Sep 202008
 

Where to begin? The defending Cup champs are so well-balanced and talented from top to bottom that the fact they managed to land Marian Hossa means they’re the heavy favourites to repeat again, which hasn’t happened since 1997 and 1998 when, you guessed it, Steve Yzerman and the Wings did it. It almost came as a shock to some that the Wings won the Cup, in part because 1) they had an European captain, and 2) their best centre had been labeled as a playoff “choker” the last couple of years. They were labeled as a team that didn’t scare anybody with their physical play, which is partly true, but when the Ducks won the Cup the year before it the in-your-face type of hockey the Ducks played almost became a standard for Cup-contending teams. Instead the Wings stuck to their gameplan and proved everyone wrong.

It’s always a blessing that your best offensive players are also your best defensive players. For Mike Babcock, he’s been blessed with their Big Three of Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Pavel Datsyuk. The Euro Trio is by far the most committed, talented, and well-rounded core in the league. When your best players are in the running for the Art Ross, Selke, and Norris trophies, you know you’ve got something special. This is what differentiates the Wings from all the other teams in the league – unlike about 3/4 of the league, they can send out their best players in any situation of the game. The three carried the team throughout the season and the playoffs, and in the process showed to the world that Europeans know how to play playoff hockey too. Not only that, their supporting cast, once again carefully put together by Ken Holland, came through and responded well when they were asked upon. Just ask anybody about Johan Franzen, whose 13 playoff goals had him being mentioned as a potential Conn Smythe candidate. The Wings are just blessed with talent through all 12 forwards, almost a little unfair, considering the speedy and surprising Darren Helm may be the odd man out this year despite having the ability to become at least a 4th liner on any other team. The Wings could boast as many as 8 20+ goal scorers this coming year.

On defense you can’t start with anyone else other than Lidstrom, who is the most valuable player to his position, and potentially the best defenseman of his generation. Lidstrom doesn’t do anything that will make you stand up or cheer, but he has the ability to just glue your eyes to the screen and watch him do difficult things with a incredible ease. He rarely makes any mistakes, and that’s how defensemen should play their game. His hockey smarts are completely off the charts, and when paired with Brian Rafalski, one of the most underrated puck-movers in the game, they form the most dangerous PP duo in the league. Rafalski played a major role in their Cup win, despite the fact that he was often overshadowed by the Euro Trio’s defensive games. In fact, it was very surprising that Datsyuk had led the team in hits, with Zetterberg following close behind. Brad Stuart re-vitalized his career and seems to be enjoying his time in Detroit. The most feel-good story though, is Niklas Kronwall (brother Staffan plays for Toronto), who led the team’s defensemen in points with 15 and played every single game, despite never playing in more than 70 during the season. Along with Jonathan Ericsson, who was drafted as a forward, “Nick, Jr.” could be the future anchor of this team’s defense when Lidstrom retires.

The Wings proved that you don’t need a $6m goalie to win. Chris Osgood posted some of the best stats of his career last year in part because of a new hybrid style and the defense in front of him. Osgood’s $1.4m cap hit is amongst the lowest in the league for goalies, but at that price he’s probably the best bang for your buck in the league. Should he falter, and even if he does with the personnel in front of him will keep Detroit at least in the top 10 in defense, Ty Conklin is more than capable, after making a string of spectacular starts in the place of the injured Marc-Andre Fleury.

There’s almost no weaknesses on this squad. An already potent offense added the best sniper on the market this summer in Hossa, and a stable defense will have Stuart for a full season and a more experienced Kronwall. Osgood is the de facto starter and won’t have to fight to regain his starting role. The coaching staff remains one of the league’s best despite losing Todd McLellan to the Sharks. The only thing that’s stopping the Wings are themselves, who will no doubt have to motivate themselves for 82 games and more. It’s been ten years since the last Cup repeats, and the Wings have set themselves up to break that trend.

