Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Answers to some of the questions
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
The NHL announced Wednesday afternoon that it had reached a new collective bargaining agreement with its players, ending the longest work stoppage in North American pro sports history. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions surrounding the new deal and the immediate future of the league.
What will happen to NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow?
Have you ever heard the term "run out of town on a rail"? OK, maybe it won't be that dramatic, but there is a significant portion of the NHLPA that feels the players lost an entire year's salary plus jeopardized the game and ended up with a deal that's worse than the one they could have had last February. The fact that this deal may actually be better than the league's final offer because it links salaries to league revenues, allowing players to earn more if the league becomes healthier, will do little to assuage those feelings. Although it may not happen today or tomorrow, expect Goodenow to fade gracefully into the sunset. Level-headed, well-respected Hall of Famer Mike Gartner played a significant role in hammering out a new deal and would be an ideal choice to lead the PA into this new era.
What will happen to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman?
Coaches, agents and some GMs quietly insist that Bettman must go. Don't bet on it. All the commissioner has done is fulfill every promise made to owners: delivering cost certainty, rolling back salaries and all but destroying the union and Goodenow in the process. His biggest challenge -- and one that will determine both his longevity and his legacy -- is whether Bettman can lead the league out of the post-lockout darkness and back to a significant profile on the American sporting scene. Give him two years to prove economic stability can translate into a healthy, vibrant product in 30 diverse markets.
Will the players ratify the deal?
Players may be mad, but they're not stupid. After 10 months, the players will vent their spleen and then sign on the dotted line. The alternative? Go back to the table and get a fraction of what's in the new package. It's a nonissue.
Will younger players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin opt to play in Europe because of restrictions on entry-level salaries?
The threat of a talent drain is a boogeyman created by some agents in the face of dramatically restricted entry-level contracts. Think Gatorade and Reebok and all of Crosby's sponsors want him playing in some Alpine backwater league in front a few thousand fans with cow bells? Uh, no. Think super prospects like Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin will stay in Russia even if they can make a few more bucks? Have you ever been to Russia? In the winter? The only players likely to choose Europe over North America are players who may be destined for some seasoning in the AHL. It's another nonissue.
What will teams that are in cap trouble do?
Teams like Detroit, Colorado, Dallas and Toronto that have overpaid for players will take advantage of a one-time opportunity to buy out players for two-thirds of their existing contracts.
What players are most likely to be bought out?
The temptation is to look at the league's richest players (Jaromir Jagr at $8.36 million after a 24 percent rollback, Keith Tkachuk at $7.6 million, Alexei Yashin at $7.6 million) and go down the list. But the buyout promises to be a more subtle tool. Yes, the Blues will consider dumping Tkachuk, but the Rangers are committed to Jagr, who remains on most night the game's best player. Plus, it's believed Washington will continue to pay a portion of his salary. For many teams, the buyout will be a question of whether they can unload a player and expect to sign a player of equal or greater value for less money on the open market. Detroit, for instance, has the former Grind Line (Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty) all under contract for more than $5.2 million in 2005-06. GM Ken Holland, who will have trouble getting under the cap, may be forced to dump Maltby and/or McCarty and bring in cheaper players who can perform the same service. The length of a player's contract may also make buying out a player prohibitive. Alexei Yashin is under contract through the 2011 season and it would cost the Islanders almost $28 million to buy him out. Tkachuk represents an interesting case because he's due $7.6 million this season but goes down to a completely manageable club option of $3.8 million next season. Given that, Doug Weight, owed $5.8 million this season, may be a better buyout option for a Blues team that is for sale.
Players who are prime buyout candidates are the Rangers' Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis, Dallas' Pierre Turgeon, Detroit's Ray Whitney, Toronto's Owen Nolan, Anaheim's J.S. Giguere and Philadelphia's Tony Amonte.
Why can't players who are bought out re-sign with their old teams?
Part of the buyout option means acknowledging management gaffes, and this is at least a subtle way of penalizing teams like Toronto, the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars for spending foolishly. They have to part with a significant amount of cash to free up cap room and they have to do without that player's services for at least a year.
Which teams are in trouble with the new system?
That depends on what you mean by trouble. The Islanders and Bruins start with four players under contract, but the Bruins have only committed $2.9 million to the cap, while the Islanders, thanks to Yashin, have $15.58 million committed. They're both miles ahead of the Rangers who have six players signed for a whopping $21.7 million. When the Rangers buy out Holik and Kasparaitis they'll have cap room, but only four players with which to start building a team. Toronto also has a problem with eight players inked for $28 million. Teams like Toronto, Colorado and the Rangers, who have relied on plucking high-priced veterans from other teams or signing them via free agency, now face the reality of having only modest talent in their farm systems with which to fill in their rosters. Some teams planned to start virtually from scratch, but that strategy brings the challenge of forming instant chemistry from a group of disparate parts as opposed to adding pieces to an existing base.
Which teams are in great shape?
Likewise this is a relative term, but teams with a good nucleus of talent plus room under the cap to add crucial elements should be considered blue-chip franchises moving forward, and they include Atlanta, Calgary, Los Angeles, Edmonton, San Jose, Buffalo and Nashville. Ottawa may not have a lot of money to spend under the cap, but is solidly positioned, as is Philadelphia. It will be a struggle for the Lightning to replicate their Cup-winning team, but the core should be there, which means they're poised for a run at No. 2. Montreal's best players are restricted free agents, but the Habs should likewise ice a young, talented squad.
What will free agency be like this summer?
