Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The view from outside.

With the Senators season set to end on April 11th in Toronto, for me that could mean the end of my season unless like last year Hockey Night in Canada needs an extra play-by-play guy and I get to work in the first round. For the first time in 11 years I may not work in the playoffs and that is both financially and emotionally disappointing. The post season is more fun than you can imagine. This is a wonderful and fulfilling job any time of year, but the playoffs carry such a different excitement level for everyone involved, it’s hard to imagine not being a part of it.

This situation does however give you a chance to reflect on ones good fortune in the past. I believe you do develop a certain arrogance based on the unspoken assumption that the team you cover will be in the playoffs and thus the startling reality of not working during that time hits you in the head pretty hard.

Looking at the Senators roster at the start of the year I would never have guessed this was a possibility. I first started to think about this team not making the playoffs just after Christmas when I started doing some math on probabilities and possibilities. While the last several weeks have been impressive for Ottawa, simply the hole is too deep. Making up ground in this current scheduling system is next to impossible. If you take last season for example, the teams in the Eastern Conference which were in the 8 playoff positions on February 8th were the same ones which got those playoff spots when the regular season ended. There was some shuffling from February 8th until the end, but in the end those same 8 got the spots. A depressing reality for teams chasing with more than a few points to make up down the stretch.

For a team like Montreal, holding the 8th spot is tough but for Florida and Buffalo catching up is even harder. With the number of in-conference games and division games, it means that when you lose to a team you are chasing the plight is obvious. But when you look at all the games this time of year where you have 3 point games, that is the killer. You don’t fall back but you don’t catch up either. When the Senators for example went on their run winning 8 of 9 games they only moved up from 12th to 11th and the spread between them and the 8th place team changed by only 3 points.

It is like walking down the street in your old neighborhood remembering when this was the street you lived on. “Chasing Lane”. In Buffalo, Florida and St.Louis I have spoken to friends who are in the chase. Their excitement and hope is wonderful and uplifting. Emotions I had come to take for granted because of the run the Senators have had for the past 11 years.

It makes me appreciate far more what this franchise has done for a very long time and what it will do again. While the thought of a long off-season is not an appetizing one, I have learned some lessons in appreciation. Getting to work in the playoffs is a privilege earned not granted for both players and even old broadcasters too.

See you at the rink.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sitting firmly on the fence.

First the facts. Back on March 18th Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler caused a stir when he told the Vancouver Province newspaper "If we're going to win the Cup, we need guys to take pay cuts. The way the salary cap is now, you really can't get what you're worth now if you want to win. Everybody in this locker room knows that."

As you can understand he received a call shortly after from the NHL Players Association. NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said "We talked to Ryan and he regrets some of the comments he made,"

A few days later Kesler’s agent said publicly no one should assume his client will be taking a hometown discount to stay with the Cannucks in his current contract talks. He continued that he will be looking for fair market value for Kesler.

I doubt Kesler regretted his remarks until he was told he regretted them. Kesler did not say anything that everyone doesn’t know but his mistake was saying it. The NHLPA is well aware of players accepting below market salaries to stay in situations they like, but the association would have a tough time trying to drive up the average salary in the league if the player’s expectation is less and not more.

I am on both sides of this fence. I understand exactly what the association is doing. It’s not intimidation but probably closer to coercion. But as an association, unanimity is tough to establish and tougher to keep and control. Make no mistake though, the association’s strength is based on how close to one voice, one thought and one plan they can get. 100% is impossible but the leadership has to try and keep the number high and reminding players that their actions and public comments can erode the NHLPA’s strength is not out of line.

This is the not so subtle difference between an association and an actual union. This association is a collection of highly paid independent contractors who may or may not sign individual contracts which drive the comparables up for other players. Free agent contracts and arbitration in the NHL are based on comparables and if too many players accept less it becomes impossible to keep salaries high. If the NHLPA turned into the NHLPU and became certified as an actual union then negotiating contracts for all players could then fall under the umbrella of union leadership. Players would never want that. One small group of people negotiating a pay grid system or some such arrangement is fantasy. It will never happen because the best players would not want to be contained by that kind of hockey socialism.

