When the lockout ended and the sport we loved resumed action much battered and bedamned in the public perception, no one was sure how the salary cap would work. Now we know how it’s worked around, we also know how it fails. We’ve seen artistic arrangements that let teams spread out the money for a contract well past when anyone expects the player to still be on that team or in the NHL at all. We’ve seen two contracts voided, and worse we’ve seen a hyper-inflation that is damaging the very teams it was supposed to protect.
In the six seasons since the lockout ended, the salary cap his sky rocketed from $39million and change to over $64 million. The salary floor for 2011-12 is 20% higher than the ceiling was six years ago. Assuming teams spend their money equally well, a small market team, or simply one where hockey is not as entrenched as it is in Boston, Montreal or Toronto is now spending about twice as much to be competitive. What part of the economy has expanded even 20% to support this? The US jobless rate has been at near historic levels nearly the whole time. A team ( at least partly through bungling ownership) has been relocated to a place its chances are only so-so , the Coyotes have been in a state of meltdown almost since they arrived from that same city that couldn’t support a team, and others have enormous amounts of rumors swirling around them.
I’m not sure anyone could track down all the issues with ownership that at least appear to be (blissfully) in the past in Tampa Bay, Columbus (a nice little city) is one of the teams that should have noticed the sharp, shiny teeth of their wolf in lease clothing and negotiated better and these are just two easily spotted issues. Even the Nashville Predators who have one the top goalies on the planet, the guy who should have won the Norris Trophy this season, and a high quality defensive unit haven’t hit a level where they are a money printing machine. The Dallas Stars and St Louis Blues are two other teams who have giant question marks in the ownership column.
When you look at the last few free agency periods they can’t help but make you think of someone who goes into a bar, gets falling down drunk, blindfolds themselves and takes home the first person to grab their arm at last call. Some of the contracts handed out bear no resemblance to the talent level of the players. Worse, it is preventing players who are more talented from being promoted out of the AHL or major juniors or called in from collegiate play. Many of these players will stagnate if not challenged by high end skill sets. For teams rebuilding, or trying to build their market (which by all reasonable indications takes about a generation) having the ability to take a high draft pick and put them into the NHL lineup quickly where they can grow in front of and in turn help feed their home market is rapidly diminishing.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers have two of the most promising prospect stables of talent in the NHL, and yet between the two of them they went out and signed or traded for well over forty million cap dollars this season. Deals like Kopecky’s, which rewards a marginal third line player who’s never topped fifteen goals, in four seasons has only cracked twenty points once and is a career minus 19 with each year of his career having been spent on a playoff team, one of them a Cup winner. With a saner cap floor the Florida Panthers might have brought up anyone of their well regarded forward prospects.
The question is what’s in it for each group who will be involved in setting up the next CBA, Without at least two of these groups pushing for it the leagues mid to long term future is at best highly unstable. The NHL could be looking at a situation like the NBA where more than half the teams are losing money, and teams are shuffled across the map on a regular basis. So what’s in it?
For building and or rebuilding teams (this includes future expansion teams) the ability to bring up prospects through the team as the foundation for a team and get them to the NHL at the earliest moment they are ready minimizing developmental costs, and preventing having to overpay free agents. It also maximizes fan appeal by leveraging the cache high draft picks have and turning it into revenue in the form of ticket sales, merchandise and TV ratings.
For established teams with a solid product if the salary floor is lowered they will transfer less money struggling teams that they can keep or reinvest in arena enhancements, training facilities, scouting staff or use towards building a replacement venue.
For players the answer is simplest of all; jobs. With the difficulty that NHL has had in finding viable owners of any sort for the last decade, the possibility of contraction can’t be ignored. While the KHL is a newer entity, one of the premier Russian club teams folded its doors last season because of what some would call a non-viable economic situation in that league. With more ownership profitability, the probability of expansion goes up, which will create more jobs and likely extend the careers of players. A stable NHL which can keep producing Bobby Ryan’s, Alex Ovechkin’s, Steve Stamkos’s, Ryan Miller’s, Duncan Keith’s, Taylor Hall’s, Shea Weber’s and have them spread out across the continent has the real chance to expand as far as 36 teams without even saturating markets.
These, and other reasons are why the next CBA must include provisions similar to:
A fixed salary floor shall be set at no higher than forty million per year for the first five years of the agreement provided teams are in distress, or subject to a leasing agreement that would prohibit them from spending to the cap ceiling:
- Have a NHL roster including at least 8 players who were either drafted and developed by the team, or who have played 25 or less NHL games for other teams.
- At least 35% of the difference between the distressed floor and standard floor must be used towards buying out or buying down a lease or a facilities upgrade.