Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It's All Down Hill From Here

I began forecasting the slippery slope that the NHL is now fully sliding down back in 2008, long before the New Jersey Devils handed Ilya Kovalchuk the most alarming (and according to the powers that be, unethical) contract in the history of North American professional sport.

Back then, shortly after Vinny Lecavalier signed an 11 year $85 million contract, I wrote:

Are teams simply hoping the salary cap will continue to increase, year-after-year, without any recourse? Do they think by the time the last few remaining years of those deals come around, the cap will be $75M or $100M and the contract will actually look cheap? Can they automatically assume that one or two good seasons is enough to project a player's production 5 or 10 years down the line?

It's a nice thought, but...what if that doesn't happen? What if the annual salary cap, after rising a whopping 35% in 4 years, levels off and then a guy you've committed 7 or 8 years and $40-50M to doesn't fulfill expectations? Even worse, what if you have two guys like that? Or three?

It's a dark road the NHL is traveling down, and it's the same trail the NBA burned in the late 90's that lead to people like Jim McIlvane, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and Austin Croshere earning some $127 million (combined) in salary. This is great news if you're Jeff Finger or Ron Hainsey or any other marginal player who may (or may not) have upside, but for everyone else it means bad times. Unless you cheer for Detroit, each contract from here on out has the potential to bury your franchise for the foreseeable future.

The NBA owners forced a lockout in 1999 not only to put a cap on player salaries, but also to implement the maximum length a contract could run. Teams were doling out 8, 10, even 12 year deals to stars and that in turn increased contract duration expectations around the league. Eager to keep young players away from free agency, GM's began paying on potential instead of production, and tacked on extra years without hesitation.

Remember the deals handed to Larry Johnson, Juwan Howard, Glenn Robinson and numerous other players who were either too young or still unproven? Remember the kind of damage they did to their respective teams?

Larry Johnson 12 years/$84M - 1994
Glenn Robinson 10 years/$68M - 1995
Donyell Marshall 9 years/$42M - 1994

Juwan Howard 7 years/$105M - 1996
Jayson Williams 7 years/$100M - 1999
Brian Grant 7 years/$84M - 2000
Vin Baker 6 years/$86.7M - 1997
Tim Thomas 6 years/$67M - 1999
Bryant Reeves 6 years/$65M - 1997
Antonio McDyess 6 years/$67M - 1998
Tom Gugliotta 6 years/$58.5M - 1998

In a few short years the entire landscape of the NBA changed. Instead of trading players you traded contracts. Where once you had almost every team competing, legitimately trying to win night in and night out, with most having a realistic shot of at least qualifying for the playoffs when training camp opened...all of a sudden you had a clear set of contenders and an equally clear set of pretenders who were fed to the lions and playing for the lottery from day one.

The NBA finally realized guaranteeing several tens of millions of dollars to athletes for a decade or more at a time, regardless of their performance, wasn't working out that well. Didn't exactly lead to motivation. Another factor was injuries. So they capped the length a contract could run for, and proceeded to shorten it again in the next round of CBA negotiating.

It was noted hockey genius Charles Wang who started this particular movement in the NHL, but it wasn't when he gave Rick Dipietro a 15 year contract in 2003. It actually began two years earlier when Wang signed (ahem) Alexei Yashin (10 years/$87.5M) and the Capitals inked Jaromir Jagr (7 years/$77M) to enormous contracts that neither player came close to playing out. In fact, both were paid to leave. Washington ate nearly half of Jagr's contract while he was wearing a Rangers jersey ($3.4M/year), and seven long years from now the Islanders will have squandered $17M in cap space for Yashin to stay home and continue not caring about hockey. Good investments?

In the years since we've seen several hockey players sign ridiculously long contracts and the situation is now unfolding just as it did in basketball. At first it's the stars: the hottest free agents and the best young players score huge extended deals. The rationale is obviously a move to circumvent the cap (more years at less dollars), and also, in the case of restricted free agents, to keep them away from other teams.

The problem isn't with the superstars getting big paydays, it's the length it comes with, and the effect that has on what everyone else can then demand.

As we look back on the recent history of the NBA, we can see the immediate future for the NHL. And it's not a pretty sight.

Now, two years later, the problem is coming to a head. The Kovalchuk deal, along with the contracts given to Roberto Luongo and Marian Hossa, while within the rules of the salary cap, are clearly designed to circumvent it. The tail-end of each contract, when each player will be well into his 40's, will pay those players minimal salaries. Because the contracts were signed prior to the player turning 35 years-old, if the player retires before the contract is fulfilled it doesn't count against the individual teams salary cap. Basically it allows a guy like Kovalchuk to be paid $95 million over the first 11 years of his deal while the Devils somehow only take a $6 million cap hit each year.

It's a loop-hole that will certainly be dealt with during the next round of CBA negotiations when a maximum contract length rule will be implemented. But unfortunately by then it might be too late. More than one quarter of NHL teams already have (at least) one contract on their books that will run more than a decade (Chicago, Detroit, New Jersey, NY Islanders, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Vancouver, Washington), and who knows how many more will follow suit before the system can be corrected?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

State of the Jays

Even as the Jays predictably fall further and further away from the powerful trio atop the AL East, it's been refreshing to see a trait in this team that has been missing for quite some time: Resiliency.

