Devils making NHL sweat, another miscarriage of justice, more notes
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is challenging the NHL with his use of a short bench
Lamoriello is exposing a double standard and luring the NHLPA into a grievance
It's indefensible that a blatant head shot is the equivalent of an obscene gesture
About a month ago, we warned you that New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello seemed to be choosing his words oh so carefully regarding his slapdown by NHL headquarters when it charged him with circumventing the Collective Bargaining Agreement after his signing of free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
Despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary and a statement from an "independent" arbitrator who exonerted Lamoriello and the Devils' ownership, the NHL ruled that the GM had indeed acted outside the bounds of the CBA in initially signing Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million dollar deal. The league then fined the Devils some $3 million and took away two draft choices, including a 2011 first-rounder.
It was a particularly harsh punishment made even harsher by the fact that the league had allowed similarly structured deals to stand. Given the circumstances, one could argue that the NHL picked its spot in nailing Lamoriello and the Devils after looking the other way on contracts put forth by some pretty heavy hitters in Commissioner Gary Bettman's circle of ownership, including Philadelphia's Ed Snider, Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and the heirs to Bill Wirtz's hockey empire in Chicago.
At about the same time, large segments of the media started accusing Lamoriello, one of the most successful GMs of the last two decades and a man whose teams have been as accomplished as those of media darling Ken Holland's Detroit Red Wings, of suddenly being stupid and incapable of managing the NHL's salary cap. It was an odd charge, given that the cap is not only largely Lamoriello's creation, but because he, unlike many of his GM colleagues, was the first to exploit some of its loopholes, including the ability to avoid a cap hit by sending NHL players to the minors. (Scoring star Alexander Mogilny being the obvious trend-setting example.)
Which brings us to Lamoriello's statement of a month ago that the Kovalchuk ruling was a "non-subject right now" (the right now a somewhat veiled threat that the battle with the NHL's New York office, from the Devils' point of view, wasn't over) as well as his subsequent action of dressing fewer than the league-mandated 18 skaters and two goaltenders for regular season games.
Injuries and the fact that the Devils were right up against the cap ceiling of $59.4 million at the start of the season undoubtedly played a role in Lamoriello's decision to shorten his bench. But one can't help thinking that it's also Lamoriello's way of exposing the NHL's history of what seems to be selective prosecution in the Kovalchuk case.
You see, the league does have a rule regarding roster size, but as it so often does, it left itself an out in case a franchise ran into a "situation." The rule is 18 skaters and two goalies, but the league allows for "emergency conditions." It doesn't exactly state what those conditions are, but the Calgary Flames last season were allowed to play a short bench for a fistful of games because they, too, had injury problems and were up against the cap.
That decision created howls of protest in the media, the NHL Players Association, and from GMs who felt the Flames were doing everything from bending the rules to suit their situation to denying fans the opportunity to see a full squad compete on a nightly basis. There were even complaints from GMs that Calgary's short-bench tactics disrupted the competitive balance in the Northwest Division and Western Conference with a definite impact on several teams fighting for a playoff berth that couldn't count on the Flames playing a competitive game when they were chronically short-handed.
It's impossible to say whether the NHL agreed, but it did look the other way, allowing the Flames some room under the "emergency provisions" clause even though the emergency went on for weeks.
Fast-forward to this season and look at the Devils. Injuries to defenseman Anton Volchenkov and forward Brian Rolston along with a suspension to winger Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (since demoted to the minors), forced Lamoriello to make a decision. He could have dumped a high-salaried but aging player in the minors a la Mogilny or as Rangers GM Glen Sather recently did with Wade Redden, or he could shorten his bench. He chose to shorten the bench.
Lamoriello, who was in Buffalo on Wednesday night when his Devils beat the Sabres 1-0 in a game played at playoff level intensity, declined all comment on this matter. But it's clear to this observer that he's backing up his "non-subject right now" threat with a ploy designed to embarrass the NHL powers who nailed him after overlooking similar contracts and lure the NHLPA into filing a grievance.
The PA is on record as "currently reviewing [New Jersey's actions] to make sure the CBA is being adhered to," PA director of communications Jonathan Weatherdon said in a recent statement. Translation: if this keeps up and players lose jobs and income because of it, we will take any and all actions necessary to make it stop.
That's a problem for the NHL in that it has already set a precedent in looking favorably on what the Flames did last season. How and why the league would do that if shorting the bench would upset the competitive balance in the Western Conference is an issue the NHL is eventually going to have to explain and perhaps even defend in a grievance hearing. Should an arbitrator rule that the NHL has violated some aspect of the CBA, it would appear that Lamoriello and the Devils will have their revenge.
Along the way, Lamoriello's decision doesn't seem to have hurt the competitiveness of his team. It lost a short-bench (15 skaters) game to Pittsburgh, but the score was close (3-1) and the Devils' forwards seem to enjoy playing a three-line rotation that gives them lots of ice time. It was much the same on Wednesday vs. Buffalo where fans were treated to a first-rate goaltending battle between New Jersey's multi-Vezina-winner Martin Brodeur and the current trophy holder, Ryan Miller. The game went to overtime before it was decided 1-0 on a goal-scorer's tally by Kovalchuk.
As far as being a handicapped team, the Devils were able to dress 16 skaters (recently-signed former Sabre Adam Mair took the place of Letourneau-Leblond, who cleared waivers and was assigned to the AHL) and they outskated Buffalo for the bulk of the contest, especially in the first period when they outshot the Sabres 15-2.
Lamoriello should be able to keep this up for awhile. The recent groin injury to Rolston is the dreaded sports hernia. After surgery today, Rolston will be out four to six weeks and undoubtedly go on long-term injured reserve, which will buy the Devils some serious cap relief. The way Bettman has set things up, particularly after the green light he gave Calgary last season, playing under the mandatory roster limit is a form of "cap maintenance," not circumvention.
Though not admitting to anything, Lamoriello is forcing that issue down the collective throats of the NHLPA, which in turn is causing the NHL to swallow hard. It's unlikely the PA will accept the dubious and undefined "emergency situation" as something beyond a club's control after a week or two of short-benching. Should this matter drag on until Don Fehr is officially ratified as the new executive director of the NHLPA, a grievance appears inevitable. That would have the league defending itself for circumventing the CBA, the very thing it convicted Lamoriello of doing.
And it's not as if the PA wouldn't have a case. In addition to objecting to an extended "emergency," a goodly number of teams have pulled back from the maximum roster size of 23 players (18 skaters, two goalies to dress and three players who stay with the big club even though they aren't dressing for games). At the start of the season, at least eight teams were carrying just 22. A ninth, Buffalo, announced its intention to do so, but had to surrender the idea after buying out Tim Kennedy in an arbitration dispute and adding some free agents. That adds to the concerns of the NHLPA, which sees those moves as a blatant attempt to reduce roster numbers and payroll, actions that take jobs away from NHLPA members. And some people say Lou Lamoriello has suddenly gotten stupid?
I don't think so.
If anything, Lamoriello may be proving himself as the smartest man in the room, the one holding a mirror to an NHL office that seems to think selective prosecution is a tool that only works its way. His lineup decisions may well be a "non-subject right now," but his actions don't ring hollow to the league and the NHLPA.