Saturday, July 21, 2012

Occupy Toronto: The NHL CBA

All hockey fans have to be fearing a lockout. I'm not saying that to be an alarmist or over dramatic, it's just a reality that hockey fans have to be dealing with. If you think about any labor dispute in history, they've often resulted in blood. While I don't expect this particular dispute to go that route - although it would be funny to see the players storm the NHL Bastille and construct a guillotine out of a Bauer skate - it is at its heart a labor dispute and comes with all of the ferocity of a labor dispute.

Anytime you have a pie, everyone is going to want "their fair share" of it, whether it be apple, key lime or monetary. If you want to read an excellent and detailed report on the current state of the NHL and why the owners are asking for what they're asking for, check out this article by James Mirtle. There's a lot of high finance talk and it can be hard to translate (not Mirtle's fault, he does a great job trying to explain it as simply as possible).

The gist of it is this: Prior to the 2005 lockout, many teams were facing huge losses season after season. A major source of that was seen to be sky rocketing cost of labor. Quick economics lesson - labor tends to be the #1 cost of any businesses and hockey was no differently. In order to keep teams and the league as a whole above water, the players were strong armed into accepting a salary cap. The plan worked, the league as a whole is solvent, but not all teams are.

Teams like Columbus and Phoenix are hemorrhagic money and teams like Toronto and, yes, Detroit are sitting pretty. So what to do about the situation? We know what the NHL has offered but we also know that the players and I think a vast majority of the fans think it's a ridiculous offer. I've got a few ideas that I think should be considered that I think will help bridge the gap.

#1: A cut in players' revenue shares be conditional upon greater revenue sharing among the teams

As Mirtle's article points out, in order to make up the financial shortfall some teams face you'd have to cut the players' revenue share as low as 25%. Meaning in 2010-2011, the players would have seen 775 million instead of 1.76 billion, or 44% less. Now you and I might roll our eyes at only getting a chunk of 775 million and think they're being snobby, but imagine getting 44% less money next year as you were getting this year. Whether you make $10,000 a year or $10,000,000 a year that sucks.

Can the players afford that hit? Yes they can. Should they have to? Probably not. For one thing, with the KHL as a serious contender - maybe less for North American players - as well as European leagues, players who do want to make more money do have other viable options. Also, they already have taken hits to their livelihood in the form of the salary cap. Sure, we're seeing some remarkable salaries being thrown at Suter, Parise, Crosby and Weber, but consider what these guys may be earning if there were no salary cap. And consider how many of them might be all on one team (even the Red Wings).

So let's say instead of cutting the player's share down to 46% we come down to an even 50%. The teams are rumored to share about 7% of their revenue. Let's bump that up to at or above 10%. Whatever the exact percentages are can be argued over by lawyers from both sides. What will matter most is that if the players are going to be expected to shore up cash to help keep the teams alive, the teams that are alive and kicking have to be expected to do the same.

#2: If contracts are going to be limited, the current contracts have to be reviewed and possibly voided.

It's easy to say that the PariWebSuter contracts have shown the owners and GM's of the league to be hypocrites, and I don't think that's terribly unfair. As many have pointed out, Minnesota Wild Craig Leopold owner said, "We're not making money, and that's one reason to fix our system. We need to fix how much we're spending right now...[the Wild's[ biggest expense by far is player salaries." in April and then two months later agreed to spend $196 million dollars on two players.

Now, I will say in defense of the Minnesota Wild, if paying that kind of money and those kinds of contracts are the expected in the league, I don't expect them to play in a different league. The Wild want to be competitive and they were going to spend the money to be competitive. That's totally fair. But you can't blame us for scratching our heads and wondering if you meant something different when you talked about "fixing our system".

If the NHL is going to force players to settle for 5 year contracts (or whatever the number ends up being, if that's something that happens) then they cannot grandfather in all of these contracts. Any contract signed in-between the end of the 2011-2012 season and the start of the 2012-2013 season that is longer than X years is voided and the players immediately become unrestricted free agents. Any player with a contract signed during or prior to the 2011-2012 that is longer than 5 years has the duration of their contract reduced to X years or the end of the 2012-2013 season, whichever is greater. Those players then become unrestricted free agents. Furthermore, teams would not be allowed to negotiate contract extensions with players until after the trade deadline in the year that player's contract expires.

Yes, this could mean we'd be looking at guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen and Kronwall hitting the free agent market in the near future. But it would mean that Crosby, Weber, Suter and Parise would all be back on the market and have to be resigned now.. It would mean all kinds of star players would come back on the market. If the league truly wants to limit long term deals, then they can't allow teams to get away with long term deals.

If Leopold really wants the system fixed then he has to roll up his sleeves and make sacrifices he'd expect the "big market teams" to make.

#3: No-Trade/No Movement Clauses have to be changed

The Rick Nash/Dany Heatly nonsense that has taken place over the past few seasons has earned the ire of fans, probably more than a number of GM's and possibly the league in total. When a team gives a player an NTC or NMC are basically a marriage between player and team. We agree to the money I'm worth and how long I'm going to be worth it, we agree that I am to be a marquee player who produces, brings victory and money to the team and you can't get rid of me just because I'm expensive.

But when a player waves their clauses and then sits there and vetoes any move they don't like, it just reeks of a spoiled child throwing a temper tantrum.

The simplest way to solve this problem: if a player announces they are waving their no trade clause, they have nullified that part of their contract. They cannot undo that nullification. They are a fully tradeable player who can be sent to any team that is interested. That means if Rick Nash is traded from Columbus to the Islanders or the Coyotes, then he gets to pack his bags and bring an industrial sized box of tissues for his tears.

Some have suggested that players can give a list of so many teams they will not accept a trade to so they can have some some input as to where they go. That could be a fair compromise, so long as it doesn't completely handicap a team's ability to move a player that obviously doesn't want to be there anymore.

#4: Trade offers and offer sheets should be anonymous between teams

This might seem like me being a sore loser, but fuck it. It pisses me off that Columbus can refuse to trade Nash to the Red Wings because they're in the same division. There should be a panel of arbitrators who take offers from Team A and present it in an anonymous way to Team B. And if Team B accepts then Columbus finds out they've traded Nash to the Red Wings.

I know there's problems with it. For one, it might just cause teams to refuse all trades based on principal. And second, if Columbus is given an offer that includes a 32 year old forward who has been scoring around 30 goals most seasons, with an 8 years left on his contract they'll go "It's Johan Franzen!".

Like I said, this could be just me being really sour about Columbus and Poile's asinine behavior with regards to Rick Nash. It just seems like something could be done to prevent teams from being unnecessarily stingy.

In conclusion: I would like to say a couple of things. The salary cap is a good thing for the NHL and for professional sports. Granted, there is nobody in the world who would be unhappy if their team were the team that bought all the talent. People bitch about the Yankees and before the cap, they bitched about the Red Wings. However, if there was no cap, you can't sit here and tell me that if your favorite team spent all the money on all the best talent in the NHL that you'd complain.

But parity is good. If you want your team to win every game and the Stanley Cup every year, then purchase the newest edition of EA Sports NHL game. The game of hockey is better when any team, including the Red Wings, can't buy all the talent. Yes, it was great in 2002 to watch Datsyuk skate around with Lidstrom and Yzerman and Shanahan and Hull and Robataille and Hasek and Federov and Chelios.

But, that was great for Red Wing fans, but the entirety of the league and the game is better with more parity. But too much parity just makes things stale and uninteresting, and if the league and owners want parity in the game of hockey, then they have to agree to parity in the CBA.

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