Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What If?

Well, only three weeks to go before the NHL draft hits Montreal. As usual, the best prospects in the world will paste smiles on their faces as they stride to the podium to put on the sweaters of the most hopeless franchises in the league. The good teams will once again rely on the hit-and-miss reports prepared by their scouts and hope the prospects that fall outside the "sure-thing" category will pan out, to allow them to re-stock with quality players.

I don't think the draft is fair. Bad teams and bad management get rewarded with good players who get buried in markets where hockey rates behind NASCAR, while teams in hockey cities end up with mid-range players with a high hit-or-miss quotient. The teams that keep the southern franchises afloat with revenue sharing have little to no chance of landing a real superstar in the draft. The stars instead end up on the very franchises teams like the Habs help support. It's not fair for the players either, who end up being little better than indentured servants to whatever crap team that picks them.

I've had ideas for changing the draft format allowing each team to protect one player from its geographically allotted "development zone" before the draft starts, then continuing with the first round as usual. I've also thought of making the draft a lottery every year. Every team's name would go into the drum and the draft order would be randomly selected so every team has the same chance to draft a superstar. Sure, the worst team in the league wouldn't get the best player every year, and sometimes a team like Detroit would get richer. But the overall effect would be to help permanently mid-range teams get better. Without the chance to draft high, that won't happen for many the Habs.

But lately I've been thinking, why have a draft at all? I love the stories of the "living room wars" from the forties and fifties, when scouts had to work the prospect's parents and often had to get really creative to convince a player to sign a contract. I'd like to see that come back. If a player wants to play for the Canadiens or the leafs or the Devils, why shouldn't he have the chance to do so? If a Swedish kid is undecided, but the Habs' European scout can convince his parents that Montreal is the right place for him, why can't he try to do that? I like the idea that a team can develop hometown loyalty by grooming kids in its own backyard, then sign them when they grow up.

People complain about the loss of the Canadiens' francophone identity. The draft is directly responsible for that. If the Habs had had the chance to woo Mario Lemieux or Vincent Lecavalier and sign them, does anyone think those players would have chosen to go to Pittsburgh or Tampa instead? Of course not. They would have likely signed with the hometown team that supported them through their minor league days and for which all their friends and families cheered.

There are those who'd argue that giving teams free rein to court and sign any player they can will set up a bias in favour of teams based in fertile hockey development regions. I think, so what? Why shouldn't the places that love hockey and actually play hockey get to keep their local players close to home? Why should they have to go keep the Florida Panthers afloat instead of playing hockey where it should be played? If it comes down to Toronto and Montreal for the Cup every year because the best players in the world choose to sign with their favourite teams, so be it. Maybe that's the way it should be.

So, I say, dump the draft. Abandon awarding the best players to teams that tank for years. It's not good enough and it's not fair for the cities that develop hockey players and see them play out their pro careers as a "Lightning."


DB said...

Why stop at just eliminating the draft? Why not go whole hog and make every player a free agent when their contract expires. After all this is the way it works for GMs, coaches, and everyone else but the players.

V said...

I respectfully disagree. A lottery might be worth consideration, but dropping the draft seems daft.

The draft serves several purposes. It's hype for the league, allows weaker teams to compensate for the future (in its current form), and, most importantly, it protects the players.

Most of the draft starts are just kids. What you're suggesting would allow a family or kid could have their arms bent to sign onto an unscrupulous agent/team.

Anonymous said...

Your argument against the entry draft is in agreement with a previous comment that I made on this blog.

DB: Removing all free market restrictions on player movement probably won't happen until the NHLPA (Players' Union) and the League stop antagonizing each other.

V: If you think that the draft protects the players, read Future Greats and Heartbreaks, by Gare Joyce; I read the book after reading about it on this blog. In summary, most of the NHL teams view the young players as commodities. Joyce tries to tap into the players' minds to access crucial information that should shape draft decisions, but his methods are mostly ignored by scouts.

As I said in my earlier comment, the draft will not disappear. The NHL and then NHLPA seem satisfied with the way things are. As J.T. points out, revenue sharing keeps parasitic teams alive, and so there is no motivation to change anything. And that's what franchises like Phoenix and Carolina are: parasites.

Topic suggestion: do organizations like Toronto and Montreal need the NHL, or is it the other way around?

J.T. said...

