WELCOME BACK

 

Several years ago, the folks over at the Ontario Lottery Corporation put together a television ad for their sports betting game Pro Line, and it went like this: “it’s been a long summer – but hockey’s back”.  Well after 310 days of wondering what’s next, we can now tweak the statement somewhat.  It’s been a long year – but hockey’s back!  It’s time to make the ice again, take the pucks out of the freezer, and get the jerseys dry cleaned – and maybe bet a little bit on Pro Line too.

I was all ready to rant and rave about how a year was lost and was it really worth it, but after spending the better part of the weekend going over what’s in the new collective bargaining agreement, watching with great interest the draft lottery, and seeing teams already start to dump players to fit under the new system (more to come), I figure if the NHL and its players are looking forward, then so will I.  But I will say this – thank God it’s all over and please let’s never ever go through this again.

THE NEW AGREEMENT

We’ve heard all year long about how one side wouldn’t accept this and the other side won’t do that, but once the season was officially cancelled and negotiations finally got rolling, there was a sense all around it was just a matter of time.  To some the deal probably took longer to put together than it should have, but if you ask the commissioner he will tell you the process didn’t take a second longer than was needed.

So just what constitutes this “cost certainty” we’ve been hearing so much about and what is it going to mean for the NHL and Hockey in general?  Aside from the obvious fixing a broken system, here’s a breakdown of what we can expect going forward – there’s a lot to cover here, so bear with me:

1)  The NHL and NHLPA have ratified a six year agreement which will run from the upcoming 2005-06 season through 2010-11.  The NHLPA will have the option of re-opening/re-negotiating the agreement after the fourth year (after the 2008-09 season), with the further option of extending the agreement to a seventh year.  Bottom line, we won’t have to deal with this again for at least another four years – hopefully much longer.

2)  The players will not be entitled to make more than 54% of league wide revenues in any year it is reported under $2.2 billion; 55% if the reported revenues are between $2.2 and 2.4 billion; 56% if between $2.4 and 2.7 billion, and no more than 57% if revenues exceed 2.7 billion, no matter what the figures end up at.

3)  Team payrolls will be a minimum of $21.5 million and a maximum of $39 million during the first year of the agreement.  My understanding is this is directly linked to payrolls not exceeding 54% of all league revenues.  Projected amounts for 2005-06 are somewhere between $1.7 and 2.2 billion, depending on how much fallout from fans and sponsors exists.  Using the above example of the percentages increasing as revenues increase, the salary cap floor and ceiling will be adjusted in coming years if revenues increase beyond $2.2 billion.  What does this mean?  The salaries, for this year anyway, are capped at $39 million per team – which means if teams are spending more, they have to adjust accordingly – and right now.  There are provisions in the cap to allow for injury which basically state if a marquee player is injured, replacing the player will not count towards the cap.  For the time being, teams have a period with which to assess their payrolls as they existed prior to the lockout and an opportunity has been given to buy out contracts.  More to come on this later.

4)  Under the terms of the new salary cap system, no individual player will be entitled to earn more than 20% of the team’s entire payroll.  This includes yearly salary and all signing and/or performance bonuses.  For 2005-06, this means no player salary will be more than $7.8 million.  The minimum salary will be increased to $450,000 this season and next; $475,000 in 2007-08 and 2008-09; $500,000 in 2009-10 and 2010-11.  If the CBA is extended by the NHLPA, the minimum will be $525,000 in 2011-12.  In the event a player is currently making less than the league minimum, a team may buy out their contract or else that player’s salary must be increased to the league minimum.  Bear in mind some players were making less than $200,000 under the old system!  With respect to bonuses, only players with entry-level contracts, players signing one year deals after returning from long-term injuries (400 games or 100+ days on injured reserve in the last year of their contract), or players over the age of 35.  This should work very well as a deterrent against players who actually decide to play to reap rewards during the final years of their contract, but we won’t mention any names. 

5)  Entry level contracts will not exceed $850,000 for 2005 and 2006 draftees; $875,000 for 2007 and 2008 draftees; $900,000 for 2009-10, and $925,000 for 2011 draftees.  Again, any signing/performance bonuses will be included in the maximum possible salary.  Signing bonuses will be limited to 10% of the player’s maximum salary in any given year.  A player may also be eligible to earn individual bonuses for League-wide excellence, which will be paid by the league. 

6)   Existing contracts from 2004-05 will not be paid, and every player’s salary will be rolled back 24% from 2003-04.

