Monday, July 12, 2010

The NHL Since The Lockout- Part 1: What Have We Learned

Normally, this would be the time that I’d write the season recap for the year that we just had. There is a lot to recap, of course, with a lot of good (a playoff for the ages featuring one of the most entertaining Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory, a magical run by the Montreal Canadiens (where “the old guard” showed “the new guard” (the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins) “who’s boss”), and an unbelievable run by the Philadelphia Flyers (0-3 comebacks are always special, unless you’re the team that blew that lead); the re-emergence of the Los Angeles Kings to relevancy, and some of the highest television numbers in years), a lot of bad (the Calgary Flames’ season, more whining about the officiating and the Phoenix Coyotes’ ownership mess), and a whole lot of ugly (the “head shot” conundrum). However, I won’t be doing that today.

No, because with the conclusion of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals, we have now played five seasons since “The Lockout” wiped out the 2004-05 season; and since five years is considered a benchmark for reviewing “ages”, I figured it’s time not just to recap the last season but the last five seasons as a whole- and see where the game is headed.

When the owners locked out the players on September 15, 2004, they set out to achieve a lot of goals. One of those was the oft-repeated phrase of “cost certainty”, otherwise known as a salary cap. Before “The Lockout”, the National Hockey League claimed years of draining financial losses brought upon by the previous collective bargaining agreement (one the owners themselves extended twice), and thus wanted to create a system that enabled all teams to be economically competitive. While the league’s reasoning may have been faulty (many of the league’s upper tier were hardly “buying” championships like the New York Yankees were), the conclusion itself was sound- without a saner salary system, the league did run the risk of having a team like the Yankees emerge in the NHL.

However, that wasn’t the only goal of “The Lockout”. The NHL also wanted to improve the level of play, because a full decade of “clutch-and-grab”, neutral zone trap hockey had created a game that was drab, lifeless and ultimately unwatchable. The league had attempted to crack down on obstruction fouls in the past but hardly ever put forth a diligent effort. While it wouldn’t be part of the actual CBA, cleaning up the game and increasing scoring in the NHL became one of the stated goals of “The Lockout”, with research and development sessions taking place in Toronto at numerous times during the negotiations to examine potential improvements to the game. Once the league did come back, it renewed the importance of cracking down on obstruction by creating a new “standard” for officiating; as well as introducing the shootout designed to resolve all games that ended as a tie after overtime.

Fortunately, the league would be welcoming two bright young stars to the fold in 2005-06 in Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, two players who’d form the centrepiece for league promotions following “The Lockout”. Ovechkin was slated to join the Washington Capitals in 2005, while Crosby would be the No. 1 pick in a 2005 draft where the order of teams would be based on a lottery where the worst teams of the previous four years had the best shot at No. 1. It raised the tantalizing prospect of Crosby being selected by the New York Rangers but, instead, the Rags wouldn’t get No. 1 which would fall to the Pittsburgh Penguins (who subsequently selected Bobby Ryan No. 1 overall...just kidding). So, at the very least, the NHL could look forward to some bright young stars to market for many years to come.

So now that we’ve established how the NHL wanted the future to work out, let’s see how it worked out- and where the NHL goes from here.

Today: Part 1: What We've Learned

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

No one likes the shootout. I admit it- at first, I loved the idea. Hey, it’s dramatic, it’s exciting and you get to see players pull of cool moves you’d never see them pull off during an actual game. Then I continued to watch it and I began wondering, “What’s the point?” Kind of like too many NHL hockey games, too many shootouts means they all start “looking the same” and the novelty wore off.

That’s not it though- the shootout itself is useless. Twice we’ve seen shootouts determine playoff participants directly- the New York Islanders in 2007 and the Flyers this past season- and countless other games during the season that ultimately decided playoff position that were decided in shootouts (the Colorado Avalanche secured their playoff berth this past season when Matt Duchene scored in a shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks). Full credit to the teams that won the shootouts, but when you really think about it, this isn’t the way to decide a hockey game.

Think about it- let’s say your team played hard for 65 minutes but couldn’t break the deadlock with your opponent. Instead of losing the game because the other team thought up a faceoff play you couldn’t counter or received a bit of magic from a kind of player you didn’t have, you lose the game because the other team has some guy who couldn’t score to save his life during a real game scored in the shootout because he pulled off that spinarama-backhand shot he’d been perfecting all week in practice. That doesn’t sound like a great way to lose a hockey game, does it? That’s what you get with the shootout, because it’s nothing more than- you guessed it- a skills competition. Furthermore, the fact that we don’t see it in the playoffs underscores just how much of a gimmick the shootout really is, plus the fact that hockey’s equivalent in soccer- the penalty shootout- is also derided shows how faulty the shootout really is. Soccer doesn’t have a choice but to play the shootouts, but hockey does. It’s time for the NHL to make the right one and get rid of the “skills competition” once and for all.

