Tuesday, June 27, 2006

What Chris Pronger Teaches Us About The "New NHL"

Even if we assume that the current NHL CBA was not designed to put star players into the biggest markets, but instead to give us a level playing field where every team can afford to spend the salary cap on their roster (and we merely have incompetence to blame for any inadequacies), it has little chance of working that way. The problem is player movement. This CBA increases it significantly. With increased player movement comes players choosing not to move to certain markets that they do not like and preferentially choosing to move to other markets that they like. Not every player will have this luxory. There will be some players who will be forced to take a one year contract with any team that offers, but the important fact is the best, most talented players have a choice. The more talented the player, the more choice he has. Even with a salary cap that all 30 teams can afford, the most talented players will be able to get to the markets they consider the best ones. Liberalized free agency nearly guarantees that. It does this not only through increased free agency. It does it through increased "big" trades. If no team can hold a player's rights for very long, then it is much easier to consider trading the best players in the game. And since the team trading for the best players in the game will want to sign them up longterm, the best players in the game have another avenue to force themselves into the markets that they consider the best ones. And of course when all that fails, like Pronger, a player can demand a trade (to only certain markets).

Chris Pronger is one of the better players in hockey. He is coming off a year when he should have won the Conn Smythe trophy for his part in the Edmonton Oilers trip to the Stanley Cup finals. He is coming off a year where he has solidified himself as a Hockey Hall of Famer (regardless of what happens for the rest of his career). He is clearly one of the ten best players in the NHL. And he has requested a trade from the Oilers. Although Pronger has not spoke on the matter, it is widely assumed that his wife was unhappy in Edmonton and wanted to live closer to her St Louis family. There may be other issues such as climate, culture and taxation involved, that is nt clear at this point. (NOTE added later. For a good piece on the Pronger situation go to Battle of Alberta) What we learn is that Edmonton is not one of the preferred markets in the NHL. Even if the Oiler team is good enough to come within one game of winning the Stanley Cup, it is not a place that many players would chose to live (as long as they can chose). In fact, the majority of the NHL probably are not the first choice markets in which to live. The best, most talented players will systematically move from them. And they will move to those markets they prefer (I assume Toronto, New York etc. will be among the beneficiaries).

Most players will not be as open about their choice of market (or lack of interest in a market) as Chris Pronger has been, but it will be there. When Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby become unrestricted free agents do you think they would look upon Edmonton as a potential place to play even if it offers them as much money as the New York Rangers would (and they couldn't as New York offers far more advertising opportunities)? In a league of high player movement, where the best players have the choice of where they will play, the markets they like will start to accumulate them. The markets that they don't like won't have a chance.

All of this depends upon players being able to choose the market in which they will play when they are young enough to be superstars. If the players are in decline (31 or older as in the last CBA) it is a far smaller consideration. In this CBA, Sidney Crosby could be a UFA at age 25. Any player could be a UFA at age 27. Free agents will have much more hockey left in them when they are available on the open market. It will become possible to successfully buy a winning team.

Now this CBA does not give all markets the same chance at buying these free agents. It will have a high enough salary cap that only the bigger markets will be able to afford to spend up to the cap. If only the big markets can afford to buy a team, then only the big markets will buy teams. If certain markets will preferentially attract elite players (and they are the same bg markets), those teams will more than likely be the more dominant teams in the new CBA and win the vast majority of the Stanley Cups. I think the CBA is designed to do this. It is designed to get the best players into the biggest markets in order to attract the NHL its national network TV deal. I think that in a league driven by marketing experts, believing that they fluked upon a CBA that would deliver this benefit (as opposed to deliberately creating one) is terribly naive. The NHL wants the best players in the biggest markets. It is trying to tilt the playing field in order to deliver them there.

If we put aside the issues of player's rights for a minute, the fairest league from a competitive balance standpoint, is one without free agency. Like most keeper fantasy leagues, if you draft a player and you chose to keep him you own his rights for life. It doesn't matter if your market is big or small. The concept of market size doesn't even exist in fantasy hockey. The NHL hasn't had that league for years, but it had one where (for the most part) free agency was irrelevant. Sure big name older players became free agents. Sure some teams paid a fortune to acquire them. It didn't help them to win. The New York Rangers spent the most on free agents and they couldn't make the playoffs for years on end. Strangely, it is the "unfair" nature of what the Rangers were doing that many fans cite as a reason the lockout was needed. How is it unfair for a team to spend a lot of money and still suck? It basically proved that you could not buy a team. Not if you couldn't buy a player until he was 31 or older. The teams that won were teams that drafted well. They may sign a key free agent or two, but they would not have been Stanley Cup contenders without the core of players they drafted. All that has changed. With the drop in free agency ages, teams can buy a winner. Teams will buy a winner. The markets that star players prefer will have an advantage in buying their winner. If these are the big markets that can afford to spend to the cap, likely they will buy winners. That is exactly what the NHL wants.

