Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NHL’s Extra Credit Breeds System of Inequity

The concept of academic extra credit has forever puzzled me. Despite the occasional motivation to exploit it, the notion of offering additional points as a means of atonement for underperformance always felt fundamentally wrong to me.

Academic instructors typically distribute a syllabus at the beginning of each semester which, among other things, outlines the course’s key dates and includes a grading plan which specifies a value by which a student’s performance is ultimately evaluated. 
The National Hockey League has such an outline which contains similar criteria; although the NHL refers to theirs as a season schedule.

Like the aforementioned syllabus, the
NHL’s season schedule consists of key dates otherwise known as games in which the league’s students—referred to as teams—are tested with points awarded dependent upon performance in those “exams”. While the number of tests each team receives is equal, the tests’ cumulative value is not.

How can this be you ask? Extra credit, of course.

For decades the NHL calculated season standings and playoff positioning based on a points system (two points for a win, one for a tie, and none for a loss) rather than the straight win/loss record method employed by Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. My guess is that this was born of necessity due to the number of games which ended in ties especially prior to—and to an only slightly lesser extent after—the introduction of the five minute overtime period beginning with the 1983-84 season.

Prior to the 1999-00 season, however, the NHL, in its infinite wisdom, instituted a policy of not only granting two points to a team winning in overtime, but also allowing the losing team to earn a point for merely advancing past regulation. Essentially, the league made the conscious decision to reward its teams for underperforming (i.e.-losing) with, yes, extra credit.

Although the tie was rendered obsolete by the 2005-06 post-lockout advent of the shootout, the three-point system for non-regulation games has since remained in effect. Yet games completed in 60 minutes are still only worth two points? How preposterous is it that the outcome of two NHL games played on the same night can have disparate values?

Imagine turning to someone in the top of the 10th inning of an MLB game and saying, “Well, at least they got their half-win. Hopefully they can get another run and pick up the full win.” Ridiculous, right? That line would sound just as ludicrous if uttered at the opening tip of overtime in an NBA game. But a paraphrased version of that statement is repeated hundreds of times in NHL arenas each season by coaches, players, and fans who are, “just glad to get out of here with at least one point”; a point which, in essence, constitutes a half-win.

NHL GM’s have made it clear on numerous occasions that the additional point is here to stay but have, so far, avoided rectifying an absurd situation with the simple solution of awarding three points for a regulation win. That tiny tweak would place equal value on each of the 1,230 NHL regular season games played each season and finally rid the league of an unfair calculation method.

What would result from such a change? I decided to put the systems to the test and studied the 2009-10 season to find out. Should I have broadened my sampling? Absolutely but, let’s face it, I work for a living and this is what I had time to throw together.

I’ve labeled the calculation method currently used as the Asinine Standings System or ASS for short and branded the alternative as the Equal Value System or EVS.

I’ll begin with the Western Conference where the results only differ slightly:

Legend: DIV=Division; GP=Games Played; W=Wins; L=Losses; OT= Overtime Losses; PTS=Total Points Earned; RW=Regulation Wins; OTW=Overtime Wins

What is evident is that the ASS and EVS standings remain nearly identical with the exception of Vancouver and Chicago flip-flopping positions and trading first-round playoff opponents. A look at the regular season head-to-head data for each scenario reveals no drastic advantage was gained or lost.

The only other variation sees Calgary leaping over St. Louis for the ninth spot based upon five more regulation wins in the EVS. On the other hand, the impact of an equal value system would have been far greater in the Eastern Conference:

Based upon the above comparison one might reasonably conclude that Montreal fans would strongly favor ASS while an endorsement of EVS by Rangers faithful is quite likely. The Canadiens’ magical run to the conference finals would have been over before it began and the sixth seed would have been on the line—rather than elimination—in the infamous season-ending meeting between the Flyers and Rangers.

