Monday, July 10, 2006

The 'stupid' league

Chara to Boston? Guerin to St. Louis? Demitra to Minnesota? Jovanovski to Phoenix, Blake back to LA and Gerber to Ottawa?

"This is becoming a stupid league."

Those were the thoughts of a friend of mine last week, right on the heels of what was the busiest free-agency period in NHL history. It was hard to disagree with him.

At some point, all that player movement becomes too much player movement and you're left watching an incessant merry-go-round of players and jerseys, shaking your head.

We're certainly headed in that direction.

If you view the new CBA as a work in progress solution, as I do, then this increased movement is one of the major downfalls of the league's relatively positive new labour agreement. The cap alone's not responsible for this flurry of movement, but we're certainly seeing our fair share of salary dumps to fit under that $44-million figure.

More than anything, however, it's that pesky lowered unrestricted free agency age that's really pushing all the jersey swapping going on.

Now, high player moment has been a big part of hockey since the mid-1990s, ever since the dollar figures began to creep out of reach for a lot of teams. Still, I'll never forget watching the Stanley Cup final and hearing that nine players from both competing clubs were headed for the UFA pool less than two weeks after the Cup was handed out.

So much for a celebration.

The thing is, 2006 is going to go down as the worst-ever year for player movement for a number of reasons, and there are a number more that point to things settling done in the future.

In short, coming off the lockout, many GMs (and players) opted for only one-year deals during the transition year, which is why so many players are without teams. As UFAs like Chara and Savard ink deals for longer terms — with more and more no-trade clauses — teams are going to stay together a heckuva lot better than what we've seen this year.

At least I hope that's the case.

Because as much as I believe this league needed a salary cap, the last thing we want to have is a 'sticks in the middle' free for all every year. That would truly be a stupid league.

20 Comments:

At 7:41 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Joe Pelletier said...

"Sticks In The Middle" is the perfect description of all this nonsense James.

I certainly do not view this as fan friendly, but hopefully you are right and over the course of the next couple of years things will settle down.

If every season is like this, it becomes very hard to emotionally invest in your favorite team, knowing it will be broken up in an offseason or two. Loyalty to the team is naturally diminished somewhat, and shifted to individual players.

I'd even suggest team success actually cheats the fans, as the high turnover rates means teams may no longer have their own era in which we fans become so attached to. Victory would be somewhat hollow.

Joe Pelletier
------------------
http://www.1972summitseries.com
http://www.legendsofhockey.blogspot.com

 
At 8:22 AM, July 10, 2006, Anonymous Lyle Richardson said...

Somebody explain to me again how the players got "spanked" with this CBA?

So when will the salary cap prevent teams from paying too much for players?

Wasn't the lowered age for UFA eligibility supposed to flood the market and thus make the better UFA talent more affordable?

And when does this new CBA start making ticket prices affordable?

Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

 
At 8:54 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger alyosha mcbain said...

I agree that the times are changing fast in the NHL; they used to be the last bastion against the massive roster turnover that occurs in the other major sports.

I feel I must remind people that defended Chris Pronger's right to seek employment where he wished to play to be philosophically consistent here--those who rightly pointed out that an employee should be able to exercise some choice over where they work and live should also extend the same courtesy to the current spate of UFA's. The game is the game, not the jersey, and if US baseball fans (who can be pretty curmudgeonly when confronted with change) can get used to an era of roster discontinuity, then hockey fans should be able to as well.

Hockey's uniqueness comes from the selflessness and pure will of its athletes. Player movement will not change this admirable characteristic. Teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings, and Blues have arguably helped usher this era in a few years ago anyway.

 
At 9:39 AM, July 10, 2006, Blogger jmol2112 said...

Welcome to the world of a salary cap folks. Only look toward the NFL where massive player turnover is common place. The days of playing for one team for 10+ years are over.
Yes, the new CBA certainly did the trick. Salaries are decreasing as are ticket prices. LOL LOL Sorry, only fan interst is sure to wane with this trend

 
At 10:00 AM, July 10, 2006, Anonymous snafu said...

James Mirtle, the new Tom Benjamin, only not as cantankerous.

 
At 1:49 PM, July 10, 2006, Anonymous grace said...