Cap wise, the Wings are very close to the ceiling, but that shouldn’t be a problem considering that there will quite a bit of player movements in the first couple months of the season. The most pressing matter for the Wings, however, is Zetterberg’s extension. His contract expires this summer, and don’t worry Wings fans, he won’t be going anywhere. However, Hossa is also in the same boat and it remains to be seen what will be done should both have outstanding seasons. Neither will make more than Lidstrom’s $7.45m, but nothing less than Datsyuk’s $6.7m as well. Zetterberg has priority over Hossa, who may head for greener pastures or even perhaps return to Pittsburgh should he win a Cup this year.

Projected lineup:
Pavel Datsyuk – Henrik Zetterberg – Tomas Holmstrom
Johan Franzen – Valtteri Filppula – Marian Hossa
Kirk Maltby – Kris Draper – Mikael Samuelsson
Dan Cleary – Tomas Kopecky – Jiri Hudler

Niklas Lidstrom – Brian Rafalski
Brad Stuart – Niklas Kronwall
Andreas Lilja – Brett Lebda

Chris Osgood – Ty Conklin

scratches: Darren Helm, Chris Chelios, Jonathan Ericsson

Coach: Mike Babcock
GM: Ken Holland

Predicted finish: 1st Central, 1st West

Sep 162008
 

There’s a right time to rebuild and there’s a wrong time to rebuild. For the Jackets, the time just never seems to be right for either or. Blessed with one of the best snipers of his generation in Rick Nash, the Jackets just seem to float around in obscurity, having zero playoff appearances in its short history. The biggest problem for the Jackets was always trying to find the right players, and even when they thought they did, they saddled themselves with undesirable contracts (Sergei Federov) that they had trouble getting rid of. They’ve stayed in purgatory for most of its time, and this season is no different.

First, hiring Ken Hitchcock was a great move for the Jackets. Having no other real scoring threat other than Nash, a defensive system was the way to go (at least for now), and Hitchcock is one of the best coaches at doing that. His players buy into his system, and as a result the Jackets’ defense ranks 8th and penalty kill ranks 9th (also a well-deserved nod to Pascal Leclaire‘s breakout season). A testament to the team’s dedication to defense considering that their two best defensive defenseman last year were the relatively unknown Jan Hejda and Rostislav Klesla. However, offense is where it starts to get ugly, real ugly. With Nikolai Zherdev‘s departure, along with his 26 goals, the next highest total from a returning player is Jason Chimera‘s 14. That’s 24 goals less than Nash’s total, who accounted for 20% of Columbus’ goal total. That’s staggering, so it’s no surprise that Columbus’ offense was ranked second-worst in the league. Scott Howson stepped up and attempted to solve this problem by acquiring RJ Umberger, Raffi Torres, and Kristian Huselius, but this summer was not the summer to splurge on free agents – there wasn’t any forward that was worth throwing big money at. While the three new players definitely bring some more offensive punch to the Jackets, Nash is still without a bona fide set-up man. Umberger had an incredible hot streak in the playoffs and it is unlikely that he can keep scoring at that pace. As a centre, he’s not quite the complimentary player Nash needs, but without a doubt he’s penciled in as the new number one pivot. Torres was bothered by injury and will be looking to bounce back, as will Huselius, who toiled under Mike Keenan in Calgary. You have to wonder how Huselius, who had trouble adjusting to Calgary’s tougher game, will figure into Hitchcock’s plans, who expects his players to give it all on their ice without doing anything too flashy. The players to watch for this year are rookies Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek, who may have a shot at centering Nash should Umberger falter. The two junior standouts are expected to chip in here and there, but not make any significant contributions offensively. Don’t expect the Jackets to open any eyes with their offense, that’s for sure.

Ron Hainsey was their biggest weapon on defense. Now, that spot’s up for grabs. None of the Jackets’ top six are considered powerplay quarterbacks, and that’s fine if Hitchcock wants to play a tough game, but you can’t win if you can’t score. Fedor Tyutin and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen bring more than enough sandpaper, and the Jackets seriously lack a good puck-mover. Kris Russell could develop into that player, but not this year. The lanky defenseman needs more experience and bulk up on his 5’10”, 165 lbs. frame before that happens. That could cause problems when they’re breaking out of the offensive zone, but I’m sure that for Hitchcock a good hard-and-out off the boards strategy will do just fine. The problem with that is, Nash won’t be seeing any breakaways anytime soon.