And no, I don't mean that in a "Vernon Wells won't leave the table until he's finished his third double-cheeseburger" kind of way. I'm talking about overall team scrappiness and a never say die attitude that has translated into gutsy team performances and come from behind wins.

There were several times when this particular edition of the Blue Jays could have folded, when it would've been easy to flip the switch off and let the season get away. The back-to-back ninth inning meltdowns against Tampa in early June, the two losses to start the series against the St.Louis Cardinals later in the month, and more recently, heading into Yankee stadium after being swept by the lowly Cleveland Indians all come to mind.

But each time the Jays faced the prospect of being completely buried in the standings they responded and came away with a much-needed win. For a team with extremely low preseason expectations, that means something. Actually, it means everything. Entering a 'rebuilding phase' is basically another way of telling your fans your going to lose. But if you can actually rebuild without turning into the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few seasons, it allows you to potentially speed up the process because your players haven't forgotten how to win. That can make the transition from up and coming to legitimate far less bumpy.

Normally you would point to the manager as a specific reason or a major contributor in developing successful team qualities and characteristics, but Cito Gaston was brought back to sell tickets, not to be a Major League manager. His atrocious handling of the bullpen, stubborn refusal to alter a stagnant line-up, and total neglect for his bench has cost the Jays far more than any gentle whispers of encouragement to the younger players has helped.

Which leads us to the person who has really put his fingerprints on this operation: Alex Anthopoulos, the boy wonder GM who took control of the franchise, at least from a player development standpoint, last fall. After 15 years of trying to patch holes with mediocre free agents when what this team clearly needed was an entirely new foundation, Anthopoulos has Jays fans eagerly jumping on his bandwagon by presenting a blueprint that actually make sense: Stockpile starting pitching and positional prospects, let them develop together, and then add through free agency when it's time to go over the top. So what if I've been trumpeting the exact same game plan in this space for years? (Really, I'm happy that Anthopoulos, a guy who is only a few years older than me, gets to make 10 times more money than I do, travel around North America in a private jet, stay in five star hotels and talk baseball everyday. I'm not bitter at all, not a bit. Hold on a sec...just have to scream into my pillow here. Okay, all good.)

Anthopoulos began his tenure by making what appears to be a good trade under difficult circumstances when he moved fan-favourite Roy Halladay for a package that included Kyle Drabek and Michael Wallace. Both are big-time prospects with high ceilings who should see playing time in Toronto later this year and both could be full-time big leaguers in 2011. Rather than caving in to the (not outrageous but still unacceptable) contract demands of Marco Scutaro, Anthopoulos smartly chose to replace him with Alex Gonzalez, who leads all shortstops in home runs and RBI. He also stole Brandon Morrow from Seattle, signed John Buck for the bargain price of $2 million and claimed Fred Lewis off waivers. Those moves prove that after only nine months on the job, Anthopoulos has earned our trust.

With a cupboard full of young and talented pitchers accumulated by the previous regime and an ownership-endorsed organizational shift in team-building philosophy, Toronto is finally properly positioned to follow the Tampa Bay model and sneak up on the Red Sox and Yankees in a few years.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A CSJ Special Edition: The Decision

Heading into last night's one-hour Lebronathon, I was fairly certain "The Decision" would be a massive letdown.

I wanted to hear James say New York, or New Jersey, or Chicago, or even LA...basically anywhere but Cleveland. Not that I have anything against Cleveland, I just didn't want the last two weeks (or two months, or actually two years) of free agent hype, along with the enormous amount of time I invested in following it, to be all for nothing. I needed change to make it worth while and even with Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer and closer to home, Chris Bosh, already having changed addresses this summer, Lebron was really what this whole ordeal was all about.

Despite the fact that a strong rumour emerged Thursday morning forecasting James joining the Miami Heat, I fully expected Lebron to say he loved the entire process and that he had a lot of great meetings with a bunch of teams that all provided tremendous opportunities, but ultimately, he had to stay home in Cleveland. Just had to. I mean, who goes on TV to murder a cities sports fans? (Besides Brian Burke of course.) If he was really going to leave, this certainly couldn't be the way he'd do it, right?

Then Lebron confirmed that the next chapter in his life would be based from Miami. I couldn't believe it. He actually left Cleveland.

Looking back, it really shouldn't have been that shocking. James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh all signed short contract extensions back in 2007 when they hit restricted free agency. Over the last few years speculation grew that the group had grown tight while playing for the US national team and dreamed of being on the same NBA team. Then everyone's favourite rational NBA analyst Steven A. Smith stated at the start of the free agency period that the "Lebron/Wade/Bosh trio would all sign in Miami, it's done." The three reportedly had dinner together in Miami last weekend.