Ed: I've discussed that topic at least a little in an earlier post, when I pointed out that the Canadiens have power. Unfortunately, they choose not to exercise that power to better their lot within the league. I think they won't improve from being a middle-of-the-road franchise unless they do.

punkster said...

J.T...never gave it much thought before but I think it may come down to parity. Overall I'd rather see league with 30 teams all playing a similar high quality game. No real dogs...on paper. The difference would then come from the teams who want to win whether it be individual games or division titles or playoff series or the cup. Now, while the present system should be good enough to handle that, maybe a hybrid of your suggestion would also work (partial lottery for the top 10 picks only, open for the rest). The whole issue is worth discussion.

E said...

while i respect the spirit of your theory, i think there's a lot to be said for the formals structure of a draft, however the picks are distributed. a complete free-for-all signing policy for young players would still have to have rules (i.e. a minimum age, an maximum entry level contract, etc), but i suspect that- especially where potential superstars are concerned- 'creativity' could and eventually would, in some cases, slip into uglier things like coercion or bribery. hockey-talented kids already attract a lot of hangers-on, and not every adviser/agent/family friend/parent is a scrupulous person with only the kid's best interests at heart. more importantly, most 18-year-old hockey players don't have the kind of knowledge (legal, financial) or experience to weigh the kind of competing offers they'd get without a lot of help from exactly such people. the 40's and 50's may have produced a lot of good stories, but they also produced a lot of players who felt (later) that they'd been exploited and/or manipulated by their teams. the virtue of the draft is that it's a very transparent, objective, rule-bound process. i hate to imagine the workload of the agency charged with maintaining legal/procedural standards of any sort in a free-for-all signing league.

DB said...

While I think the only rule you would need with all 18 year olds being free agents is the salary cap, I think the chances of the draft being eliminated are about the same of hockey being the number one sport in the south.

Now if the real concern is that some teams decide to be bad for a few years so that they can stock up on top draft choices then there is a simpler solution. The teams that orignally picked in the top ten (look at the list before any trade of draft picks) in last years draft pick in the bottom ten spots (21 to 30)in this years draft.

I would have the team that picked first last year get the 30th pick this year and the team that picked 10th last year pick 21st this year.

Picks 1 to 20 would be assigned to the teams based on the reverse order of how they finished the regular season. A lottery could still be used to assign spots 1 to 5 for the bottom five teams.

This method would let teams in the middle get a shot at the top talent and it would reduce the reward to teams that decide to tank for a few years in order to stock up on top talent. My guess is that this method would also gain support from several of the GMs.

Anonymous said...

As we watch Detroit face Pittsburgh again in the Stanley Cup finals, I wonder how people can still talk about the salary cap, the entry draft, and parity. Hossa signed at less than market value. The team is filled with draft picks that were not from the first round. How important is the salary cap and the entry draft to Detroit?

I'm disappointed to see concern for the legal ramifications in making any changes to the way the NHL works. Imagine an 18-year old Canadian wants to join the armed forces. Should the Army, Navy, and RCAF have the right to draft him based on their needs, or should the recruit get to choose which branch he'll join?

How about universities and colleges? Should the country's worst school get to select the top high school graduate for that year? You know, so that there's parity among schools.

Professional sports teams are treated like magical entities, exempt from normal business practices. The entry draft doesn't protect anyone or anything, other than preventing young players from being able to work for other companies (teams). It's a racket.

How would you like to be the top goalie in your cohort, drafted by a team stacked with professional and prospective goaltenders? Your employer refuses to play you, and they won't trade you because you could hurt them by performing well on another team. Years are lost languishing in the AHL. You can't honestly tell me that this scenario never happens.

J.T. said...

Interesting comments, you guys.

@E: There's no doubt there are unscrupulous parents/agents/scouts/hangers-on in the lives of young hockey players. But I'm not sure the draft protects them from those types of people. There's nothing stopping unscrupulous types from attaching themselves to players even after they're drafted. In the meantime, there are certainly rules that could be put in place to protect players without a draft. Even a minimum contract duration of two years would help. If a player made an error in judgement, it wouldn't cost him his career in that case.

@Ed: I agree the draft system turns players into indentured servants. It's interesting that historically, the length of indentured servitude was seven years...the same amount of time a player has to give his draft team before he's eligible for free agency. There's no reason why players shouldn't be free to choose their own employers. In fact, the idea that adults...even young ones...can't do so is a fairly medieval idea.

@DB: I really like your idea. Shift the draft order around by year so everyone gets a shot at the good players. Sounds fair to me!