This “loser point” doesn’t work. Way back in 1999- when the NHL decided to call the “foot in the crease rule” until it happened to involve the Buffalo Sabres- the NHL had a simple way of determining a team’s point total during the regular season- two points for a win and one point for a tie (yes, Gary Bettman at one point allowed games to end without a winner). However, the league noticed at this time that there were too many ties, because they found that in overtime teams played defensively in order to preserve the point gained instead of being offensive and risking getting exposed defensively (thus gaining nothing from the contest). So the NHL- instead of going the route of FIFA and making each win worth three points instead of two and leaving the tie worth just a single point (this system has been *highly* effective)- cooks up their first of its harebrained point schemes and decides that should the game go to overtime, the teams will receive a point anyway, regardless of whether or not someone scores to break the deadlock (in which case the winning team gets the extra point).

The plan did increase the amount of overtime winners, but it did introduce the painful reality that someone could clinch a playoff spot by losing a game, which actually *did* happen. In 2000-01, the Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes were fighting for the final two playoff spots, with Phoenix on the outside looking in. In their penultimate game of the season, Vancouver and Los Angeles played each other, with the Coyotes also having their final game the next night. Phoenix stood one point behind the Kings and were even with the Canucks, but trailed both teams in wins. Under the old point system, regardless of the outcome, Phoenix still would have had a shot at making the playoffs in their final game. However, under this system, if Vancouver won the game in overtime, Phoenix would have be eliminated, because the single point Los Angeles would gain would mean all Phoenix could do is tie the Kings or the Canucks on points but lose out on the playoffs because they had fewer wins.

What happens? Well, Harold Druken scored for the Canucks in overtime against Los Angeles, clinching the playoff berth for both teams, meaning the Kings qualified for the playoffs despite losing.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the NHL decided after the lockout that there wouldn’t be ties anymore- to resolve games after overtime, there’d be everyone’s favourite event, the shootout. Oh how grand. However, the move could have made sense if the NHL decided that they’d do away with points and just awarded wins and losses, but the NHL continued its lunacy by deciding that teams that lose in overtime or a shootout still get a point (are you scratching your head yet?). So instead of having a somewhat sensible approach in preserving ties, we now have a scenario where there are just wins and losses, but with some of those losses being worth a point and others not being worth a point, so some games could have three points being awarded. You can see where this goes- with every point valuable, teams hardly ever open up during regulation ‘cause they want to push the game to overtime so they at least get a point out of the game. Predictably, the amount of “three point games” skyrocketed, serving to create confusion among the fans, ‘cause, yes, even though your team is on a ten game losing streak, seven of those games went beyond regulation so you still get seven points. Sounds like a fair haul for futility, no?

Don’t expect any relief in the future though, since a number of insane ideas have been floated about. The most talked about is the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) format where teams that win in regulation are awarded three points whereas teams that win beyond regulation only receive two points, with the “loser point” still entrenched. If you thought the NHL’s system was confusing, wait until you have that system. Instead of having to figure out how many of your losses came beyond regulation, now you also have to figure out how many of your wins came beyond regulation as well, since that impacts your point total. All of a sudden, that ten game winning streak you went on sure isn’t that impressive if nine of those wins came via the shootout (“oh, if we didn’t hit the crossbar so many times...”). The way this is going, we may eventually need calculus to determine how many points you received during the season. Madness.

All this boils down to is this- why don’t we just have wins and losses, like the other major sports the NHL so desperately wants to be included in, and forget about points altogether. Or just have the FIFA system with three points for a win and one for a tie. Easy to understand, easy to calculate and easy to follow, without requiring someone having to major in Complex Arithmetic to figure out how their team really did. Because if the standings aren’t easy to follow, then the casual fans the NHL desires will get lost trying to figure out how well a team is doing and just give up on hockey, going to other sports whose standings are easy to follow. At that point, the NHL just might as well brandish itself as the “biggest of the minor leagues” because no reputable sports league would ever confuse its fans in that manner; and that’s not the future it should want.

So what is the penalty standard anyway? When hockey resumed, the NHL promised to introduce a firm “penalty standard” to eliminate the clutching and grabbing that infested the game. No more would referees be allowed “wiggle room” with which to interpret what a hook, a hold, or a trip is- every call, the NHL said, would be the same (for example, if the stick is in the gut of a player and it’s perpendicular to the ice, that’s hooking). Of course, the NHL had promised this before, but renewed sense of vigour about this crackdown meant things could actually be better this time.

