Sunday, June 04, 2006

There Are No Elite Teams In The 2006 Playoffs

My post the problem with parity was discussed by many in the blogosphere including Tom Benjamin, Sisu hockey and Red and Black Hockey. It seems that it was taken as a controversial post and sometimes misunderstood when it was discussed, so I will try to restate my opinions.

In the 2006 playoffs, there were no elite teams. Period. Not any of the sixteen playoff teams are what I consider elite. This is not meant as sour grapes because it is an Edmonton vs. Carolina final. This is merely a statement of unfortunate fact. This is not because the teams that some thought were good didn't make the finals. Many have tried to argue that I make this statement because I am upset that Detroit or Ottawa (or fill in another team) lost early. That is not true. Detroit is not an elite team. A team with Manny Legace as their number one goaltender is hardly elite. The Ottawa team we saw in the playoffs was not elite. They had Ray Emery guarding their nets. We had a field of sixteen mediocre choices. One of the mediocre teams will get hot (and lucky) and win the cup. It will be quite an achievement for their players, but it won't make them an elite team.

OK what is an elite team?

There is no simple answer for this. Through my years of hockey watching, I have learned that an elite team has lots of good players. This can be stated in many ways. If we wrote out a list of the best players in hockey, an elite team should be one of the leaders in the number of their players that made this list (if not the leader). How long a list should we make? I cannot give a clear answer to this, other than it doesn't really matter. If we list the 50 best players in hockey, an elite team should have several on the list. If we make a list of the 100 best, they should have several more on that list. I like to place the cutoff as those players who appear to be on a hall of fame track (players who should make the hall of fame someday based on a logical projection of their careers). That sets a high cutoff. It prevents people from listing Mike Peca or Ryan Miller on this list of players. It prevents somebody from making a top 100 player list where they give a bunch of players who may or may not deserve a spot near the bottom of this list the benefit of the doubt at list them on the bottom part of their top 100 player list to show their team has lots of good players. The truly great players tend to be the ones who form the cores of elite teams. They need some from the next tier too, but without the truly great the team cannot be considered an elite one.

That isn't enough to guarantee a team is elite. An elite team needs a very good goaltender. Even with several star players it is very hard to win in the playoffs without one. So I specifically state that a team needs a top goalie to be considered elite - even if they have some stars. Obviously, the more great players a team has the more likely they can get away with having a less then superstar goalie, but even the weakest goalie in recent memory to win the cup (Chris Osgood) played in three all star games and once made the NHL second team all star.

Merely having a group of all stars does not make a team elite. These players have to work well together. There certainly are cases of all star teams that never rose to an elite level.

To keep things simple, I have stuck to the first two conditions. An elite team must have several players on hall of fame tracks and a top goalie. These are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions to be elite.

So who is an elite team?

In the course of history we have seen several. We can all immediately quote the 80's Edmonton Oilers, the 70's Montreal Canadiens, the 50's Montreal Canadiens, the 80's New York Islanders etc. It depends exactly where we draw the bar for how many elite teams there are. For the sake of this argument, I will set the bar at the approximate level to say that during the time of the old NHL CBA, Colorado, Detroit and New Jersey were elite teams almost every season. They each won multiple Stanley Cups. For a period of time in the middle, Dallas was also an elite team. Maybe one could argue that Philadelphia was an elite team for a while despite their failure to win a cup. Tampa Bay was by 2004. Possibly Ottawa was by the end of the period.

With the line drawn at that level, I think it is safe to say we didn't see any playoff teams in 2006 that were elite teams. Not one. The Ottawa Senators with a healthy Dominek Hasek make the cut. The Senators with Ray Emery in net do not. I don't think its too much of a controversial statement to argue that almost every NHL team has a better starting goalie then Ray Emery in 2006. It may be that Emery improves given some time in the NHL, but he is not in any all star consideration today.

So what? What does it matter if the best team in the NHL is not good enough by these standards?

