The National Hockey League is on the verge of a third work stoppage in the last 18 years, all under the watch of Commissioner Gary Bettman.
With two weeks left before the whole thing blows up and we go from wishing things would work out to grabbing our calendars and figuring out how much of the season will be lost, Bob H and Nick D got together to discuss ways the NHL could skirt impending disaster — and it has nothing to do with working it all out within the current system.
First up, Bob…When things looked awfully bleak around the time the Stanley Cup Finals ended in 2004 and everyone knew we were in for a bumpy ride, my only real wish was for Bettman to realize the course to take was not one that will lead the NHL into competition with the Big Three, but to make the league into the best fourth-tier sport out there.
It is a position I maintain to this day, even though I hold out much more hope for a resolution before September 15 or October 10 than I did eight years ago.
In a brief Twitter conversation last week with our own Kevin C, I complained that the owners were hella dumb to keep the “market value” of free agents rocketing skyward by handing out these ridiculous contracts, the ones Minnesota offered to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter the most recent examples.
Kev responded to me that this was merely capitalism, the 30 owners acting as CEOs, their businesses competing against one another for the best talent out there, and dictating “market value” by the length and worth of such contracts on a yearly basis.
While I agree this is a solid point, can we agree that this mode of business has again become completely incompatible with even short-term success?
Kevin isn’t old enough, but I recall a decade called the 1980s, where oily greed-mongers like the one portrayed by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street roamed Lower Manhattan, fashioning themselves kings of the world for knowing how to crush the competition.
There was a facet of corporate management called Mergers and Acquisitions, and a more onerous practice called liquidation, which, in the former case sought to help struggling businesses remain strong by absorption, or in the latter, sought to gut dying entities and redistribute their assets.
Since we’re talking capitalism and not socialism, why should we see the NHL go down in flames because it sticks to a stubborn assertion that it can survive, and all of its teams benefit, from keeping it a 30-team enterprise? When treating cancer, do doctors simply move the malignancy from one spot to the other? No. The offending cells are always excised.
As I felt then, I do now. One big step towards returning the NHL to healthy financial ground throughout is by contraction. Personally, I never felt comfortable once the expansion of 1993 left the league with 26 teams. Now, it seems to be a fair number, with four clubs disappeared.
Back in 2004, my four teams on the Hit List were: Florida, Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Columbus. In the interim, the Lightning saved themselves by winning a Cup in 2004, and the Ducks did so by winning three years later. The Panthers have an arena 30 miles from nowhere despite a solid club hovering on the good side of .500 and Columbus just keeps puttering along, finally snagging a playoff berth in 2009.
In 2012, Florida and Columbus remain. Neither the Jungle Cats nor the Civil War remembrancers draw much, and I can’t count how many times fans in the lower bowl — right where the TV cameras pan — are dressed as empty seats. Atlanta would have been on there, but it escaped back to hockey-loving Winnipeg. Phoenix, with its revolving-door ownership and precarious financial situation with the City of Glendale, takes its place. And Nashville, the little market that could, won’t be able to anymore because their financial obligations will outstrip their revenue.
Following the removal of those four cities, the NHL would look something like this:
With the talk last Summer and during the season about realignment, this matrix, like the one from 1993 to 1998, looks like it will do just fine once again. Four divisions, proper geographical alignments, room for growth if necessary.
As far as the assets of the four discarded franchises are concerned, all players under one-way contracts will be subject to a dispersal draft. The draft will go in reverse order from the previous year’s standings i.e. based on last year’s finish, Edmonton picks first, then Montreal, then the Islanders and so forth. Those on two-way deals will be considered AHL property and will be subject to the vagaries of that league’s process.
Since their parent clubs have been jettisoned, the four American Hockey League affiliates should have the option of either folding or be merged, depending on the strength of the market or the strength of another AHL club.
For instance, Portland, Maine is a minor-league bellwether and shouldn’t lose another club if Phoenix goes under, but San Antonio will certainly live if hockey pulls up stakes. Likewise, Springfield, Mass is the original AHL city, and when the Blue Jackets are cut loose, it should at least carry on as an independent. Winnipeg’s AHL team is ripe for moving, since St. John’s Newfoundland is a thousand miles from nowhere and the Leafs had to leave because of the ridiculous fuel costs coming and going from extreme Atlantic Canada.
And the Milwaukee Admirals, sibling club of the Predators? Gone just out of spite. How stupid is it to have two teams with the same moniker, even if one was absorbed from a defunct league. Norfolk it is.
It is completely unreasonable to expect, and then lie about, the myth of continually-upward growth. The Catholic Church is finding out how painful a process it is and the school system is suffering as a result. Let’s hope the Commish and the owners realize that it can always be worse.
