Sunday, August 21, 2005

Early Thoughts on New CBA

There has not yet been a single game under the NHL's new CBA, but we have had lots of roster moves and the largest free agent group ever. I think it is time to reflect on what has happened and whether or not that is a good thing.

I believe this CBA and the lockout was not done to hold down spending - if it was it was an abject failure, it was done to bring in a system that Gary Bettman thinks is better for business. The idea is to set up a situation where all teams can sell to their fans that they are serious contenders. All teams have to be able to sell the fact that this year they can win it all. Of course, most teams will not be able to be serious contenders, so many are selling false hope.

The biggest part of selling hope is large player turnover. No matter how poorly my team was last season, they will be a brand new group of guys. These guys will be better than last year. This season that was accomplished with a two year crop of free agents. In the future, it will be accomplished by lowering free agency ages.

Also, it is important to make sure that all teams participate in signing big name free agents. For the most part, this was accomplished with a salary cap. In the past, certain big money teams were able to outbid the smaller market teams and sign the free agents. While signing these free agents was a failed strategy for many teams, some smaller market teams were upset when they had to part with familiar big name (but aging) players. Quite often, teams were able to rebuild by selling off these famous players for young stars. Where would Calgary (for example) be today if they had not traded Joe Nieuwendyk for Jarome Iginla or Theoren Fleury for Robyn Regehr? However, the fans felt like these were bad moves that prevented them from winning, when in fact, the opposite was true. Calgary could not have gone to the 2004 finals without making these moves. They were good hockey moves to win in the future that were sold to the fans as being necessary due to a bad CBA. In fact, they were the right move to make independant of any CBA. Nevertheless, fans wanted change to fix the problem that their teams were making good rebuilding hockey moves. They wanted to be able to compete every year without ever rebuilding. It did not matter that this is an impossibility. For every winner, there must be a loser and sometimes this would be their team.

With the salary cap, teams had to spend. They had sold it to their fans as a benefit of the CBA so they had to follow through. It was a new toy for GMs to play with, so naturally, the GMs played with it. It is still true that free agents are too old to turn a team around (in almost all cases). It is still true that you cannot build a winning team by free agency alone. This doesn't stop teams from selling themselves as instant contenders because they signed Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrien Aucoin into a bad Chicago team or they traded to get Chris Pronger and Mike Peca into Edmonton. Neither of these teams had the pieces to be serious contenders before and adding a couple aging players who might be injury prone will not significantly change things.

I think the teams that will do the best this season are the young teams that were improving the most when hockey stopped for the lockout. These are teams like Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose and Calgary. For the most part, these teams were going to be top contenders with or without a new CBA.

Nevertheless, the CBA has affected these teams. Those that have been winners for the longest on that list (Tampa, Ottawa and Vancouver) are having their success punished. This CBA is designed to punish successful teams. Teams that are good will be full of players who deserve raises, but a salary cap prevents all those players from getting their raises without some of them going to other markets. Tampa has had to let Khabibulin go. They have had to give up a lot of defensive depth. They are having trouble resigning Martin St Louis. Ottawa has had to get rid of some depth and might be in more trouble depending upon the arbitration award Marian Hossa recieves. Vancouver has had to give away defensive depth and may have more troubles depending upon Mattias Ohlund's arbitration award.

The consequence of good teams being punished is that under this CBA fans will never again get to see great dynasty teams. If a team starts to win, they will get to expensive and have to be broken up. Great teams like the Oilers and Islanders of the 80's or the Habs of the 50's and 70's will never ever be able to exist. There is no way to get that level of talent under the salary cap. Great teams will not be as great as they once were. Therefore, there cannot be Stanley Cup final series between two great teams. There also will not (likely) be really bad teams. Any team can sign decent players set free by the salary caps and earlier free agency and we should no longer see really bad teams. Is this an improvement? I do not think so. Losing the best teams means we will lose the greatest games. That is a major loss.

One of the biggest changes we have seen so far is from the earlier free agency. There is yet to be earlier free agency (that starts next year), but teams have had to prepare for it. Players such as Vincent LeCavalier, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash have signed much longer term contracts for more money then they otherwise would have so that teams have a chance to keep them in their best years of their careers. Instead of these players salaries suddenly climbing as they approach 30 years or so of age, their salaries are climbing much earlier in their careers. Whether or not their teams would have held on to them for their prime years was never in question in the old CBA (whether or not they would keep them in their thirties was). Now since it is in question, they have had to pay them much earlier in their careers.

Another consequence is that owners have successfully pushed the blame in many fans eyes when they cannot keep their team together. In the past, you blamed being a small market when you broke your team up. Now you can blame the salary cap. You can blame individual players who have big contracts (ie blame LeCavalier for signing a big contract because that doesn't leave enough cap room to sign St Louis and Khabibulin). Its not the player's fault that they are stars and deserve big money. Are they supposed to be "exploited" by their current team by signing for well below their market value to stay with their current team, the same team that would dump them in an instant if they got hurt or stopped producing?

This CBA has succeeded in creating hope in a lot of markets. In many markets this is false hope. Not all teams can compete. How will the markets react when they see that they have been sold false hope? After a few years, we will see that some teams no matter who they sign cannot win. This will be because they lack a plan and keep signing the wrong guys. These markets will once again become disillusioned won't they?

This CBA punishes the strong. It hurts the fan in that they will no longer get to see any truly great NHL teams. Once a team becomes great they will have to be broken up. I will miss epic battles between two great teams that we often used to see in Stanley Cup finals.

This CBA has made good young players more expensive because they reach free agency sooner. This makes it even harder to keep a good team together because your players become expensive before they play their best seasons, unlike in the old CBA when it usually happened after their best years.

This CBA has given fans an unrealistic expectation that players should want to sign with their old team for far below market value to allow their team to keep other players. For the most part, this is a mistaken belief. It is not in any player's best interests to do this. However, the CBA has set up a situation where each dollar paid to one player is a dollar not paid to somebody else. It hurts team unity as stars on a team must compete with one another to get a big contract.

This CBA has also led several players to pursue options in Europe. For middle and lower level NHL players, they might have a better chance to make more money in Europe. So naturally, the NHL will lose from its talent pool, while European fans gain. It may lead to the emergence of a much more powerful European league or leagues.

Is this good for hockey? I do not think so. I think that this CBA will produce some serious problems in time. However, for the short term it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It is successfully selling hope to most (if not all) teams. This hope is false hope for most teams, because no CBA can create more winners in the NHL. For every winner, there must be a loser. Once many teams see that their hope they have bought into with a couple high profile free agent signings is false hope will their fans be turned off? That is an important question. How many times can a market successfully sell their fans the false hope that this new free agent signing is going to push their team to instant contender status when it never does? It will be interesting. I still remain quite skeptical. Gary Bettman's past record as commissioner of the NHL is not a good one. Most of his past changes have been poor ones. Why will these be different? If these fail, how much is reversable? We cannot ever go back again can we?

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?