A thought that came to me (I've been known to have them. Do you think all these insane prices could be a Pronger effect? Everyone thought he was a steal for 6.25 given his playoff performance and that his contract was a rip off for him as a player. Then you had other players/agents saying "Pronger's a steal" or an anomoly or whatever so they drive the prices up and the league falls hook line and sinker. Instead of using Pronger's contract as a ceiling, they said he was getting paid less than he was worth and jacked up the going rate.

Or I should start sleeping instead of dreaming of a perfect Oilers team without the benedict.

Re: template. As Matt - and far be it for me to agree with a flames fan - is correct on the header problems and absent puck. The trick is to get rid of the "blogger" banner. If you insert this code above the < / header > part it should work:

#b-navbar {margin-top: -110px;}

 
At 4:26 PM, July 10, 2006, Anonymous roddie said...

James Mirtle, the new Tom Benjamin, only not as cantankerous.

Haha - First thing I was thinking reading the post was, "I thought Tom was taking a break!"

 
At 7:04 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

You don't come right out and say why you think an increase in player movement is a bad idea. Personally, I don't get it.

Is it harder to feel loyalty or affection for a team composed of a changing cast? Since all rosters change eventually, is there a breaking point where the turnover is too high (many businesses deal quite comfortably with 10% staff turnover...what's acceptable turnover for an NHL roster)?

I was upset by the Pronger move, but only in the short-term sense of feeling betrayed by the 5yr promise/1yr reality aspect. If the Oil had a succession of top-flight defencemen rotating through that position on one-year deals, I'd be delighted. Call it a serial monogamy strategy.

Strictly speaking, the cycle of win-purge-rebuild is not the same as high turnover: you can have a lot of churn while still performing at a high level.

Finally, I'm uncomfortable with the implicit suggestion that minimal player movement is inherently good. It may have virtues, but it's a phenomenon with a dark history. You would do just as well to ask: if there is a salary cap to constrain total spending, why should players of any age be restricted in where they can work or what they can earn? Shouldn't they all be free agents?

 
At 7:09 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

More than anything, however, it's that pesky lowered unrestricted free agency age that's really pushing all the jersey swapping going on.

Yeah, let's blame the fact that players actually get to choose who they're going to work for.

So when will the salary cap prevent teams from paying too much for players?

Individual players? Never. It only restricts their spending in aggregate. That said, what constitutes overpaying? What's going to happen in hockey is the same thing as happens in every other sport.

Talent is normally distributed, and we are looking at the extreme right end of the curve. It only takes a small decrease in ability to dramatically increase the quantity of players. What that means is that you pay more for the truly great players, and less for the merely good, because you can find a lot of replacements for those guys.

And when does this new CBA start making ticket prices affordable?

The sound you hear is me banging my head against my desk. Higher salaries do not produce higher ticket prices. They never have. They never will. There simply is no economic mechanism by which they could.

It's the other way around. The ability of owners to charge higher prices leads to the higher salaries. As ticket prices grow, the marginal revenue of each ticket sold increases. The best way to increase the number of tickets sold is to win more games. The best way to win more games is to get better players. Thus, the marginal value of a great player goes up as ticket prices go up, so their salaries increase.

The salary cap puts an artificial maximum on the amount that teams can pay in salary, but it does not change the amount that teams can charge for tickets. Like all businesses, they are in business to make money. Hence, they are not going to leave revenue on the table by charging less for tickets than the market will bear. That market is independent of what players are paid, at least until you get to second, or maybe third, order effects.

This is why a salary cap is a financial bonanza for the big market teams. The Wings and the Rangers can still charge exorbitant prices for tickets, while salaries are held far below the level that is financialy rational. It's practically a license to print money.

Now, far be it from me to criticize Mike Illitch, because he's started to drop a ton of money into the Tigers' payroll. I'm just saying.

 
At 7:41 PM, July 10, 2006, Anonymous Lyle Richardson said...

J.Michael Neal: I was being sarcastic!

That theory about the salary cap preventing overspending was floated last year by some pundits and fans just after the details of the new CBA came out, something that has obviously been blown out of the water.