There is nothing new about this though. For years the association was not happy with Ray Bourque. The belief was that he took too many home town discounts to stay in Boston and some believe he was a major reason salaries for many defencemen remained artificially low because none of them could use Ray’s salary as a comparable. Martin Brodeur is also one of those problem children for the NHLPA. He may go down as the best goaltender in NHL history and yet has never been the highest paid netminder in the NHL. He also has taken less many times to stay in New Jersey and make sure there was enough money to keep the rest of the team solid. The difference between these cases and Kesler is they did take home town discounts, they just never said the words out loud publicly.

I can’t tell you who is right and who is wrong here. If I ran the association, I would also encourage players to get as much as they can for the greater good of all players. If I was a manager I would want players to see the bigger team picture. Take less so that the team is strong at all positions and has a chance to win in the salary cap world.

I sit firmly on the fence on this one. I suppose if you in your life are a staunch union member you see it one way and if you are not in a union or an employment association you probably see it differently.

See you at the rink.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kill Ovechkin!!!....er...maybe not.

This is when it is sometimes embarrassing to be a member of the media. I agree totally with Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau. This whole Tampa/Washington retribution story was completely a media engineered non-story. Invent some news which doesn’t actually yet exist to then cover the self-made news to see if it really occurs and becomes actual news.

The last time Tampa and Washington played Alex Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season and then performed his now infamous “my stick is too hot” shtick. Reporters in lockers across the NHL were asking players the next day for their opinions. Some laughed and said they liked it or didn’t mind or didn’t care. Others thought it was showboating and mocked both the Lightning and the game. Coaches, Managers, retired players were all asked their opinions and theirs varied as much as the players.

The opinions which received the greater number and higher placement in news stories were the negative ones. That helped generate an environment to question the possibility of retribution from Tampa the next time the teams played. That possibility then spawned some analysts to predict retribution which caused others to expect it and those expectations led sports editors to send reporters to cover this game just in case things boiled over.

Did anyone from Tampa ever say or intimate they would try and exact revenge? Were there any legitimate conversations about payback? Did anyone of the large number of NHL insiders have any of their sources tell them it was possible or even probable? If they were told this I assume they would have said it since un-named sources are the chief rumor mongers in both politics and the NHL. I don’t remember anyone saying any of that. Many of the insiders did phrase it in the form of a question which led me to believe that no one had told them it would happen otherwise they would have said that.

The game occurred and Washington won. Was there anything directed at Ovechkin other than the dismay many teams have trying to contain him?

Sometimes we in the media should be reminded that our job is to cover the news not make it.

See you at the rink.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Throwing games

We have all listened as fans and the media talk about and debate the Senators recent turn around. Since Corey Clouston became head coach the team has played better and won more. The net result is that Ottawa has now moved up in the standings to the point where they will still not make the playoffs but also it appears will not have a shot at the #1 pick in the draft. The way the draft lottery works is that should a team get the #1 ball in the bingo draw, that team can not move up more than 4 places in the draft. It means that even if you get that #1 ball, you can only get the #1 pick if you finish in the bottom 5 of the league. Ottawa is now out of that bottom 5. If they were to get that #1 bingo ball they could move up and pick 2nd or 3rd but not first.

There are those who contend that teams like Ottawa and Toronto should stop trying so hard to win games when it won’t change their playoff chances, but will damage their draft position. My first question to those people is always the same. How do you get players to not play hard and get coaches to coach to lose? If they are competitive people playing at the highest level, they simply don’t have that chip in their hockey brain. There are also integrity issues. How could you ever look a coach or a player in the eye knowing they didn’t try to win? It goes against everything we’ve been taught in areas of competition and goes against what we all try to teach our children. How would you like to be that fan who paid good money for his ticket, sitting there watching a team not try to win so that next year or the year after things will be better? That fan would feel cheated and rightly so.

