Jul 302007
 

A lot of people have said that in this new salary cap world the draft has become more important. I am not one of those who thinks this and if RFA signings like what the Oilers have done with Vanek and Penner become commonplace draft picks will become even less valuable.

The premise behind believing that the draft is now more important with the salary cap is that you no longer can buy a lot of expensive free agents to fill out your roster and if you draft smartly and can get some cheap quality young players on your roster you will be at a huge advantage. First off, I disagree with this premise from the start because unless you have one of the top picks and can draft a super-talented player, your draft pick is unlikely to make the NHL until they are 20-22 years of age and then it usually takes a year or two before they become top contributors on a team. This is especially true for defensemen and goaltenders. Players can now become unrestricted free agents at age 27 so for most players you would only get at most 3-4 productive years before they become unrestricted free agents and become expensive to resign. This differs from the old CBA where a team held a players rights until age 31 which includes most players prime years.

The other thing that has changed under the new CBA is the compensation required for restricted free agents has been reduced. This summer the Edmonton Oilers tried to pry Thomas Vanek away from Buffalo at a cost of 4 first round draft picks. Under the old CBA it would have been 5. They are also trying to pry Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks for $4.3 million per season which will cost them just a first, a second and a third round draft pick as compensation. To put that into perspective, the Atlanta Thrashers gave up Glen Metropolit, a first, a second and a third round pick to St. Louis to rent Keith Tkachuk for a couple months of service. So for the price of what some teams were paying for rental players the Oilers can get a quality young player in Dustin Penner for the next 5 years.

So with that in mind, one has to wonder why more teams wouldn’t take the route of signing restricted free agents. I suspect you will start to see it become more and more common especially for players worth up to (approximately) $4.6 million where compensation is no more than a first, second, and a third round pick. When this starts to happen it is going to drive up salaries for players aged 23-27. This is going to mean you won’t be able to draft players have have them on your roster cheaply for much longer than a couple of years and when you can’t do that, draft picks become less and less valuable as there will not be a lot of difference between paying your 24 year old drafted player $4.5 million than signing an equally talented but more experienced 27 year old unrestricted free agent for the same money. Good drafting isn’t the key to winning under the new CBA, good pro-scouting and smart team building is.

Jul 262007
 

Well, it is the dog days of summer and there isn’t much happening around the league right now so I figured why not start posting some lists to maybe spur some mid-summer discussion. So here is my first one which is a list of my favourite players on every team. Well, maybe not always my favourite players, but rather some players who I like, or who I admire how they play the game, or who is highly underrated, or just someone who I think people don’t know much about when they really should.

Anaheim – Ryan Getzlaf – Size, strength, speed, talent. He’s got everything.
Atlanta – Slava Kozlov – One of the more underrated players and has developed into a solid leader.
Boston – Patrice Bergeron – Plays with enery and passion.
Buffalo – Thomas Vanek – The next superstar of the NHL and Buffalo won’t be dissapointed matching Edmonton’s offer.
Calgary – Dion Phaneuf – Maybe the best all round defenseman after the big three (Pronger, Niedermayer and Lidstrom)
Carolina – Rod Brind’amour – Good offensively, excellent defensively, a great leader. He does everything well.
Chicago – Jonathan Toews – There isn’t much to like in Chicago so may as well go with a future star and world junior hero.
Colorado – Joe Sakic – What’s not to like about Sakic.
Columbus – Fredrik Modin – You never hear much about him but he has put together a respecatable career.
Dallas – Brenden Morrow – Does everything well and is an excellent leader.
Detroit – Tomas Holmstrom – Does the dirty work so few players are willing to do.
Edmonton – Steve Staios – There isn’t much to like on the Oilers so why not go with the last remaining veteren.
Florida – Olli Jokinen – If he were in a major market he’d be a superstar.
Los Angeles – Michal Handzus – Not speedy but when healthy is highly effective at both ends of the ice.
Minnesota – Wes Walz – Every team needs a Wes Walz type player.
Montreal – Mike Komisarek – Might make mistakes by being over agressive but he plays the game hard.
Nashville – Shea Weber – Shoots hard, hits hard, plays hard. Future top tier defenseman.
New Jersey – Martin Brodeur – The main reason why New Jersey has won 3 Stanley Cups in the past dozen or so years.
NY Islanders – Ruslan Fedotenko – The Islanders lost a lot this off season but the addition of hard working Fedotenko was a good move.
NY Rangers – Marek Malik – Highly underrated as a defensive defenseman. He’s one of the best.
Ottawa – Chris Kelly – I love his work ethic, his speed and his passion for the game. One of the better penalty killers in the league.
Philadelphia – Simon Gagne – Nobody stands out so I’ll go with the Flyers best player.
Phoenix – Kevyn Adams – An excellent forchecker and defensive player.
Pittsburgh – Ryan Whitney – He hasn’t gotten the attention of Crosby, Malkin or Staal but he is going to be a star player as well.
San Jose – Mike Grier – Plays hard and smart and will chip in some goals. Buffalo really missed his energetic play in the playoffs.
St. Louis – Lee Stempniak – Nobody really knows him yet but he is going to be a consistent 30+ goal scorer.
Tampa – Martin St. Louis – Gotta love what he has done with his career after floundering early on.
Toronto – Nik Antropov – I have defended Antropov for a long time and if he could just stay healthy I am sure he’ll prove me right.
Vancouver – Brendan Morrison – I briefly chatted with Morrison many years ago on ICQ (when he was still at Michigan) and I have followed his career ever since.
Washington – Alexei Ovechkin – I am not sure anybody has more fun playing hockey and scoring goals than Ovechkin. I love his enthusiasm.