Leclaire has proved himself to be an able number one, although he did miss some time due to injury. Jackets fans were in for a little scare this summer when talks seem to have stalled, but at $3.8m/year that’s a great bargain. The Jackets don’t have anything to worry about here, especially with an able backup in Fredrik Norrena and some youngster named Steve Mason waiting in the wings. This is one area in which the Jackets’ patience has paid off, and they’re reaping the dividends.

The Jackets declared this summer that they have a “win now” policy, after realizing that Ohioans weren’t paying to see a mediocre product (Jackets attendance was ranked 28th). It’s nice to see that a team that has slowly inched towards the right direction made a couple big moves over the summer, but it doesn’t seem to be the right ones. There’s a lot of question marks surrounding the new players, as well as producing offense from the blueline. Unfortunately for management and Jackets fans, the Jackets won’t figure into the playoff picture. The Jackets have some valuable pieces they can move at the deadline to stock up picks and prospects in Mike Peca, Manny Malhotra, and Christian Backman, but also have some cap room ($10m) to make some serious noise at the deadline, should the need arise.

Predicted lineup:
Rick Nash – RJ Umberger – Kristian Huselius
Fredrik Modin – Mike Peca – Raffi Torres
Jason Chimera – Manny Malhotra – Jared Boll
Mike York – Alexander Svitov – Jiri Novotny

Jan Hejda – Mike Commodore
Fedor Tyutin – Rostislav Klesla
Ole-Kristian Tollefsen – Christian Backman

Pascal Leclaire – Fredrik Norrena

scratches: Kris Russell, Derick Brassard, Jakub Voracek

GM: Scott Howson
Coach: Ken Hitchcock

Predicted finish: 4th Central, 13th West

Here to Stay

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Sep 162008
 

“What I said was it varies from market to market. The one thing that would not be sensible to do is lower your ticket prices to enrich scalpers. That doesn’t make any sense. But the fact of the matter is, more than a majority of our teams would use the opportunity of economic stability to lower their ticket prices.”

I guess to Gary Bettman and his “cost certainty,” enriching scalpers is at the top of his worry list.

Terry Frei at ESPN argues that despite Bettman’s claims that he’s fighting for the fans and that by linking revenues to player salaries it would stop the increase in ticket prices, it’s still happening, and at an alarming rate at that too. Frei argues that if ticket prices continue to rise, the NHL could face a mass exodus of fans who either can’t or won’t pay for the tickets. He also thinks that “the cap [won’t] be $56.7 million. The benchmarks for everything, from extensions to UFA deals, would be lower. The owners wouldn’t be getting as much revenue, but they wouldn’t be paying as much in salaries.”

I’m assuming that when Frei thinks that the cap won’t be at $56.7m next year, he means he expects it to go up. Yet, if I understood his article correctly, he thinks the benchmarks will be lower. Funny, I always thought that an increase in cap always meant more money being thrown around – after all, isn’t that why some hockey pundits are arguing that the new cap hasn’t done anything for the league and that the lockout was all for naught? After the first season under the new CBA we saw a ton of money being thrown around, highlighted by the Rangers’ splurge on Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. This year we saw the likes of Jeff Finger and Wade Redden and Ryan Malone get paid much more than “market value.” If the cap is expected to go up, what makes Frei think that there would be lower benchmarks? In every single summer since the implementation of the salary cap we’ve seen more precedents (Mike Richards‘ lifetime contract) and loopholes (Lou Lamouriello) than ever.

