Friday, September 07, 2007

Sabbatical From The NHL

The NHL season is long and hard, particularly if a player is on a team that has a good run into the playoffs. Doing this year after year is quite taxing physically and emotionally. This is particularly true when a player has a family and may be forced to move to a new city as they have hit unrestricted free agency. This is also particularly true when some players have been playing long and taxing seasons since their junior days.

In baseball, Roger Clemens has found a solution. If a player is good enough that he doesn't have to worry about not finding a team to play with, he can wait until a month or two into the season to sign and get a longer off season to spend with his family and not have to go through the rigors of training camp.

This idea appears to be spreading into the NHL. Three different future Hall of Fame players are not going to be attending training camp for any team, yet all might wind up playing sometime this season.

Scott Niedermayer of the Anaheim Ducks held a press conference yesterday to announce that he is uncertain if he wants to retire, but he will not be at Anaheim training camp (basically it was a press conference to announce nothing that we didn't already know).

Teemu Selanne, Niedermayer's teammate last year on the Stanley Cup winning Anaheim Ducks, is an unrestricted free agent who is unwilling to announce retirement and may wind up signing eventually to play this season (likely in Anaheim). He won't be in any NHL training camp.

Peter Forsberg ended an injury filled 2006/07 season with the Nashville Predators and is also an unrestricted free agent. He will likely sign a contract with somebody eventually, but he too will not be attending any NHL> training camp.

This creates a situation where the early season NHL games are even less meaningful than usual as several top players, who will eventually return, are not there. From a fan's point of view, it is not as good to have an NHL where a handful of stars are missing because they think the season is too long and taxing.

The season is too long and taxing. This is a problem the NHL faces. In order to make money, the NHL wants as many game dates as possible (and thus as long a season as possible), but the players would rather see the season shortened. Only a handful of stars can do anything to reduce their workload because any more borderline NHL player who chooses to not sign a contract until the season is underway may be left without a job all season long.

If we have hockey, I would like to see it be as meaningful as possible. I would like the biggest stars in the game to be there. Is there a point where reducing the length of the season makes it more likely to keep players in the lineup the entire season? If so, I would like to see that option explored.

This situation is made worse by the NHL CBA. Any player over 35 years old (usually only stars play long enough to be in this group) who signs a multi-year contract will have his salary count against the salary cap for the duration of his contract even if he does not play for the full length of the deal. As a result, some star players are forced to sign one year deal after one year deal and thus be more likely to wait until after the season begins to commit to another season. This likely also NHL legends retiring earlier than they otherwise would have. It is hard to be raising a young family (as many players in the 35 and older group are) and have to move to a new city annually (or possibly more frequently than that if a one year deal makes you a potential rental come trade deadline time). This pushes these star players toward retirement (or at least toward signing after training camp ends).

The solution is to ease up restrictions on older players (restrictions only necessary because the CBA insists on counting the average value of a player during his entire contract against the salary cap) and to reduce the length of the NHL season. I don't think my enjoyment of NHL hockey would be reduced with a 60 game regular season (and thus a Stanley Cup winner determined in early May) and it would be increased if the star players are around for the entire season. Financially, this is not in the NHL's interests, which is a much greater problem. The good of hockey in general is a ready sacrifice for the NHL if it conflicts ´with their finances.

I am not too impressed to see three star players who will sit out the beginning of the 2007/08 season. I think this is the beginning of a trend where this situation becomes more and more common. It makes the beginning of the season less important to not have the star players around. If this situation is reversed it would be a good thing. However, I see little reason that reversing this situation is on the NHL's agenda.

First, I'd like to see a shorter presason. There is no need to have all of those games, especially when half of them have a bunch of prospects we'll never see for 2-3 years.

Yes, I know that the occassional roster spot is won or lost in the preseason, but it's just not worth it, in the long haul, to have this drag out the season.

As much as I'd hate to have less hockey, I could live with a 70-ish game season. It would help in many ways, and allow us to keep a full sked.
While the NHL players may like the idea of a 60 game schedule, they have made it clear that they are not willing to take a cut in pay to do so! In THN's April Players Poll 65% of players said they were not willing to take a pay cut to play fewer games.

Beyond the direct paycut the teams would ask for comes the lower revenues that would reduce the salary cap. Again, not something the players would be interested in.

To me situations like Niedermeyer's are simple to solve. Set a deadline day for players to be signed and reporting to camp. Perhaps any player not signed and reported by Game #11 is ineligible for that season?

Again the problem is that such a change would require NHLPA approval.

In terms of 35+ year old players, that rule clearly needs to change. Treating the veterans of the game like that is horrible. The problem is that without such a rule a team could sign a player to a 50 year contract, lower the average salary cap hit, allow him to retire and still pay him out. Or a team could front load a contract and gain benefits later in the players career.

I am not sure how to adjust this rule, but clearly there needs to be something done.
I think that a rule that says players not signed and reported by game #11 (.ofr example) would serve to chase players from the game and that is certainly not something I want to see. I want to see the best players in the lineup
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