While Ottawa may not have a shot at the top pick maybe the way to find a silver lining in a disappointing season is to consider the things you thought were lost but now have been found. Maybe the Senators have finally found a coach who can push the right buttons while still holding a stern hand. Maybe the Senators have discovered that some of the players, who were thought to have lost something, might still have it. Maybe this dose of humility after an 11 straight playoff seasons is something we all needed to calm the arrogance which comes from never considering your team might not make the playoffs.

The idea of being lousy enough to miss the playoffs but not being lousy enough to get a shot at the #1 pick is fair comment. But it’s a loaded comment. The integrity of your manager, coaches and players is at stake when people believe you are no longer trying to win. That is worth far more than a lost season or a chance at the #1 pick. That can lose you a generation of ticket buyers who would always wonder.

See you at the rink.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


In last nights Ottawa/Toronto game, with just over 2 minutes to play in regulation time, and the Leafs down 2-1, Toronto coach Ron Wilson called for a stick measurement on Jason Spezza’s stick. Jason shaves the end of his stick and the measurement was not on the curve but on the width of the blade. The officials on the ice deemed it to be an illegal stick and the Leafs got the powerplay. They did not score and Ottawa won the game.

Ron Wilson was fully within his rights as a coach and the rules do exist and he did wait until exactly the right time to give his team a chance to tie the game. Great coaching move although considered by most in the NHL to be a cheesy move. Every team in the NHL has a few players and some teams have more than a few players who have illegal sticks. There is a reason why few coaches call for measurements. It is considered by most to be a minor league method of getting a power play. I personally don’t see it that way and I can’t understand why more coaches don’t do it. They are all looking for every advantage and this could be one. But I guess that’s why I am not an NHL coach. The coaches also have a code and this I guess is breaking the code of good taste. It’s like this type of thing is beneath an NHL coach. I guess its just one of those things I will never understand.

That being said, I don’t understand why there are any restrictions on sticks at all. The legal limits were all instituted and later modified because of goaltender safety. Restrictions on curves for example came into effect to protect goaltenders from high hard shots at a time when some goaltenders still didn’t wear masks. That time has long past in the NHL. How many goaltenders are actually injured by a puck each year? I can only think of one from last year. That was Ryan Miller in Buffalo who broke his thumb when hit by a puck. Most goaltender injuries after from players falling on them or tweaking their adductor muscle and things of that nature. So how is a big curve or thin blade now a danger to a goalie? It isn’t and thus players should be able to use any kind of curve, thickness or length of stick they want.

Back in February Calgary coach Mike Keenan accused Vancouver defenceman Willie Mitchell of using a stick which was longer than allowable by NHL rules. Why should the league care if a player uses a longer stick? Yes it would be better for the poke check but worse for shooting and stick handling. Is a very long stick really an advantage to the average player? It may be, but also a disadvantage in other ways. If a bigger curve gives Alex Ovechkin a better shot is that not balanced out by the fact it would become virtually impossible for him to backhand the puck with that same stick?

The rules were instituted for safety reasons. With their new equipment goaltenders are no longer in danger. Let the players use what ever curve, thickness or length of stick they want. Don’t we all have more important things to worry about?

See you at the rink.

The Crash

The financial chill of the world economy was evident during the NHL trade deadline this year. While the number of deals consummated before the deadline is only slightly below average, the type of deals definitely showed the financial caution NHL owners are wise to employ in this environment.

Jay Bowmeester did not move. Chris Pronger did not move. With the exception of Ollie Jokinen there really weren’t any big salaries which were moved around. Fear is the simple reason. Managers and coaches wanted these players but owners know what is coming.

