Dan P.'s Mailbag: September 10, 2012

What if there's no season?

Welcome back to another edition of Dan P.'s Mailbag here at The Cannon! Thanks to everyone who sent in a question. As always, you can send me an e-mail with your question. Be sure to include your Cannon commenting name, so that everyone knows who's writing in if your mail message gets chosen for the week.

Alright, for this Mailbag, I've chosen three items to explore. Today we're covering the All Star Game, the goaltending situation (a running theme with the mailbag), and then a scorcher: the lockout (duh-DUH-DUHHHHH!!!). Here we go!

OK here's a hypothetical for you...The NHL season is canceled, and the Columbus doesn't get to host the All-Star game. The NHL can make it up to you in one of two ways: 1) Host the 2014 All-Star game or 2) Host a Winter classic (presumably against a division rival like Detroit or Chicago). Which would you choose? --Trav614

Hmm. I'll be honest. When I first saw this question, I honestly thought the answer was pretty simple: All Star Game. But, there are a few wrinkles, and the longer I thought about it, the less sure I was. There are pros and cons for each answer, so let's take a look.

All Star Game

To me, this was the initial no-brainer answer, and here are the reasons. The All Star Game is an exhibition. It doesn't put the focus onto the team's roster so much as it does the organization and the fans. And, this last one is the big seller. The fans of Columbus get to show the rest of the league how strong they are, how into it they are, and that there is a hockey market here in Columbus. And, we get to show off our building while doing it. A Winter Classic WILL bring in fans from the other team, and as we've seen that can sometimes lead to, how you say, embarrassing displays. Do we want to show Ohio Stadium 70% full of Penguins fans? Not so sure...

The All Star Game gives us a chance to show our arena, our arena district, and our fanbase to the rest of the league, without the chance of getting run 7-2 on the ice by someone like the Red Wings, Penguins, or Blackhawks (seriously, look back to last season's Blackhawks games, at the scores, and then tell me whether or not you want to have the ENTIRE league watching that game on New Year's Day on continental television).

With all of the changes and upgrades being made to Nationwide Arena, that's the thing I want the world to see, honestly.

The All Star Game is not without warts, however.

The Winter Classic

First and foremost, 2014 is an Olympic year, and if the NHL continues to send its players to the Olympics, there won't be a 2014 All Star Game. That would push it to 2015, and who knows what irons the league may already have in the fire for 2015? So, the club is forced to look at the issue of alienating an already strained fan-base by having sold season ticket packages under the expectations of the All Star Game this coming season, and possibly not being able to deliver on that for two more years (though, through no fault of their own, necessarily). Perception is reality, and for the "casual fan" that's going to be a tough pill to swallow.

The Winter Classic is appealing for a couple of reasons: 1) as much as I personally hate Ohio State sports, my guess is that the Horseshoe would be a pretty awesome venue for a hockey game. It would be crazy-loud. And, 2) the ticket sales could be off-the-charts, as the capacity at Ohio Stadium is only a few thousand below The Big House, which is hosting this year's game (assuming there is one, of course). There's obviously a big income potential there, which is good for the city and for the franchise. The franchise gets the same TV exposure, albeit outside of their home venue.

Further than that, odds are good that in a 2015 All Star Game, Columbus will not be well-represented, unless some guys take huge leaps forward. A Winter Classic allows the Jackets to put all of their players on the big stage in front of that massive audience. For some young guys like Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray, et al, that may not be household names but may be very talented players, the exposure would be great.

Decision Time

So, to me, there are reasons for each. In the end, I'm still leaning toward the All Star Game, simply because I want the league to see that we have a state-of-the-art building that is second to none in the league. I want the chance to have the All Star fan experience here in Columbus, in our arena district (having the Winter Classic at OSU negates the entire AD as a part of the game atmosphere). I went to the 2011 ASG in Raleigh with my brother, and it was awesome; and their arena is not downtown like ours is!

Also, I don't want to see my team get embarrassed in front of the entire league, both by getting beat badly on the ice (always a possibility) and perhaps having their fans outnumbered in the seats; think to the sound in the arena when Detroit, Chicago, or Pittsburgh scores a goal, and now multiply that by 10... not good times, eh?

