, beeped a few times for the Islanders and Red Wings and was actually starting to smoke by the time we got to the Habs and Hurricanes.

Today, we move on to the Western Conference. Will anyone top Carolina’s East-leading score of 9.1? Let’s find out.

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks

The offseason so far: They didn’t add much to a roster that missed the playoffs. But they did subtract — getting younger in the process — by using a buyout on Corey Perry and preparing for a future without injured veterans Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves.

But their strangest story was: They made the expected choice behind the bench when they hired Dallas Eakins as coach, although it took long enough that by the time they actually announced it you went “Wait, didn’t that already happen a month ago?”

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.5/10. The Eakins hiring took longer than it should have and the Perry move was jarring, but both made sense.

Arizona Coyotes

The offseason so far: They added Carl Soderberg and hired former Sabres coach Phil Housley as an assistant. But their biggest move was a blockbuster trade that brought in Phil Kessel, who should address their lack of scoring right up until Rick Tocchet strangles him. So, mid-October.

But their strangest story was: Signing Clayton Keller to an eight-year, $57.2-million extension that everyone agrees was either way too much money or a brilliant bargain.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.8/10. The Kessel deal, while big and not without some risk, fit where this team is at right now, and locking up a young star long-term usually works out. But I did award a few bonus points for this quote.

Los Angeles Kings

The offseason so far: The big news was the hiring of Todd McLellan, who replaces interim boss Willie Desjardins. They also bought out veteran Dion Phaneuf.

But their strangest story was: Not really doing anything else aside from a few extensions. You might figure that a team that just finished 30th overall would do more to reshape the roster, but the Kings pretty much stood pat.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.2/10. A little bit of patience with a rebuild isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if the alternative is throwing money at bad-fit veterans. Still, you’d typically see a bit more turnover from a last-place team.

Seattle Something-or-Others

The offseason so far: They hired Ron Francis as the team’s first GM, and started filling out the front office. That included hiring analytics guru Alexandra Mandrycky away from the Wild, having her sit in on the hiring process for the new GM, and declaring that analytics is going to be “a way of life.” Uh oh, this team doesn’t even have a name yet and it’s already smarter than most of the competition.

But their strangest story was: Existing.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.5/10. How many times do you think Francis has already called Dale Tallon, just to mess with him?

Calgary Flames

The offseason so far: They looked at last year’s Oilers and said: “Let’s be more like them.”

But their strangest story was: Gambling on Cam Talbot to rebound enough to be an upgrade over Mike Smith seems reasonable. But the Milan Lucic trade was a head-scratcher, as they took a mistake in the James Neal contract and flipped it into something worse.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 5.4/10. We’re having some fun with the Oiler stuff, but for the most part, the Flames are a good team who didn’t change much, and that makes sense. Like a few other teams, their grade is subject to change based on how their ongoing RFA drama plays out, but unless the Matthew Tkachuk situation gets crazy then the Flames will stay near the middle-of-the-pack.

Oh hey, speaking of Edmonton …

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Bizarro-meter looks back on the Eastern Conference offseason

We made it. With training camps now in full swing around the league, the NHL offseason is officially over. Teams had their chance to remake their rosters, hire new people and set a course for the upcoming season. Now, that season is here. Pencils down, everyone. (Not you, teams with unsigned RFAs. You still have work to do.)

Looking back on the last few months, some teams did well. Some teams came up empty. And some teams, well, they just got weird. Those are the teams I’m interested in. As a diehard fan of Team Chaos, I’m always happy to see a team do things that confuse the rest of us. And that’s where the Bizarro-meter comes in.

I wrote my first Bizarro-meter column way back in 2013 when I was trying to make sense of the infamous Maple Leafs offseason that saw them make a series of truly confusing moves. Did it work? It did not. To this day, nobody has been able to figure out what the Leafs thought they were doing that summer. But the concept was fun and morphed into an annual league-wide ranking. And now it’s time to blow the dust off of the Bizarro-meter, plug it in and spit out some 2019 ratings.

As always, remember that a bizarre offseason is not necessarily bad. Sometimes, the decisions that leave everyone scratching their heads are the ones that work out the best. And often, a safe, by-the-numbers approach is exactly the wrong choice for a team that needs a more creative approach. This isn’t about picking winners and losers. It’s about recognizing those teams who failed at the NHL’s prime directive of being dull and predictable.

We’ll do this by division, starting with the Atlantic and Metro today and wrapping with the Pacific and Central tomorrow. As always, we’ll work our way up the scale as we go.

