The general accusation of the moment, the group think that seems to have flooded the hockey blogs and MSM right now is that the CBA doesn’t work, mainly because 1) previously high spending teams got high priced free agents, and 2) the salary cap is set so high. If you are one of those people who have this belief, might I say, wake the hell up. Now that I have your attention, let’s get started.
Before I dig into anything deep, let me first disclose that I am a Colorado Avalanche fan. That means that one of the teams acquiring a Big 4 free agent is the one I root for. You can take that as being completely biased in favor of the Avalanche, or you can take that as having watched the Avs a little closer than most. Now that we have that out of the way…
First, let’s tackle the salary cap. The cap is supposed to be tied to revenues. That means that the teams are only able to spend as much on players salaries as they can rightfully afford. You would think that would be a simple concept, much like buying groceries. You can only buy what you can pay for. Unfortunately, NHL teams have been doing the equivalent of borrowing money to buy lottery tickets, or to put it another way, does anyone recall the great depression? You may not have been around for it, but you know what it was. The NHL was headed in the same direction. The rich markets may have had deep pockets, there was very little smaller markets could do to keep up, and so they bet the farm year after year. This was not what we like to call “good business.” In fact, we would call that “bad business.”
We went from players not getting what they were worth, to having players getting more than fair value, to players taking a 24% salary rollback to getting more than they are worth by virtue of the high salary cap. Players will keep getting this much money so long as they are worth it, in the eyes of the owners. That is all that matters. If you believe that Ryan Smyth or Daniel Briere is making too much money, start writing your Congressman. They will care as much as anyone.
What are we talking about here? What are we honestly talking about here? Are we talking about teams spending too much money, or other teams not having the money (and in these days, that means cap space) to go after those players? These days, those are two different things.
So what about the parity? What about the promised land of the small market teams being able to compete with the large market teams? Guess what, folks, that’s exactly what is happening. For all the complaining ONE DAY AFTER FREE AGENCY STARTED, that parity is happening. It was never going to happen instantly, as contracts had to run out, or in the case of Yashin, bought out. Also, you can not look at one season, and scream about parity. Look back since the new CBA went into effect. High dollar teams have thinned, while low dollar teams have gotten their shot at the free agents.
As an example, lets talk about the Avalanche, who I am reading plenty of complaints about being a big spender. And who, by the way, parity happened to rather quickly.
New CBA Year 1: Due to the salary cap and timing, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote both hit the free agency market. Forsberg was a Colorado mainstay, playing his entire career with the Nordiques/Avalanche (remember, he was acquired in the Lindros trade). One of the faces of the Avalanche, he was going to be missed by the fans, and his place on the team would become a big hole that needed filling.. On top of that, Colorado lost Adam Foote, the teams 1B defenseman. And it wasn’t like anyone was crying when Teemu Selanne or Paul Kariya left, but there they went, right out that free agency door. To make up the roster spots, the Avs sign Pierre Turgeon and Patrice Brisebois to two year deals (we know how that worked out). At that point, while not completely instant, parity has made it’s mark. Two big players have left the team for greener pastures, while two mediocre players have replaced them. Then, of course, there is the Jose Theodore trade, which will add serious cap dollars to the Avs for a few years to come. Even though that isn’t free agency, it sure will affect how free agent signings come down the pipe. Dollar for dollar, we see how Theo is working out. The season outcome, the Avs make the playoffs, probably should not have made it out of the first round, but go nowhere fast after that.
New CBA year 2: Money takes it’s toll again, this time from many different angles. Rob Blake and Joe Sakic are owed bonus money from contracts signed in 2001. That bonus money, for a combined total of $4.6 million dollars, counted toward the 2006-07 cap. Blake, the Avs 1A defenseman, knows he can get a better contract elsewhere and decides to move back to LA, where he has a house (I don’t blame him at all, it was as much a money decision as a family decision). Dan Hinote, who is a popular character player follows the money to St. Louis. Blake’s replacement, Jordon Leopold, has hernia surgery shortly after
signing as a free agent joining the Avs from a trade for Alex Tanguay (oops, my bad there), and his effectiveness ends right there (15 games?). On top of that, Steve Konowalchuk is forced to retire from hockey, due to a heart abnormality. His salary, while not staggering, counted toward the cap (and I want an explanation on that one). The end result, the Avs mis the playoffs by one point (but really three), and there is little to be happy about for the first 2/3rds of the season.
What that means for this offseason is that the Avs got some cash back. They got:
$4.6 million in bonus money
$1.5 million in Pierre Turgeon contract
$1.9 million in Steve Konowalchuk contract
$2.25 million in Patrice Brisebois contract
For a grand total of… $10.25 million in cap space back, even BEFORE the cap went up. And by the way, that $10.25 million is about, no wait, if I’m doing the math right, exactly what the Avs spent on Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan in free agency. So, money that was not available to the Avalanche last season, when every other team had a full stock of cap cash, was being used for the “big money” free agents, and that is before we get into new, raised cap dollars. And looking over the last few seasons, what is this called?
Parity. No shot the last few seasons, big splash this one.
How about Philadelphia? Bottom of the barrel team last season, and by a mile. They didn’t even get the number one draft pick they should have had. They were in last place, and now they have an important free agent signed for the long term. Yes, I do believe that is what parity is like sometimes. I believe that is what everyone wanted. Everyone to have their shot.
There also has to be some shrewd scheming. A GM has to not only offer up the money, but also sell his team. He has to be able to make sure a star is going to see the light, to come over from the dark side. He can’t just waive a wad of bills in front of a high dollar free agent and say, “These are for you, my good fellow, and you can come and play a game called hockey for us.” There has to be some version of commitment from a team to winning, which is obviously still important to the players. They have to feel like they are playing for a contender, and for a team. Kevin Lowe and the Oilers have money, so do the Islanders. Where are the players? I’m starting to see why Rick DiPietro was offered such a long contract. Who else was going to play for them?
Let me also remind you:
Rob Blake did not help the Kings this year.
Peter Forsberg did not help the Flyers.
Adam Foote has not helped the Blue Jackets.
Zdeno Chara has not helped the Bruins
Ed Jovanovski did not help the Coyotes
Paul Kariya was not that helpful to the Preds
Ed Belfour was not the solution
Do I need to keep going? Free agency is no guarantee.
I understand that fans of teams are upset about the way their team has handled the offseason. Last season, when the Avs signed Tyler Arnason, I was in the same boat. I didn’t like it one bit, but there it was, small batches of dollars being spent in poor places. And as for parity, how about the fact that the Avs went from having five superstars (Roy was gone by the new CBA) to now having two and a half (Sakic, Smyth, and the on-again-off-again Hejduk). After that, it’s been drafting and small dollar signings. It’s been about pulling players in the minors (like Budaj), and filling the gaps with small money (Klee, Rycroft). Because that is all they could do at the time. That was part of the parity that the NHL was touting.
Hey, want to see something done? Raise the minimum spending level. Sure, it’s good to have a minimum, but if the owners and GMs think a $15 million gap after salaries were rolled back 24% is going to keep the upper and lower limits closer together, they got some splainin’ to do. And do the GMs want that sort of tightness in salaries? No freaking way. It’s the best of both worlds, a free enough market, with limits on spending.
Someone remind me again why the Avalanche are on the spending shit list?
It’s like Scotty Bowman once said. “On the road, every boo is a cheer.”