I answer the ASG knowing that it might mean not having the game until 2015, but the trade-off is that there's potential for more Jackets All Stars. A hypothetical: Jack Johnson has Captained Team USA twice in the World Championships, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he could do so again at the 2014 Olympics. If he's then the Captain of the Jackets as many expect, it wouldn't be a huge "Who??" move to have him captain one of the All Star Teams. If, say, Ryan Murray or Ryan Johansen or Cam Atkinson, or ANYONE else on the Jackets gets to play in that All Star Game, it will give the fans a little more to cheer for than they may have even this coming season. That's potentially a very good thing.

I'm not saying I don't want to see the Winter Classic here; I think it would be awesome. But I don't want the WC until the Jackets are a solid, competitive team. So, put me down for the 2015 ASG!

If you had to guess, which goaltender will start more games next season? Mason or Bob? And if you were Todd Richards, how would you manage them? --ducktrance

I'm going to go out on a limb--though not a long limb, by any stretch--and say Sergei Bobrovsky gets more starts. It is my belief (and I have no information to base this off of other than my gut) that Scott Howson is about as done with Steve Mason as he can be without having completely cut ties. Steve Mason is the reason Scott Howson is on the hot seat; Howson put all his eggs in that basket, and has gotten burned for three straight years. Howson hasn't been shy about talking about the need at the goaltender position all off-season, and that certainly is no endorsement of Mason.

Bobrovsky is a guy for whom the club gave up assets. That alone probably means he's going to have the slight-inside track. Beyond that, I think most fans could see that the team on the ice seemed to have more confidence when anyone other than Mason was in goal last year. Curtis Sanford became a huge shot in the arm in November and December. Mason didn't seem to have much in the way of confidence, and that seemed to permeate the entire team at times. Bobrovsky comes to the Jackets with a clean slate in that regard, and so I think the team will play with a little more confidence in front of him.

So, whether fair or not, I think Bobrovsky's going to get the "starter" minutes while Mason gets more of the "backup" role.

Can you give us your take on the lockout? I know you don’t have a crystal ball, but do you think it’ll end anytime soon. What are the major sticking points besides the revenue split? Which problems are just window dressing and will fall into place? --Gr8fulnfa

Oh, you're getting your money's worth on this one. And, I didn't feel it was right to answer this one solo, so I enlisted the help of some of the other Cannon writers. I think you'll find, however, that we have similar feelings. First, though, I think it's important to differentiate--where possible--between the last lockout and this (potential) one.

The last lockout had villains on both sides: the owners plead poverty based on their calculation that 78% of all revenue was going to the players, and the players called "BULL!" on those numbers while also saying that ALL of the owners' proposals were tantamount to a salary cap, and by God they would NEVER agree to a salary cap. SERENITY NOW!!

Fast forward a year, and the players not only took a HUGE paycut, but they ended up with a salary cap. But, public perception placed more blame with the players--and more specifically Bob Goodenow--than with the owners, and the players ended up with more of the short end of the stick. There was a salary cap, dropped to coincide with 54% of the hockey revenues. There was revenue sharing, though some would argue it's not very effective because of the benchmarks that must be met to get the money.

So, what do we think of the *current* situation? On with it!

Dan P.

To me, it's simple. The last lockout didn't form a perfect solution, but it created a league where teams could survive despite the absence of the big TV sponsor (gesturing my head toward Bristol, CT). The Jackets are a revenue-neutral team on the hockey side now that the arena is taken care of. It's not a perfect system (14-year contract, anyone?), but it's allowed for more league parity as well as more revenue for everyone, and the league seems to be thriving. Consider that the initial salary cap was $39 million in '05-'06. The projected cap for '12-'13 is $70.2 million, which is an 80% increase. 80%!!

Are there some problems? Sure. The contract-length issue is my biggest pet peeve. There are still teams struggling financially. However, the last lockout is not even in the same stratosphere as this one. The last lockout had villains on both sides, and had a legitimate issue at its core: cost certainty.