And I know the CBA won't influence ticket prices. Indeed, I was one of the few voices during the lockout pointing out to fans that this was a fallacy, yet poll after poll showed hockey fans misguidedly believed players salaries drove ticket prices, something the NHL was only too keen to exploit. Oh, the league never came right out and said so, but they certainly implied it.

Hope that clears this up for you.

 
At 8:25 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Nick said...

You don't come right out and say why you think an increase in player movement is a bad idea. Personally, I don't get it.

I suppose if you don't have allegiances to a particular team it won't matter to you, but if I'm a Red Wing fan, how easy is it to care about my team if last year half of them were in Toronto or Chicago or spread throughout the league - and next year they're going to fan out to all corners again? How do you build up rivalries if players aren't sticking around long enough to really build them? How exciting are rematches when two completely different teams are playing? It's like all the team colors blur together into a big brown blob of the national hockey league. Yea, the games are still fun to watch, but Steve Yzerman was like a god in Detroit, the man's a legend... And you don't get that feeling from a guy who was just traded in. Detroit could get Jagr or Pronger or name-your-favorite-allstar else next year and they'd be fun to watch but it just wouldn't be the same as watching a particular player consistently over the years... It's just about loyalty and feeling a real connection to your team. Do you really not get that?

 
At 8:56 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger Nick said...

Actually, the more I think about this, the more it irks me. Maybe I'm not a typical Detroiter but - while I'm happy guys like Hull graced Joe Lewis arena for a couple years, I have nowhere near the love for him or Hatcher or Robitalle or any of those guys as I do for Yzerman, Federov, Lidstrom or even guys like McCarty. If you're a superstar who gets traded in and plays for a year or two, you're just a ringer... And I don't see how you can get too excited over a guy who's just playing for your team until a better offer comes around.

 
At 9:35 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Lyle,

Sorry.

Nick,

I sort of agree with you. However, there are two things. The first is that, if you want a salary cap, you are going to have more movement, unless it's that ridiculous soft cap the NBA uses. That's just the way it's going to be. It's one of the many reasons that I don't like salary caps.

The other is that I readily admit that I root for the sweater. I will root for the Wings, and root for them intensely, whoever is playing for them. I agree that I don't get attached to the players much if they aren't around for a while, but, for me at least, that is different from rooting for the team. Im probably unusual, though.

There is one other point that I think is missing so far. That's that star players staying with one team for their whole career has always been primarily a big market phenomenon, and also not nearly as common as people choose to remember. Unlike some, I also don't think that it's completely come to an end. I think that there will always be some players that do that. For a Wings example, I would bet that one of Datsyuk and Zetterberg play most of their career in Detroit.

 
At 11:05 PM, July 10, 2006, Blogger James Mirtle said...

You don't come right out and say why you think an increase in player movement is a bad idea. Personally, I don't get it.

Is it harder to feel loyalty or affection for a team composed of a changing cast? Since all rosters change eventually, is there a breaking point where the turnover is too high (many businesses deal quite comfortably with 10% staff turnover...what's acceptable turnover for an NHL roster)?


It's a fair point. I don't think that player movement itself is inherently a bad thing; all I'm saying is that too much movement can be. And I think that having nine UFAs on each of the two most successful teams is far too many. If the teams at the bottom need wholesale reworking that makes sense, but we shouldn't have the defending Stanley Cup champ not resembling the team that won the next year. That's just silly.

Why is too much player movement bad? Others have already taken a pretty good crack at that, but part of it is team identity. The other part is rewarding GMs who do assemble a good cast of talent or those who rebuild effectively. (While you see a team like Ottawa having to move out key pieces at this point, that's a cast that's been together a long time and failed to win.)

Players like Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux, who become emblematic of their franchises, are great for hockey. There should always be a core of players who define the NHL's great teams.

 
At 12:16 AM, July 11, 2006, Anonymous snafu said...

There should always be a core of players who define the NHL's great teams.

I can't say that there is any reason to say there should be such a core, but this is what we all have come to believe. It is what we knew. Hockey teams were built differently before the cap. We all accepted that. We had figured out the formula by observing teams over decades.

Now it has to be done differently and us older folk are having a hard time with this... it isn't our NHL.

 
At 5:22 AM, July 11, 2006, Anonymous Baroque said...

