The NHL's five big questions
The salary cap has been the death of dynasties the NHL sorely needs
NHL teams need exemptions to help them keep their best homegrown players
Making teams fight their way out of their divisions is key to playoffs reform
In the NHL, as in life, there are the small ideas and the big ideas. Like most people, I tend to get caught up in small ones. These are quotidian things like the Flyers' seemingly eternal search for a goalie, Henrik Sedin's run at the Hart Trophy, the turtle race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and Colorado's Perils of Pauline predicament in the West.
Before you immerse yourself in playoff musings, dodgy goaltending, NHL awards and the like, we offer a final look at some of the big ideas that will be confronting the NHL in the next few years or, in some cases, the next collective bargaining agreement. (The current CBA expires in September 2011, but the Players Association -- assuming, knock knock, somebody's home by then -- has the right to extend it by a year.)
Continuing Olympic participation has been the attention grabber, but enough brain cells have been devoted to what was the hot-button issue before head shots became the rage six weeks ago. We will give it a rest for now.
Here are five others worth considering:
1. Assuming the salary cap is engraved in stone, should the NHL and NHLPA consider a version of the Larry Bird Exception in the next CBA?
From our perspective, the answer is yes. While a Bird Exception would soften what is, basically, the NHL's hard cap, it also would mitigate the single worst consequence of the post-lockout cap: the inability of good teams to stay together. (The Larry Bird Exception allows NBA teams to re-sign their own free agents; to be eligible, a player cannot have changed teams as a free agent in three seasons.)
If you look at the historic sweep of the NHL since the 1967 expansion, you know the league has been propelled by dynasties or, sometimes, mini-dynasties. From the Big Bad Bruins to the Broad Street Bullies to the Flying Frenchmen to the grand Islanders to the aesthetic Oilers, the NHL gained the most traction when there was a king of the hill that everyone was trying to knock off. The salary cap was a death knell for the dynasty. Rather than allowing us the pleasure of watching a team like the Blackhawks grow, general manager Stan Bowman will have to jettison significant pieces this summer to stay under the cap due to the long-term deals doled out this season to captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.
Chicago reached elite status through bumbling -- high draft choices allowed it to pick Captain Serious and Killer Kane -- but Detroit did it on sheer brainpower. Still, GM Ken Holland has been forced to lose important players because of the cap, including Marian Hossa to the Hawks. Hossa would not have qualified as a Larry Bird Exception because he had jumped to the Red Wings as a free agent from Pittsburgh, but that's beside the point. The point is: some kind of exemption for a homegrown player might allow a Pittsburgh or Washington to become a true circus team, one of those must-see squads of an earlier era that can dominate for half a decade.
2. Should the draft lottery end?
The short answer: yes. Not that you would know it given the exemplary play of some current no-hopers -- Carolina getting three points in four nights against Montreal and Ottawa; Florida shutting out Boston on Thursday -- but the weighted lottery still does not remove all incentive to tank, if a team were so-inclined.
Yes, the system, belatedly instituted in 1995 after years of skullduggery, is a vast improvement. Pittsburgh tanking to get Mario Lemieux in 1984 was epic, but draft position certainly remains linked to precisely how terrible a team is. (The 30th place team has a 48.2 per cent chance of drafting first overall, a 51.8 per cent chance of picking second. So, basically Edmonton ends up with Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.) Because nothing is more important to a league than the integrity of its contests, the NHL should fling open the first 14 spots in the draft to the non-playoff teams via a random draw. There would still be a prize for a certain level of incompetence, just no guaranteed reward for rank incompetence.
3. In the next CBA, should there be a salary floor as well as a ceiling?
Because you don't want a team like, say, Nashville, simply shoving the dollars from the NHL's limited revenue sharing program into its pockets, you need some kind of floor to ensure those funds are reinvested in players. Of course, when a team signs them to inflated contracts to reach the cap floor, there's a problem. (After the 2004-05 lockout, the cap was $39 million and the floor was $21.5 million. The current spread is $56.8 million and $40.8 million, narrower than the original. Note that the floor now is higher than the first ceiling, albeit not in 2005 dollars.)
As Calgary GM Darryl Sutter used to say, "We already have a salary cap. It's called a budget." The Flames used to pay about $35 million a year in salaries. Now their cap hit, albeit it with a more muscular Canadian dollar that is almost at par with the greenback, is within $150,000 of the ceiling.
Some of the lower revenue teams deserve relief. If players will still be getting a fixed percentage of NHL gross revenues, individual teams should be able to apply for exceptions to the floor, as long as they devote a prescribed percentage of their gross revenues to payroll. We'll let the accountants sort that out.
4. Should more teams be added to the playoffs?
If New York Islanders owner Charles Wang had his way, everyone would have a shot of getting into the tournament, which basically makes it a 1,230-game season to eliminate no one. As tempting as a money grab might be (c.f, basketball, NCAA), a playoff that already has more than half the teams qualifying is sufficiently generous.
The problem is not how many, but how? The NHL playoffs were at their most gloriously insane when teams had to fight their way of out the division to a conference final, like in the bad old Norris and Adams Division days. While some of the playoffs might be repetitive -- what, Boston vs. Montreal again? -- divisional playoffs are the beating heart of NHL rivalries. This would require realignment into four divisions, an awkward number with 30 teams, but it would be well worth the trouble.
That covers the first two rounds. For the third round, the NHL should re-seed the remaining four teams based on regular-season points. Why? Because there is a chance you might get the best two in the Stanley Cup Final. As currently configured, there is no hope of Washington playing, say, Pittsburgh for the Cup. You at least might want to give yourself the possibility of that or, say, an Original Six rematch of the Canadiens and Rangers.
The final should be 2-3-2, incidentally. After a season that starts shortly past Labor Day, the NHL insists on dragging exhausted players on what are unnecessary cross-country trips for a seven-game series in mid-June. Fresher players mean better hockey. The 2-3-2 format also saves money and is eco-friendly, as we point out every year.
5. Should the NHL return to Winnipeg or Quebec?
In a 99-cent Canadian dollar world, bring it on. There is a splendid, albeit smallish, NHL-worthy arena in Winnipeg that would be just fine should the league finally implode in Phoenix. (Quebec still has Le Colisče as a stopgap, but hopes to build a $375 million arena funded by taxpayers.) But if the loonie retreats to 85 or even 75 cents, these modest-sized cities -- Winnipeg has fewer than 700,000 people while Quebec's population is about a half million -- no longer look like Meccas despite the obvious fealty their fans have to the game. They probably are still better alternatives to Kansas City, the current stalking horse, but they are not, to mix metaphors, slam dunks for eternal hockey happiness.
The safer choice is Toronto, where a second team could tap into dollars if not the wellspring of loyalty that belongs to the Maple Leafs even though the franchise hasn't sniffed a Cup since 1967. Although the Staples Center makes it work with the Kings, Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles, a new Greater Toronto Area arena would be essential, both in terms of generating revenue and ensuring that the second franchise is not a total second-class citizen. The prospective value of a second team in Toronto, maybe $400 million, is the rising tide that would lift some other NHL boats.
Anyway, let us now all return to our regularly-scheduled puzzling over stuff like the eight goals that Vancouver's Roberto Luongo allowed to the Kings on April Fools' Night...
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