Frei uses the Kings, Canucks, Flames, Jackets, Ducks, and Hurricanes as examples of increasing ticket prices. Yet he fails to mention that even with the new ticket prices, both Canadian teams still play to sell-out crowds every single night. The attendance for the other teams he’s mentioned have been mediocre or average at best: Kings (21st), Jackets (28th), Ducks (15th), and Hurricanes (20th). Of those 4 teams, only the Ducks have on averaged played out to sold-out crowds. What separates the Ducks from the rest of them? They’re only one season removed from being Stanley Cup champs. The Canes and Lightning enjoyed such success after their Cup-winning seasons, but without continually winning their attendance dropped, especially for Carolina, who managed to miss the playoffs.

I don’t think that ticket price is the main factor that’s driving fans away, and Frei doesn’t explicitly say so either, but the fact of the matter is, winning matters. Unless a team is in Canada or Minnesota, teams that win are always going to the be ones that post good attendance numbers, regardless of where they are. Bettman and Bill Daly have always tried to sell the game to the American public. I think it’s time that they let the game sell itself. This season could be the season that Hockeytown becomes Hockeytown once again, or the season that we see Washington become for the first time, a viable hockey market.

Read more about the rising ticket prices courtesy of Frei.

Aug 282008
 

A month ago both sides seem to be optimistic about a new deal. Now that training camp is fast approaching and Joe Sakic has re-signed (rejoice, hockey fans), Andrej Meszaros and the Sens seem to be drifting further and further apart. Despite claims from both sides in earlier months that a contract extension was near, it seems as though that may be quite contrary to the truth. The young rearguard, who is coming off a rather disappointing sophomore campaign after a marvelous rookie one, is asking for around $4.5m/year, while the Sens remain adamant that $3.5m/year is a much fairer number.

Should the Sens give in to Meszaros’ asking price, it would make him the Sens’ highest paid defenseman – fellow teammates Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are playing for at least half their open market value. The length of the deal is apparently not a concern to Meszaros, but money is. Bryan Murray claims that he has offered the Meszaros camp contract offers ranging from one to five years, but has not heard much feedback, possibly because Meszaros is refusing to take into consideration any offer that isn’t near his asking price.

Meszaros is still currently a RFA and subject to offer sheets. While Murray won’t pony up $4.5m/year, you can bet that there are teams out there that will pay up for the former WHL standout, and force Murray’s hand. Should Murray lose Meszaros, he has stated that he will not be replacing him via trade of free agency, but will instead promote from within, which is great news for Lawrence Nycholat, Matt Kinch, and Matt Carkner, all three coming off good seasons with Binghamton, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate.

Either way, expect a flurry of moves after Mats Sundin makes his decision and Mathieu Schneider (which Murray claims he has little interest in) is moved.

EDIT: THN reports that a rival team has made an offer sheet to Meszaros for $5m/year, but Murray has denied any knowledge of such a thing and the Ottawa Sun claims that two league sources have denied it as well. The rumoured offer sheet was apparently made by Tampa, but that’s impossible. If the Lightning did make the offer sheet, they’d be subject to be give up their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks. Under the CBA, all picks must be the team’s original picks – meaning that Tampa cannot substitute any of those picks with picks they’ve acquired from other teams. The Lightning’s original 3rd round pick is owned by Pittsburgh, who acquired it in the Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts trade.

Jun 242008
 

Only a month ago, Howard Berger and others wrote about how things were pretty much all good int he NHL.

And though it’s oddly out of fashion to lay kudos on commissioner Gary Bettman, there is little doubt he has adroitly guided the NHL through its most turbulent epoch. Bettman and deputy Bill Daly administer to an enormous, 30-team circuit that does not have an overbearing crisis at the moment — a triumph fans on both sides of the border should relish.

I wonder if Howard Berger wants to take back those words now. In the past few weeks we have learned that Nasville Predators part owner William ‘Boots’ Del Baggio has filed for bankruptcy, the league has threatened to boot the New York Rangers owner out of the league, and Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli has been suspended from any involvement in the Ducks or the NHL after having plead guilty of making a false statement to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding his involvement in manipulating stock options while at Broadcom.

