Monday, May 29, 2023

Parity Charity


    So, you're a team in a rebuild. Your Stanley Cup window is closed, your prospect pool is thin and you're vying for a lottery pick in the draft. There's a lot of work to do, and the experts say building from within, with in-house-developed youth on cap-friendly contracts, is the way to fix your team.
    But what if there's another way?
    What if the worst team in the NHL's regular season could opt to draft first overall OR trade in the bulk of its roster and do an expansion draft?
    GMs say drafting and developing players is the way to go...yet the five-year-old Vegas Golden Knights are about to win their sixth playoff round and make their first appearance in the Cup Final. The two-year-old Seattle Kraken have won as many playoff series as the Original Six Toronto Maple Leafs have in the last twenty years.
    If you think about it, it makes sense. Building a team through the draft involves years of choosing good junior players and hoping they develop into good pros. That process may also include a string of losing seasons, management shakeups, coaching changes and prospects who turn out to be busts.  It involves careful salary cap management and contract juggling. An expansion draft, on the other hand, features established players other teams have already developed and who have played in the NHL already, so the wait-and-see-how-they-turn-out aspect of team building is eliminated.
    Within the rules of the expansion draft there's an exclusive window for a team to speak with pending free agents before anybody else does. That would be helpful in attracting a star player or two to build a new roster, especially when your salary cap is wide open.
    Existing NHL teams can only protect eight skaters and one goalie, or seven forwards, three defencemen and a goalie in an expansion draft. The rules say of the players exposed, each team must make available one defenceman and two forwards who are under contract for the coming season and have played at least 40 NHL games. They must also expose a goalie who's under contract or will be an RFA at the end of his deal. That leaves a huge number of decent-to-good players available for the plucking. If you have a solid front office in place, management has the potential to build a competitive team right away. There'd be no worries about a high draft pick not panning out, or figuring out how to fit a star player into a tight cap situation or hoping your amateur scouting staff knows what they're doing. 
    It wouldn't be cheap, though. The other teams in the league would have an opportunity to claim any unprotected players from your roster, with a similar priority given to lower-ranking teams as claiming players on waivers. Any players left unclaimed would have to have their contracts paid out in full and become free agents. If you have a bunch of players with no-movement or no-trade clauses, you'd be stuck with them. They'd have to be your protected players, so it would encourage GMs to avoid those clauses.
    In the end, it'd be like poker. You keep the good card and throw in the duds for a new hand. You may end up with a pair of threes, but you could also score a royal flush. 
    One thing's for sure: building through the draft may or may not get you to the promised land after years of trial and error. Evidence seems to show an expansion draft gives you a whole lot better chance at winning in a much shorter time frame. While Gary Bettman gifts rich expansion team owners with the most favourable team-building option possible, it's only fair established teams should have a chance to follow suit.
    With that opportunity available, now you're a team in a rebuild looking at a chance to kick-start the process and bring your fans a show worth watching in a much shorter time frame. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Money and Morality


The NHL has a bear problem. 
    No, it's not the Big, Bad, Greatest-of-all-Time Bruins getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs. It's the bigger, badder, more problematic Russian bear and, as the league is unlikely to ban players from a specific country just because it's involved in an illegal invasion of its neighbour, each NHL team will have to decide: What do we do about the Russians?
    It's not an easy question to answer. Naturally, not every Russian or Belarussian hockey player is going to be pro-war, homophobic, contemptuous of the West that pays his big salary or a Vladimir Putin ally. Yet, Alex Ovechkin, the greatest Russian player of all time, proudly displays a photo of himself with Putin on his social media. All-Star Evgeni Malkin is on the record supporting Putin's policies and claiming Russia must defend itself because it has no friends in the West. Russian players, including the Habs' Denis Gurianov, refused to wear Pride Night jerseys this year, in part they said because of concern about reprisals for family members back in Russia where anti-gay laws are in force.
    The truth is, Russia is very different from other countries whose citizens make up the majority of NHL players. It's an authoritarian regime involved in a cruel genocide in Ukraine. Enemies of the state fall from balconies or are poisoned abroad. It's a place that dresses its school children in quasi-military uniforms and teaches them it's an honour to die for the Fatherland. It's a country run by a megalomaniac and his favoured oligarchs who feed their people lies about the West's evil intentions toward Russia, while living large in European mansions and luxury yachts themselves. In an environment ripe for breeding blackmail, embezzlement and physical threats.
    It's also a country that produces some of the best hockey players in the world. Thus, the aforementioned bear problem.

    An NHL team's first priority is to win hockey games and satisfy the fans who pay good money to see those wins.
    So, when the draft comes around, a team obviously wants to take the best player possible. But, what if the best player available is a Russian with a KHL contract?
    That's the situation the Canadiens may find themselves in next month. Choosing at number five overall, there's a decent chance Russian winger Matvei Michkov will be available. The kid's talent is undeniable, and he could be a valuable part of a future championship team. His nationality, however, raises a lot of questions. Will he break his KHL contract early, or will his draft team have to wait three years to get him? Will he come to North America at all, if the KHL decides to woo him with big money and privileges? Will he end up drafted to fight in Russia's war? If he does come over, will he be free or will he be susceptible to threats or bribes from forces back home? What impact has a childhood of Russian state propaganda had on the formation of his character? And perhaps the most important question of all: Is it morally right to make deals with Russians while their country is committing war crimes?
    Other sports, including the Olympics (sort of), have disqualified Russian athletes because of their nation's actions. Hockey, though, has been willing to overlook all that as long as the player in question can help a team win and keep the gate turning over. The same is true of North Americans who sign contracts to play in the KHL. They're willing to work for warmongers as long as the money's good.
    The problem with that is, by ignoring the political and social reality of what's happening in Russia hockey is giving tacit approval to the country's war and corruption. Just look at the betting craze happening in the NHL right now. How much of a reach is it to imagine Russian interests who stand to make a bunch of money on gambling pressuring Russian players to fall in line?


    The big question is, of course, whether there's room for scruples in a cut-throat pro sports environment. If one team decides there is and operates accordingly, it's easy enough for another team without the same standards to hire a problematic, but talented, player and get a leg up on the opposition. Having standards can limit the options a GM has when filling out his lineup. But having standards can also go a long way in re-establishing a team's reputation for being classy, which is a draw in itself.
    In the end, some team will absolutely pick Michkov in one of the top spots in this year's draft. Whether it's the Canadiens will say a lot about management's willingness to overlook moral objections in favour of winning hockey games. They made that choice in drafting Logan Mailloux and immediately were castigated for picking a guy who'd committed a criminal act. 
    So, Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes will have a lot more than the usual soul searching to do this draft day. And their choice will tell us a lot about how far they're willing to go to win.