Simply winning in overtime or a shootout may not have been enough for the Rangers to move up to sixth depending upon tie-breakers. But a regulation win in that instance ensures New York a sixth seed ahead of Philadelphia.

Although the top five seeds remain intact, the evenly-weighted schedule offers the Caps, Devils, and Sabres vastly different and, arguably, far more appealing playoff opponents for three teams stunned by early exits last spring. The following is an example of what could have, and I believe should have, been for fans in Washington, New Jersey, and Buffalo respectively.

The disparity of success in each situation is dramatic. Although watching Scott Hartnell, Jaroslav Halak, and Milan Lucic was enjoyable, I’m not going too far out on a limb to say Alex Ovechkin, Zach Parise, and Thomas Vanek may have occupied more of my attention as the Minnesota spring progressed. EVS may have provided that opportunity.

I even compared data between the two systems to determine how many regulation wins would be required at each point level for each non-playoff team to surpass the eighth seed. I figured this would be where I’d trip myself up but I found that the ASS influence on the playoff race to be negligible. For every team benefiting from ASS in that regard, there was one other creeping closer to a playoff berth with EVS.

Detractors of a three-point system such as GM’s Brian Burke of Toronto and David Poile of Nashville will argue that the current system creates “competitive balance” producing exciting playoff races. To that I respond simply: So what? It is polyester parity forged by a system of inequity which provides incentive for teams to sit on ties, settle for the one point, and take their chances on skating off with the bonus point.

Poile and Burke, however, do not have a problem with that according to what each told ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun in December 2009.

"From a manager's standpoint, I'm not so sure I want less parity,” said Poile. “Maybe that's selfish, but I don't know, the games seem pretty exciting to me."

"I think it's a poor idea," said Burke. "There is no shame in battling back for a tie." Burke rambled on to say, "The final minute of regulation, with the [goaltender] out, is a breathless, agonizing, heart-stopping minute filled with tension and drama; overtime is a continuation of the same, and the shootout is agony and ecstasy for the fans. I see no reason to change. I felt this way when my teams were in first place; I feel the same way now."

Apparently that’s the best Mr. Burke, could come up with off the top of his ever-whitening head but I find myself unmoved by his line of reasoning. Wouldn’t the final minutes of a one-goal or tie game at any point—but especially late—in the season be similarly angst-filled and thrilling with a three point all-or-nothing at stake?

Burke is correct; there is no shame in battling back for a tie. But there is in settling for one.

Imagine three teams vying for the final two playoff spots on the season’s last day. One team (let’s call them something like the Maple Leafs) finishes its season with a regulation win earning two points to gain a one-point lead over its rivals (a couple of random teams like the Sabres and Canadiens), over neither of which it holds a tie-breaker advantage.

The Sabres and Canadiens conclude the season playing each other. Tied at two after the second period, they head into the season’s final 20 minutes with the knowledge that an overtime or shootout loss qualifies both for the playoffs but a regulation loser will be eliminated.

How "entertaining" would that third period be watching daump after dump without any chase? How irate would Toronto fans be knowing that a) the Leafs were eliminated from the playoffs once again and b) a point system that their very influential GM opposed could have clinched a playoff berth for them?

I’m not advocating something radical like three points for a goal scored from outside the blue line (and you thought you’d seen a neutral zone trap) or goal judges suspended by bungee cords above each net. I’m merely suggesting that each and every NHL regular season game be an equal test of skill, will, risk, and reward.

Friday, August 20, 2010

2010 NHL RDO Camp Yields Mixed Message

NHL officials, general managers, and media members convened in Toronto Aug. 18-19 at the Maple Leafs’ practice facility in a veritable who’s who of league power players. They gathered to observe 33 projected top 2011 draft prospects competing in scrimmages designed to allow NHL Vice President of Hockey and Business Operations Brendan Shanahan and his staff to experiment with 28 prospective rule changes and variations.