That sounds pretty bad but the Nashville situation is potentially even more troublesome and I think we need to take a cautionary stance on the new Tampa Bay ownership as well. The Toronto Star is reporting that Gary Bettman was blindsided to find out that Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz and Minnesota Wild’s owner (and former Nashville Predators owners) Craig Leipold lent Boots Del Baggio a combined $17 million of the $25 million Boots paid for his share in the Predators. In Del Baggio’s purchase agreement he has an option to purchase all of the Predators if the situation in Nashville doesn’t improve and it is believed he would have moved them to Kansas City. Interestingly enough Philip Anschutz owns the arena in Kansas City where the moved Nashville Predators would play.

Clearly it seems the NHL didn’t do its homework on Del Baggio’s financial situation but the whole messy Nashville sale stinks with a lot of back room dealings from Liepold selling and then immediately buying the Minnesota Wild, to the league seemingly pushing Jim Balsille out of the picture in favour of local owners and Del Baggio, to other owners financing the deal. I think there is a lot more to this story than we know and I truly would be surprised if Bettman and his cartel are more involved in this than we have currently heard about.

One has to wonder if Gary Bettman’s control of all things NHL is coming near the end. How long will it be before several other owners, and the NHLPA, say enough is enough and give Gary the boot. He has continuously failed to find or adequitely perform due diligence on new ownership groups while seemingly keeping well financed billionaire Jim Balsillie out of the league. Something is clearly wrong in the NHL and it is time for Gary to pay the price.

James Mirtle has more on the messy situations the NHL is facing.

Nov 272007
 

In Real Estate they say the value of a property is all about location, location and location. In hockey I believe success is all about goaltending, goaltending and goaltending. I recently wrote an article about young franchise players and I ranked Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Luongo at the top of the list ahead of players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Dion Phaneuf, etc. In the comments to that post several people argued against me putting two goalies at the top of the list saying that goalies aren’t that valuable. The following is some evidence to show otherwise.

Last year 15 of the top 16 teams in team save % made the playoffs while only one team not in the top 16 (Tampa) did.

Of the past 12 Stanley Cup winning goalies, not one had a save percentage under .920 in the playoffs in their cup winning season as shown in the table below with cup winning goalies and their playoff and regular season save percentages.

Year Playoffs Reg. Goalie
2006-07 .922 .918 Jean-Sebastien Giguere
2005-06 .920 .882 Cam Ward (was the backup in regular season)
2003-04 .933 .910 Nikolai Khabibulin
2002-03 .934 .914 Martin Brodeur
2001-02 .920 .915 Dominik Hasek
2000-01 .934 .913 Patrick Roy
1999-00 .927 .910 Martin Brodeur
1998-09 .935 .915 Ed Belfour
1997-08 .925 .913 Chris Osgood
1996-07 .932 .899 Mike Vernon (only played 33 games in reg. season)
1997-06 .921 .908 Patrick Roy
1994-05 .932 .902 Martin Brodeur (strike shortened season)

Based on that evidence teams should be aiming to obtain a goalie capable of posting save percentages of .910 and above over the duration of the regular season but also capable of picking up their save percentages to the .920-.935 range over the course of a playoff run. If you don’t have that kind of goalie, can you really be considered serious cup contenders? Based on the list above, probably not.

The Columbus Blue Jackets entered this season with essentially the same team that finished the past two seasons 33-42-7 and 35-43-4. But because of some top tier goaltending by young Pascal Leclaire the Blue Jackets are a very solid 11-8-4 to start this season. That is with a defence of Ron Hainsey, Rostislav Klesla, Adam Foote, Kris Russell, Jan Hejda, Duvie Wescott and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. At best half those guys are journeyman NHLers. Hainsey was a waiver pickup. Hejda is a 29 year old with 39 games NHL experience (with the lowsy 2006-07 Oilers) prior to this season. Duvie Wescott is a 30 year old with 5 years experience but only a single season with more than 40 games played. Russell is a rookie drafted in the third round of the 2005 draft. That isn’t exactly a top tier defines so I won’t buy the ‘but Columbus has a great defence and that is why Leclaire looks so good’ argument. The Boston Bruins, who are now getting good goaltending from Tim Thomas, have gone from being well out of the playoffs to somewhat comfortable in the playoffs despite having more or less the same team but without the services of talented Patrice Bergeron for more than half their games so far. A similar story can be written about DiPietro and the Islanders. On paper the Islanders forwards and defence crew are quite average but DiPietro keeps them in a lot of games and have allowed them to stay in a playoff position.