7)  In order to help facilitate compliance to the new cap system – teams will have a six day opportunity to buy out existing contracts.  From July 23-29, any team who buys out a player’s contract won’t have to count the amount of the buyout towards their total salaries for 2005-06, or any other year.  If a player is bought out after July 29, the amount will count towards the team’s upper limit.  As of this writing only John Leclair and Tony Amonte have been bought out by Philadelphia, but many more buyouts are expected.  Furthermore, a player bought out by any team cannot be re-signed by their former team for at least one year.

8)  Revenue sharing – any team ranked in the bottom 15 of league revenues and which operate in a demographic market of less than 2.5 million or fewer households will be eligible for a subsidy from the league which will allow the teams to operate under the cap system.

9)  Escrow – a percentage of every player’s salary will be withheld in escrow – the amount of the percentage to be determined at four points throughout the regular season.  The money held in escrow will be used to repay the league in the event salaries exceed the allowed amount of revenue.  For example, in 2005-06, if salaries exceed 54% of league revenues, the money saved in escrow will be used to repay the league.  If salaries do not exceed the allowed amount, then my understanding is the money deducted (or any amount left over once repayment of the league has been completed) will be refunded back to the players.  A similar system is in place in the NBA.

10) The NHL will participate in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, subject to ratification of what I understand is a deal in principle between the NHL and IIHF.  Since the players will participate in both Olympic Games, there will be no All Star Game in either year to help the schedule makers accommodate the break.

11) The yearly entry draft will be reduced to seven rounds from nine previously.  Eligibility for the draft remains unchanged – a player must be 18 years of age by no later than September 15 of the year the draft is held (basically they must be 18 by the time training camps open).  Players will no longer be required to “opt in” to the draft.

12) Drug testing – For the first time, every player will be subject to no more than two “no notice” drug tests per year, with at least one test to be conducted on a team-wide basis.  A joint NHL/NHLPA drug committee will agree on a Prohibited Substances List.  Included on this list will be substances already on the list maintained by the World Anti-Doping Agency.  Positive tests for performance enhancing substances will be disciplined as follows:

-             First offense - 20 game suspension without pay and a mandatory referral to the League’s Substance Abuse/Behavioral Health Program for evaluation, education and treatment if necessary

-             Second offense - 60 day suspension without pay

-             Third offense - a permanent suspension from the NHL – however a player will be allowed to apply for reinstatement after two years.  This application will be considered by an NHL/NHLPA Committee on Performance Enhancing Substances, made of no less than one consulting expert physician and an equal number of League and Player representatives. 

FREE AGENCY & SALARY ARBITRATION

There have been many significant changes to the free agency and salary arbitration systems as we used to know them.  Salary arbitration hasn’t really changed too much from the previous system, but now a team can take a player to arbitration whereas before only a player had the right.  A player now has to be in the league four years before they can file for arbitration (before it was three), and a team will now have the right to take a player to arbitration in lieu of making a qualifying offer for players earning more than $1.5 million.  A club may choose to take a Group 2 free agent to salary arbitration even if the player chose not to file.  A qualifying offer will consist of 100% of a player’s previous salary if the amount was $1 million or more, 105% if the amount was between $660,000 and $1 million, and 110% if the amount was $660,000 or less.  The idea behind arbitration is both the player and team state their case as to why they think a player is either worth more money or not, and a mediator rules either for the team or the player.  I can’t wait to see the first team initiated case, not to mention how this will work under the new salary cap system.

For the 2005-06 season, players age 31 who have played at least four accrued seasons will become unrestricted free agents and have the right to sign with any team they choose, as long as they turn 31 prior to August 1, 2005.

In 2006-07 if a player is age 29 with four full seasons played or if any player has played for eight full seasons regardless of age, they will be unrestricted.  The age will drop to age 28 in 2007-08 again with four full seasons played, or if any player has accrued seven full seasons.  From the 2008-09 season and beyond, a player either has be 27 with four full seasons, or any player has to have played for seven full seasons.  The 2004-05 cancelled season will be considered as one year towards free agency. 

This is a real win-win situation for players, as they can sign where they want sooner than they could before.  Under the new system, assuming Sidney Crosby plays this year, he will be an unrestricted free agent by age 25, free to sign where he pleases. 

The restricted free agency system hasn’t changed much from the previous CBA, a player has to play a minimum of two full seasons (from the point where the player entered the league, either through the draft or signed as a free agent from college or the minors), and the team holding their rights has the right to match a qualifying offer from another team, or be compensated with draft picks if the player signs with the other team.  Here’s the biggest change from the old system – if a restricted free agent doesn’t sign with a team by December 1, they won’t be eligible to play for the rest of the season, period.  Furthermore, there will be no renegotiation of a player’s contract allowed.  Extensions may be offered only during the final year of an existing contract, and not before.

