Sunday, May 1st, 2016

Business as Usual


James Mirtle has a good piece on the realignment issue, and the NHLPA decision to put the kibosh on Gary Bettman’s realignment plan. Most of the pundits – paid and unpaid – have interpreted the story as an opening salvo in an upcoming collective bargaining war with Donald Fehr and the players firing the first shot. Mirtle avoids drawing that conclusion and the result is an article that is worth reading. I don’t think Donald Fehr saw any connection between this issue and the CBA negotiations when the players shot down Bettman’s plan.

First, it isn’t clear that the new alignment will actually reduce travel. The league claimed that it would when selling their plan, but they don’t really know. After the NHLPA asked some questions, the league ran some tests that produced some surprising results. In the test runs Vancouver traveled more miles after realignment than before. Winnipeg – Winnipeg! – travelled more miles under the new setup.

(I think this is very interesting. Canuck fans are told travel will be reduced with every realignment, but the schedule never seems to improve. I suspect that geography has a huge impact on travel, alignment has a small impact.)

Second – and surely far, far more important – the playoff disparity is a very big issue. It did not become a big issue with the fans because it was sloughed off when the plan was introduced and most fans ignore things like probabilities. But half the players in the larger divisions will make the playoffs while 57% of the players in the small divisions make them. It is better to be a player in the small division and it is better to be a fan of a small division team. The playoff structure is inherently unfair and there really isn’t any way to fix it short of adding (or contracting) two teams.

Those are legitimate concerns and they would be legitimate concerns whether the CBA was expiring or not. The league heard these concerns, but did not change anything in the plan. Why? Because no other ideas could get enough votes on the Board. Moving Nashville, Detroit or Columbus to the East would draw no resistance from the NHLPA, but Gary Bettman could not get 20 votes for any of the simple – and more or less fair – solutions.

A Divisional setup makes a great deal of sense and solves some real business problems. But it doesn’t work unless all the Divisions are the same size. With 30 teams it is a lousy answer because there is no fair playoff format. The Governors voted for an unfair playoff structure because they cannot agree as to which Western team should be moved to the East. I can imagine Bettman’s final exhortation selling his lousy answer to the board:

“We have to do something or we look like idiots. We’ll pass this and sell it as something wonderful. If the players go along we’ll make more money and we won’t look stupid because we can’t agree on anything more sensible. If the players kill it – as they probably will if we ignore all their objections to it – we keep the status quo and the Union gets blamed for getting in the way of something that we can say was sure to be wonderful. That isn’t a bad solution from where I sit.”

If this series of events also screws Winnipeg and the rest of the Southeast, well, them’s the breaks for a handful of the the least powerful teams in the league. An opening salvo in a labour war?

Nah. Just business as usual in the NHL.

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9 Responses to “Business as Usual”
  1. Art says:

    My only thought about re-alignment is that if Detroit moves to the east, the Western Conference will all but be forgotten back east.

    • Tom says:

      Which is why Detroit can’t find 20 votes. All of the arguments in favour of Detroit moving are a waste of time. There are 14 other Western teams that vote “No” every time.

      I’m not sure, really, why a Nashville move can’t get 20 votes though. Most Western teams won’t care and while the Eastern teams would prefer the Wings, losing Atlanta and gaining Nashville seems to me to be at worse a wash for Eastern teams. Nashville might not like the idea.

      I guess it is that once the realignment can of worms is opened, all the old grievances – Dallas, Columbus, Detroit, late night TV games, rivalries, and travel – get put on the table and NHL owners are not mature enough to put aside self interest and solve their political problems.

  2. Thomas says:

    I think they will eventually settle on the four conference plan, but add some sort of a Wild Card or crossover element to the playoff qualification structure. I’m not sure to what degree they can even out the odds of making the playoffs between smaller and larger conferences, and I’m really not sure about the validity of comparing point totals between conferences if most of the play is within the conference. But it’ll be sold as a way to add some spice to the final weeks of the season and some variety to the first round of the playoffs.

    I also kind of agree with Friedman’s suggestion of a couple of weeks ago that the uneven conferences were designed with expansion to Quebec City and suburban Toronto in mind.

  3. Tom says:

    I think they will eventually settle on the four conference plan, but add some sort of a Wild Card or crossover element to the playoff qualification structure.

