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A Sabre-Rattling CBA

Hi, everybody! My name's George Malik, and I write the Snapshots blog on MLive, and a second one's on the way. I've followed the Wings and the NHL since the days of Paul "Rocketman" Ysebaert, and the stories I've made up about my goaltending exploits are legendary. Paul very kindly extended an offer to share my opinion with you, and I hope you do the same. I'll start 'er off with one of my favourite topics: the Collective Bargaining Agreement. ______________________ On the day the previous CBA expired, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a promise to the fans of two smaller-market teams that felt they couldn't compete in a world where salaries kept climbing in an "inflationary spiral."
For the fans it has meant high and increasing ticket prices, and the status quo has meant that teams cannot meaningfully compete. It is a fact, a fact, that during this CBA, a team in the top one third of salaries has been three times more likely to make the Playoffs than a team in the bottom third. This is a status quo with which we simply cannot continue to live. Our game and our fans deserve better.
[W]e owe it to hockey's fans to achieve an economic system that will result in affordable ticket prices and stable, competitive franchises.
That "affordable ticket prices" business? Sorry, ol' Gary says that ticket prices vary on a "market-to-market basis,” which is why the Islanders and Kings (via a "facilities fee") decided to raise prices after non-playoff seasons. Competitive franchises? Twenty-plus teams fight it out every year for playoff spots, cap or no cap. What about the CBA helping franchises become “stable?” Let's look at one of Bettman's poster-boy franchises, and ask the fans of the Buffalo Sabres how they like ol’ Gary’s definition of stability:

Buffalo’s rising payroll has been a significant issue this off-season. The Sabres had a relatively modest $29 million payroll last season, about $10 million under the salary cap.

Including Dumont, the team’s payroll would now stand at about $37 million. The Sabres still have two key unrestricted free agents to fit in under the new $44 million cap: goaltender Ryan Miller, who’s coming off a 30-win season, and defenceman Dmitri Kalinin.

One could argue that arbitration has made GM Darcy Regier’s life difficult.  After all, Daniel Briere received a $5 million award—as a player who’s never put up more than 65 points—thanks to arbitration, and J.P. Dumont, who’s averaged under a point per game for his entire career, received a $2.9 million award.  That’s nearly eight million right there.

Arbitration’s part of the equation, but the CBA doesn’t promise “stability” in any way, shape, or form.  The CBA does everything possible to disrupt the concept of traditional team-building—drafting well, developing talent, and accentuating that talent with savvy free-agent signings and trades—from the draft onward:

When a team drafts players, they hold the rights to players for two years, with the exception of NCAA players.  If a team decides to sign a drafted player or young free agent, the player counts against a 50-man “reserve list”—the total number of NHLers, AHL/ECHL players, and prospects a team may have under contract.  Teams are required to have 23 “active roster” players, and they sign an average of 12-15 minor-leaguers to contracts, so “reserve list” spots are limited at best.  Once that draft pick or free agent prospect is in the system, they hit unrestricted free agency after seven “accrued years of service” with that team. 

Free agency drops to 28 in 2007, but the seven year-rule means that free agency starts at 25 for players who start in the league at 18 years of age.  And then there’s the “signing moratorium” from June 15th to July 1st.  It was waived for this year so that teams could continue to negotiate with potential UFAs and RFAs.  However, this “signing moratorium” allows 29 other teams to talk to potential UFAs and RFAs as of June 27th.

We’ve all seen that a salary cap doesn’t prevent teams from throwing money at their problems on July 1st, and while we’d like to believe that adding salary arbitration is the last boogeyman in the mix, Erin Nicks notes that Martin Havlat and Ales Hemsky scored big deals for point totals they have yet to achieve.

Where does that leave us?  One year into a CBA that Gary Bettman promised would help small-market teams like the Sabres to become—and remain—competitive.  Buffalo will pay out $10 million more in salaries, just to keep their roster intact.  The Sabres will lose money because a $28-30 million salary structure meant the team barely broke even in 2005-2006, revenue-sharing included.

As Sabres GM Darcy Regier said:

“There’s been a tremendous jump in the marketplace and the ownership has continued to work very hard in keeping the core together going forward.”

The new CBA’s not a recipe for “stability.”  It’s a recipe for an every-summer dispersal draft, which is exactly what dear ol’ Gary wanted to achieve.  Building a team’s hard enough.  Keeping a winning team together is almost impossible, especially if a team can’t afford a cap-busting salary structure.

Welcome to the “New NHL,” Buffalo.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Filed in: NHL Talk, George James Malik, Buffalo Sabres, | KK Hockey | Permalink


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About Kukla's Korner Hockey

Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

Email Paul anytime at pk@kuklaskorner.com