The NHL has done considerably better than most industries in weathering this global financial storm, but let’s remember that most of this years revenues with the exception of attendance were already in the bank before the season started or early in the season from sponsors and partners. That means that next years cap will be based on this years revenues which were good. So the cap may go down, but not by much. Problem is next years revenues decide the cap the year after. Everyone in the NHL who operates a calculator is dreading the 2010-2011 season because that is when the cap is expected to drop like a stone. Some believe over the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons the combined cap drop could be as much as 10 to 12 million. That would bring the cap back into the mid-40 million range. Problem is the long term contracts signed for 6,7,8 or 9 million dollars must still be honored while the teams try to fill out their rosters with enough inexpensive players to meet the cap.

I am no financial whiz, but if I were part of the NHL’s middle class I would be scared. Very, very scared. Many or most of those players don’t get contracts longer than 2 or 3 years. They don’t wield enough power to earn term in their contracts. It means many of those players in the 1.5 to 3.5 million dollar per year price range will be free agents when the cap collapse occurs. That could mean playing for half or a third of your previous contract even if your stats increase. If you are unwilling to accept the pay cut teams will simply use more entry level players out of simple financial necessity. What kind of market place will it be for those players in today’s middle class when hundreds could be looking for work at the same time? Many will jump at the first offer and that will keep the financial bar low, thus those who hold out on principle and/or ego will find themselves without a team to play for.

When this time comes some will blame the calamity facing the players on the owners and/or the CBA. Lets all remember how economics works for the rest of us in the real world. Companies struggle, they don’t buy sponsorships. When they don’t buy sponsorships NHL owners make less or lose more. When NHL owners make less or lose more, they reduce staff and cut costs. When that doesn’t work they reduce the budget for hockey operations and players have to go and cheaper ones brought in. It takes a while for the economy to reach an NHL player but when it does, the NHLPA will certainly tell all of us who are to blame. The list will be long and the accusations of incompetence, greed and wacky accounting will be pointed directly at the owners or an ill conceived CBA.

What really will have happened is the rest of the worlds problems will have burrowed through all the layers of financial insulation players often enjoy and the real world will hit them square in the head. The only difference is millions of people with lesser means will have suffered greater financial hardship and woe for a longer period and a lot earlier than any NHL player.

See you at the rink.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hey, it's not personal !

I have received many comments since the last post on Mats Sundin’s return to Toronto and everyone’s re-visitation of his reasons for not waiving his no-trade last year. The vast majority I will not allow for viewing on my blog. In this case and all others, vulgar language, demeaning verbiage and personal attacks on me or anyone else are always rejected as postable comments. I will answer 3 which were typical but still printable.

Anonymous said...
Wow, you really can't stand Mats Sundin. Give it a rest! He is a classy individual. Face it Dean, you bought "Daniel Afredsson" stock ten years, and it's turned into a steaming pile of crap! Sounds like sour grapes to me...
February 26, 2009 7:17 PM

Anonymous said...
This post is about 2 months out of date.We've al moved on - why haven't you ? I bet you never got your term papers in on time back in High School.
March 1, 2009 8:13 AM

Anonymous said...
Did Sundin steal your lunch money when you were in Grade 3
March 2, 2009 8:01 AM

As you can see there are some people out there who believe I have some kind of personal issue with Mats Sundin. I do not. In fact as I have stated before I believe he was and is an outstanding player, very strong leader and a classy guy. In my dealings with him he has never been anything but a gentleman and a professional. I have never personally attacked Mats Sundin, but only gave my opinions on his own words and actions.

If you are a Mats Sundin fan, I apologize that my opinions don’t drip into the adoration pool you continually swim in, but that is life. If your only responses to thoughtful comments and opinions are demeaning barbs about what you believe I do or don’t think about Mats personally, then save the time you spend writing me and use it to read with your children. It’s a far better use of time. If you would like to engage in objective debate I am willing and eager.

See you at the rink.