It affects the quality of the hockey we see. Elite teams play elite hockey. Battles between two elite teams can be wonderful series. The fan loses out by not having elite teams to watch. That isn't to say that an Edmonton vs. Carolina Stanley Cup final series cannot be exciting to watch. It can be. I hope it is. It won't be as good as it could have been if it had better teams in it. Every Stanley Cup final series in recent memory has had at least one team in it (and often two) that I think were better than either of these teams. Teams that were it possible to recreate right now at the level they were at during their elite period who would defeat either of these Stanley Cup finalists, if we could correct for differences in the rules and eras that may exist.

I am always trying to put what I see right now into the appropriate perspective it will have in the future. Sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes what are the seeds of an important trend may not be seen without some hindsight. However, I think I have done pretty well. For example, I try to announce the point I think a current NHL player has accomplished enough to be a hall of fame player. I think we will look back on the Stanley Cup playoffs of 2006 as a year when there wasn't any great team. Obviously somebody will win, but it will quickly become a forgotten cup winner. When they list the best 20 or even 50 cup winners nobody will even consider the 2006 winners.

Whether this is a trend for the future is an open question. Will the CBA prevent us from seeing any more elite teams? I don't think it will. I think it has this year because the relatively low salary cap prevented any from being built. The salary cap will rise - and it may rise very quickly (not if the impotent NHLPA has their way). It will quickly get to the point where only the big markets can afford to spend up to it. With the liberalized free agent rules, they will be able to buy some elite players. A salary cap prevents them from buying all the elite players, but a good GM will figure out how to grab a few. Free agent signing will be key to making an elite team. It is necessary to sign good free agents to win. Drafting will not get it done. Drafted players will probably have left as free agents when they are ready to play the best seasons of their careers. Sure some teams will keep players they drafted, but it will be common for the stars to move to the brightest market. Why should a player like Eric Staal stay in Carolina or Sidney Crosby stay in Pittsburgh unless their team is a perennial Stanley Cup contender? In a league where parity rules, with definite big market advantages this is unlikely. Crosby never chose Pittsburgh. When he has a choice of where to play, I bet he chooses somewhere else. The NHL would want Crosby in Toronto or New York for marketing purposes and they set up a CBA to allow that possibility and many superstars will take it.

So what? Should I care?

If you enjoy seeing elite teams win the Stanley Cup you should feel cheated this year. There aren't any. There are prospects for that to change, but most likely in the chosen markets. If that doesn't seem fair, again you should feel cheated.

What can I do in the meantime?

Watch the Stanley Cup finals. Hope they are good. Two mediocre teams can play a good series. Its already happened in these playoffs. But it is highly unlikely to be one of the great series that gets remembered forever as classic hockey.

I suppose if you are unhappy enough, you can vote with your chequebook and not watch the NHL. Tune it out until they can give us better teams. I won't. I will be watching the games when I can. I suppose that is what Gary Bettman is counting on. Will they win any new fans with this final? Maybe in Carolina. Especially if they can keep a run going into the next few years (is that possible under this CBA?). Is this what the NHL really wants? A new Cinderella team each year that gets tossed into the scrap heap when they cannot afford their team in the following summer? Right now it’s what they have got. I don't believe it’s the final goal. It’s just an intermediate state.

I would argue that there were a couple of elite teams this year in the playoffs - teams that meet your criteria, and I would argue that the Ottawa Senators and the Philadelphia Flyers meet your criteria on paper. These teams were not able to go far because of injuries on their team. Tampa Bay was close behind.

I think the real argument is not that there were no elite teams this year (i.e. that teams couldn't build elite teams on paper), but that the current CBA does not allow teams flexibility to deal with injury situations. When Tampa Bay had to send Dave Andreychuk to the minors to create salary cap room, it was a crime. We also found out that many Flyers were quite injured during the playoffs and also during much of the season. Could they have fared better with more salary cap room? Possibly, but we'll never know.