So that is my list, what are your thoughts? If there are any other hockey bloggers reading this I challenge you to put together your own lists and be sure to post a link to it here in the comments so we can all compare favourite players.

Jul 232007
 

If you listened to Gary Bettman the lockout that cost the NHL the 2004-05 season was to allow the NHL and the NHLPA to become partners and to ensure the viability of NHL hockey in all current NHL markets but only two years after that CBA was signed I am beginning to wonder if disaster on several fronts could be looming in the near future.

Based on recent developments it is apparent that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seems intent on doing whatever he can to preserve hockey in the existing NHL markets and it appears he is going to do whatever he can to do this. As more and more information comes out it is becoming pretty clear that he played a significant role in blocking Jim Balsillie’s bid to purchase the Nashville Predators. ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside has written that the Balsillie group blames Gary Bettman for current Predators owner Craig Liepold backing out of the deal to sell the team to Balsillie.

“We were advised by Mr. Leipold that the commissioner had found out about the existence of the negotiations and ordered him to immediately cease any further communications with us,” Balsillie’s legal representative, Richard Rodier, told ESPN.com this week.

The common belief is that Bettman preferred Liepold to sell the team to William ‘Boots’ Del Biaggio III whose intent is to move the team to Kansas City. I believe this is not the case and Bettman really urged Liepold to seek local ownership of the Predators to keep the team in Nashville. Surprisingly, or maybe not, a local group surfaced and held meetings with the league last week and there was also a ticket drive organized for last Thursday to also ensure the team would stay in Nashville. I don’t think any of this is coincidence and I believe that Bettman will do whatever he can to keep the Predators in Nashville.

But why would Bettman do this if the Nashville community isn’t fully supporting the team and the team is going to lose money even if they only spend the minimum $34.3 million required of them all while collecting significant revenue sharing money? I believe there is some personal legacy issues at stake and Bettman doesn’t want to see a team fail which he brought into the league. But more importantly I believe that it is the intent of Bettman, the league and its owners to expand. Over the past week there has been rumours that Bettman has told NHL owners that he expects he can collect up to $500 million in expansion fees to expand to Las Vegas and Kansas City. If you do the math that would equate to more than a $16.5 million windfall to owners and the owners wouldn’t be required to share any of it with the players.

But that is only a part of it. Another side effect of expanding to two almost assuredly small revenue cities is that it would bring down the salary cap and more importantly the league minimum. Expanding to those two locations could see the salary cap drop by as much as $2 million. Ever wonder why a local ownership group suddenly popped up in Nashville? Well maybe Bettman’s promise of up to a $16.5 million windfall a year or two from now and a promise of a potentially lower salary cap (and minimum) is one of the reasons.

From a short term purely financial point of view this seems like a perfect plan and a plan that can be extended further. Why stop at 2 expansion teams? Why not also expand to Portland (or Seattle) and return to Hartford, Quebec City and Winnipeg and whatever other city wants to join the NHL including possibly European expansion? You can argue that the NHL can’t be supported in some or all of those cities but remember expanding to small market cities brings the salary cap down which makes survival in those small market cities more likely.

Noticed how I left Hamilton out? The NHL does not want to go to Hamilton because Hamilton is likely going to be a larger revenue location that will not only infringe on the Leafs and Sabres territory but will also likely cause the salary cap to rise making Bettman’s small market franchises less viable.

And there is the problem. The above plan is a plan of short term greedy owners, and not a plan based on what is good for hockey and the fans both now and in the future. Talent will be even more sparse divided, scoring will drop even more, rivalries will diminish even further, and the schedule will feature more uninteresting games between untalented teams. If that itself doesn’t cause fan interest to drop and eventually break the NHL, the irritation of the players just might and it may very well be the players who stop this plan in its tracks.