With respect to player movement – the trading deadline has been moved from the 26th to the 40th day prior to the end of the regular season.  Furthermore, the waiver draft which used to occur at the beginning of the season has been eliminated. 

THE DRAFT LOTTERY & THE 2005 ENTRY DRAFT

Well as everybody probably knows by now, Pittsburgh was the winner of the first League wide weighted draft lottery and have the right to draft Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick.  Anaheim, Carolina, Minnesota and Montreal round out the top 5.  Ottawa and Vancouver also ended up in the top ten, with the 9th and 10th picks respectively.  The rest of the Canadian teams didn’t do so well, as Toronto will pick 21st, Edmonton 25th and Calgary right behind them at 26th.  The defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning will fittingly pick 30th.

While we already know a lot about Sidney Crosby, there is a very good class of players who are eligible to be drafted this year.  We know Crosby will go #1, there is no question in anybody’s mind about that.  Afterwards is anyone’s guess, but expect to see other top prospects like Gilbert Brule, Jack Johnson, Carey Price, Marc Staal, Benoit Pouliot and Anse Kopitar go in the top ten.  We’ll tell you more about some of these players and why they are in such high demand after the draft takes place July 30 in Ottawa.

RULE CHANGES

So not only is a new CBA in place which should help put every team on a level playing field once and for all, the NHL with help from their newly formed Competition Committee have agreed to institute a variety of rule changes designed to open up the game and make the product on the ice better (where have we heard that before?).  The committee is headed by Colin Campbell and consists of four players (Brendan Shanahan, Jarome Iginla, Trevor Linden and Rob Blake), four general managers (Kevin Lowe, David Poile, Bob Gainey and Don Waddell), an owner, Ed Snider, and a former player, Mike Gartner.  There will be opportunities given down the road for everyone and anyone to give input to this committee, but for now they have really done a great job in addressing some of the major issues with the game itself.  Say what you will, but the league is serious this time about getting rid of obstruction and allowing the star players to strut their stuff on the ice.  The following changes to the rules will bring a lot more excitement to the game, so long as they are policed accordingly by the officials, but for now I’m not even going to go there.

1) Shootout – Ties during the regular season have been effectively eliminated.  If two teams are tied after regulation time, there will still be a five minute four-on-four overtime period.  If teams are still tied after OT, there will be a shootout in which 3 skaters per team will go one and one with the opposition goalie.  If still tied after 3 shooters, there will be a sudden death round until the game is decided.  Regardless of how many goals are scored during the shootout, the final score will be one goal more for the winner.  For example, if the score is 2-2 after regulation, the final score will be 3-2.  The points system will remain unchanged – two points for a win during regulation, overtime or shootout, and the loser in overtime or shootout will still maintain one point.  Apparently several point schemes were debated about at great length, including one which would award three points for a regulation win, but at the end of the day it was the committee’s opinion the current point system made the most sense.

I told you all previously about the AHL game I saw in Binghamton during the lockout and believe me when I tell you this is as good as it gets.  This will get the fans out of their seats, and finally there will be a winner for every game.  I only witnessed it in an arena seating less than 5,000 fans, I can’t even begin to imagine what this will be like at the Corel Centre, but I have to tell you I can’t wait to see it in action.  The only thing better in my opinion is sudden death overtime in the playoffs.  I say bring it on and it’s about time, yet with some of the other rules instituted you have to wonder how often a shootout will even happen, but trust me, when it does you won’t want to miss a second of it.  No more leaving early to beat the traffic!

2) Dimensions of the Rink – The nets will be moved back two feet on each end of the ice (essentially where they used to be), leaving the neutral zone edges 64 feet from the attacking goal line (used to be 60 under the old dimensions).  The blue and centre lines will remain at 12 inches in width.

3) Removal of the Two Line Pass and Tag-Up Offsides – The two line pass will now be allowed, so the flow of game we can expect will be similar to what we saw in the 2002 Olympics or in the past couple of World tournaments, including the World Cup last August/September.  This should effectively eliminate the hated “neutral zone trap” as players trying to clog up the zone won’t be able to position themselves in time.  Also the tag-up offside rule is being reinstated, allowing for players to get onside by getting back in position before the rest of the team crosses the opposing team’s blue line.  Both of these changes should decrease the number of whistles and increase flow.