When it comes to free agency and player movement, reducing their impact is good for competitive balance. When their impact is large, the biggest and most attractive markets will have the best chance of winning. The NHL let the genie out of the bottle on plyer movement in this CBA. Likely they will never get it back in. They don't want it back in. It is their tool to get the best players into the biggest markets. In a high profile way, Chris Pronger's situation is teaching us this.

At the risk of throwing a monkey wrench into your theory, there may be a different (and saddly familiar for Edmonton fans) explanation. The protestations that it isn't the city, the team, the management or the fans is common enough but while the presumption that personal family reasons equates to homesickness for Ms. Pronger doesn't fit with their apparent willingness to move anywhere else.

Somebody is sleeping with someone they shouldn't be and that isn't something that can be easily made right. New NHL, Old NHL - people are flawed.
I think a good summary of my take on the Pronger situation is this post from Battle of Alberta I quote:

Q. You seem to be saying his preferred destination would be back in St. Louis.

A. I don't think there's any question about it. On its face (or from what we've heard), the trade request is to go "somewhere else", but I wouldn't be surprised if it's far more specific than that.

Q. So, you don't think that Lowe's talks with Ottawa, for example, are in good faith?

A. No I don't. I suspect that there is a very short list of cities, with St. Louis at the top, to where Pronger has requested to be traded. There's probably not more than 5 people who know what this list is (Pronger, his agent, Lowe, and one or two others in the Oiler organization), because the facade of an auction will help Lowe maximize his return for Pronger.

There is no reason whatsoever to imagine this has anything to do with people sleeping together (aside from Chris and Laurne Pronger).
I think the issue of exactly why Pronger has requested a trade is going to remain pure speculation absence any actual evidence. For whatever the reason, he wants out.

Highlander's point that it might not be Edmonton-suckitude that has soured Pronger on Edmonton as a destination (though I believe that Edmonton-suckitude is a real factor - I know I don't want to live there) and that it might be something else entirely (the Al Iafrate/Gary Leeman dynamic), is valid.

But I would refrain from concluding that because it is possible, it is actually what happened.

I take issue with your post elsewhere than the role of Edmonton-suckitude, namely, but as to the conspiratorial 'grand design' to create a league with powerhouses in the media giants and pipsqueaks elsewhere.

If the new CBA does anything it prevents the no-limit budget teams from pricing players out of the market by driving salaries up exponentially as they outbid each other for limited resources (Martin Lapointe's $5M a year contract is a good example - even plumbers were being obscenely overbid on).

Now, with budget restraints in place, a team like Calgary can build a core of young players to a high calibre before they are stripe-mined by salary escalation as they were in the past (see: Doug Gilmour and Jamie Macoun to the Leafs for low salaried bag of magic beans), while also having the flexability to add components (see: Tanguay) to a team that everyone feels is close to being back in the finals.

So long as there is a cap on salaries, teams can keep their homegrown stars (Columbus + Nash) develop young players around him (Denis, Zherdev, Brassard, etc.) and add components as needed to take the next step (Foote), without the Rangers stepping in to simply offer the moon and the stars and throw things off.

In short, without a cap you don't have a regulated market for player services, and without a regulated market for their services it would continue to rise as demand and cash outstrip availability.

Now that the market is regulated in terms of its inflation on player salaries, teams can all decide for themselves how close to the cap they want to spend. If they are close like Calgary is now, then the money is made available for any moves that make sense (McCarty, Tanguay) and even some that don't (Amonte).

In short, with a cap in place to prevent inflation, it won't be the money that breaks them up - at least, it won't be any worse for Calgary than it is for the Rangers to have their talent outstrip their budget.

However, it is clear that outside factors such as overall desirability of the city as a place to play in, will now play a larger role than before. C'est la vie.

Players like Pronger who for no declarable reason ask to leave cannot complain when frog marched out of town wearing goat-horns for doing so.
Whereas, homegrown talent like Ryan Smyth that take Edmonton to heart and stay will be worshipped like Gods. That is the nature of sport and city.