This year, much to their dismay, I think, the NHL created a situation with more parity than they wanted, where any team that didn't have injuries and had very good players (i.e. not necessarily elite) could go to the finals. Unfortunately for the NHL adminstration, these teams happen to come from small markets in Canada and the United States, and in the case of Carolina, a non-traditional market. I think this year will be one of the lowest ratings for the Stanley Cup finals in the United States - a veritable mightmare for Gary Bettman and his ilk.
In a slightly different line of argument than your post, I think you should write about how the HNL has created a non-elite NHL. I think the way the game is played is now bunk. I believe every time they change the rules and do unnessecesary things like add shootouts and remove ties, just to make it seem that a team is above 500 when it really isn't is a joke and a sad comment on the state of the game. I love this game, and I would like to see it played the best it can be.

This also speaks to the type of calls for penalities that were encouraged this year. For the first time in ages, I heard more commentators simply guessing about what a penalty might be, and they often got it wrong! One can normally tell where a penality has come and who the player responsible is, but not this year. There were more phantom calls and even up penalities than I have ever seen, just to create special teams situations and higher scoring.

As you have said many, many times, higher scoring does not a better game make. A 0-0 game tied into the last two minutes of the third period could be just as exciting and even more so that a 5-4 game. Just because people watching at home on TV can't appreciated a beautifully executed trap is not a reason to substantially change the way the game is played.
Given the injuries they had, there is no way that Philadelphia was an elite team in the playoffs. Given the goaltending they had there is no way Ottawa was elite in the playoffs.

In an injury free world we might have seen something different.
"In an injury free world we might have seen something different. " Yes: BUFFALO (and their 4 healthy D-men!) vs. Edmonton in the finals! OK, now that that's out of the way...

Another consideration that has led to all of these situations is the overly-rapid expansion of the 90's. Going from 21 teams to 30 in just a few years spread the talent pool amongst all of these teams as opposed to 7 or 8 (or more) elite (HOF track) players on one team.

All of your points are well taken and I don't entirely disagree with you, but as I've said before, I think it may be too early to know if this will be true. If we see Carolina, Buffalo, Anaheim or Edmonton as a top-tier team in the regular season and in the final four again next year, or the next few years, would this disqualify them from being an elite team in 2005-6. We can then look back and say, "Yea, maybe they were THAT good the year they won the Cup."

Another point you touched on was Crosby or Stall going to a bigger market through free agency and this being what the NHL wants. They could've done that through the old CBA as well, just at an older age. I follow that it may not be in the "prime" of their career and that no team can really pay one player an outrageous amount to come play for their team, but the rest of the point, if there is more to it, is lost on me.

Lastly, you stated, "Is this what the NHL really wants? A new Cinderella team each year that gets tossed into the scrap heap when they cannot afford their team in the following summer?" Isn't this what we have in baseball now? How many different World Series winners have there been since 1980? 18 in a 25 year span. If that's not parity, I don't know what is! Of course, out of the repeat champions, the Yankees (4) were the only true elite team because they competed in the playoffs every year and have numerous HOF track players. As for the runner ups, Atlanta comes to mind, the Indians of the mid-90's, and Oakland of the late 80's are the only teams that stand out (to me) as elite. Baseball has the "luxary tax" system now, but everyone knows that doesn't work because the Yankees can still outspend the entire league if they want to.

Then look at basketball. They have a salary cap and still there are "dynasties". Recently, the Lakers, Spurs and Pistons (ahem, 2 of which are small market) have been repeat champions.

The idea behind parity is that each team has the opportunity to compete on a somewhat level playing field and that will generate enough fans, who will in turn generate funds, to survive as a business. After all, that's what all sports are nowadays.