Finally, I’d like to add that the NHL shouldn’t think about adding another team or two until there’s conclusive proof this plan in any reconstituted CBA has proven successful.
The floor is yours, Comrade…
Nick: While that’s a lovely proposal Bob, I think you’re being too lenient. 26 teams sounds
right in my head too, but I’d move to cut this league down to 24 teams, and after a couple years at that number, then we can talk about expansion.
The problem I see is that there are too many teams in the East that flat out stink, are plunked in bad markets or are too close to each other geographically for there to be a die-hard fan base. Right now there are four teams all within a few hundred miles of each other in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the two New York franchises.
If I were Commissioner, without question I’d be pushing to fold two of those teams.
While the Islanders and the Devils both have a fairly rich history, they haven’t been financially successful or stable in a good long while. It’s probably safe to say that getting rid of those two teams would be a step in the right direction. Next, it’s just stupid to have two NHL teams in Florida, so I agree, knock off the Florida Panthers and we’re down to 27 teams.
The West is a little more complicated because there teams that are in good markets for a sports franchise, just not for hockey, like Phoenix and Nashville. The first two teams I’d get rid of, right off the bat, are the Coyotes and the Predators for the following reasons: Nashville’s going to lose money no matter what over the better part of the next decade because they have to pay Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne a lot of money. Phoenix can’t get a good, stable ownership group together and it’s in the desert… hockey… In the desert? Really? Stop it. So now we’re at 25 with one organization left to take to the gallows.
I’d dispatch the Dallas Stars. They’re in a bad location and they’re too far from any team once the Phoenix Coyotes close up shop. And suddenly, we’re down to 24, in good hockey cities and markets and that will have a pretty logical geographical alignment. Plus, then there are exactly six teams per division, it’s just a matter of where they’re placed. For that, I want to take into account the geographical positioning of the cities, but also some other factors like television markets and parity within a certain division.
Winnipeg obviously should move to the West, but it would be a real good idea to move the Detroit Red Wings to an Eastern division for a few reasons. One being that Detroit is the 11th largest television market in the US and they’re in the Eastern Standard Time Zone. Columbus is also in the Eastern Standard Time Zone, but they’re a much smaller market ranking 32nd in the US and they aren’t any good. So the second reason it’s a good idea is just that: if they are trying to increase profits and parity, then weakening the Central by moving perennial Cup Contending Detroit out of that division would give teams in the Central a much easier shot at getting into the playoffs since they don’t have to contend with huge a hockey crazy market team like the Red Wings.
Also, it’d just be kind of neat to see four of the Original Six teams in the same division, no? Yes, don’t be dumb.
So what we’re left with is 24 teams, divvied up into six club conferences or divisions or whatever we’re calling them, and they look like this:
|Philadelphia Flyers||Boston Bruins|
|New York Rangers||Buffalo Sabres|
|Washington Capitals||Montreal Canadiens|
|Carolina Hurricanes||Ottawa Senators|
|Pittsburgh Penguins||Toronto Maple Leafs|
|Tampa Bay Lightning||Detroit Red Wings|
|Colorado Avalanche||Calgary Flames|
|St. Louis Blues||Edmonton Oilers|
|Chicago Blackhawks||Vancouver Canucks|
|Minnesota Wild||Los Angeles Kings|
|Winnipeg Jets||Anaheim Ducks|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||San Jose Sharks|
There really are no teams left that aren’t in good, stable hockey markets, and they’re all pretty well geographically aligned in addition to making the divisions more competitive. Plus, with all those teams dissolving, there will be a bigger talent pool available for fewer NHL teams and fewer AHL teams.
Now, what to do with the players from those organizations that are no longer under contract. I would just have a free-for-all, no-holds-barred free agency, amnesty, and waiver free period. Teams would be able to offer deals to those players left out there, they could elect then to move their less talented players to their AHL or ECHL/CHL affiliates, or buy them out with no cap penalty. If the NHLPA doesn’t like it, well that’s tough because if they want more revenue sharing from the top clubs, dropping the budget/small market teams and lower-end talent players is better for the game.
As far as what to do with the AHL teams, maybe try moving some to the ECHL/CHL because there are teams that don’t have affiliates in those leagues. The Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the St. Louis Blues are all affiliate-challenged in the ECHL/CHL.
Maybe three teams, like say the Portland Pirates, the Albany Devils, and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers got picked up by one of the teams above, they wouldn’t have to disband six minor league teams. Doing that leaves the San Antonio Rampage, the Texas Stars, the Milwaukee Admirals to fold and losing only three teams is better than losing six in this case, no?
With 24 teams, in financially viable markets that could use more talent, the NHL would be better off. This would also give the NHL room to expand into markets that actually make sense if and when they decide to up the quotient of teams. Quebec could use a new club as could Southern Ontario, so put two teams there and call it a day in a year or two.