I wonder if the team cohesion will suffer in the same way that so many companies lose institutional memory when employees who have been there a long time retire or change companies, and a company becomes little more than a marketing plan attached to a logo that was approved by the focus groups to enhance loyalty. With little continuity, the team identity and style will change year to year, which is not necessarily in itself a problem. What bothers me about the changing it that it might foster a more defensive game all over again. Driving this before was the desire of coaches to not get fired, so they did whatever it took for them to win games with less talented teams and keep their jobs. Now, the fact that players don't always know their teammates' tendencies and styles as well might wind up pushing the game in that same direction again...but it's been a rough week already, so I am probably completely wrong on this.

I still cheer for my favorite players as they move from one team to another, but I'm not sure how many fans do. From my experience, not all that many.

 
At 1:38 PM, July 11, 2006, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Nick: I suppose if you don't have allegiances to a particular team it won't matter to you...It's just about loyalty and feeling a real connection to your team.

I'd like to steal J Michael's words and say that I "root for the sweater." In my case that means the Canadiens (the team of my childhood) and the Oilers (I've now lived in Edmonton for a little more than 20 years).

Both those teams have had franchise-defining players, and both endured the exodus of some big names in pre-cap days.

Rooting for the sweater, in these cases, meant enduring the 1990s: post-'93 it was the worst decade in Canadiens franchise history thanks in no small part to a management team that gave away its most talented players, and the Oilers record of playoff futility knew almost no limit.

Most small markets teams 'enjoyed' a few 'franchise players' in the 90s; the difference was that they were usually one or two steps down on the talent ladder. Living through ten years of Todd Marchant pretty much kills the romance of the 'team for life' concept.

There will always be players who stay with the franchise for a long time -- the CBA won't change that. Talented youngsters who play until they're 26, then sign a multi-year deal with their club, can define a franchise for a decade.

I'm interested in seeing how teams define their identity to fans: will they put a lot of emphasis on just one or two players who are hooked on long-term deals (Ovechkin, Crosby); will they build loyalty around the management team (a la Beane) instead of the players; will they seek to define a 'culture' or 'values' that their team identity represents, and then look for free agents who can be positioned as filling it? Any or all of these strike me as better ways to build sustainable fan loyalty.

 
At 4:12 PM, July 12, 2006, Anonymous Doogie2K said...

If you want a clear and compelling reason for having at least a couple of "lifers": marketing.

Continuing the Wings example, how much marketing did Brett Hull do for the team in the, what, two years he was there? How much did Stevie Y do in over twenty? It's easier to identify with someone who's been with a team since God was a pup than to identify with someone who just landed last year. That player becomes as much a symbol of the team as the sweater, logo, and arena. Fans feel it, as Nick has noted, and even people who don't know the game or the team come to associate the two, particularly when that player is a huge star.

 
At 1:07 AM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Achtungbaby said...

'Lifers" were far and few between to begin with in the old NHL anyway. A 20 million gap between the rich and the poor is still better than the 50 million gap that was present before it.

Ticket prices was the only fair arguement the NHLPA made during the lockout. Let the market dictate as I remember at this point. The 'market' meant large cities. You have to decide, is this a league or is this a travelling circus to certain key cities.

Yes, the NHL's promises didn't amount to a hill of beans but fans don't care. The market will bear what it has to bear. Give the 'smaller' markets something to hope for dammit.

At the very least, fans paying 50 dollars per viewing in Edmonton or a Sabres game won't be watching a opposing team with a payroll like the Detroits and Colorados when they won the cup whose fans paid much, much more than that.

And please, don't hand me that sorry response of the rich will always have more to spend. Of course they will. Parity doesn't always mean that the rich can't get, stay or remain rich. It just means that certain smaller markets that are important can remain viable and compete finacially.

Economics is complicated. Rich need the poor and the poor need the rich. If Rich doesn't have poor they are poor. If poor doesn't have rich, then the poor don't have money they don't have to spend on trivial sports. Sort of like Welfare. Actually a lot like that.

It would be an awfully boring league if we were still stuck with the old system. Which was definitely boring.

Anyone miss those 1-0 games?

 
At 1:10 AM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Achtungbaby said...

Oops, that last line was meant for that boring World Cup thingy. Good lord, someone fucking score or do something already.

 

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