Fast forward to now, and I doubt you'll find too many people who don't feel like the owners are the ones bunging this situation up so much. For one, most teams are doing quite well under the current system (though, again, some are still struggling). Free agency is a big ticket item every single off-season. The cap goes up by a good chunk each off-season. The Minnesota Wild gave almost $190 million to TWO PLAYERS this summer, knowing full-well that this labor dispute was coming.

So, what's the rub?

It's the "rich" teams, if I may be so blunt. Consider The Player over at Puck Daddy, whose take is very well stated in my opinion:

As we know, in 2011-2012 players received 57 percent of the revenues, which are believed to be in the neighborhood of $3.3 billion. So, over the course of that time revenues have increased by over 50 percent while player costs have only increased by about 15 percent.

In real terms, the amount of money that the owners have "saved" since 2004 — that is the difference between paying the players three quarters of revenues vs. 57 percent of revenues — is in excess of $3 billion.

If the League asks us to reduce our share to a straight 50/50 split, thus lowering the cap via what amounts to a 12.3-percent rollback, our question will be, "Why?"

One could predict that the NHL will concede that while some teams are doing well, others are barely hanging on. If that is the case, is it the players' responsibility to bail them out? Haven't we been down that road before?

Bettman got the system he wanted, one that he assured us would give us 30 healthy teams. My opinion is that if we have teams that are "sick," as we surely do, then simply re-setting salaries once again will neither be palatable to the players nor will it really fix the problem. Not in the long term. History has shown us that.

Clearly the system, as it exists now, does not work for everyone. If we simply roll back salaries again, who's to say we won't find ourselves in the same position five or seven years from now? Once reset, the cap (and the floor) will simply rise again over time as revenues rise.

Then we are back to square one.

The league's revenues are growing. If The Player is right and the owners have pocketed an additional $3 billion than they would have under the previous system (so, an average of $100,000,000 per team), and there are STILL unhealthy teams, then how can one even argue that player contracts are the problem?

Consider another way of looking at it: in the last season before the lockout, the top contracts were: Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr, both making $11 million. If you look at calendar-year salaries, this past year Brad Richards and Ilya Bryzgalov both made $12 million, and Shea Weber is slated to make $14 million this coming season. In other words, in just seven years we're right back to where we were before in terms of salaries.

All of this is a fancy way of saying: if something is broken, it's NOT PLAYER SALARIES. If it IS player salaries, then why in the name of all that's holy is Nashville paying Shea Weber $14 million this season??

If you guessed "because a rich team painted Nashville into a corner," you get a gold star for paying attention. To me, this falls squarely at the feet of the "rich" owners. Philadelphia made that offer to Weber thinking there was no way in hell Nashville would match it. Nashville didn't want to face losing their Captain purely because of money, and so they took the gamble and matched. No skin off of Philly's nose, but Nashville now has to sell out their entire season JUST to pay their Captain this year.

And now, the owners want to cut the players' share from 57% to 46%? Why?? How does this change anything? If rolling salaries back in 2005 has led to the same salaries we had prior to the lockout, and has teams like Philadelphia able to purposely front-load a deal with $14 million JUST because they know a poorer team probably won't be able to match it, how is rolling back salaries AGAIN going to solve the problem long term?

It's not. All it's going to do is make 11% more money for the teams making money.

It takes me back to something I noted above: don't tell me the situation is untenable when Minnesota is doling out $190 million in one off-season. They're either doing it because: 1) the situation is NOT untenable, or 2) they're trying to compete with the small sect of teams that are making the lion's share of that estimated $3 billion in additional revenue that The Player alluded to.

The owners' original proposal had five main points to further stick it to the players: the aforementioned salary-to-revenue roll-back, longer ELCs (thus keeping players on cheaper deals for a longer period of time), 10 years before UFA (again, keeping players from being able to cash in on the open market for a longer period of time, which in turn holds down player salaries), no arbitration (which, AGAIN, holds down player salaries by preventing them from getting an independent arbitrator to bolster their salary while they're under that 10-year team control before UFA), and five year contracts (lets owners off the hook faster for expensive contracts downstream).