As for building elite teams in this new landscape I'd say this, Calgary's time is now, they have the kind of core (Iginla, Tanguay, Kipprusoff, Phaneuf, Regehr) that wins all-star awards and ultimately challenges for the cup. They are young, they have already had a taste taking a deeper budget team to 7 games in the finals, and their GM is both smarter and meaner than any other GM (if there were a GM knife fight in the basement of the Corel Centre, is there anybody you'd put up against Sutter? Anyone? I'm just saying), and when we speak about 'Great teams' they have a legitimate shot of being one under the new rules. It means getting to another finals and winning (two finals in three years with essentially the same core - thats a good team bordering on great), but my instincts are that they have the goods to be for real. For several years.

Toronto on the other hand, they have got a lot of work ahead of them to catch up to reality. Raycroft is a good move, but the Buds are as much a threat to be a 'Great Team' as I am from the three point line.

There is no first line talent on the farm, and they have busted selecting foreign born big pivots for what seems like an eternity. Sundin is still legend, but he is now also clearly mortal. The lack of surrounding talent (for what seems like a generation, has any gifted player been handed such crappy linemates as consistently as the Leafs abused Sundin? A 50 year old Gary Roberts? Fast Freddie Modin? Broken Record Mikael Renberg? For goddsake, Tie Domi?) is an all round a tragic sad joke.

They need to blow things up (as Vancouver just did) and rebuild. The fact they have a 5 year project ahead of them is not going to be ameliorated by their spending power. They can't just sign a bunch of vets to zombie their way through their twilight hour as Sundin's personal curse to endure anymore, and trading for and developing their own talent will need to become a priority.

So far from creating a situation where the have's (Toronto) will unduly prosper under the cap at the expense of the have-not's (Calgary), the cap has done exactly what it was promised to do - it has allowed well run smart thinking teams that horde talent and responsibly manage their assets the ability to put together potentially Great Teams.

Love your posts TPSH - S'why we keep coming back.

So far from creating a situation where the have's (Toronto) will unduly prosper under the cap at the expense of the have-not's (Calgary), the cap has done exactly what it was promised to do - it has allowed well run smart thinking teams that horde talent and responsibly manage their assets the ability to put together potentially Great Teams.

Of course this is entirely true so far. The beginnings of liberalized free agency will not be seen until this summer - and it make take a few years to see its effect. The salary cap this past season was still low enough that most teams could afford it. Both of those factors are changing. The nHL will change dramatically once they have.

Love the blog so if I have said so already, props to you.

I am afraid that I just don't agree with you on the dynamic of the new CBA - liberized free-agency included - that skews things towards the so-called big markets.

While the supply of young star players will rise as more and more get a chance to go for a big payday - a fact I will grant you - there are still only so many $6-7 million dollar contracts that New York, Toronto, etc can give out because the Rangers' cap is the same as Ottawa's.
there are still only so many $6-7 million dollar contracts that New York, Toronto, etc can give out because the Rangers' cap is the same as Ottawa's.

This is a fact. But one team doesn't need to get all of the big money stars. Just one Crosby or one Ovechkin to go with an already solid core will do. Its not the quantity of stars the teams will sign that has changed, its the quality. The quality has improved a lot. That is the big market advantage.
Even so, you seem to be dismissing entirely the concept of team loyalty. There's something to be said for growing up with the same core of guys for seven years, chemistry you just can't replace with extra money: jumping ship over a few hundred thousand dollars is not something that nearly as many players would do as you seem to think. Yes, there will be that guy that takes the extra million to go to City X, but I think you're far more cynical about this situation than is warranted.
Even so, you seem to be dismissing entirely the concept of team loyalty.

Thats right. For them most part I am dismissing the concept of team loyalty. When a player reaches UFA status, for the first time in his life, he gets a chance to pick where in the NHL he will play. That is a big incentive. Its a strong incentive to leave the undesirable markets and jump to a better one. Not every player will do it. It wouldn't matter if every player jumped to a new team or not. All that matters is if the best dozen or so players in the NHL find new teams. Based on the past history of free agency in sports, I think most of them will.

Team loyalty should go both ways, but it doesn't. The second a player is no longer worth his spot on the team, he will be traded, bought out, sent to the minors etc. As an NHL player you have a relatively short window of time when you can play at top level and you would be well advised to seek out the best deal you can in that window of time.

For a truly elite player, like a Sidney Crosby, this is not an issue of a few thousand dollars. This is an issue of millions. Even if Pittsburgh and New York offer him the exact same contract (something unlikely), New York offers a much better chance at huge advertising deals. The difference in advertising money might be bigger than his base salary. It is these elite players who could turn the tide of an NHL team.

The issue isn't whether or not an Edmonton can resign Fernando Pisani or Dwayne Roloson should they want to (they could for a reasonable amount of money if they wanted). The issue is wether an Edmonton sized market could sign or resign one of the best players in hockey. Here, they probably couldn't.
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