by PuckStopsHere on 09/20/12 at 03:00 PM ET
With a lockout underway there is discussion in the media (if not between the NHL and NHLPA) about what should and shouldn't be in a new CBA. For the most part they are discussing money. That is what is important to the parties negotiating the CBA but it isn't always what is important to the fan. For the most part a fan shouldn't care how players and owners split up the pile of money the league makes - except to hope that they can do it peacefully and keep it from getting in the way of the games and their quality. By that standard, the NHL is failing the fan right now.
When a new CBA is agreed upon there are several issues that affect fans. These effects are often indirect and unintended results from the CBA and are issues that are not negotiated or thought about in much detail by those negotiating the CBA.
From a fan point of view the last CBA saw two significant changes. First there was a salary cap and second there was liberalized free agency. The salary cap prevented good teams from keeping their talent together. If a team first got to be a good one their players would deserve significant raises in their new contracts and they cannot all be given those raises without other players being jettisoned (or the player in question leaving) to keep the team below the salary cap. Liberalized free agency was intended to increase player turnover between teams and allow teams to buy free agents who are younger and will be more valuable to the buying team. This clearly would help big market teams as they would have a better chance to attract top free agents. A salary cap would prevent a team from acquiring all the free agents but a single top free agent can be a difference maker.
In order to see the results of this process we need only look at the Stanley Cup winners under the CBA. Here they are:
2006 Carolina Hurricanes
2007 Anaheim Ducks
2008 Detroit Red Wings
2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
2010 Chicago Blackhawks
2011 Boston Bruins
2012 Los Angeles Kings
We see that top teams were unable to remain top teams for long. Nobody repeated as Stanley Cup winner. Nobody won two cups in the period. Detroit and Pittsburgh can closest as they were the repeat finalists in 2008 and 2009.
By the end of the CBA, the bigger market teams were winning. Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago are some of the biggest hockey markets and they had failed to win a Stanley Cup for almost 40 years in Boston, almost 50 years in Chicago and had never won a cup in Los Angeles. The cup is being spread around and there is a stronger chance that the big markets will win it. From a marketing standpoint in the NHL this is great. From a fan standpoint that isn't so obvious. Should smaller market fans have a lesser chance of winning than big ones?
Misinformation during the 2004/05 lockout often reported that a new CBA would fix the problem of small markets competing but at that time this was an unnecessary fix. Stanley Cups were won in Tampa Bay, New Jersey, Dallas and Colorado and all of those teams are currently among the lower half of the NHL in attendance. Detroit was the other recent Stanley Cup winner and while they are in the top half of the league in attendance they cannot match Los Angeles or Chicago in market size. Small market teams were winning in the CBA prior to 2004. They were winning with large payrolls. These were large payrolls they could afford to have because when their team won their revenue skyrocketed and they could afford to give their star players the big new contracts they deserved.
This made teams prior to 2004 better teams than those afterwards when a salary cap limited how much talent they could assemble. By my standards of an elite team we have seen one in the recently expired CBA - the 2007 Anaheim Ducks - who soon fell from that level when Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne took time off the next season. In fact if we rate the Stanley Cup winners from best to worst I would rank them as follows:
1. 2007 Anaheim Ducks
2. 2008 Detroit Red Wings
3. 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
4. 2010 Chicago Blackhawks
5. 2011 Boston Bruins
6. 2012 Los Angeles Kings
7. 2006 Carolina Hurricanes
There is a clear pattern here. Stanley Cup winning teams are getting progressively worse. The only exception is the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes who can be taken as a fluke winner who missed the playoffs the next season.
The fan is seeing weaker and weaker top teams as a result of the CBA. This is an indirect result of the provisions in the CBA. There are no more elite teams. The top teams are getting worse. The quality of hockey in the Stanley Cup finals is as a result also getting worse. The fan loses out in terms of the hockey quality they witness. The great teams and the great games they play between them are no longer as great. To a hockey fan who has allegiances beyond their local team this is a big loss. Can a new CBA fix that problem? It isn't clear that a solution exists without radically changing the framework of the CBA. That likely won't happen without a lengthy lockout and it is less likely to happen without somebody in power leading the cause.
I think the biggest failing of the expired CBA has been its failure to allow for elite teams to exist. It has produced an increasingly weak level of top team. The Stanley Cup winner gets increasingly worse. I see no reason to expect a new CBA will fix the problem. If anything it may make it worse. The fan and fan's interests are left out of the CBA negotiation process and as a result the fan's point of view is not seen. The fan's interests are rarely even thought about and discussed except at the most basic level. The NHL's current business model hurts the fan and nothing is likely to change it.
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