On Tuesday word leaked that the Raptors and Cavs had reached an agreement on a sign-and-trade scenario that would see Bosh join Lebron in Cleveland, pending Bosh's approval. Fans were told Lebron was encouraging Bosh to join him in Cleveland, but Bosh quickly squashed the idea and voila: instant alibi. Lebron wanted to stay, he really did, but how could he say no to Wade and Bosh in one city?

After Stoudemire signed in New York and Boozer in Chicago in recent days, both players openly tried to recruit Lebron to their new teams. Yet when Wade and Bosh were asked about Lebron during their joint announcement on Wednesday, the pair clammed up for the first time in two weeks.

It seems so obvious now, and the entire charade briefly had me upset. I thought about all the time I wasted chasing my tail, reading every tweet as if it were headline news. I wondered if the new big three might possibly become the biggest villains in sport?

But then I remembered all three genuinely seem like nice guys, and they all smile so much, and they're all so damn good that it would be nearly impossible to hate them. Hell, they might play 50 games on national television next year (every Thursday night on TNT and Sunday afternoon on ABC right?), and it will be absolutely fascinating to watch.

And if you don't think Pat Riley's Blackberry absolutely blew up Thursday night from the stampede of calls and texts sent his direction from veteran unrestricted free agents offering their services for the league minimum in salary, well, ahhh, you're wrong. Dead wrong.

The pressure on this team to win, after they fill out the rest of the roster (do you think Shaq is already in Miami or still en route?), will be like nothing we've ever seen. They're going to have to be like Tiger Woods in 2000 for 100 nights a year. I can't wait to see what happens.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

NHL Free Agency: Winners and Losers

The Losers:

New York Rangers
Glen Sather has been the Rangers GM since 2000 and during his nine seasons in charge the Blueshirts have made four playoff appearances and never advanced past the second round. Slats has signed three of the worst contracts currently in hockey (Drury, Gomez, Redden) and just massively overpaid for Derek Boogard (4 years, $6.6 million), who hasn't scored a goal in his last 190 games. There is no question that Boogard is one bad hombre who will protect his teammates and strike fear in opposing players, but he plays about five minutes a game. Crazy.

Vancouver Canucks
Too long for Dan Hamhuis (six years), too much for Manny Malholtra ($2.5 a year), and it may end up costing them Mason Raymond. I can totally understand adding either Hamhuis or Ballard, but grabbing both of them seems redundant. It looks like Mike Gillis, who now has six defenceman earning at least $3.25 million, has gone to the Brian Burke school of building a blue line. Obviously, that is not a good thing.

Ottawa Senators
If I were a Sens fan and was looking at paying a total of $15.3 million (or roughly 26% of my cap space) next year to Alex Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar and Pascal Leclaire...well, let's just say Bryan Murray would not be on my Christmas card list. Gonchar has been one of if not the elite point producing defenceman in the league over the last ten years, but at 36, and after playing only 87 of a possible 164 games the last two years, it just doesn't make a lot of sense to give him three years AND a raise.

Buffalo Sabres
Over-paid for a washed up Jordan Leopold (three years, $9 million) instead of spending an extra $375k a year to keep Henrik Tallinder even though they have more than $10 million in available cap space. This was dumb on two levels: 1) Tallinder is 1000 times the player that Leopold is, and 2) he paired with and mentored Tyler Myers all of last year and allowed him to blossom into a bonafide force. Buffalo will need the pre-Olympic version of Ryan Miller just to squeak into the playoffs next year.

The Winners:

Tampa Bay Lightning
Stevie Y knows what he's doing. The rookie GM somehow convinced the Flyers to take Andrej Mezaros off his hands (Paul Holmgren and his scouting staff didn't watch Tampa play the last two years?) and then more than replaced him with a superior and cost-effective Pavel Kubina (two years, $7.7 million), rewarded a deserving Martin St.Louis with an extension and topped it off by signing a quality goalie (Dan Ellis) to a short-term deal (two years, $3 million). If Yzerman manages to send Vinny Lecavalier to LA, he may have won the 2010-11 GM of the Year Award before the season even starts.

New Jersey Devils
Anton Volchenkov was made to play in the Devils system and while the length of his new contract might be a little longer than I would like (six years), the price was more than fair ($4.25 million per). Sweet Lou also added Henrik Tallinder to give them their best defensive unit since the Scott Stevens/Scott Niedermayer days. If the Kovalchuk deal goes through and they don't have to give up Zajac to make room for him, I very much like Jersey's chances next year.

San Jose Sharks
After nine years with Evgeni Nabokov as their starter that resulted in limited post-season success, it was absolutely the right time to let him walk. The fact that Doug Wilson then jumped onboard the cheap goaltending train makes it even better. Antero Nittimaki (two years, $4 million) is definitely good enough to win with, and for all we know, Thomas Greiss might be too.

Calgary Flames
Darryl Sutter has been getting absolutely crushed by the Canadian media, particularly for his moves on July 1st, but I actually like both of the signings. Olli Jokinen is coming off of two disappointing seasons and never quite found his groove in Calgary during his first go-around, but at that price ($3 million per for only two years) I think the risk is worth the potential reward. Same thing goes for Alex Tanguay, who will earn $1.7 million on a one year deal and can also play in the Flames top-6.