    I don’t think the problem can be eliminated. They could twin a large division and a small division and have the top eight qualify despite the schedule inequities. It could still be unfair because teams play different quality of opponents but at least that inequity would be cyclical. This inequity favours the same teams year after year.

    I also kind of agree with Friedman’s suggestion of a couple of weeks ago that the uneven conferences were designed with expansion to Quebec City and suburban Toronto in mind.

    I agree that the vision back when they added the last four teams was 32 teams and those are the two best places to stick an NHL team today. But I don’t think the league can consider expanding in the current environment. There are too many teams in trouble and loans secured by sports franchises are too hard to find. Today, 28 teams might be more feasible.

    • speeds says:

      There would still be schedule inequities, without question. How unequal the schedules would really be, I don’t know. Enough to skew things by a few points, possibly, sure, but everyone in the league would have 58 common games (well, they’d play everyone but themselves twice for a total of 58).

      How many common games do teams in the same conference have now?

  4. J in O says:

    I don’t know what the fuss is about with regards to making the playoffs. Since the Pacific conference will have Edmonton in it and the Central conference will have Winnipeg in it, there are only 7 teams competing in those conferences for playoff spots.

  5. Darrell says:

    Tom, I believe that you mistaken in your take on this. While the media believes that the NHLPA rejection was the start of the CBA (and you are suggesting it hasn’t started), I actually believe that the realignment plan itself was the opening move of the CBA negotiations (and not in some minor feud point, but as a really big issue).

    I believe this to be the case based on the likely path that the next CBA negotiation is going to take. If we look at the recent NFL and NBA negotiations:

    NFL old CBA: players got 60% of revenues, new CBA, 47-48.5%
    NBA old CBA: players got 57% of revenues, new CBA, 50-51%
    However, in both cases, the PA got the definition of “revenues” made more favourable (for example, the old NFL CBA took the actual revenues and subtracted $1 Billion before calculating the 60%, this is no longer the case).

    If we look at the NHL, players currently get 57% of revenues, which you can certainly believe that the NHL is going to reduce (and based on the competitors, the NHLPA is going to have hard time avoiding some sort of reduction). However, at the same time, the NHLPA is going to fight to increase what is counted as “revenue”. I think that the next CBA is virtually guaranteed to be of this form, decreased revenue % vs an expanded definition of revenue.

    So, if we take the next CBA to be of this form, what revenue is the NHLPA currently not getting that they would like? While I am sure they have a laundry list of minor items, the most obvious and biggest carrot is relocation and expansion revenues, which is currently 100% kept by the NHL owners. This is where the new “realignment” comes into play as the opening salvo by the NHL.

    First, we look at the playoff structure, which is of course one of the 2 reasons given by the PA for rejecting the realignment. Why didn’t they create two conferences with 2 divisions (one of 7 teams, one of 8)? I believe the reason is clearly because they plan to add 2 more teams, and this makes it trivial to do so (you just add a team to each of the two 7 team conferences, and then split each conference into 2 divisions). Now, I do believe that part of the reason both Eastern Conferences were 7 teams was in part to secure votes from those teams, I believe the expansion plans is the true reason. This is made more obvious to me with how perfect a 4 conference, 8 division 32 team league schedule works:

    3 division opponents x 6 games each for 18 games total
    4 conference opponents x 4 games each for 16 games total
    24 non-conference opponents x 2 games each for 48 games total

    Which produces a perfect 82 game schedule.

    So, to me, it is clear that the NHL’s realignment was designed with expansion, in mind, and designed to tell the NHLPA that, and that the NHL wants to continue to keep all relocation and expansion revenues, which is to me, the clearly the first . The NHLPA rejection is telling the NHL that they want a cut of said revenue.

    This to me is even more clear due to the NHLPA’s silence over what is to me the most important (at least to them) reason for the realignment, namely, that is should generate more revenue for the league (and hence the NHLPA). The business argument for alignment by time zone, as done in this realignment, are to me, quite compelling, and I am sure that the NHLPA is aware of this as well.

    • Tom says:

      You make some good points, but I can’t agree with the conclusion.

      The problem with the argument is that it presumes there are 32 viable NHL markets in North America. I don’t think they can expand as long as teams keep going bankrupt. You mention the only two places left that look decent and the league might need those markets for more relocations. They have to do something with Phoenix and somebody is covering losses in New Jersey. I don’t think either the league or the NHLPA thinks expansion is on the horizon.


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