Nearly all of these proposals are either too bizarre or radically progressive to ever be heard from again (one faceoff circle centered in each zone, draws conducted by whistle rather than puck drop), but a few caught the eye of those in attendance and the Twittersphere was abuzz with speculation.  Much of the discussion centered on  potential changes to the icing rule in the quest for increased safety.

What caught my eye, however, was what I perceive to be contradictory philosophies employed in the support and/or rationalization of some of these changes.

The debate over touch or no touch icing has been on the radar of this born and bred Minnesotan since Kurtis Foster’s leg was shattered in a March 20, 2008 collision with San Jose’s Torrey Mitchell as the pair chased down an iced puck at the Shark Tank. The event immediately brought the issue to the forefront of league discussion. 
The Minneapolis Star/Tribune’s Michael Russo went so far as to call for the NHL to adopt no-touch icing, a rule in which icing is called immediately as the puck crosses the goal line as is done at the high school and college levels. Russo referenced Al MacInnis, Mark Tinordi, Marty Reasoner, Marco Sturm, Mike Wilson, and Pat Peake as those victimized by the rule in its current form.

But the conversation ultimately died down and the issue resumed its role as a never-seriously-considered general manager’s meeting topic. Shanahan, however, has revived the dialogue by offering GM’s a front row seat to study a compromise: hybrid icing.

On NHL.com, hybrid icing is described as:

A "hybrid" of no touch icing and touch icing. During a potential icing, the linesman, by the time the first man reaches the face off dot, will determine which player would reach the puck first. If it is determined to be the attacking player, icing is waved off. If it is the defending player, icing is blown immediately. (Tie goes to the defender) It basically enables on-ice officials to whistle the play dead avoiding a dangerous collision at the end boards.

Although not likely to be adopted this season, the idea has caught the attention—if not gained the support—of  such NHL power brokers as Toronto’s Brian Burke, Florida’s Dale Tallon, Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman, and Ottawa’s Bryan Murray as well as the likes of Dave King and Ken Hitchcock.

The race for a loose puck is an exciting play for our fans and we have to keep that play in, but we have to figure out a way to eliminate the injuries to the defensemen," Burke said. "This is something I've put on the GMs agenda now for five years, and the injuries these defensemen get on those plays are often catastrophic. I think we have to change that. I like the hybrid rule. They have used it in the USHL for a couple of years with success. I've studied some video of that, and I think that will work.

Indications are strong that the hybrid icing rule has a chance to be adopted as soon as next season and I would welcome a change which makes the game safer while not entirely robbing fans of the excitement of a puck pursuit.

Although I am not a physician, I am fairly comfortable stating that fatigued players are more susceptible to injury than those who are rested or properly recovered.  While hybrid icing is geared toward injury prevention I found it peculiar that, by their design, a few of the other ideas under consideration actually would have the unintended effect of increasing injury risk. This is not the first time the league has traveled down this road.

In its continuing  post-lockout effort to seek out avenues for increased goal production,  the NHL implemented several rule changes prior to the 2005/2006 season. Among them is the rule which states that, in an icing situation, the offending team is not allowed a line change. The thought process being that tired players are more likely to suffer from physical and mental breakdowns thus creating an advantage for the attacking team.

Concepts presented over the two day event which seem aimed at expanding upon that notion include:

No Change after Off Side – Like the icing rule, line matching is also affected but it keeps gassed players on the ice as well. “keep tired players on the ice” listed among rationale.

No Icing Permitted while Short Handed – While not specifically stated, I assume line changes also not permitted in this case which again keeps tired players on ice.

No Change after Off Side & Face off goes back to offending team's end – Similar to above but more punitive. Again listing “keeping tired players on the ice” as a benefit.

Delayed Penalty Rule – In this case the team committing an infraction “needs to not only gain possession of the puck but also get the puck out of their zone before the referee blows his whistle”.  Another effort to harvest goals by cultivating fatigue.