It's also to create "teams" and the notion that that no player is bigger than their individual team. Personally, I'm not sure what I think of this. While I know that one person does not always win a game by themselves and that a team is necessary; I think the league MUST market their superstars and let the rest of those individuals on their teams worry about the fall out from that situation. If the remaining players egos can't handle knowing that they will never be Crosby, Ovechkin or Stall, then it's their own fault. By all means, show the faces of the NHL and market them to death! Put them in Hanes underwear, put them in Mastercard commercials cheering on the local salad bar attendant (a la Peyton Manning), show them drinking Red Bull on the bench and have them advertise for Asthma medication (a la Jerome Bettis). I'd rather see the game grow fans than to see it stagnant because the NHL doesn't want to showcase it's superstars for the sake of turning their backs on the team aspect of the sport.
Interesting that you mention baseball, goal10der. The baseball CBA is the most player friendly. It does not have a salary cap and allows for free agency at very young ages. What this does is create a situation where a team can be built through signing free agents or by drafting well and keeping players. You mention the famous Yankees and their infamous payroll. You are correct, baseball's system can create both parity or dynasties, depending on who is willing to pay.

It also allows for smaller markets like Milwaukee and Kansas City to have decent teams without hope of winning the World Series (at least for many, many years) But the baseball market is huge in the United States with many pro and semipro leagues. Hockey can only look on in envy. A team in baseball can be as great as its market and money will allow.

Essentially, that was the system under the old CBA, except that small market teams had a fighting chance to have a dynasty if they had good scouting staff because players did not become free agents until they became 31 or met other factors. So a team could keep a good young core together for a long time during their best years.

You mentioned the rapid expansion in the 90s in the NHL. I will argue not that this lead to player dilution because this is the same time that Europeans created a whole new market of players for the NHL. I will agree that rapid expansion lead to teams in markets that were not ready for hockey yet. Weak market teams that should have been allowed to fold on their own have survived to the detriment of the NHL as a whole.

You also mention basketball. Basketball is a totally different team sport that can be built around one player. This is not possible in hockey or baseball. The basketball salary cap works because as long as a team pays their one huge superstar player, they can build a supporting cast around him. I mean just look at the implosion of Shaq and Kobi when LA tried to make theirs a double dip.

You don't, however, mention football, the one true parity pro sports league in the US (I argue my own point a bit later.). The football CBA is the least player friendly. It has a salary cap and player contracts are not truly guaranteed. Drafting well is not really as important as ESPN and the media make it seem because players as expendible to a much great extent, and this year's lost draft pick is next year's signed free agent.

Recently, it seems that football management may have solved its own problem of too much parity i.e. when any given team can win on any give week and go on to win the Super Bowl by realizing that the key is a great quarterback. Like in basketball, the team may be able to be built around one player, a truly elite player, but only if that player is a quarterback.

Ultimately, the NHL does NOT want parity thoughout the league. What it wants is high ratings, and to get high ratings, it needs teams in big markets to win. The current CBA makes it possible for even incompetent GMs like the New York Rangers' to build great teams because they don't have to draft well and can build teams through free agency. The INTERIM situation is parity, and, to a certain extent, as Puck says, mediocrity.
A couple of points:

1/ The definition of 'elite' is going to be subjective. I'll admit that by my interpretation, the number of elite teams is down. Whether this is due to the CBA is debatable. Some potentially elite teams (Ottawa, Philly) were ravaged by injuries. The Sens didn't have a quality backup, but that wasn't because of the cap. The Wings trimmed a lot of salary, but they might have been even better than they were in '03-04. Tampa? One might think the cap cost them goaltending, but Grahame/Burke were just as good as Khabibulin. For some reason they couldn't score. My point is that it's hard to pin the current parity on the CBA. It can't be proven. It could just as likely be the tightening up of the league four years after the most recent expansion.

2/ There have been a few predictions made about the look of the NHL in the coming years. The growing big market disparity you espouse sounds very reasonable. I'm just not prepared to jump on board until I see how things pan out. If it turns out you're right and the Bettman's big markets take over, then I'll be the first on the bandwagon calling for his head. Until then I'd rather wait and see.
I don't know that most people would argue against there being no "elite" teams in the Finals; certainly, no one's confusing either of these teams with dynasties of decades past. The problem is your seeming contention that the next step after eliteness is mediocrity. Put simply, that's wrong. Sure, as of 2006, Ray Emery is not an NHL starter, never mind a Hall of Fame candidate, but does that mean the Senators are suddenly mediocre? No, they've simply gone from great to "merely" good. Buffalo has no real stars, but they get the job done night after night. Not elite, but certainly very good. Both teams in the Finals this year are good -- they'd have to be to get this far -- but not great, in the sense that you're defining, and that's okay. There's just to be a level in between "elite" and "mediocre," and I don't see that anywhere in your (or Benjamin's) various missives on the subject. Truly mediocre teams are like the Oilers of the last ten years: good enough to get in more often than not, but never quite good enough to do any real, lasting damage. The Canadiens of the same time period would (sadly) also qualify.