On the flip side take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins. No one can argue that they aren’t an extremely talented team up front and on defence but when they don’t get the goaltending they are quite mediocre. Dany Sabourin has a fairly decent .911 save % this season and is an equally fairly decent 4-3-1. Marc-Andre Fleury has a fairly weak .898 save% and is an equally weak 6-8-1. From October-December of last season Fleury had a .900 save % and a 15-11-4 record. From January to April of last season Fleury had a .911 save % which resulted in a fabulous 25-5-5 record.

Even a team as good as Ottawa struggles when they don’t get top tier goaltending as they are 3-4-1 in their last 7 games during which they posted a decent, but not great, .902 save %. Prior to that stretch the Senators had a spectacular .938 save % which converted into a even more spectacular 13-1-0 record. Any guesses on what the Senators record would be if they had the Leafs .886 save % for the whole season? Would they have a .500 record? Some fans will suggest that the team in front of the goalies has not played as well recently and while that may be partially true I would suggest the biggest reason for the Senators recent woes are the goaltenders not the forwards. I watch a lot of Sens games and I watched the Leafs generally out play the Senators in game 2 of the season but not out goaltend them. The Sens won that game 3-2 with Gerber stopping 41 of 43 shots. I watched Gerber shut out the Rangers the very next game stopping all 35 shots the Rangers directed his way. I watched (in person) a week later when Gerber stopped 36 of 37 shots to defeat the Rangers 3-1. All of these games could have easily gone the other way with just average goaltending just like the recent losses to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Buffalo did.

In an NHL where there are a ton of one goal games the difference between a .925 and a .895 save % is huge. That amounts to about a goal per game and if you are giving up an extra goal every game that will convert (in theory) all OT wins and OT losses into straight loses and convert a several wins into OT losses. On average last year teams lossed 9 games in OT and thus teams on average won 9 games in OT. If you take those 9 OT wins and convert them to regulation losses that would account for a difference of 18 points in the standings. In the eastern conference that could be the difference between finishing 2nd in the conference or finishing 11th like it would have last season. That;s the difference between being a very good team and a very mediocre one. That’s significant.

There are currently 9 teams with fewer points than games played (i.e. sub .500). Those teams are Florida, Atlanta, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Washington, Calgary, Los Angeles and Edmonton. Those teams sit 12th, 26th, 28th, 17th, 22nd, 30th, 14th and 25th in the NHL in save percentage respectively. Not exactly teams with top goaltending.

And if you need one more piece of evidence take a look at the Phoenix Coyotes. They picked up a talented goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov and they have yet to lose a game.

In the NHL success is all about goaltending, goaltending and goaltending.

Nov 142007
 

I was doing some web searching for some other hockey related article that I am considering writing and I somewhat accidentally came across this blog post from a British sports fan talking about hockey and the Ducks-Kings games that were played in London to start the season. What is interesting is to see what a relative outsider thinks of hockey.

“…there is a hell of a lot of skill involved besides just trying to knock as many teeth out of an opponents gum as possible, even if that is the biggest crowd puller.”

He then goes on to post a video of the Philadelphia-Ottawa brawl that occurred a few years go as well as a funny Dion Phaneuf incident. To me what is interesting is how the author identifies physical play and fighting as the ‘biggest crowd puller.’ In my mind this is one of the greatest failures of the Bettman regime. It seems Bettman wants to sanitize the game of much of the intensity, physical contact and fighting while implementing a system of speed, skill and goal scoring. In my mind both aspects must be a part of a hockey game, but if given the choice I believe, as this Brit sports fan seems to concur, that physical play and intensity is as important if not more important than speed and skill. I know many hard core hockey fans believe this but it is interesting to hear this from a casual hockey fan from abroad.

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.