Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Moving Day

I am pleased to announce that I will blogging in the future as part of the newly expanded Kukla's Korner. My blog at Kukla's Korner can be found here. I want to thank everyone for having come to this site in the past and extend an invitation for you to join me in my new adventures on the Kukla's Korner site.

How Much Power Does The Anschutz Group Have In The NHL?

It is well known that some NHL owners are in Gary Bettman's inner circle and wield significant power on the NHL's decisions, while others (such as the New York Rangers) are on the outs with the commissioner of the NHL. Probably the owner who wields the most power in the league right now is the Anschutz Group, headed by Phillip Anschutz, who owns the Los Angeles Kings.

The Anschutz Group owns many arenas worldwide. Many of the international games played by the NHL, such as last year's two games in London, England played between the Anaheim Ducks and LA Kings, are played in Anschutz owned arenas. This year, they have ties to the arenas in Prague, Czech Republic (they do not own this arena, but it shares common sponsorship with Anschutz arenas in London and Berlin) where the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will open the season and Stockholm, Sweden where the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will open their season.

When the NHL discusses expansion, it is usually Anschutz owned arenas that will house teams. The two leading candidates for North American expansion appear to be Kansas City, where Anschutz owns the arena and Las Vegas, where Anschutz is building an arena. Anschutz owns several arenas in Europe. Should European expansion occur, it will fill Anschutz arenas as well.

Phillip Anschutz is in a position to help set NHL policy. The policy he sets will benefit his holdings and that may be very different from benefitting the NHL or hockey in general. As a case in point, He has been involved in some shady NHL-related dealings. An Anschutz employee, William "Boots" Del Biaggio had been hired to try to bring NHL hockey to Kansas City. Eventually, it was decided that the best way to relocate a team to Kansas City was for Del Biaggio to buy into the Nashville Predators, with intent to move the team in the future if local ownership could not keep the team in Nashville. Anschutz secretly loaned Del Biaggio some of the money that he used to buy his share of the Predators. This scheme was exposed when Del Biaggio declared bankruptcy, as he had many other shady and fraudulent dealings. Clearly, Anschutz is willing to do things that are not in the NHL's best interests (such as having financial influence in more than one NHL franchise) if it is in his business interests. To date, there has been no punishment to Phillip Anschutz for this deal.

The NHL should be looking out for its interests and the interests of hockey in general. This isn't happening if it allows Phillip Anschutz to exert his influence on its direction. Anschutz will look out for himself and not worry about the overall health of the NHL or hockey in general. His past record shows this. The influence of Phillip Anschutz on the NHL's direction is a bad thing. No one owner should get too powerful. No one owner should put his own financial interests above the NHL's interests. The office of the commissioner should exist to see that the NHL does what is best for itself and for hockey. It should not be driven by a handful of powerful owners.

Monday, September 15, 2008

When The NHL Encourages Players To Jump To The KHL

One of the main stories this summer has been the development of the KHL as a major hockey league. There have been fights over players between the NHL and the KHL. The most prominent one is that of Alexander Radulov who might be interested in jumping back to the NHL. While the NHL has made a big case about Radulov jumping his contract to go to the KHL, there are other players under NHL contacts that the NHL would like to see jump to the KHL.

As James Mirtle points out, the NHL is more than happy to get rid of the bad contracts that don't fit into their plans by sending them to the KHL. The New Jersey Devils sent Vitaly Vishnevski to play with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the KHL. He was an extra defenceman for the Devils who signed a three year contract in 2007 at $1.8 million per year and did not fit into Devils plans. The Devils didn't want to have to pay him and the KHL was happy to take him. Vishnevski cleared waivers and was assigned to the KHL (as opposed to the AHL). Since Vishnevski is not in the NHL, his salary does not count against the salary cap and since he is playing in the KHL instead of the AHL, the Russians will pay his salary, so the Devils do not have to. The Devils won't be able to recall Vishnevski during the season, so this is likely equivalent to a buyout, except that the Devils do not pay any money for the buyout. This is another loophole in the salary cap discovered by Lou Lamoreillo.

