NHL Lockout update and outlook

NHL Lockout

NHL LockoutThe NHL announced yesterday that the entirety of the 2012 Preseason is canceled, fueling more speculation that the start of the season October 11th is in real jeopardy. The NHL and NHLPA are set to meet this week to try to save the start of the season, but the outlook is bleak. Currently, the biggest point of contention is the revenue split, where the owners are asking players to cut their share of revenue from 57% to 46%. Many players have expressed deep concern with this split and have threatened to sit out the entire season is necessary This has subsequently prompted a mass signing campaign overseas as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, John Taveres, Erik Karlsson, and the like look for a home to play for possibly the duration of the 2012-2013 NHL season.

When you look deeper at the lockout, it is clear that revenue sharing is far from the only major issue. Another big issue at hand is contracts and free agency. The post 2004 Lockout NHL has featured some of the more insane contracts in NHL, if not sports, history, be it the length (Ovechkin, Suter, Kovalchuk, et al) or the distribution of money (ie Pronger’s front loaded deal and many like it). This has led the owners to ask for restrictions on salaries, including eliminating signing bonuses, uniform distribution of money, and maximum five-year duration for a contract. In addition, owners are seeking to control their drafted players for more time at less cost, as they have asked for entry-level deals to be extended from 3 to 5 years and for a player to become an unrestricted free agent after 10 seasons instead of the current 7 years.

Is the NHL’s proposal fair? In terms of revenue, I have always felt a 50-50 split is the way to go. There is no function NHL governing body with the owners, but there are no games without the players. It is a perfect 50-50 partnership and the revenue split should be obvious and logical. I realize there is a lot more that goes into that, but from the layman’s perspective, both groups are dependent on each other and should simple split the money. The contracts are another story. Owners and general managers should not be allowed to handout insanely front loaded contracts totaling tens of millions of dollars and then call foul and poor. If the argument is for competitive balance, then the league’s proposal is a bit stronger since many contracts signed in recent years have attempted to circumvent the salary cap designed to create balance. But the increase in entry-level deals and unrestricted free agency is garbage. The NHL is essentially trying to force young talent to have no negotiation rights at all for the first 10 years of their career, since the teams hold all the power until unrestricted free agency. Then, with a max 5 year deal, a player is in his 15th season and close to retirement and has only had one chance to cash in on his talent. There is no denying that the previous contract arrangement was flawed, but to handcuff the players like they want to is criminal.

So, what is going to happen? The NHL should really feel a need to act fast. The league’s popularity was on the upswing before this current lockout, finishing a long road to recovery from the previous lockout. Another lockout would be catastrophic for the league. The NFL and other sports are more popular than ever and the new fans of the NHL that came after the last lockout are not guaranteed to return to the ticket office. Also, more so than any other sport, the NHL has real competition from overseas leagues, particularly the KHL. NHL players do not need the NHL as badly as, for example, NFL players need the NFL.   What this all means is the NHL is in dangerous waters now in terms of fans and player participation, and in reality, the future of the league is at stake.

Russia claims gold at Hockey World Championships, early look at USA

Team RussiaWhile most of the hockey world has been focused on the race to the Stanley Cup, its easy to forget that a champion was crowned in the annual World Ice Hockey Championship. The International Ice Hockey Federation holds the World Championships on a yearly basis and is considered the biggest international hockey event in the world outside the Olympics. This years tournament was held in Finland and Sweden which ended Sunday when Team Russia defeated Team Slovakia 6-2 in the Gold Medal game. Leading the way for Team Russia was tournament MVP Evgeni Malkin, who set a record for points in a tournament with 19 and young netminder Semyon Varlamov. The team was also helped by late additions Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin who combined for 4 goals and 9 points in only 3 games, which includes a 2 goal and 1 assist performance by Semin in the Gold Medal game. Russia was dominate throughout the tournament as they outscored opponents 44-14 and despite an early goal by Zdeno Chara completely controlled the Gold Medal game. The performance also means that Team Russia will enter the Olympics as a number one team in the World Rankings, adding more pressure to the squad which will try to capture Gold as the host nation.

While Russia’s performance in the World Championships was impressive, it is innaccurate to make the jump to calling them the clear favorites when the Olympics kick off in Sochi. While a worldwide event, the World Championships do not come close to featuring the best hockey in the world as it coincides with the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Many of the top teams in the world were well below full strength as most NHL players who would participate either are still battling for the Cup or are nursing injuries and relaxing after a taxing season. For example, Canada failed to medal, but were missing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, and Roberto Loungo. The same was true for the US, who finished outside the medal round but were missing Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler, and Ryan Suter. In other words, the finalist for the Gold Medal in Vancouver sent B Squads to the World Championships. Most players in the World Championships play professional in Europe, which explains Russia’s dominance as the KHL is the best league outside the NHL. European countries also typically put more of an emphasis on international play than North America does, which explains why the likes of Malkin, Ovechkin, Semin, and Datsyuk chose to play despite just finishing runs in the NHL playoffs. So, while Canada and the US came up short this year, they will still be a force in the Olympics.

Thinking of Olympics, the World Championships always provide a opportunity for experts to make predictions about who will and will not participate when the Olympics do arrive. Any discussion of the Olympics always start with the debate about whether the NHL should suspend their season and allow players to participate. The arguments against participation are valid, such as injury risk and lost revenue, but when push comes to shove, expect the NHL to go to Sochi. The competition is better when the NHL is involved and the relationship between the NHL and KHL would take a hit if the world’s best do not go to Russia. So while it’s obviously very early, lets take a quick break from the NHL and Playoffs to evaluate who might make the US squad for Sochi.

As mentioned before, the United States were missing most of their studs at this year’s tournament. Conn Smythe front-runner Dustin Brown seems to be an early favorite to captain Team USA while Jonathan Quick could unseat Vancouver star Ryan Miller in-goal when the puck drops in Sochi. Joining Brown in the goal scoring department will likely be Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Bobby Ryan, Paul Statsny, David Backes and Ryan Callahan. Of that group of forwards, only Ryan and Statsny played in this years tournament. But, there is still room for some of this year’s squad to make it to Sochi, and Max Pacioretty’s break out year and 10 points in Finland seems a good bet to join the team. Young players J.T. Brown and Craig Smith also played in Finland this year and had solid numbers that could be a spring-board to consideration for Sochi. Tough guys and role players are always needed as well, and Joey Crabb could find himself jumping from the World Championship to the Olympics if this development continues progress in Toronto. Also look for Flyers youngster James Van Rimsdeyk, Ranger’s breakout star Chris Krieder and even Junior Star Emerson Etem to get a look in 2014. On the back line, Team USA will likely see some turnover from 2010 as Ryan Suter and Jack Johnson, who captained Team USA in Finland, would seem to be the only locks to return. This years World Championship provides a look at who might get the call as Justin Faulk scored an impressive 4 goals and Cam Fowler and Alex Goligoski were solid contributors. From non participants, look for John Carlson and possibly London Knight and future Montreal defenseman Jared Tinordi to get consideration. But as before, the Olympics are still 2 years away and a lot can change.

And now, back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

Matthew Ragghianti is a writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com