Sunday, 26 August 2012

Should the NHL do away with the guaranteed contracts?

I see some discussion on giving teams more latitude in buying out players who don't necessarily live up to their high salaries.  While superficially it might make sense, philosophically I don't support this change.

I think in this new era of concussion awareness and knee microfracture surgery, the guaranteed contract is a reasonable, almost necessary precaution and advantage for the players.  The beatings these guys take every season is incredible, and I don't want the NHL to pattern itself after the NFL with its draconian system.

I think it was former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue who described non-guaranteed contracts as "fan insurance" which made it so that their ticket money went to performing players, and not malingerers, but there are huge moral flaws in that system.  One is that a lot of these players gave and give their all, but accumulated injuries prevent them from being able to play at the level that the team finds satisfactory.  These players are cut with little remorse.

Often, a player does produce at an adequate level, but is still replaced by younger cheaper player who is not quite as good or beloved by the fans, but allows the team a strategic advantage in terms of the cap.  Now the fans suffer as they watch a loyal favourite walk the plank and a less-talented rookie enters the meat grinder.

My main objection to the NFL way and its contracts is that they are in effect 'one-way', and not in the NHL sense.  The contracts bind one party to a much greater degree than the other.  Indeed, a player who outperforms his contract and plays at a level much higher than his compensation would predict or merit is stuck playing out the string.  Various mechanisms prevent a holdout or renegotiation.  Loyal soldiers like Jacksonville Jaguar Maurice Jones Drew, who is vastly under-compensated compared to his production and historic contribution to the team, is left twisting in the wind when he requests that his salary match his market value.

Conversely, the team can cut a player and walk away if the player doesn't live up to expectations.  They have an 'injury settlement' process where a player who isn't able to perform, because of an injury suffered while fulfilling his contract, is offered a lump sum to walk away.  Effectively, a worker who is injured on the job is cast away for his injury.  So what we have is a contract that's as morally bankrupt as a cell phone carrier 'contract', where one party is bound by various strictures, and enjoys no advantages or freedoms of its own.

From a fan perspective, the San Diego Chargers situation at left tackle is instructive.  Marcus McNeill was a veteran Pro Bowl player who diligently, ably protected Philip Rivers' blind side.  Two seasons ago, he started developing neck pain from the repetitive contact he was subjected to.  He was diagnosed with an injury that eventually forced him to retire this summer, but not before the Chargers had cut him and saved themselves a few mill.

In his place, the Chargers plugged in career malcontent Jared Gaither, a chronically injured player who suffers various strains and pulls, stuff that doesn't show up in an X-ray.  He was cut by the Ravens and Chiefs last season and was a free agent when the Chargers pulled him in off the street to fill the void created by Mr. McNeill's injury.  Sure enough, while trying to earn a contract, Mr. Gaither's play was stellar.  He received a four-year guaranteed contract this off-season and promptly went in the tank.  Fans are now writing off this season, seeing Mr. Gaither as the player who will get Philip Rivers killed, and eagerly looking forward to next season's draft when the team can cut him and go back to the well and draft a talented rookie to fill the LT spot.

So we saw that in Mr. McNeill's case, he deserves to receive every dime of his contract but the team cut ties with him.  In Jared Gaither's case, the system will probably do its job and protect the fans when he is let go with only the guaranteed portion of his contract paid out.

In most cases though, it's the players that bite the bullet.  Again last season on the Chargers O-line we saw All-Pro Kris Dielman, a man who was voted on the Chargers 50th Anniversary Team for his stellar play at left guard, suffer a career-ending injury.  During a game against the Jets, he was visibly staggered and dazed after suffering a concussion, but he waved off inquiries and assured everyone he was fine, and played through the end of the game.  On the plane ride home, he suffered a series of seizures which terrified his teammates, and was forced to retire as a result.  His being a warrior, which was lauded by TV analysts, led to the end of his career.

Now will the Chargers use the money they save for the benefit of the fans?  Will they invest it into building themselves a new stadium, for example?  Of course not.  The Chargers have been wrangling with the city of San Diego and a succession of mayors over the years, trying to get the taxpayers to defray the majority of the $1B in costs, with the threat of leaving for Los Angeles always in the air.  If the San Diego citizens ante in and buy the Chargers a new stadium so they can rake in luxury suite dough, and even though Jack Murphy stadium is still sound and could easily be maintained and used for another twenty or thirty years, what guarantees do they have?  If the Chargers don't perform, can they cut off their payments to the Spanos family?  Can they walk away from the deal?

We see how one-sided the NFL can be when we look at the nickel and dime operation of the Cincinnati Bengals.  The owner Mike Brown, who inherited this public trust from his father and endeavoured to run it into the ground, runs the team on a shoestring, having the most meager resources in scouting and coaching and training staff, but somehow has managed to find Director or VP jobs for all of his idiot sons and daughters and nephews.  The people of Cincinnati meanwhile have built his team a palace in what is widely described as the worst example of public stadium financing in the country.  In return they get to watch a team that has become as much of a joke and symbol of hopelessness and futility to its own fans as the Toronto Maple Leafs.

So we can see that the 'Lord of the Flies' ethos of the NFL is mostly not for the benefit of the fans but rather the owners, and we shouldn't support the same approach in the NHL.  We'll have the same problems, in that players will hide injuries to avoid being cut, and players who are diligent and honest will be bounced when they suffer through a down year.  What would happen with players like Eric Lindros and Marc Savard in any new buyout system is open to question.

Instead of trying to find ways around the long-term guaranteed contracts that they were only too happy to offer, NHL owners should work to make qualitative changes to enhance player safety, protect their investments and make the game a joy to play and watch rather than a slog.  Get players like Colton Orr and John Scott out of the game.  Severely rein in the latitude of players and refs so that guys like Steve Downie and Dan Carcillo focus on hockey rather than tomfoolery and stabbings.  Limit the contact in the game to actual attempts to separate the puck carriers from the puck, rather than the 'finishing your check' ethos that rewards the slow-footed, talentless players who always get there a second too late.  Predicate the game in the direction of skilled players: tilt the ice in the direction of Daniel Sedin, instead of turning a blind eye to Brad Marchand.

Changes such as these will limit the unnecessarily high number of injuries, might energize players like Alex Semin to play to the level of their talent if they don't have to be cross-checked in the neck for doing so, and would make the game more spectacular and grow revenues to previously unthinkable heights.  Owners might find that instead of scraping the couch cushions for mean savings, they could instead get paid by grateful fans.

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