Every year, NHL general managers meet someplace sunny to talk about ways to make the game better. In the end, they seem to talk a lot, but the outcomes are fairly small achievements like modifying the size of goalie equipment. Last season, they finally at least talked about attempting to reduce concussions, but we'll still have to wait to see whether anything will actually change in the coming season. While concussions are a very serious issue that need attention immediately, there are other things with which general managers should concern themselves. Here are the top-ten things the NHL needs to change:
10. The delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass. This is the dumbest penalty in hockey. It's certainly a deterrent from doing it on purpose, which a lot of defencemen and goalies used to do to get out of trouble. Now, however, we're seeing teams get penalized for doing it by accident. The problem is, it often happens when a team is already shorthanded and the defenceman panics under pressure. Someday, a very important goal is going to be scored on a power play after a DOG penalty, and that sucks. The league should make throwing the puck over the glass the same as icing, with a faceoff in the offending team's zone and no line change permitted.
9. Points. Get rid of them. The NHL has a winner and a loser in every game. There's no need for points anymore. Making some games worth three points creates an imbalance in the standings, rewarding teams for losing. The league should dump the points and go by wins and losses like every other major sport does.
8. Fighting. Eliminate it. The game has evolved beyond fisticuffs at this point. There's no evidence to support the myth that great numbers of fans come out to see fights, or would stay away if fights were banned. There are very, very few fights in the playoffs when the hockey is at its best. Solid leagues like the European pro leagues and U.S. college leagues, somehow manage to play great hockey without fighting. The old-time fight sparked by passion and real anger has mostly disappeared, leaving the sport with staged, emotionless bouts that do little to change the direction of a game. On the other hand, encouraging fighting in junior hockey puts kids at risk of serious injury or even death for no good reason. Rewarding teenagers for fighting encourages aggressive, violent behaviour outside of the rink as well. And fighting in the pros leads to avoidable injury...just ask Sheldon Souray, who could be losing his NHL job early because he missed so much time after getting hurt fighting.
7. Contracts. The CBA doesn't allow anything to change a contract after it's been agreed by both parties. Obviously, it's important for players' security that teams not have the right to contract do-overs. Every GM in the league would be backpedalling on big, fat, ill-advised deals if they could. It's unfortunate, though, that players themselves can't ask for a renegotiation. I know Cristobal Huet was thrilled to score big money with Chicago, but now, with the team in a serious cap crunch, it's very likely Huet will be dumped in the minors. He may be fine with collecting his millions in the AHL or Europe, but what if he's not? If he's the kind of player who'd like to stay in the NHL for a couple of million less, he should have the opportunity to cut that deal with management. Of course, if players had the right to renegotiate, they'd also be vulnerable to pressure from management to do so, even if it's not what they want. That's a concern, but it's really no different than players getting pressured to waive no-trade clauses in contracts they've negotiated in good faith. They can just say no, after all.
6. Replay. The NHL is futuristic in its use of replay compared to baseball or soccer. The biggest gap now, though, is with missed injuries. If a player is writhing on the ice or obviously bleeding with no call, the refs should be allowed to say, "Hey, we didn't see what happened there. Let's go to the replay." It would give the officials another tool to help them police the game justly. The league should also consider instituting replay challenges to be used at the coach's discretion once per game, similar to the rule in NFL football. Officials are human; they screw up. With replay challenges, if a coach sees something the refs don't, it would give him a chance to correct a call that could change a game's outcome.
5. Specialists. There are a lot of guys around with one particular skill, who aren't really that good at much else. (See: Bergeron, Marc-Andre) There is, however, a way to give some guys with only one marketable skill a place in the NHL. The number of players a team can dress for a game should be increased from 20 to 21, so specialists can have a role, without having to play a regular shift. Baseball does it with the DH and football has the place kicker. The extra guy on a hockey team could be a guy like Bergeron, who specializes in the point shot for the PP. It could be a guy who only plays on the PK. Maybe it's a guy like Yanic Perreault, who's otherworldly on faceoffs, but can't do much else. Or it could be a player who's too small or slow to survive in a game, but who's spectacular in the shootout. That way, coaches wouldn't be forced to increase the workload of his better players, or screw up his line formations to fit in a guy who's only good at one thing...no more sitting Ryan O'Byrne just to get Bergeron's shot in the lineup. The NHLPA should support such a move because it would offer more opportunities to members who wouldn't otherwise make the NHL, or whose skills are fading and could use the specialist spot to hang on for an extra year or two.