Gary Bettman enthusiastically proclaimed the new CBA to be a new a partnership with the players but the players are now beginning to think that this partnership is a little one sided. Where as the owners are interested in generating expansion fees and overall team value (neither of which gets shared with the players), the players are interested in generating revenue which means locating franchises where the greatest fan interest resides. That means Hamilton, not Nashville or Kansas City or Las Vegas. Tim Wharnsby has written a good article on the situation and the growing player discontent with the league blocking the sale of the Predators to Balsillie.

In June Martin Brodeur unexpectedly quit his role with the competition committee largely because he didn’t believe the league wasn’t listening to the views of the committee. He doesn’t believe the partnership on the competition committee is working either.

“I didn’t feel I was making a difference, and I hate wasting my time when it doesn’t seem to matter,”–Martin Brodeur

The NHLPA is in a state of flux right now after the firing of Ted Saskin and the NHL may view it as an opportunity to push some of these things through but it is likely going to backfire against the owners because the players are rebuilding their organization almost from scratch and they are likely going to rebuild it from a disgruntled player point of view and it could very well be an unhappy, militant NHLPA when done. That could lead to more labour problems in the not too distant future. The NHL CBA is currently set to expire in September 2011 but the NHLPA has an option to terminate the agreement prior to the 2009 season which is only two years from now. If the relationship between the NHL and the NHLPA doesn’t change (which I suspect it won’t) I fully expect the players to invoke the option to terminate the CBA to negotiate a real partnership or abandon the partnership idea altogether and try to get to push for a luxury tax idea again. More labour strife is on the way and it could be a long players strike next time.

What the NHL will look like after another lengthy labour conflict is anyone’s guess. With enough small market teams essentially controlling the NHL the NHL will not likely be very flexible in negotiations. But with the players being annoyed by being bullied around in the last CBA negotiations and the players developing view of a non-existing partnership they might be stronger than ever. Who blinks first is anyone’s guess.

What is interesting in all of this is that prior to and during the 2004-05 lockout most fans and casual observers (I was not one of them) believed it was the players greed that was the problem and most sided with the owners but as it stands right now owner greed is the problem and the players interests are currently are the most closely aligned with the fans interest (i.e. locating teams to where the most fans exist). These are interesting times in the NHL and it would not surprise me if the not to distant future is more ominous than the not to distant past.

Jul 022007
 

I am in the process of updating the salary cap numbers (see menu on the left) for all the teams. I have done several teams and hope to have most of the rest done in the next few days and hopefully keep up with many of the roster moves. Basically if the first year listed is 2007-08 then it has been updated in the past few days. If the first year listed is 2006-07 it has not yet been updated.

As usual, if you find any mistakes (in the recently updated lists) please let me know.

Jul 022007
 

A lot of the contracts signed yesterday (as well as Timonens) are heavily front weighted with the player making a lot of money in the first few years of the contract and substantially less in the last few years. This is one of the things that big revenue teams are doing to get a competitive advantage. These contracts also could be beneficial to small market teams down the road. The rules are that all teams have to maintain a payroll minimum (currently $34 million) but that is for the average contract salary, not the players actual salary paid for a particular year. Some of these teams can’t make money spending $34 million on players, but if they pick up one of these players late in their contract their cap hit will be much higher than their actual contract.

For example, the Flyers are paying Timonen $3 million in the final year of his contract but his cap hit will still be $6.3 million. The Flyers will have very little interest in keeping him around because his play at age 37 probably won’t be worth a $6.3 million cap hit. But if he can still play at a reasonable level he could be highly valuable to a small revenue team not wanting to spend even the minimum amount, which may be $40+ million 5 years from now. With Timonen on their roster you can meet that $40 minimum but only spend $37 million in actual player salaries because of the $3.3 million difference between his actual salary and his salary cap number in the final year of his contract. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out 4 and 5 years down the road when these guys enter the last couple years of their contracts.

Jul 022007
 

It surprised me when the Leafs seemingly showed zero interest in bring back Bates Battglia but that seems to have changed as TSN’s free agent tracker is indicating that the Leafs have signed Battaglia to a 2-year, $650,000/year contract. This is interesting because the Leafs now have too many forwards to go along with their too many defensemen and there are still rumours of them looking at more free agents (i.e. Slava Kozlov). It could just be a depth move and they but it could also be a set up move for a trade down the road in which they dump a forward with a larger contract (Antropov?) to free up some more salary cap room for another free agent signing. There are lots of Leaf rumours floating around so stay tuned, the Leafs are probably not be done yet.