The Calgary Flames would like to do the same. They have Marcus Nilson on their roster due to make $1 million this season. Last season, he was a non-factor scoring only five points. Calgary would like to get rid of him. In fact, they waived but did not buy him out in June of this year. Nilson is attempting to catch on with the CSKA Moscow Red Army Team. If he does this, Calgary will be able to get rid of his salary from their books entirely. Otherwise, he would have to be placed on an AHL team and they would have to pay him instead of letting the Russians do it.

It is hypocritical that the NHL loudly complains when players they want join the KHL and tries to push some players they don't want to jump to the league, so they can get out of their contracts. The NHL wants to be able to allow transfers if the want them and disallow them if they don't. They cannot have it both ways. One of the two will have to come to an end.

Friday, September 12, 2008

NHLPA Sues Over Pensions

One of the longstanding fights between the NHL and NHLPA has been over pensions. This has been a constant battle throughout the NHLPA history. In the Alan Eagleson days of the NHLPA, most gains made by the union were in terms of pension benefits which Eagleson himself skimmed money from. These were promised benefits that were often never delivered. Eagleson often claimed that the NHL had the best pension plan among pro sports leagues, but in reality longtime NHL players only received a few hundred dollars per month. The money Eagleson (the first boss of the NHLPA) skimmed from this and other sources led to his arrest and disgrace.

It appears that these problems have never been fully fixed. The NHLPA is claiming that death benefits for players who played in the NHL prior to July 1st, 1986 are not being paid as promised. A lawsuit has been filed in Ontario Superior Court on this issue. This is an important case for the NHLPA to fix in order to show their value to the players.

Here is the TSN story on this lawsuit.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Radulov Wants Back To The NHL

The NHL and the upstart KHL are fighting over players international rights. Since there is no player transfer agreement teams have been able to sign players under contract in the other league with legal uncertainty surrounding the future of those players. One of the big KHL signings this summer was Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators who was signed by Saavat Yulaev of the KHL. The signing was announced the same day that both leagues agreed to honor each other's contracts. The KHL argued that Radulov was signed before the agreement was made and they would keep him. Radulov has played three games in the KHL season and leads his team with four points. He has now announced that he wants back into the NHL.

Last week, the KHL announced that they would let an arbitrator handle the Radulov case. At the time, this was a surprising move. It appeared that Radulov would stay in the KHL and there was little the NHL could do about it. Offering the olive branch of an arbitration case was unexpected. Perhaps they knew Radulov wanted to leave and figured their best chance of keeping him was to have binding arbitration award him to their league.

Radulov is a man who breached his NHL contract this summer and now intends to breach his KHL contract to return to the NHL. It is not a good position for him to find himself in. He is seen as a villain by fans of both leagues.

It seems clear that there is more to the story than has been reported so far. It is quite possible that Radulov signed the KHL contract under duress (there may have been threats to him or his family) or something was promised with the contract signing that is clear now cannot possibly be delivered. It is also possible that he sees himself as a pawn in the NHL/KHL fight. The KHL is willing to give him up to win a public relations battle and he would rather leave on his own terms.

If Radulov returns to the NHL, it changes the player battle between the NHL and KHL. The NHL would have emerged from the first summer of the KHL's existence without losing a single player who is under contract to the fledgling league. They did lose players who have clear NHL talent (Jaromir Jagr, Ray Emery, Ladislav Nagy for example) and the KHL has other players with NHL talent already (Aleksey Morozov, Oleg Saprykin, Alex Perezhogin etc.) but the NHL is the clear victor in the year one battles. The KHL may be forced to develop the talent in Europe into stars. This is something that they can do if they can have a stable existence for a few years and retain players who might otherwise go to the NHL.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Progress With The KHL

One of the major hockey stories this summer has been the battle between the NHL and the KHL. Since there is no player transfer agreement, both leagues have claimed players have been signed by each other that were already under contract with the other league. Earlier this summer, both leagues agreed to respect each other's contracts but that agreement quickly fell apart as a KHL signing of Alexander Radulov, who is under contract with the Nashville Predators, that had occurred just before the agreement had been finalized was announced. Radulov along with NHL signings Jason Krog (Vancouver Canucks), Tomas Mozjis (Minnesota Wild) Fedor Fedorov (New Jersey Devils), Nikita Filatov (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Viktor Tikhanov (Phoenix Coyotes) all had their contracts suspended by the IIHF. They would not be allowed to participate in any IIHJF sanctioned tournaments, but it was unclear that these suspensions mattered to the leagues involved. In fact, Radulov has already played with Saayat Yulaev of the KHL.