For about two years, the NHL was right. 2005-06 saw scoring levels skyrocket with the increase in power plays (a full goal per game more was scored in 2005-06 than in 2003-04, though the ’05-06 of 6.17 is a shade under the NHL overall average (since 1917) of 6.2), and saw games become genuinely less predictable, with a lot of lead changes in games. 2006-07 saw a sharp decrease in power plays halfway through the season but that was because players finally got the message, changed their ways and actually followed the standard. The trend continued into 2007-08, but by 2008-09, signs started to show that the standard is slipping.

Now, I don’t want to be alarmist and suggest that we’re back to the way we were before the lockout, because we’re not, and referees are still all calling the game tighter than they were in 2003-04. However, I’m seeing a lot more “missed calls” nowadays than I did in 2005-06, and this has something to do with the fact that some referees- but not all- decided they’re “loosening” the standard a little bit. This means the problem we had before the lockout- standards changing in every game- has come back, and no doubt it’s confusing the players. Perhaps we can all agree that some of the calls in 2005-06 were chintzy, but, at the same time, we should still see a set standard and we don’t see that. I’m not sure who to fault on this issue but one thing is clear- the referees themselves (and the league) need to come up with a directive to set a clear standard once and for all. I’m not expecting perfection- no one is- but the players- and the fans- deserve a lot more consistency than what they’re currently getting.

Predicting suspensions is like predicting the winning lottery numbers. Speaking of inconsistency, how about suspensions? Predicting them can be just like predicting when pigs will actually fly- very rarely does the same violent act receive the same punishment, and, more often than not, the severity of those punishments fluctuate instead of providing (as they should) a discernible pattern. Granted, this is a problem that has plagued Bettman ever since he came into the league, but, unfortunately, the problem of violence in the NHL is showing no signs of improving- in fact, it appears to be getting worse.

Central to the concern is that, since “The Lockout”, the NHL also pledged to have a standard for violent play and, for the first couple of months of the 2007, the NHL seemed to back up its word. Mega-suspensions were levied against Steve Downie and Chris Simon in a space of about six months, with the NHL even going as far as announcing the outline for how future suspensions would be levied. It sounded great but scepticism remained, considering that we hadn’t seen a superstar player get involved in a similar incident. We wouldn’t have to wait very long for that answer, since in 2007-08, Simon and Chris Pronger would be involved in incidents where they stomped on another player’s leg with their skate. Simon received 30 games for his attack in late December 2007 and Pronger would receive eight for his mid-March 2008 attack (with those eight games being inconsequential since his Anaheim Ducks were already assured a playoff spot by that time), despite the fact Pronger was also a “repeat offender”. It also took the NHL several incidents before it decided Alexander Ovechkin was worthy of a suspension, and, even there, he’s only received a pair of two-game bans. However, it’s not just superstars who received preferential treatment- Randy Jones drilled Patrice Bergeron from behind (in a similar play to Downie’s hit) in late 2007 and received just two games for his actions, and Marian Hossa- who may be a star himself but is very much a “lesser light” to Ovechkin- received no supplementary discipline at all after his hit from behind on Nashville Predator Dan Hamhuis during this past playoffs, a play similar to the Ovechkin hit on Brian Campbell that cost the Washington Capitals star two games in mid-March of this year. If you can make sense of those actions then, please, let me in on them because I’m still scratching my head at just how random the NHL appears.

That is the heart of the problem- the random suspensions. People like to moan about “the instigator penalty” as the source of all this violence, but they’d be wont to know that the instigator penalty came into existence in 1992 (a year before Bettman came into power) and that it is hardly ever called in the first place (it’s just issued in ten percent of fights). The truth is that players are taking matters into their own hands because they know the NHL won’t do it, because having random suspensions is like not having them at all. Creating a *clear* standard is tantamount to eradicating the problem, because- like they did with hooking and holding- eventually players will know what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable and adjust accordingly.

Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are the players we thought they’d be...sort of. Before either of them had hit the ice, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin created a buzz around the league not seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Both Crosby and Ovechkin were set to debut their services in 2005, starting careers that many believed would rival the greatest players in the history of the game.

Since that time, it’s likely safe to assume that neither will rank at the absolute top of the historical heap (Ovechkin has 529 points in five seasons, Crosby 506 whereas Gretzky accumulated 914 in his first five seasons) though it is safe to assume these two did become elite forwards. It’s still too early to tell where- or even if- they’ll rank among the all time greats, but the starts are great.