I grew up enjoying the game as it was played in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s so I would be more than happy to see a league-wide bump in goal production. However, I find it hard to understand why league and team officials would look so hard at putting their greatest assets at increased risk of injury in order to achieve that objective.

 Will we likely see any or all of these suggestions put into practice any time soon? Probably not. Nevertheless, suggesting hybrid icing as a means to cut down on injuries while examining multiple concepts which indirectly conflict with that goal reeks of a league speaking out of both sides of its mouth. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Deal's A Deal....Until It Isn't

Having grown up a sports fan in what is known as a relatively small market (Minneapolis/St. Paul); I have regularly found myself more sympathetic to the front office when it comes to contract negotiations and collective bargaining issues. It’s not that the Calvin Griffiths, Red McCombs’, and—especially—Norm Greens of the world haven’t incensed me on occasions too numerous to mention.

It’s just that when you’ve lost or nearly lost franchises near and dear to your heart, you become more familiar with terms like revenue streams, cost certainty, and luxury taxes and the effect they have on the viability of the teams you follow. I’ve also learned to evaluate a player’s worth in terms of market value versus “this market” value.

I can’t fault a player for seeking out the best deal possible for himself. But I have a huge problem with franchise players and their agents who hold ownership hostage until they secure a contract which prevents management from retaining a quality supporting cast. Of course, at the press conference announcing said signing, they feed the world a line of B.S. about how all they care about is winning a championship.

Winning has become secondary at best among the majority of today’s elite professional athletes over whom the most contentious of collective-bargaining issues are fiercely contested.  This reality is what steers me to favor management in nearly all CBA negotiations with the idea that what is bad for prima donna players—and any sports agent on the planet—is generally good for the overall wellbeing of that sport, particularly the small-market franchises.

What inevitably happens, however, is once management gets its way it immediately sets out to find ways to shoot itself in the foot. Most recent case in point: The National Hockey League.

Someone needs to explain to me how NHL owners can justify losing an entire season successfully fighting, in conjunction with league management, for a system which they would ultimately blatantly circumvent. With heavily front-loaded contracts to players like Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, Chris Pronger, and Marc Savard including terms likely stretching well beyond their useful playing years, who are these people trying to fool?

But by far the most insultingly laughable attempt to make a mockery of a season-stealing document was the attempted signing of Ilya Kovalchuk by the New Jersey Devils. From this day forward, when I hear or read the word circumvent, my mind will immediately take me back to the image of Kovalchuk and Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello smugly seated before the media looking like the cat that ate the canary.

The 17-year, $102 million agreement between New Jersey and the magical Kovalchuk, whose playoff disappearances precede him, could not have been more transparently cap evasive. It went a little something like this for those who haven’t seen it already:

2010-11: $6 million
2011-12: $6 million

2012-13: $11.5 million
2013-14: $11.5 million
2014-15: $11.5 million
2015-16: $11.5 million
2016-17: $11.5 million
2017-18: $10.5 million
2018-19: $8.5 million
2019-20: $6.5 million
2020-21: $3.5 Million
2021-22: $750,000
2022-23: $550,000
2023-24: $550,000
2024-25: $550,000
2025-26: $550,000
2026-27: $550,000

The deal also came with a no movement (trade, waive, demotion) clause from the contract’s inception through 2016-17 and a no trade clause from 2018-19 through its conclusion leaving one year in which Kovalchuk could be moved by the Devils. But more embarrassing was the $98.5 million over the first 11 years while only $3.5 million is spread out over a final six years in which his age would range from 38-44.

Keep in mind that the annual salary cap figure is calculated by the average salary spread out over the course of the entire term of the contract, $6 million in this case. So while Kovalchuk is drawing these huge salaries,  New Jersey has the luxury of retaining a so-called elite player long term with a relatively reasonable cap hit. But if, as expected by everyone (including the parties involved),  Kovalchuk were to retire before or during this time, he would stand to lose very little while the Devils, on the other hand, would gain $6 million per year in cap space.

