Wednesday, June 21, 2006

On Keeping Successful Teams Together

Today, Al Strachan wrote an interesting piece that shows at least one member of the mainstream media is starting to come around to my line of thinking. Strachan wris that "Great Teams Don't Last In Today's NHL". I go a step further and argue that great teams don't exist in todays NHL (at least not in the 2006 playoffs).

Strachan notes that Carolina and Edmonton both have lots of unrestricted free agents to attempt to sign in the off season. Carolina has Matt Cullen, Frantisek Kaberle, Mark Recchi, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward and Doug Weight who will be UFAs. Edmonton has Fernando Pisani, Mike Peca, Dwayne Roloson, Sergei Samsonov and Jaroslav Spacek. Given the way they played in the playoffs, most (if not all of them) will be looking for a pay raise. In a salary capped environent, this will likely not be possible. Even without a salary cap, these two smallish markets would find it hard to give all these players raises. This is a direct result of the new CBA. The most important change it makes to competitive balance is that free agency is liberalized. Players become free agents at younger ages. That forces teams to pay a higher market value to some of these younger free agents then they would have if the were restricted free agents (as some would have been in the old CBA). This also forces teams to invest more money in other talented players who are approaching the lowered unrestricted free agency ages, in order to attempt to keep them beyondthe first chance they could have left. That leaves less money to go around for the current UFAs. Likely both Carolina and Edmonton will have some of these core players depart as free agents this summer leaving them weaker teams as a result. It is also likely that the raises given to the players they keep will prevent either teams from making any big splashes on the free agent market to replace them. Likely, Carolina and Edmonton will both be weaker next year, thanks to this CBA.

This problem will change in the future. As the salary cap rises, only the big market teams will be able to take advantage of it. The big market teams might be able to keep their cores together, while small markets cannot. I think this is by design. This is to attempt to put the best teams in the biggest markets in search of the elusive US network TV deal. If enough interest is generated in places like New York and Los Angeles it might happen (they hope). Interest will come if these teams win. These teams are more likely to win if they can use their financial muscle to buy players in their prime, instead of the players in decline in the last CBA.

What Al Strachan does not realize is that neither Carolina nor Edmonton haveat teams right now. CBA imposed parity has kept there from being any this year.

Al Strachan goes on to make ridiclous predictions that maybe Edmonton will trade Chris Pronger to help solve any salary woes. This prediction is a rather poor one. It would kill the marketing of the team and it is likely that the return would not be able to perform on Chris Pronger's level.

One further prediction that is far more likely is made by Sisu hockey I don't think I would be going out on a limb if I were to predict that at least one of these two teams will not make the playoffs next year. That isn't that wacky a prediction. Let' see what the off season holds, but I think he might be right.

The CBA has prevented us from seeing any elite teams this year. Those that did rise to the top of the mediocre world will get broken up for next year. It’s not that good teams don't last long. It’s that good teams cannot even get built. The exception to this rule will be in the few chosen big markets that this CBA favors.

NOTE: I think I was too quick to dismiss Al Strachan's claim that Edmonton may trade Chris Pronger. Pronger has asked for a trade. Here is the TSN story.

"As the salary cap rises, only the big market teams will be able to take advantage of it. The big market teams might be able to keep their cores together, while small markets cannot. I think this is by design. This is to attempt to put the best teams in the biggest markets in search of the elusive US netowrk TV deal. If enough interest is generated in places like New York and Los Angeles it might happen (they hope)."

Still not sure why Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Toronto, i.e. the largest markets with NHL teams, will succeed under this new system more than the Colorados and New Jerseys, teams who HAVE kept their cores together, and likely will, because of ownership and its willingness to spend, not market size.

I don't expect Jersey or Colorado taking drastic steps backwards while Chicago and LA jump forward simply because of a discrepency in market size as a result of the CBA.
If Colorados and New Jerseys can afford to spend up to the salary cap they might do well also. They are a bit more limited financially, so its not so clear that they will (although it is a realistic possibility).

There is a further complication. Thatz of free agency. The very best players (hall of fame calibre superstars) will be able to chose where they go for the most part. To most players I think New York sounds better than New Jersey and Los Angeles sounds better than Colorado merely because of what the city offers. One thing that is offered in the biggest markets are huge endorsement deals. Potentially a Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, Alexander Ovechkin type could make more money in endorsements than in hockey salary. Those deals will preferentially land in the biggest markets (like NY, LA), they will exist but not on the same scale in mid sized markets (Col, NJ) and will be much harder to find in the smaller markets.
Sorry, but I just don't accept the premise. The cap is far, far more constraining on the ability to big market teams than was the case in the pre-cap era. Yes the cap is rising to $44 million, but that is what - $30 million less than the Wings and the Rangers were tossing around in 2004.

Having a cap gives each market a chance to compete not on an equal level but at least at a comprable level. Marketing endorsements are a good example, but they work both ways. In NY and LA a player may be the best hockey player in town but he's not necessarily the best known sports personality. In Vancouver, you can own the town - indeed Province - because hockey is THE sport.

Keep in mind that market size is relative to interest in hockey. Montreal is a bigger hockey market than Los Angeles - because only some LA sports fans are hockey fans while almost all Montreal sports fans are hockey fans.

There are also other factors that can come into play moreso now that the salary question is comprable from team to team. Alberta has no Provincial sales tax - that's a 5-6% boost for players. Some of the so-called smaller markets don't have the glitz of New York or LA but they also are seen as a good place to raise your kids. One of the reasons Pronger went to Edmonton - the $ was about what he could get anywhere else but he was closer to the kids' grandparents (I believe on Ms. Pronger's side).