One agent predicted it would be "controlled pandemonium." With upwards of 400 players without contracts, GMs and agents will face an unprecedented situation as they struggle to learn the nuances of a new salary cap system and then sign, in some cases, upwards of 20 players -- all within a matter of weeks, before the start of training camp. The biggest unanswered question so far is what constitutes market value in this new marketplace. If the Rangers buy out Holik, what is he worth? Is it $3 million per year? Less? More? Teams like the Bruins and Islanders will face pressure to sign as many players as they can as early as they can to ensure a competitive roster. Phoenix, with 21 players inked, by far the most of any NHL team, may be more selective. From the players' perspective, some free agents will be tempted to jump at the first offer, so they're assured of a place to play, while others may wait out the marketplace in the hopes of making more money. They run the risk, said one agent, of finding teams have no cap room and ending up in cities they might not otherwise have played in, not to mention making less money. "Players that used to chase the money will now chase the environment," predicted former Calgary GM Craig Button, who is now a pro scout for Toronto.
Why, for instance, would anyone sign in Washington for roughly the same amount of money he can get to play in a contending city, or one with better traffic patterns?
Will NHL players take part in the Olympics in Turin?
What effect will it have on the season?
The Olympic hockey tournament runs Feb. 15-26, so expect the league to shut down from roughly Feb. 12 through March 1, which means the 2005-06 season will likely start about 10 days earlier than normal. It's possible the traditionally interminable training camp and exhibition schedule will be truncated, which would be a good thing. The end of the season will likely extend into the second week of June. During the last Olympic season (2002), Carolina and Detroit ended the season on June 13. Beyond the schedule, there are many who believe the level of play will also increase thanks to the Olympics. Players will be trying to make a case for inclusion on their national teams leading up to the Olympics and the longer break in the middle of the season for non-Olympians should have a rejuvenating effect, if past Olympic breaks are any indicator. Big picture: Having NHL players on the Olympic stage is nothing but a winner for the league, the game, the fans and the players.
What about the draft?
It's likely the NHL will announce the draft lottery or at least some details of the draft at its "we're back" press conference that will follow official ratification of the new deal -- likely late next week. Suffice it to say all 30 teams will have at least a chance at getting the first pick, and a chance to select the incomparable Sidney Crosby. Teams that have not qualified for the playoffs in recent years are expected to be given a better chance at getting the top pick, although there is significant opposition to this from GMs who want it to be a 1-in-30 proposition. The draft process will deviate from previous drafts in that teams will draft 1-30 and then 30-1 in the next round. There also will be a draft event to try to take advantage of the media interest in Crosby, likely over the course of one day in either Ottawa or Toronto. Look for that to take place the last weekend of July.
What about ticket prices?
The theory is that in the wake of the lockout, most teams will offer either reduced ticket prices or special packages as an enticement for fans to return. The truth of the matter is that it will be a team-by-team decision. Still, any team that considers a ticket price increase in the wake of the lockout needs to be taken behind the woodshed by Bettman.
What about the playoffs?
This will be a matter for the board of governors to approve, but look for two more teams to be added in each conference and for the seventh through 10th teams to play best-of-three series immediately after the end of the regular season. This preliminary round would lead into the traditional four best-of-seven series for the Cup. This brings to 20 the number of teams that would qualify for the playoffs. That's a lot. But it's also a good business practice and will mean more excitement in more cities and will see fewer teams selling off players at the trade deadline, not to mention more revenue generated all around.
What are the most significant rule changes likely to be?
Although changes must be approved by the league's board of governors, expect some of these alterations: Goaltenders' equipment will be downsized significantly, including the width of pads, which will be 1 inch narrower to a maximum of 11 inches. The center red line is likely gone, although there is resistance to this move. Nets will be moved 2 feet closer to the end boards. Goaltenders will be restricted from playing the puck directly behind their own goal. There will be a hybrid no-touch icing rule that will allow linesmen to wave off an icing call on an attempted pass. Teams will not be allowed to ice the puck during a penalty (the faceoff will return to the penalized team's zone and they will not be allowed to make personnel changes). Tag-up offsides will return. Any player shooting the puck out of play in his own zone will be assessed a minor penalty (currently only the goaltender is subject to this rule). A five-minute 4-on-4 overtime will be followed by a three-minute 3-on-3 session, and then a shootout series of penalty shots to make the tie game obsolete. Finally, the league will once again try to enforce its existing rules on obstruction, hooking and holding, especially away from the puck.
How will these changes make the game better?
The rules are every bit as important as the financial nuts and bolts of a new CBA, and if they work will pave the way for the game's renaissance. That's a big if. The absence of the red line could be a dramatic change, because in theory it will stretch defenses out trying to protect against a long pass from the defensive zone to the other blue line. Critics suggest teams will merely retreat and establish a defensive trap closer to their own blue line. The change in goalie equipment is long overdue and will give shooters more net to shoot at. Restricting goalies' handling of the puck will have only a modest effect on increasing the forecheck if the American Hockey League experiment is a barometer. The icing rules will add to the flow of a game and not being able to ice the puck on a penalty kill is a nice touch. Penalizing all players for shooting the puck out of play in their own zone increases the potential for turnovers and more scoring chances. The shootout and modified overtime will drive up the excitement factor and send fans home happy more often. The most important development will be in enforcing existing rules. If the league can break players from their habit of obstructing opposing players all over the ice then the game has a chance. "If."
Will Wayne Gretzky coach the Phoenix Coyotes?
Yes, the ratification of a new CBA will mean the official announcement of the Great One's becoming the Great Benchboss is just around the corner. And while there will be a lot of moaning about the move putting his greatness in jeopardy that, too, is a red herring. Gretzky will be a fine coach on a team destined to be just a little better than mediocre. Still, desert fans should finally fill that new building in the middle of nowhere if only for the opportunity to see Gretzky bawl out golfing buddy Brett Hull for loafing on the backcheck.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.