As for your thought that good players will automatically fly the coop when they hit UFA age, what makes you think that? Putting aside revenue sharing for a moment (everyone else sure seems to), if you play for a team for seven years, given that everyone else is facing the same sort of constraints regarding expenditures, so the difference in your offers is going to be minimal at best, why would you leave? In 2012, Crosby will be well-established in the community, whether it's Pittsburgh or elsewhere, he'll have a house, probably a local girl, and a comfort level with the core of the team that he's not going to be able to replicate easily elsewhere. Ditto Ovechkin in Washington, Nash in Columbus, and so on. I don't think it will be positive incentives -- championships and money -- keeping players on teams, so much as negative incentives -- personality clashes, incompetent management, and fan hatred -- that would drive players away. That's why Florida's so concerned about Luongo leaving: after years of being on bad to awful teams, he's finally said, "put up or shut up". There will be players moving around each year, but I don't think very many of those guys will be household names outside their markets. The Great Fire Sale of '05 will be, in all likelihood, a lockout-generated anomaly.

In response to flygirl: regarding injuries, any good GM knows that they happen in hockey. If you also realize going in that the cap is inflexible, then you have to plan for the inevitable. The CBA forgives your cap for trips to the IR, so a major injury doesn't completely screw your season (see: Dan Cloutier, Valeri Bure), but relatively minor stuff happens often enough that you need to leave at least a couple million open for call-ups and team-improving trades. That's something that some GMs (Kevin Lowe, Jim Rutherford) figured out before others (Jay Feaster, Dave Nonis), and the painful lessons should now be crystal clear. On the other hand, I fully agree about the various loser points: you just can't have it both ways. If you abolish the tie, you abolish the "regulation tie," too, and we go to a straight W-L system, like the NBA and MLB. I enjoy the shootout, but a three-point game really blows the whole point of the standings. While I realize that the only way my Oilers make the playoffs is through this year's system, I do feel it would be for the betterment of the NHL to either go to the pre-1999 system or the straight W-L system. Anything else is just plain lame.

Final, general note: I do support contraction to 24 teams, and moving at least one Sun Belt team north of the Mason-Dixon Line. If that were the case, I'd also support returning to the four-division playoff format, so that Gary's unbalanced schedule actually makes a lick of sense. Oh, and the new delay of game penalties can both bite me.
"Mediocre" may seem like a harsh word to descirbe the eventual Stanley Cup champion, but when we are faced with a league with no elite teams where this year's cup winner will be the weakest in recent memory I think it is accurate.
"Mediocre" may seem like a harsh word to descirbe the eventual Stanley Cup champion, but when we are faced with a league with no elite teams where this year's cup winner will be the weakest in recent memory I think it is accurate.

Hardly. There are degrees between mediocre and elite that you're just not acknowledging. And really, just because the 2006 champs won't be uttered in the same breath as the dynasties of yesteryear, it doesn't mean that they are weak or mediocre. Most champions aren't mentioned in that same breath. It just means they aren't among the all-time greats. As I said above, good, even very good, but not great (or elite, as you prefer).
If anything, the weakest Stanley Cup champion in my memory is worse than mediocre as a Stanley Cup champion - it borders on pathetic.
If a team is not "elite" (i.e. stacked and unstoppable), they are mediocre or worse, even if they win the Stanley Cup in the modern four-round tournament format. It all makes sense now. Thanks for the enlightenment.
If a team is not elite they are mediocre for a Stanley Cup champion.
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