Bill Simmons is as well known a generalist in sports writing as there exists; long-time ESPN contributor, editor-in-chief of Grantland, getter-of-massive-figures-like-commissioners for his podcast, he’s a bit of the everyman, even if his level of access is anything but common. Not a former athlete or general manager, not a specialist; just a former blogger who writes about sports from a fan’s perspective while achieving that tricky balance of humor and authority. He’s sort of the sports blogger equivalent of the musician who gets picked out of obscurity to become a rock star.
He’s also getting into hockey (moreso). With the NBA lockout, the epic collapse of the Red Sox, and football being football (meaning, obscenely well covered already) he’s watching some Kings games. And he’s been writing down some great ideas. So, prompted by this article, I thought I’d take a few minutes to highlight those I think would benefit the NHL the most.
1) Shorten the season and have a week-long tournament for the eighth seed.
The atom bomb. This one’s a game changer. Here it is in a nutshell: Only the top seven seeds in each conference get into the playoffs. All remaining teams, whether eighth or 15th, play a round-robin tournament for the eighth seed. This requires the league to drop the already-too-long NHL season from 82 games to maybe 76 or something, which frankly is overdue considering how long the playoffs are (and how weak late-season hockey tends to be). It adds a week of ultra-fun, winner-suddenly-gets-in-hockey. And it prevents tanking for draft picks. Imagine your team toiling in 14th (ahem, Ottawa) only to suddenly get hot at the right time and, after a few epic wins, find themselves in the playoffs? It would send just the right message about never taking contention for granted, and about competing all year long. And the ratings for that week long tourney would be absolutely bananas. You’d have a huge spike in ticket sales for those down-and-out markets. You’d reward seventh-and-higher seeds with a week’s rest before the playoff grind. You would create an instant underdog favorite. (Imagine a team like the Islanders winning a few games in a row in the last week of the season to jump from 13th to eighth, re-energize and suddenly have to take on a well-rested but rusty Washington in the first round. How could you not root for them at that point?) And it’s absolutely the only way the Columbus Blue Jackets will ever return to the big dance. (Just kidding. [Not kidding.]) In a league that already has all sorts of parity, it would be the ultimate “anyone can make it” gesture, and it would be a hell of a lot of fun. This is a Nobel Prize idea.
2) Larry Bird Clause, kinda
When it comes to a pending UFA, allow the team who drafted the player (should he still be with that team) to offer more money than competitors. This allows small markets to keep their stars – if they’re willing to pay for them – and gets us out of this whole ridiculous “we just couldn’t get a deal done” parlance. This is a little bit less obvious in hockey than in basketball, because there’s a league max per player in hockey but no one in the league, even its biggest stars, comes anywhere close to it (there’s always some chatter about the next big UFA getting a league max deal, and inevitably he’ll sign the nice secure long-term deal with a reasonable or only-slightly-unreasonable cap hit around $7M); theoretically, small markets already can outbid other teams – if they have the cash – by just going league max, AKA officially insane. They don’t because you have to sign 20 guys in hockey, and Kovalchuk can’t play goaltender.
The solution is to create artificial cash advantages. Limit the maximum bid allowed by competitors on a UFA. So, to use Kovalchuk again, all other markets would not be allowed to offer more than, say, $7 million a year (in the highest paying year of the deal), and Atlanta (R.I.P.) could have offered more than $7M, up to league max. This also removes the unofficial but totally real advantage large market teams have and use when they bury contracts in the minors or overseas in order to dish out for today’s big UFA. Oh, and only allow the drafting franchise one Larry Bird Clause per UFA period. Which means Nashville is still boned when Weber, Suter and Rinne come up for new contracts after this year.
3) Incentives for players who outperform
The two above ideas would be a tough sell to the players’ union. They limit the maximum payout to the league’s stars and not-really-stars. (How will Brain Campbell put food on the table without Dale Tallon having every opportunity to make him the next okay player with an elite player’s paycheque?) And they encourage teams to spend less, load up on stars at the deadline, and then try to run the table during the round-robin tourney rather than spend all season long on salaries. Here’s a bone thrown the other way: bonuses to players who outperform their contract expectation and, here’s the key, bonuses which don’t count against the cap. You can argue we already have bonuses, but they do count against the cap. It’s also not spectacular for a player like Sean Bergenheim to outperform expectation by scoring, like, five goals. How about for contracts in excess of $5 million there’s an automatic superstar provision wherein the player earns more if they win a major award, or land in the top ten in their respective categories? You’re telling me a team will complain about having to shell out an extra million or two if 1) they have a player on their team good enough to win the Art Ross? And 2) they have the advantage of the Larry Bird Clause, which allows them to keep all of their players OR if bidding on a non-drafted UFA to get them for only up to $7M?
So there you go: three solid ideas to improve upon an already improving league.
BONUS IDEA (this one is mine)
Trade Sergei Gonchar to the Rangers for Wade Redden and their 1st and 3rd round picks. They save $5.5M overall, get an actual NHL player (sorta), and we get a defenceman who might feel like he has something to prove and has a positive history with the city, and some picks. New York would have to figure out the cap, and Gonchar isn’t going to waive his no trade if they plan on stashing him in the minors, but I dunno…get an analyst to put some scenarios in a Word document and email it to Sather.
Oh, and no-touch icing for Christ’s sake.