4) Partial no touch icing – I have mixed feelings about this one as I’m a huge proponent of no touch icing period, but I can understand the reasoning behind it.  Rather than blow the whistle right away if a player ices the puck, the linesman will be given the ability to wave off an icing if they see it fit, which will still allow for players to race for the puck – the whistle will be blown however if the puck crosses the goal line.  This should reduce the number of injuries against the end boards, but not take away from the flow of the game.  Here’s what I really like about the rule though: the team icing the puck won’t be allowed to make a line change.  I assume teams will still be allowed to ice the puck on the penalty kill, but this hasn’t been clarified yet.

5) The instigator rule will still exist, but be more strict – any player who starts a fight during the final five minutes of a game will not only be assessed a game misconduct but also be given an automatic one game suspension.  The coach of the player may also be fined $10,000 which would be doubled for every subsequent incident.  Unsportsmanlike conduct/diving will also be frowned upon and regulated much more strictly than in the past.  The play in question will not only result in a minor penalty, but Hockey Operations will also review the play and discipline it as follows:

- a warning letter for a first offense

- $1000 fine for second offense

- $2000 fine for third offense

- one game suspension for fourth offense

- Public complaints or derogatory comments toward the game will also result in fines/suspensions

6) Limits on goaltender equipment – We knew this had to be coming – Goal pad width will be reduced to 11 inches, as well as the blocker, upper body protector, pants and jersey will be reduced in size.  Goalies will also be restricted to a trapezoid behind the net which he must not venture out of.  This will restrict where a goaltender can play the puck.  This rule was used in the AHL last year and seemed to work fairly well.  Critics argue this takes away the creativity of  the more skilled goalies like Martin Brodeur, but the argument the NHL makes is defensemen should be handling the puck, the goaltender’s job is only to stop the puck.

7) Officiating points of emphasis – They’re serious this time – zero tolerance on obstruction, goalies playing beyond designated areas will be penalized for delay of game, goalies or players deliberately shooting the puck into the stands will be penalized for delay of game (before it was just the goalie who would get penalized for this), and goalies will be penalized for freezing the puck out of necessity.

As far as the zero tolerance is concerned, call me a pessimist, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Then again, as I already said, there won’t be as much opportunity anymore for players to go waterskiing with the removal of the two line offside.  If they call it consistently, they will eliminate it and the game will ultimately benefit. 

SCHEDULE CHANGES

The season schedule will also see an overhaul.  The NHL is moving towards a schedule which will be more rivalry oriented yet still allow inter-conference play between the east and west.  They are hoping this will get the fans more involved in the game as they get to see their home teams take on hated rivals more often.  Teams in every division will play all four teams from the rest of their division eight times (up from six), for a total of 32 games.  Teams will play teams outside of their division but within their conference a total of 6 times (up from four), for a total of 40 games.  The remaining 10 games in the schedule will be used to play teams from the opposite conference on a revolving schedule.  There was some speculation the schedule would get reduced, but the NHL has kept the 82 game schedule intact because most fans surveyed didn't want the number of games to change.

To use a local example on how this will work – the Ottawa Senators will play both Toronto and Montreal eight times – four times at home, four times on the road (not to mention their other division rivals Boston and Buffalo).

Now for me, I never miss a game between Ottawa and Edmonton, but with the new schedule I will only see Edmonton come here approximately every three years.  Personally, I don’t like this, but on the other hand it will help build more intra conference rivalries.  Staying in Ottawa, the new schedule will help to further build the rivalry between the Senators and Philadelphia Flyers which was starting to heat up prior to the lockout.  With Sidney Crosby going to Pittsburgh, this will give the fans in the east more home games to see this kid play.  In the Western Conference the Battle of Alberta and the Colorado-Detroit rivalries will take on a whole new meaning.  It’s a marketing department’s dream come true, but I personally will get back to you all on how it works after a couple of seasons.

Well there you have it – the new deal is signed, sealed and delivered, we have the draft and a flurry of player movement to track, and then training camps get underway.  October 5, 2005 – the day the puck drops again on a new NHL season, and you know I will be on top of all the action.  The NHL is ready to bring the game to fans in ways they never have before, they plan to make the game more fun with all the rule changes in place, and they want to make the game more interactive than ever before, making it more broadcast and fan friendly.

From here on in stay tuned more often as I will have plenty to talk about between now and when they drop the puck.  Be sure to hang on and enjoy the ride, because if the game becomes half as exciting as they’re predicting, it could put hockey on the map in ways never before imagined, deservedly so, because it is still in my opinion the coolest game on earth.

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