Sounds like a win-win for everyone, right? Except for the spirit of the CBA that is. 

Thankfully, rational thought prevailed in this case and the NHL rejected the contract which launched the league and the National Hockey League Players' Association into a binding arbitration process. A process culminating with the Aug. 9, 2010 decision by Arbitrator Richard Bloch to uphold the league’s rejection lending traction to a slippery slope.

In his ruling, Bloch stated:
“the record strongly supports the claim this contract is “intended to, or has the effect” of defeating or circumventing the Salary Cap provisions of the CBA. The overall structure of this SPC reflects not so much the hope that Mr. Kovalchuk will be playing in those advanced years, but rather the expectation that he will not. This is a long contract --17 years -- the longest in NHL history. That, in itself, poses no contractual problem, for the reasons discussed above.18 But Kovalchuk is 27 years old, and the agreement contemplates his playing until just short of his 44th birthday. That is not impossible, but it is, at the least, markedly rare.”
“The record reflects that the result of this SPC, considered in its entirety, is to artificially extend the term of that agreement, thereby decreasing the annual salary cap figure and increasing the Club’s payroll room in a manner that serves to defeat the intentions of the parties as manifested in the Team Payroll Range provisions”
Bloch also addressed the contracts of Luongo, Hossa, Pronger, and Savard:
“It is true, as the Association observes, that the NHL has registered contracts with structures similar to the Kovalchuk SPC PA Exh. 8 reflects a list of 11 multi-year agreements, all of which involve players in their mid to late 30's and early 40's. Most of them reflect reasonably substantial "diveback" (salary reductions that extend over the "tails" of the Agreement). Of these, four such agreements, with players Chris Pronger, Marc Savard, Roberto Luongo, and Marian Hossa reflect provisions that are relatively more dramatic than the others. Each of these players will be 40 or over at the end of the contract term and each contract includes dramatic divebacks.
Pronger's annual salary, for example, drops from $4,000,000 to $525,000 at the point he is earning almost 97% of the total $34,450,000 salary. Roberto Luongo, with Vancouver, has a 12-year agreement that will end when he is 43. After averaging some $7,000,000 per year for the first 9 years of the Agreement, Luongo will receive an average of about 1.2 million during his last 3 years, amounting to some 5.7% of the total compensation during that time period. The apparent purpose of this evidence is to suggest that the League's concern is late blooming and/or inconsistent.”
There was language indicating those contracts would be under review by the NHL which caught me off guard as I thought it strange that a Standard Player's Contract (SPC) already approved and registered by the league could be re-examined with the same scrutiny of the Kovalchuk deal. That was, however, until I researched the CBA and stumbled across Article 26.10(b):
“The Investigator's authority to investigate (i) a possible Circumvention relating to an SPC shall in no way be limited by the fact that such SPC was approved and registered by Central Registry pursuant to Article 11 of this Agreement”
James Mirtle of the Toronto Globe and Mail spoke to several agents troubled by this revelation including this one:
“I’ve never heard of a contract that had been registered and approved and then having that registration withdrawn,” said one agent, who requested to remain anonymous.
“The league has two months now to go after Savard, Pronger and Luongo [whose contract extensions began July 1]. Until they start getting paid, they’ve got two months.”

Reading further in the CBA, that last statement may not be true according to Article 26.10(d):
“There shall be no limitation of time barring the investigation of Circumvention by the Commissioner.”

To make a long story longer, this isn’t over. Ilya Kovalchuk is now an unrestricted free agent again and has currently resumed negotiations with Lamoriello and the Devils while some players have to feel somewhat insecure about their own contractual status. Rest assured, though, legal experts on both sides of the issue have already begun seeking the Holy grail of an arbitration-proof loophole making it difficult to choose which end of the bleachers to cheer from.