Friday, July 29, 2005

Injuries and the New CBA

Most likely, one or more teams will exceed the salary cap this season due to injuries. Injuries are hard to predict and may cause teams to pay more money in salaries than they originally planned. If a team is playing with a payroll very near the salary cap and players get injured, some other players will have to be paid to fill their roster spots (along with the injured players getting paid) and this may force teams to exceed the salary cap. Whether or not this becomes an issue is hard to determine at this point, although it is conceivable that a bigger market team may plan to have a payroll right at the maximum with no room for injury replacements to get paid. When the inevitable injuries occur, the GM must shrug and say oops we have to exceed the cap in order to ice a lineup. And the team may do this in perpetuity. Even without any attempt to subvert rules, some team will be unlucky and come out like Los Angeles in 2003/04 and lose a lot of man-games to injury (they lost 536 man-games). It is very likely that a team in an unfortunate situation like that will be forced to exceed the salary cap to merely ice a full lineup of players all season.

The relationship between players and their team is also going to change becoming more strained due to the CBA. This CBA is set up to increase player movement between teams. Some estimate 30-40% of players changing teams annually, mostly through liberalized free agency. When more players change teams, more players who have suffered injuries playing NHL hockey will find themselves unsigned. They will get hurt playing hockey and then find themselves unemployed. An NHLPA with power should have been addressing such issues, but instead they were helping out the owners allowing such a system to be set up. This is a further reason why the NHLPA should consider disbanding.

One instructive case of how injuries may be handled is the case of Vladimir Orszagh who today learned that the Nashville Predators will not make him a qualifying offer. TSN's story is here. Orszagh has been a popular 2nd or 3rd line for Nashville for the last three years the NHL has played. He was their fifth highest scoring forward in 2003/04. In the World Hockey Championships this spring, hurt his knee. He tore his ACL and MCL in his right knee and has had surgery. As a result, Nashville decided to let him go. Nashville GM David Poile says this:

I feel bad about it because Vlad has been one of our more popular players, and one of our better players and hardest workers. He thinks he can be ready by training camp and we don't think that's the case. The new system means players on injured reserve count against the cap, so we'd be paying another player to replace him as well.

Of course this is a lie, Nashville is not expected to have a payroll anywhere near the salary cap. They could not afford a payroll that high before the lockout and they cannot now. However, it is an interesting comment. There are teams that would find this a problem. There are teams that would be unable to sign injured players that they otherwise want because they cannot afford the player and his injury replacement. A strong union would be fighting against players getting injured and then losing their paycheque. There are further concerns. Orszagh hurt himself playing for his country in the World Championships. If I am a potential free agent would I chose to say no to playing for my country in an international tournament because should I suffer an injury it will cost me my job and lots of money? In Orszagh's case it would have been a preferable situation to his current one. We may see more players turn down international play because of the CBA.

The cold war between players and management is still being fought even with a CBA agreement. On the injury front, Owen Nolan and the Toronto Maple Leafs are fighting it. Owen Nolan suffered a knee injury in 2004. It may have been something that he hoped some time off from hockey would help recover. However, his knee never got better. He may need surgery or other medical intervention. TSN's first story on this is here. In this story, it is reported that Nolan's agent J.P. Barry is saying that if the injury occurred while playing in the NHL under the old CBA, Nolan will need to be paid his entire contract under the rules of the old CBA. Should Toronto wish to buy him out to open up some salary cap space they may, but this would be in addition to paying his contract. Legally, this argument seems correct. The Toronto Maple Leafs are fighting back. TSN reports this here. Toronto claims that the injury did not occur playing hockey (although they make no claim for how he actually got injured). Were this true, Nolan voided his contract and the Leafs owe him nothing. This fight will be one of the first of many between individual players and management in this CBA. This CBA is a truce at best and definitely not the end of the labor war.

One underlying issue in the Nolan case is that of team doctors. Team doctors work for the teams. They may misdiagnose situations, possibly due to pressure from their employers. If a player who is not in his team's longterm plans suffers from a degenerative condition that will cause serious damage in the future, the doctor may feel pressure to not diagnose this and keep the player in the lineup today. This may have been the case with Nolan or it may be a simple case of the doctors making a mistake. The lack of trust that sometimes exists between player and team doctors (who may be looking out for team and not the individual player) is a serious issue. It is one that will only get worse when player movement increases and it is more common to dump injured players. A strong NHLPA would have tried to address this issue in the CBA negotiations - but this did not occur this time.

Comments:
The CBA has a provision that if a player gets injured, he may be replaced by someone with a salary less than the injured player, and that replacements salary will not count against the cap.
 
Until the injured player returns from injury ... then what? You have to dump your replacement no matter how good he plays?
 
Well teams will probably bring up AHL guys, so slide them back down to the minors?
 
If you have managed a yahoo team with a DL, you probably have experience doing this. For example I have a fantasy baseball team right now with 2 DL spots (plus 24 other guys). I drafted intentionally a couple good injured guys (Lance Berkman and Wade Miller). I expected that when they came back, somebody else would be injured (and it happened Jim Thome, Oliver Perez, JD Drew).

You can play NHL hockey like this too. My team is over the salary cap because of injuries. I expect that whenever the injured guys come back some new player will be out to take his place.

If I can afford it, I can use this as a loophole to exceed the salary cap.
 
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