There is progress after a meeting between Alexander Medvedev of the KHL and IIHF officials. The opposition to the signings of the five NHL players who had been suspended has been removed. There is an agreement that the Radulov case will be taken to and applicable court (what is an applicable court one in Russia or one in North America?) or arbitration. However, the KHL is disputing the signings of three new players Andrei Loktionov and Vyacheslav Voinov of the Los Angeles Kings and Andrei Mayorov of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

For the most part this appears to be a step toward agreement and an end of the player battles, but the details of the arbitration case for Radulov will be the important issue to decide if this is a good thing for the NHL or not. The KHL has extended an olive branch to the NHL. The NHL's reaction will be interesting.

Here is TSN's story on the agreement.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

KHL Disputes As Many Transfers As Possible

One strategy of the KHL to retain as much Russian talent as possible is to dispute the contract status of as many Russian players as possible who are transferring to the NHL. Even if a player does not have a clear contract for next season, when they sign with an NHL team, his contract status will be disputed.

This strategy is clear with the Los Angeles Kings signings of Andrei Loktionov and Viatcheslav Voynov. These are two 18 year olds who were drafted by the Kings in part because they understood that they were not under contract with the KHL. Maybe the Kings had their information wrong, but most likely this is a ploy for the KHL to keep as much young talent as they can in their grasp. If it becomes enough of a hassle with the IIHF to sign these players, teams will decide to forego signing Russians in the future (many teams already have done this) and they will be forced to stay in Russia.

It is still unclear how the NHL will handle IIHF suspensions, but the KHL is disregarding them in the case of Alexander Radulov. Will these players be given the green light to play in North America? If it is difficult to obtain them even after their signing, the NHL will likely turn their back on such players in the future. This gives the KHL more talent to work with and reduces the NHL's status as the league with all the best players in the world.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

McCabe Trade Showcases Leaf Problems

The long awaited Toronto Maple Leaf trade of Bryan McCabe was announced yesterday. McCabe and a 2010 4th round draft pick were traded to the Florida Panthers for Mike Van Ryn. McCabe is a pretty good hockey player. He made the second team all star in 2004. He is a very good offensive defenceman and a capable power play quarterback. He is prone to making some errors in the defensive zone and as a result earned some negative press in Toronto last season, but he was clearly one of the better defencemen on the team.

For whatever reason, the Leafs decided they had to get rid of him. It didn't matter that he had a no trade clause in his contract. McCabe was threatened with being sent home from the Leafs and not allowed to play unless he waived the clause. These kinds of moves serve to make Toronto an undesirable location for free agents. Why sign with a city that has a history of treating players poorly and reneging on contract clauses negotiated in apparent good faith?

I believe that this trade was demanded from ownership. Cliff Fletcher is too smart a hockey man to telegraph to his opponents that a key player is about to be traded regardless of the return in the deal. He has no history of doing this and would not have achieved success with this strategy. Ownership decided that McCabe was a liability because of bad press and a couple high profile mistakes. It was Fletcher's job to do this in the best method he could find.

In order to trade McCabe, Fletcher had to wait until the Leafs paid him a $2 million bonus due at the beginning of September and throw in a draft pick to bring back a lesser defender in Mike Van Ryn. Van Ryn is a 29 year old who was once a top prospect. He had appeared to develop into a pretty solid defender until injuries wiped out his last season. He was limited to 20 games played and only two points with the Florida Panthers. His career best total of 37 point would be McCabe's fifth best season. Given his recent injuries and two wrist surgeries, it is unclear if he can ever regain his previous level of play. A level of play that is well below McCabe's established level.

Anytime a team can grab a player who is being sold when his value is at its lowest (as McCabe is right now) they make a good deal. It might be that the player never regains his old value, but it is very hard to give up so much in the deal that you wind up losing the trade.

Toronto took a player who was for a while thought of as one of the top defenders in the game and turned him into one who will hopefully be above average if he can overcome injuries. For this honor, they had to give up an extra draft pick and wait around to pay him a bonus that no other team was interested in. If you wonder why the Leafs are one of the worst teams in the NHL - look no further than how they handled the Bryan McCabe situation.

Here is TSN's story on the trade.

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