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins

The offseason so far: They didn’t do much, which was no surprise. They’re already good, the cap situation is manageable and Don Sweeney never makes trades during the summer and we’ve all just apparently decided to act like that’s not weird. Their biggest story was probably yesterday’s Charlie McAvoy signing to a thoroughly team-friendly deal, which might have been surprising from another team but was par for the course for the Bruins.

But their strangest story was: Jeremy Jacobs not being the owner anymore. He’s keeping the team in the family, handing it over to his six children, and will presumably still have an important voice in guiding the franchise. But one of the most influential names in modern NHL history will be stepping back, which will take some getting used to.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 3.2/10. I guess Jacobs felt it was important to make his exit at the right time. Maybe now he can explain the concept to Brad Marchand.

Buffalo Sabres

The offseason so far: They didn’t make any blockbusters like last year’s Ryan O’Reilly or Jeff Skinner moves, but they did add Marcus Johansson in free agency and swung deals for Colin Miller, Jimmy Vesey and Henri Jokiharju. The bigger move was bringing in Ralph Krueger to replace Phil Housley behind the bench.

But their strangest story was: Not really addressing the goaltending. It’s back to the tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, which was a bust last year (especially in the second half). There’s something to be said for consistency and not just chasing last year’s hot hand, but the status quo is a gamble.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.1/10. They were busy. But given the pressure on Jason Botterill and company to finally breakthrough, you wonder if they were busy enough.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The offseason so far: The first real offseason of the Julien BriseBois era didn’t produce many big headlines. Unloading Ryan Callahan’s deal helped, and they did well on the J.T. Miller trade. Their main goal was to clear out some cap deadwood, and they did it well.

But their strangest story was: The fact that their offseason started in April, not June. But mainly the lack of a Brayden Point deal, largely because we all assumed he was going to sign some ridiculously team-friendly contract that would make fans of every other team tear their hair out. And he still might, at least if the Lightning get their way. It’s just taking longer than we thought.

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.5/10 for now, pending whatever happens with Point.

Florida Panthers

The offseason so far: They upgraded on and off the ice, landing two of the biggest free agents in the sport in Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky. They also added Anton Stralman and Brett Connolly.

But their strangest story was: Roberto Luongo announcing his retirement. Wait, players can do that? They don’t just have to come up with a suspicious “injury” and finish their career on the LTIR?

Bizarro-meter ranking: 4.8/10. The Panthers were certainly among the biggest newsmakers of the offseason. But it feels like we had Quenneville and Bobrovsky penciled in here since January, so nothing they did felt all that surprising.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Five coaches and five GMs who absolutely won’t get fired this year, maybe

The NHL season is almost here, which means it won’t be long before we start hearing about all the hot seats around the league. Is Mike Babcock in trouble in Toronto? Does John Chayka need to make the playoffs in Arizona? Would Minnesota’s Bill Guerin prefer his own guy to Bruce Boudreau? Can Jason Botterill afford another miserable season in Buffalo?

But while the hot seat conversation is standard issue in pro sports, it always feels a bit awkward. We’re talking about people’s livelihoods here. We have to cover this stuff, but it’s not a pleasant topic.

So let’s turn it around and stay positive: Who’s on the cold seat? In other words, which NHL coaches and GMs are all but assured of still being on the job one full year from now?

It’s a tougher question than you might think. Everyone in the NHL is hired to be fired eventually, and just about everyone’s job security is one bad losing streak from coming into question. I wanted to come up with 10 names, and honestly, that might be too many. But we’ll do it anyway, because half the fun of doing this sort of list is so that when one (or more) of these guys inevitably gets fired in a few months, you can all come back here to point and laugh at me. It’s OK, I’m used to it by now.

Before we start, there’s one important ground rule: No picking any recent hires who’ve been on the job for less than one full year. That’s too easy. With apologies to Paul Fenton, even the worst coaches and GM usually get at least a year or two on the job in the NHL, so picking a brand-new hire is cheating. You won’t be seeing slam dunk names like Joel Quenneville or Steve Yzerman on the list, which increase the degree of difficulty.

We’ll try to come up with five coaches and five GMs. And we’ll start in the front office, where the job tends to be a little bit more secure.

General managers

Doug Armstrong

We might as well lead off with the one name on the list that feels like a genuine sure thing. Armstrong is the reigning Cup winner, and getting fired after a championship is just about impossible. (Sorry, Al MacNeil.) And even if the Blues got off to an absolutely terrible start, well, they did that last year too and things worked out OK.