Toronto's biggest draw may no longer be the "stupid" amount of money they can offer but that for so many players, the blue-and-white was the team that they dreamed of playing for growing up in southern Ontario.

Hockey is still a business and money still rules, it simply isn't an absolute rule anymore and I believe that to be a good thing.
The cap isn't the most important change to competitive balance in the CBA. It is the liberalized free agency. More free agents at a younger age. Now if I have the money and I want to buy players, I can buy them while they are still playing the best hockey of their careers. For example, Sidney Crosby could be an unrestricted free agent as young as 25 years old. In the last CBA his first chance would have been 31 years old. The team that buys him, likely buys the best years of his career in this CBA. The team that bought him in the last CBA would have had him on the beginning of the decline in his career. You can buy much better players now. And the salary cap is high enough that most of the markets wont be able to afford to spend as high as it. So now we have a situation where buying players will really help teams win (it will be a necessity - you cannot draft a winner if the players you drafted leave when they reach free agency - you will have to sign players to have a roster) and there are great players in their primes available to be bought.
Well a good test for your hypothesis would be the Tampa Bay Lightning. Small-market team with a core of young stars already starting to hit the peak years of their respective careers and, a'la liberalized free-agency, entering the prime earning years of their careers too.

What does Feaster manage to do? He gets Lecavalier, St.Louis AND Richards under contract! Yes, he let Khabibulin go for silly money but at 33 years old (32 when he fled to Wirtz-world) he would have been a free-agent under any system.

How does Feaster do it? Well $ is part of the equation for sure, but I am sure that Richards (or his Agent) knew that he could have signed for more had he held out to July 1st but he didn't. Why, well he knew the team, had some warm fuzzies held over from the 2004 cup win and the money wasn't that much less than he could have gotten elsewhere.

Lets use the current figures for the CBA (since next year's aren't yet finalized) to see why this is so. There is a cap - $39 million and a floor - $21.5 million creating $17.5 million in wiggle room for each team. There is a maximum salary of $7.8 million and a minimum of $450K.

The gap between celing and floor is significant but is far, far less than it was before the CBA. Every team, even the high spenders will need to keep some extra space in the budget for unforseen emergencies (though some teams, New Jersey) flirted with that celing all season long.

There is more space under the $21.5 million floor than there is from the floor to the celing, additional $17.5 million. You can keep a good chunk of your team's core locked up under that floor and use the remaining space to fill the roster out. That's the choice Tampa Bay made.

Yes the Crosby's of the world will start making top dollar sooner, but since the top dollar in Pittsburgh (or, shudder, Kansas City) is the same as it is in New York - why wouldn't Sid the Kid stay, particularly if the remainder of the Penguin flock (Malkin, Fleury, Whitney, Johnson?, Kessel?) has been maturing with him into the great team we all expect.

The potential for player movement is obviously higher with free agency at a younger age, but that doesn't automatically translate into good teams breaking up. Ottawa's attempt to sign both Redden and Chara is another case in point. They may both leave (Chara the more likely of the two.) However if they choose to stay it will be for less money (not a lot less but a little less) and a chance to stay on a great up and coming team.
Tampa is a poor test. They signed their three stars up before the free agency age dropped. They signed the players before the salary cap began to rise. The test would be a team in Tampa's position 2 or 3 years in the future.

Nevertheless, Tampa appears to be gutting the rest of the team because they cannot afford them. This CBA has probably hurt Tampa more than any other team. And that is with St Louis, LeCavalier and Richards signed up long term. Its not a wild prediction to suggest that one of these guys (St Louis?) finds himself traded for well below market value in the not too distant future to open up some cap room.

Why wouldn't Sidney stay in Pittsburgh? Because a New York could afford to pay him more. Because even if they paid the same, New York would offer a lot more in terms of endorsements. Crosby would make a lot more in a big market.

Stan Kasten said it in 2004 (he was an Atlanta Thrasher bigwig)

Let’s face it, hockey does not have a high profile right now. The top cadre of players aren’t well known enough. What can we do for a TV contract? Increase our appeal. The league won’t like me saying this, but Jarome Iginla, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash - these players have to be in (bigger markets). Your best and brightest young players have to be in your biggest media markets to give us a fighting chance.

He said in public what many of the NHL marketing execs would only say in private. He revealed a big portion of the hidden agenda of the lockout. If the lockout was really about "linkage" between salaries and revenue, then all they had to do was agree to keep the same CBA except the players pay into escrow accounts, so that at the end of the year linkage was restored (the proper percentage of revenue went ot salaries). As it turns out, effectively they got that in the CBA, but they also got a ton of other changes to the order of the NHL.

In the old NHL Tampa Bay was the champion. They had a roster that might have been good enough to dominate for a few years. If they didn't, some other small market like Ottawa might. Something had to be done. Get the best and brightest young players into the biggest markets just like Kasten said. Probably, this CBA will do exactly that. It hasn't done so yet because it hasn't yet had the big market advantages come into play.
Forgive me, I clearly misunderstood you. I had thought that you felt that this current CBA was going to result in the unintended consequence of benefiting the so-called bigger markets.

You think that it will and that it was an intentional conspiracy.

You are on glue.

I'm not saying that they wouldn't want the best players to be in the biggest markets - simply that these jokers are incapable of conspiring themselves out of a paper bag. Really they aren't that smart.

If they wanted to rig the game then they had their chance last summer - draw the Rangers out of the hat last and let the Blueshirts draft Crosby.

Don't confuse incompetence with malice.
You don't have to rig the game. It would ruin the integrity of the game if word of that ever leaked out. You merely have to tilt the playing field with some rule changes. A team like the Rangers don't need to win every year, but they should be like the Yankees and compete every year. I think that is going to be the end result of this CBA.
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