Sunday, March 11, 2012

You can't keep a good man down...or can you?

Justin Bourne published an interesting piece this past week asking whether NHL GMs and coaches ever consciously suppress the point-scoring opportunities of their players to keep costs down at contract time.

It's a little sorry to consider: would a team actually choose not to put its best players on the ice to save a buck? Generally, I think most of us would think that teams would avoid it, not wanting to mess with a player's development or alienate their rising stars.

Certainly, we've seen it in the past in baseball; the famous 1918 'Black Sox' scandal was partly prompted by Charles Comiskey's decision to hold Eddie Cicotte back to prevent him from getting a bonus for winning 30 games the year before. But those were the bad old days, before players' unions and any sort of grievance process. To make such actions work today, teams would have to be much more careful.

So is hockey free from such contract manipulation for the most part? No. Teams regularly hold back players who are good enough to play more.

It happens most often in the handling of entry-level players: under the CBA, teams have the option to 'slide' players on entry-level contracts and defer their RFA status by a year. Players can be sent back to junior or held in the AHL; so long as they don't play ten or more NHL games, their contract doesn't start to run. Most of the time, holding these players back is a perfectly legitimate action; they might be too small, or the team might want them to get a lot of ice time at a lower level so they can develop their skills. But every year, there are some players - Mark Scheifele this year is one example - who might be able to handle the NHL game but are sent down because teams want to avoid starting the service clock.

We see this, of course, in baseball as well. Case in point: Brett Lawrie waited in AAA for much of the 2011 season while the Blue Jays played a series of .200 hitters at third base. Lawrie came up, and put up big numbers as expected. While the Blue Jays stated that they thought Lawrie needed some time to work on his defense (and recover from an injury), his biggest problem was more that he would cost the team a lot more in arbitration if they allowed his service clock to start running too soon. Both the NHL's 'sliding' rule and MLB's 'super-two' arbitration rules deprive teams and fans of the services of players who are good enough to play.

As for the situations that Bourne discusses in his article, though, I'm not so sure. He wonders if players like Jordan Staal and Sam Gagner could be held back to avoid big contract paydays. Generally, my experience has shown that there's usually a fair bit of distance between management and the coaching staff. While GMs might want to restrain a player, coaches are looking out for their own necks and trying to win. If they leave a good player on the bench, coaches are hurting themselves. It's one thing if a player is in the minors; but if Sam Gagner gets benched in the third period of a big game, fans will notice and everyone looks bad. It's much easier for a team to deflect PR flak for players in the minors because they can always be referred to as 'needing more development time'.

Further to Bourne's points, the lineup decisions are typically dictated by other factors anyway. While Staal could play on the wing with Crosby or Malkin, the Penguins recognize that he's very strong defensively, and so does everyone else. Come contract time, I think there's little doubt Staal will be paid fairly. Besides, he's so good as a centre that it has made more sense to move Malkin to the wing instead.

As for Gagner, he has played on the top line, but when Nugent-Hopkins is healthy, he's a clear second choice. Even with RNH in the lineup, he has seen 1st-unit PP time anyway. Judging from the Oilers' decisions to keep Hall and RNH in the NHL as 18-year-olds (and thus missing out on the chance to 'slide' their contracts), it's clear that they aren't aiming to pull a fast one. The team has a vested interest in showcasing their future stars sooner rather than later. Edmonton fans will only tolerate losing for so long before they get a glimpse of the future. Playing the best players will mean more ticket sales, more jersey sales, and better TV ratings. The Oilers are a losing team but they're fun to watch even for someone like myself who cheers for a rival. It's the same reason teams will make a public push to get their players chosen for the All-Star game or given an end-of-season award. As much as we like to focus on the salary cap side of things, teams are running a business and part of that is generating excitement among the fans.

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