Of course, the greater question is whether or not these two have undoubtedly *become* the best players in the game, and the answer to that depends on how you interpret it. In terms of sheer offence, Crosby and Ovechkin have indeed set the bar, being the only two players to have recorded 100+ points in a season more than twice (though Joe Thornton holds the record for most points in a season since “The Lockout” with 125 in the first season back), and Ovechkin is the only player with multiple Art Ross Trophies in the last five years.

Still, we’re looking at two completely different players- Crosby is a playmaker, Ovechkin a pure scorer- and, despite the numbers, it’s hard to really put these two in a class of their own. Players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin, Martin St. Louis, Thornton, Rick Nash and even Steven Stamkos look to be just as dangerous as Crosby and Ovechkin are. People also like to bring up Crosby’s Cup win and the “Golden Goal” but they conveniently forget that Crosby didn’t win the Conn Smythe (Malkin did) and that Crosby was relatively invisible at the Olympics until that overtime goal. Also, there are so many other facets of their game that both Crosby and Ovechkin need to work on before we really can call them “the greatest players of their generation”.

It’s here where I bring up more complete players, players who I’d consider “the best players in the game”. It’s hard for me to narrow it down to one player, but if I had a list, I’d bring up players like forwards Pavel Datsyuk (consistently among the league leaders in takeaways), Jonathan Toews (among the team leaders in penalty killing and power play time on one of the league’s best specialty teams) and Mike Richards (one of the league’s best pure scorers who hits as hard as he shoots and also a key contributor to the Philadelphia Flyers’ power play and penalty killing units); and Nicklas Lidstrom, undoubtedly his generation’s best defencemen and arguably one of the best defencemen of all time- you just can’t get a more *complete* defenceman than Lidstrom. If I had to press, I’d probably pick Lidstrom because of what he’s accomplished and what he’s able to do, but you could make a strong case for any of the other three players being “the best” as well.

Does this mean that Crosby and Ovechkin won’t reach those heights? It’s too early in their careers to really know- after all, Crosby is just 23 and Ovechkin is just 25- so they both have time to develop into complete players, but, based on the current body of work, perhaps the media has been too quick to anoint these two “the best” without actually examining the situation objectively. I do have concerns about their longevity- both Crosby and Ovechkin place a lot of weight on their knees and Crosby has already suffered quite a few leg injuries (including a sprained knee in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals) and that catches up to you, while Ovechkin’s reckless style of play and the blinding speed at which he plays puts added stress on the knees (just ask Pavel Bure). You also have to wonder if- as Don Cherry likes to say- someone will clock Ovechkin because of all the hits he delivers (I hope not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did happen). I personally hope they can have long careers, but injuries are a concern. Ultimately, though, their futures will dictate their place in history and while it’s safe to say they won’t be the all-time greatest players ever, they still have time to work on their game, “complete it” and seal their places among the elite of the NHL.

Can anyone figure out the NHL’s “voodoo economics”? One of the tenets of the new CBA was that the salary cap would be tied to the revenues the NHL brings in. This would mean- presumably- that the salary cap would fluctuate depending on the year, meaning that it would go up in some years and down in some years. For 2005-06, the NHL set the salary cap at $39 million (all figures U.S. unless otherwise noted), with a salary floor of $21.45 million, modest figures at the time.

In just five years, though, the cap skyrocketed $20 million, to where it sits now at $59 million, with a salary floor ($43 million) that’s higher than the cap was in 2005-06. Part of the reason for the massive upswing in the cap is the Canadian dollar reaching parity with the U.S. dollar, which it hit in 2008 after being valued at 80¢. Still, despite signs that we still haven’t fully recovered from the economic recession, the salary cap continued to grow, moving up $2.6 million this past offseason to the current level.

This would be good news if there weren’t signs of too many shaky franchises. Already we have in the vernacular of the game the concept of “budget teams” and “cap teams”, thus creating another version of the “have” and “have not” camps that the salary cap was supposed to replace. The only reason why you don’t hear about it is because none of the “have not” teams are Canadian (let’s not forget who were the biggest champions- and now the biggest hypocrites- of the salary cap system). It does bring in a salient point in that several of the “have not” teams are in the “non-traditional” markets, places like Nashville, Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Carolina and further hits at the need for the NHL to really examine its Southern strategy. I differ on most people in that I believe there *is* a market for hockey in the Deep South, it just doesn’t have enough for all the teams that are in the league; and that some of those teams ought to be moved, perhaps to Canada which generates about 35% of the league’s revenues. Still, there’s ample proof that the salary structure still isn’t fixed in the NHL and that, going forward, the NHL needs to find a system where economic parity can exist. The current system is still better than the previous one, but it’s still dangerously flawed.

Coming Soon: Part 2- Where Do We Go From Here?

-DG

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-DG

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