Jul 022007
 

Big Winners

New York Rangers: The Rangers added Scott Gomez and Chris Drury and still have enough money to Shanahan and restricted free agents Lundqvist, Avery, and Prucha and maybe even still have enough left for another second tier unrestricted free agent (possibly a defenseman). These guys could be the best in the east next year.

Colorado Avalanche: This was the hottest team in the final month or two of the regular season and they just added Ryan Smyth and defensive stud Scott Hannan and like the Rangers, they too still have some money to spend. Gotta like the Avalanche to make tje playoffs next season if their goaltending can hold up.

Moderate Winners

Philadelphia Flyers: No doubt the Flyers have had the biggest face lift of any team in the NHL in this off season (maybe in any off season). Adding a playmaking center like Briere to play with Gagne and Knuble was huge for them because they didn’t have a first line center otherwise. I am unconvinced about the Pitkanen for Lupul-Smith trade. In the short term Smith should be a valuable asset to provide leadership and help bring this massively revamped team together and Lupul should provide some long-term second line offense but the possibility still exists that Pitkanan will become a top 10 defenseman in the NHL and the Flyers might regret giving up on him.

Anaheim Ducks: They picked up Mathieu Schneider which is a big plus, but the reason they did so is because of their impending loss of Scott Niedermayer to retirement. That will be a net loss for the Ducks but they minimized the pain of a situation they had no control over so that gets them in the moderate winner category.

Toronto Maple Leafs: It cost them an extra year in contract length than they would have liked to give but the Leafs got a speedy goal scorer they needed for Sundin’s wing in Jason Blake. I am not sure if Leaf fans should expect Blake to match his 40 goal production from last season but Leaf fans can expect their top line to generate more chances on the rush, and not just from cycling the puck in the corners and crashing the net. It’s an important pickup for the Leafs.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The biggest signing for the Penguins was getting young, soon to be a star defenseman Ryan Whitney under contract for the next six seasons. That alone would have made them winners but they also signed Petr Sykora for even more offensive help and Darryl Sydor for some leadership and defensive ability on their back end. The only negative I see is they signed Danny Sabourin which makes me wonder if they are looking at a Marc-Andre Fleury-Sabourin tandem. That is not good as I don’t think Fleury is capable of playing 70 games yet and I don’t think I would want Sabourin playing 25 games.

St. Louis Blues: Paul Kariya will be a nice addition to the Blues and should help turn the Blues from a one line team to a two line team as Weight-Tkachuk could form one line and Kariya-Boyes could be the core of another line. I think they still need another player or two up front and maybe some goaltending help but they are in a position to make a push for a playoff spot but the west is so tough that as of right now they likely will still be sitting on the outside looking in.

Break Even

Detroit Red Wings: They lost Schneider but they picked up Rafalski which should be a bit of an upgrade and should Scott Niedermayer retire, the Lidstrom-Rafalski combo likely becomes the top defense tandem in the NHL. That’s the positive. The negative is they didn’t pick up Ryan Smyth or anyone else to fill the holes on their team. They still have some work to do.

Edmonton Oilers: Picking up Pitkanan could pay huge dividends for the Oilers for many years to come but losing Smith (in addition to Smyth at the trade deadline) means they might be lacking int he leadership department now. Rumour is they have signed Nylander which is probably a bit of an upgrade to Sykora who left for Pittsburgh but I don’t see the Oilers being any better today than a couple days ago.

Losers

New Jersey Devils: Everyone expected they would lose Gomez but losing Rafalski as well has to sting. It was not a good day for the Devils.

Buffalo Sabres: Gone are Briere and Drury and reports seem to indicate that Zubrus is on his way out too. Things aren’t looking good in Buffalo. Yes, the Sabres still have a lot of young talent remaining on their roster but is that young talent ready to lead? I am not sure of that.

New York Islanders: Smyth is gone. Blake is gone. Kozlov is gone. Poti is gone. When you combine those losses with the loss of Yashin (50 points in 58 games) there isn’t a lot left to get excited about on Long Island unless you have a thing for Miroslav Satan and Mike Sillinger. As of right now, the Islanders might be the worst team in the NHL.

Moderate Losers

Montreal Canadiens: Rumour was that they in fact offered Briere more money than the Flyers did but they were rejected. It seems no one wants to play in Montreal and it appears they might yet again have to resort to resort to Plan C or D like last year when they signed Samsonov. Plus seeing the Leafs and Flyers improve their teams means hopes for a playoff spot for next is looking a bit more bleak.

Los Angeles Kings: Supposedly they had upwards of $22 million to toss around at free agents but came up empty. They better find something among the second tier free agents or else it could be another long season in Los Angeles.