Thursday, June 30, 2011

NHL Signing Day

With a $64 million cap and a 23 man roster, the average annual salary for a NHL player in 2011-12 will be just shy of $3 million

When the NHL salary cap came into effect after the lock-out, I began to ruthlessly decry every long-term (6 or more years) and/or big dollar ($6 million plus annually) contract that was signed.

I ridiculed the Rangers for signing Chris Drury, the Flyers for Daniel Briere, the Red Wings for Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, the Canucks for Roberto Luongo...the list went on and on (just like the actual contracts).

I always believed it was in a team's best interest to avoid those types of contracts at all costs. I understood the thinking behind tacking on years and paying the majority of the total contract at the front of the deal to reduce the cap hit, but I couldn't see the logic in committing more than five years to any player not named Crosby or Ovechkin. Injury, consistency, and complacency were all too much of a concern in my mind. Plus, I am apparently the only person who remembers the mess that was the NBA from 1996 - 2000. (So yes, my credibility took a hit with the 'It Won't Be Jets' and 'Manitoba Time' columns, but I did forsee the current NHL salary crisis a full three years ago.)

I also thought that tieing up as much as 20-25% of your cap space on 2-3 players would not allow a team to surround those top players with the quality depth needed to compete for a Stanley Cup.

I was adamant that teams who offered these types of contracts would regret them in the long run. I was positive that having more than a couple of players with annual salaries north of $5 million would cripple a team. I firmly believed you had to be very careful not to overpay anyone on your roster, and laughed at many contracts for borderline or slightly above average players who were signed to 3, 4 and $5 million contracts (Jeff Finger, Mike Commodore, Tuomo Ruutu, to name but a few).

I was deeply invested in the stockpiling draft picks/developing players/avoid over-paying for free agents philosophy. I believed you needed the roster flexibility that comes with putting together a team in this fashion, and if you didn't, well, at some point it would come back and bite you.

What I didn't see coming was a salary cap that would increase at a pace of almost 10% a year, from $39 million in 2006, all the way to $64 million in 2011. I didn't see the average, yes AVERAGE salary becoming almost $3 million in 2011.

Now when a player like Brooks Laich signs for $4.5 million a year, the sticker shock isn't nearly what it used to be. If the average salary is almost $3 million a year, then a slightly above average player is going to command at least slightly above $3 million a year. Simple logic.

The point is, worrying about fitting large salaries into your cap or slightly over-paying for an average player is suddenly a waste of time for fans and teams alike. Not only does a cap that keeps going up entice rich teams to be stupid, it also means those same teams have unlimited get-out-of-jail-free cards that can be used to give away bad contracts to teams needing to somehow get to the salary cap floor (which is a staggering $48 million for 2011-12).

All of which adds up to a humongous payday for Brad Richards.

I hope he signs with the Leafs.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Philly will regret this one in the morning

The least shocking part of today's crazy shakeup in Philadelphia was the signing of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to nine-year $51 million contract.

On a day when the Flyers may or may not have ripped the soul out of their team by trading Mike Richards, and also moved perennial 30-goal man Jeff Carter, they managed to saddle themselves with a ridiculous contract that became an albatross the second it was signed.

It wasn't shocking because shortly after they were eliminated from this spring's Stanley Cup playoffs, Flyers owner Ed Snider was quoted insisting his team find an established goalie no matter the cost.

"So either one of the goalies we have has to step up in training camp, or we have to make improvements to make sure it happens. But we are never going to go through the goalie issues we've gone through in the last couple of years. If we trade or go for a goalie [through free agency], we'll make it work. We can make anything work, even with the cap."

A few weeks later Philly traded for the rights to the soon-to-be unrestricted free-agent Byzgalov, who had quietly made it well known he wanted a deal in the neighbourhood of seven years and $49 million, and that meant a significant amount of dollars needed to be moved.

With a young Claude Giroux/JVR tandem and two highly skilled and dependable veterans in Daniel Briere and Chris Pronger, plus a pretty solid supporting cast, moving Richards or Carter is somewhat defensible.

But moving both to make room for Bryzgalov is not.

Committing dollars and length to a goalie in the salary cap system is not a good move, even with a cap that only goes up. Goaltenders are the easiest commodity to find. They are plentiful, they continue to flood the market, and therefore, they are cheap.

If I was Paul Holmgren, before finalizing the Bryzgalov contract I would've reached out to the Vancouver Canucks fans and asked them how they're feeling about being stuck with eleven more years of Roberto Luongo, then forwarded all the responses on to Ed Snider.

I would've pointed to Rick DiPietro.

Then I'd point in the other direction at Antti Niemi. And Brian Boucher or Michael Leighton. Corey Crawford. Craig Anderson.

Every year there are goalies who come out of nowhere and win or even steal games. Some get hot for one or two months, some for one or two years, and some prove they've got legitimate staying power. The difference in ability between the 3rd and 43rd best goalies in the world is fractional. You never know where or when you'll find a gem, or how long his game will last.

I'd also point to winning franchises like Detroit, Chicago and San Jose and the cheap and replaceable goaltending model they use.

Then I would've pointed back to DiPietro again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Manitoba Time?

Chipman's latest comments suggest this team won't be called "Winnipeg"

"We are very honoured by the NHL board of governors' unanimous decision today," Mark Chipman, True North's chairman of the board, said in a statement.

"We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivalled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come."

That was the comment released by True North after the NHL officially approved the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers franchise to Winnipeg yesterday.