Armstrong is a well-respected GM with plenty of experience and doesn’t seem like he’d want to leave on his own anytime soon, so barring some sort of scandal or falling out with ownership, he’s just about as safe as anyone could possibly be. Which isn’t completely safe, because this is still the NHL. But it’s pretty safe.

Doug Wilson

We’re two names in, and this one already feels at least a little risky. But only a little. I think Wilson is the very best GM in the league today, and the Sharks should be a very good team. It’s hard to imagine them having a bad year unless they run into major injury problems, which GMs usually escape the blame for. With 16 years on the job and counting, this is Wilson’ team, and it’s a very good one.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t all blow up in his face. We thought it already had a few years ago, when the Sharks were missing the playoffs and the franchise player was telling Wilson to shut his mouth. The GM survived that, so he should be able to weather any unexpected hurdles this year throws at him. If the aging Sharks hit a wall and miss the playoffs, could ownership decide that it’s time for a new direction and a fresh set of eyes? Nothing’s impossible, but it would take a total disaster.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Ten intriguing CBA ideas the NHL could borrow from other sports (but probably won’t)

The NHL’s CBA is making headlines again and for a change, the news might actually be good. The league announced last week that they’ll decline their option to reopen the agreement next year, and there’s a chance that the NHLPA will decide to do the same. If so, what had seemed like an inevitable 2020 lockout would be avoided, or at least pushed back until 2022.

But whether the next CBA comes in a year or down the road, it probably won’t represent a radical change in the way the league does business. The 2005 deal that ushered in a hard cap was quite literally a game-changer, one that reshaped just about everything about how the league operated. But the 2013 deal didn’t change all that much. And even as both sides eye each other warily and stake out their PR ground, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to make major changes to a system that seems to be working reasonably well.

That’s almost certainly a good thing, at least from the perspective of fans who just want to see a new deal get done without yet another lockout. But it’s always possible that one side (or both) might decide to ask for bigger changes. And they wouldn’t have to look far for inspiration, because the three largest North American pro leagues could all offer up some ideas from their current agreements.

Today, let’s imagine a world where the current CBA needed more than minor tinkering. Here are ten CBA ideas that the NHL could borrow from the NBA, NFL and MLB, and how they’d impact the sport.

We’ll start with the big one …

No guaranteed contracts

Borrowed from: NFL

How it works: The NFL is the only major league where contracts aren’t guaranteed, so teams can essentially walk away from a deal whenever they want. If a big star signs a five-year extension for mega-dollars and then doesn’t live up to the deal through the first year, his team can just cut him and move on. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but we’ll stay out of the weeds here.)

What it would mean for the NHL: Armageddon, probably. Whenever you talk about worst-case scenarios for NHL labor talks, this is the one demand the league could make that could lead to another 2004-05 type of shutdown. The players would have no choice but to push back as hard as possible. Most CBA demands that either side could make would be the equivalent of face washes in a scrum; this one would empty both benches.

But let’s pretend it happened. What would a new NHL without guaranteed contracts look like? Not necessarily like you think it would, because many fans don’t really understand how the NFL system works.

While it’s true that NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, that doesn’t mean that terminating them is painless. NFL players (and their agents) know that they don’t have long-term security, so they make sure to get as much of their total as possible through signing bonuses and other guaranteed money. It’s not unusual for most of the money in a big NFL contract to be guaranteed on day one. NHL players would demand the same security.

Most of the money isn’t all of the money, and the NFL’s system still tilts heavily in favor of the teams over the players – especially the ones who aren’t big stars and can’t insist on huge bonuses. But cutting a player on a long-term deal can have serious cap implications, often creating big chunks of immediate dead money. Hockey fans dreaming of a world where their favorite team could just painlessly wash their hands of all of its worst signings won’t find the answer in the NFL’s system.

And remember, nonguaranteed contracts can cut both ways. The NHL’s ironclad deals mean that, for example, Connor McDavid is locked into his current eight-year contract, even as inferior players eventually blow by him with better deals. If contracts weren’t guaranteed, he could eventually demand that the Oilers tear up his deal and give him something better, the way that many NFL stars do. Back before the 2005 CBA, the NHL used to see big-name holdouts with some frequency, but they were essentially eliminated once contracts couldn’t be renegotiated by either side.

Will we ever see it?: Let’s hope not. Even though the NFL offers more security than you might think and empowers their biggest stars, its system is still stacked against the majority of players. Given everything we know about risks to players’ long-term health, nobody should be rooting for a massive work stoppage just to take away more of their security.

That covers the elephant in the room. But there are other ideas that the NHL could borrow from the competition …

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free seven-day trial.)