4. Taxes. The salary cap is extremely inequitable, as we've seen in the case of the Canadiens, because of the variance in local tax rates. For example, if a free agent is considering signing with either the Canadiens or the Lightning, and both teams are offering him $5-million a year over a five-year contract, he's got to consider how much of that money he'll actually take home. In Tampa, he's got to pay 35% of it in federal income tax, while, in Montreal, the feds only take 29%. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, however, the state of Florida doesn't take an extra share of the player's income for itself, while the province of Quebec taxes at 24%. So, in Tampa, that $25-million deal translates to $16.25-million in take-home pay. In Quebec, it's only $13.25-million. That's a fair chunk of change for anyone, even a rich hockey player. That means the Canadiens have to offer a player a million dollars more a year to even be in the same take-home ballpark. Since all teams operate under the same cap, that means while the Habs are paying more for their top players, they end up with less for a strong supporting cast. If the NHL is serious about establishing parity in the league, it needs to make the salary cap applicable after taxes. In other words, teams dealing with higher local taxes could exceed the salary cap by the difference in tax rates, using the lowest-taxed NHL location as the base. Therefore, if Tampa's %35 rate is the lowest, compared to Montreal's %53, the Canadiens should be able to spend %18 more than the Panthers or Lightning can on player salaries. Otherwise, the cap inevitably favours teams in lower-taxed jurisdictions.
3. Composite sticks. Ban them. Composites are lighter and allow a player to shoot harder, no doubt. BUT, they break at terrible times, as Saku Koivu and Team Finland can attest, after losing the Olympic gold medal game on a broken-stick faceoff, and the Red Wings will second, after losing a vital playoff game when Nik Lidstrom's stick broke to allow a breakaway. They're also causing a lot of injuries when players block shots at the kinds of speeds composites allow. And they're hugely expensive. Players went to composite because they perceived a competitive advantage by doing so. There's no definitive evidence that composites are markedly better than wood. Composite sticks in hockey are the equivalent of aluminum bats in baseball. Just as the bats give hitters an unfair advantage over fielders, the sticks give shooters an edge on defenders. The NHL should insist on wood, just like baseball does.
2. Contracts, part two. Teams are able to beat the cap right now by offering huge, front-loaded contracts for long term that will bring the average cap hit down to a manageable number. The Hossa contract in Chicago and the Pronger deal in Philly are two examples. Now Lou Lamoriello is rumoured to be offering Ilya Kovalchuk a seventeen-year deal that would meet Kovalchuck's $100-million contract demand, but reduce the cap hit for the Devils to less than $6-million, which will disappear when Kovalchuk retires long before the seventeen years are up. It's a legal loophole in the CBA, but it gives strong teams the best shot at the best players. If a team wants to stack its lineup, it can do so by filling it with great players on cheap cap hits. The argument in favour of this is that any team can do the same thing. That's true, in theory, but if a player has a chance to play for a Cup contender or a bottom-feeder for the long-term, he's going to pick the team where he can win. That creates a system with powerful contenders versus poor cousins that can't attract good players. There are two ways for the league to counter the long-term, front-loaded loophole. One is to make a player's actual annual salary, not the average over the term of the contract, count against the cap each season. Alternately, the current clause that forces a team to absorb the cap hit of any player who signs after the age of 35, regardless of whether he retires during the deal, could be expanded. It could include any player who turns 35 while signed to a long-term deal. That way, if a team is on the hook for all salary committed to a player after he's 35, it eliminates the advantage in signing players until they're over 40 to beat the cap.
And, the number one thing the NHL needs to change:
1. The draft. In a cap world, teams rely heavily on good, cheap, young talent. The most cost-efficient way to build a team is by drafting that talent and developing it within the team's system. The problem is, drafting 18-year-old kids is a total crap shoot. The average 18-year-old player hasn't finished growing and, in many cases, hasn't gained control of his own skills. If he gets hurt in his draft year, he risks not being chosen at all. A team that invests money, resources and draft picks in these kids depends in large part on luck in hoping those investments pay off. The NHL used to draft players at age 20, when they were more mature physically and emotionally. The only reason the age shifted was to counter the WHA, which resorted to drafting teenagers to stake a claim on the best talent before the NHL did in the '70s. Now, with no North American competition for that talent, it would benefit teams to go back to drafting players at 20. They'd have a much better handle on what they're getting in the players they pick. It'd be good for the vast majority of the kids too. Some of them have to make the agonizing decision about whether to play junior hockey or college. Often, they choose junior because they think it's the quickest way to get noticed by scouts and get drafted. Moving the draft age to 20 would make it easier for players to choose a year or two of college while playing hockey. It would be tough for the very elite teenage players who outstrip the competition in their age group and are ready for the NHL at 18 or 19. For most, though, the extra time to develop before having to worry about the draft would be beneficial.
Those are the most important issues, outside of concussions, the NHL needs to address. We can rest assured that at the next GM's or Board of Governor's meetings, none of them will be on the agenda.