Since I love a conspiracy theory, and have been claiming for weeks that this team won't be called the Jets, it didn't take much for me to read between the lines and determine that whatever this team ends up being called (and I'm still sticking with Falcons, but am genuinely worried about Polar Bears), it will not be preceded by "Winnipeg".

Instead it will be the "Manitoba" somethings, which apparently follows the very successful off the field model of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. While Regina might be where the Riders play their home games, anyone who has ever stepped foot in Saskatchewan knows that the entire province embraces that team, and that is the type of following True North hopes to build for its Winnipeg-based NHL team.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It Won't Be Jets

True North will unveil a new name for the Winnipeg NHL franchise

If we've learned anything during True North's first week as NHL owners, it's that they aren't just the humble and respectful outfit they've been correctly reported to be. They're also very smart, innovative, and even calculating.

For years all we've heard about Mark Chipman and his pursuit of a NHL hockey team for Winnipeg was that he was "going about it the right way". Chipman and company were low-key, tight-lipped, and steadfast in their belief that Winnipeg was more than capable of supporting a NHL franchise. But the job they did capitalizing on the mass hysteria surrounding this story was nothing short of amazing, and it proves they should not be underestimated.

The preparation True North put into the ticket drive was evident from the first minute of last Tuesday's press conference right through to 12:17 on Saturday afternoon, when all 13,000 season tickets were gobbled up in shocking fashion. The level of detail they put in to laying out their plan, the readiness they showed with a clean and user-friendly website, and the sense of urgency they created in the marketplace was astonishing. It was a marketing clinic, and one that certainly made 29 other NHL franchises take notice.

So don't expect this story to come full circle. Sorry to all the romantics out there, but the NHL team that plays its home games in the MTS Centre next year will not be nicknamed the Jets. That would be too easy, and True North doesn't do easy. Just ask Rick Dudley. Many fans will be heartbroken, and yes, they absolutely will continue to wear their Jets jerseys to the MTS Centre, but the opportunity for ownership to start fresh (and sell a ton of merchandise in the process) will not be passed up.

The Jets, as much as Winnipeggers love them, were never a symbol of success on or off the ice. The Jets franchise won a total of only two playoff series in their 17 years, had 11 different head coaches, and full houses were the exception, not the norm. True North can get away with saying this is a new chapter for hockey in Winnipeg and Manitoba, and they want to start it with a clean slate.

So you can throw out Thrashers and Moose too. Neither of those represents a fresh start or a clean slate.

We've heard Polar Bears but that would be idiotic, and thankfully True North doesn't do idiotic either. (Although some people would argue a membership fee and annual dues to be on a waiting list comes awfully close.)

Assuming, all the potential name possibilities have been aired, that leaves us with only one remaining option: Falcons.

It will be painful at first to hear a new and foreign name, but gradually all those Jets jerseys that are sure to paint the home crowds blue for a while will become Falcons jerseys, and eventually we'll all be okay with that.

A good marketing department might even see an opportunity to allow fans to hold onto the Jets for a little while longer. A third jersey or an annual Jets "retro" night would certainly fix a lot of problems.

I wonder what a great marketing department might see?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Benedict Junkie?

The return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg has this blogger questioning where to place his allegiance

Growing up in rural Manitoba, the first jersey I ever got was of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

An older kid who lived down the street and who was an excellent player in his own right, had a passion for the Leafs and I keenly followed his lead. Hats, pajamas, tooth brush, underwear - yup, all Leafs. Soon I had a sweet "Starter" jacket with a blue and white crisp Maple Leaf on the back, and I couldn't have been more proud.

In those days our family had a quarter share of two season tickets for the Jets, and with me being the biggest hockey fanatic of the four kids and my Mom, I went to the lions share of the games with my Dad. I cheered for the Jets, was a big fan of Ducky and Teemu (and Essensa and Steen, and the list goes on and on...), but I always wore my Leafs jersey and when Toronto came to town, I absolutely wanted the Buds to leave with the two points.

Still, when the Jets left in '96 it was a crushing feeling. I was at the last ever game, when Detroit eliminated Winnipeg in Game six of the first round and I can vividly remember the old Winnipeg Arena being completely jammed at 6pm, the original whiteout crowd going crazy, chanting "GO JETS GO" a full 90 minutes before game time.

Like most of my friends, I donated some of my hard-earned summer employment cash to the grassroots campaign that was launched to try and raise enough capital to keep the team around for one more year, to buy a little more time to find a new owner. I attended the "Save the Jets" rally, where 15,000 fans staged a sit-in at the arena and Don Cherry told us not to give up.

But it didn't matter. The Jets were sold, relocated to Phoenix, and suddenly I had no reason to even consider splitting my allegiance. If I wasn't completely and 100% behind the Leafs prior to that moment, I most certainly was from that point on.

As the rumours grew louder and louder over the past few weeks that the NHL would indeed be returning to Winnipeg, many of my friends, colleagues, and even strangers who saw me walking down the street with my Leafs hat on, asked what I was going to do if the Jets/Falcons/Moose came back?

My initial answer was easy: I've invested more than 25 years of my life following the Leafs, living and dieing with each and every win and loss. If and when the Leafs finally do win a Stanley Cup (humour me), I want to be around for that payoff. But having a team in my own backyard that in many ways represents the emotional return of long-lost friend, well, that complicates things.

My mind tells me Leafs, my heart tells me Jets.

I'd like to think I'm a logical person.