In short, everything NOT to do with money for owners is window-dressing: it's ALL about making/hoarding more money at the players' expense long-term, and it does nothing to fix the issues that are hurting the smaller-market or struggling teams. Since gutting player salaries didn't solve the problem last time--assuming you believe we need to go through all of this AGAIN--how is it going to solve the problem THIS time? How will we not be in the same position again five-to-seven years from now? It took seven years for salaries to get back to the same numbers they were before. It stands to reason it will happen again. What's that old saying about those who ignore history...?

And, the owners aren't even touching the idea of revenue sharing, which is the players' main point of making all teams able to survive and thrive.

So, my take on the situation, after all of that? It's ENTIRELY on the owners, and their proposals are draconian and ridiculous.

All of that having been said, I can see this one going a long time. If there's one thing Gary Bettman has shown over the years, it's that he doesn't really give a crap about what the fans think.

Matt

This is basically a case of 1000% greed from a small group of owners who are working as a bloc on the BoG and setting Bettman's agenda. I don't think the NHL's proposals do anything to help with the future of the game, and if anything they just set up for more labor issues down the road.

Fixing teams losing money by forcing player salaries to roll back doesn't help with the same clubs demanding rollbacks go out and push the UFA market to stratospheric heights. Better revenue sharing and less draconian terms that keep teams facing challenges (like Columbus, Nashville, the Islanders, and, yes, the Coyotes) from accessing their full shares of revenue sharing will.

(For the record, I've never understood why the NHL's response to teams who struggled with attendance was "well, we won't let you actually get full revenue sharing. That's like taking a family on food stamps and saying "Well, you lost your job, so we're cutting your benefits.")

The NHL is also shooting themselves in the collective foot with their organizational gag orders. While the only news on the ownership position is coming from Bettman or NHL VP Bill Daly, the NHLPA is running a broadband PR assault through the main organization, player agents like Allan Walsh, and seemingly every high profile player who makes use of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook.

The more they wall themselves off, the louder the voices of players get, and most fans are already on the NHLPA's side thanks to their consistent charm offensive.

A lockout seems inevitable at this point, and I think the NHL is going to collect a bunch of black eyes in the process of making a small group of owners happy. I don't see it ending well, and however this CBA is eventually settled, I'm betting that if things continue on the current course, we'll have another lockout when it expires.

Mike

Dan and Matt did a great job of offering up the facts along with their opinion. I want to go another route, and that is to offer up my personal thoughts on what looks to be an impending lockout.

As a fan of the NHL, the thought of another lockout so soon after the last one is sickening. The last time around, the NHL took the fans for granted, trusting that they'd all flock back to the arenas once play resumed. Luckily for the league, they did. Thanks to a huge uptick in on-ice excitement, largely due to sweeping rule changes, more and more fair-weather fans started to attend games as well. Fast forward to today, and another lockout would mean that you can kiss those fringe fans goodbye. There's also a good chance that a large portion of the serious fan base will decide to spend their hard-earned dollars elsewhere.

I remember how emotionally invested I was in the last CBA negotiation. I soaked up all of the information I could, hoping every day that the two sides could come to an agreement and I could have my beloved NHL back. This time around, since the word "lockout" started to appear more and more, I find myself not giving a shit. I want the season to start on time of course, but I don't care what needs to take place to have that happen.

I look at it this way, we have Owners vs. Players, Rich Owners vs. Poor Owners and a need for some rule changes. Until the Board of Governors gets revenue sharing figured out, and back off of the band-aid demand for players salaries to be reduced, we won't have NHL hockey.

I mean, how can the NHL owners not be worried about the effects of another lockout? Here's where I think the problem lies- the "rich' owners don't have to worry about a lockout. They know that they can fill their building whenever play resumes. Unfortunately, most of the league isn't in that situation. Teams like Columbus are worried about a lockout, but they aren't the ones driving the bus, it's the big dogs, and the big dogs don't want to give handouts to the league's poor teams in the form of proper revenue sharing. Even if it makes for a healthier league.

The whole thing stinks. We all want to see the schedule start on time, but I'm taking a step back from everything this time around, with the hope that everything gets worked out, and the new CBA is strong and sustainable.

***************

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! See you next week!

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