Hockey fans had a reason to smile this week. A pro sports league was facing down the threat of a labour disruption while working to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, and for once it wasn’t the NHL.
That ended last night, when word emerged that Major League Baseball and its union had reached a tentative deal. The league’s CBA had been set to expire at midnight last night, threatening to cancel the annual winter meetings and other off-season activities, and disrupt a labour peace that stretches back over two decades.
So no, hockey fans, yours isn’t the only sport that goes through this stuff. Still, the timing is interesting, coming in the midst of what seems like the first salvo of the hockey world’s next big showdown. The NHL’s offer to extend the CBA in exchange for Olympic participation sure seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to set up the NHLPA to take the blame for a 2020 work stoppage, and it will be interesting to see if fans fall for it. Either way, the pieces are starting to move around the board, even four years before hockey’s next lockout begins.
Meanwhile, hockey fans yearning for the good old days of analyzing CBA minutiae can get their fix by turning to baseball, where the expiring MLB agreement and the reported replacement hold some interesting ideas. Not all of them apply to hockey – one of baseball’s biggest sticking points was an international draft that the NHL wouldn’t need, for example. But many could, if the NHL wanted to get creative.
So as we wait patiently for hockey’s next CBA apocalypse, let’s flip through baseball’s recent versions and see if there’s anything that the NHL could borrow from the boys of summer.
IDEA #1: FREE AGENT COMPENSATION PICKS
One of the most contentious issues in recent MLB CBAs has been draft pick compensation for free agents. Introduced in the 1970s and modified over subsequent agreements, the concept calls for teams that lose players to free agency to be compensated with draft picks. Those picks could come from the signing team or from the league itself (or both), and depend on the quality of the player lost. But in its simplest form, the idea is to compensate teams that lose free agents, avoiding the worst-case scenario of watching a key player walk away for nothing in return.
It’s worth pointing out that MLB players don’t like the rule, and have been pushing back on it for years. You can see why. A team is less likely to want to spend big money on a free agent if they know that they’ll also have to surrender a high draft pick as compensation. Players have fought to reduce the rule’s scope; for example, the 2011 CBA limited compensation to players that had received a qualifying offer and been with a team for a full season.
This time around, MLB players pushed to have the concept dropped entirely, although reports say the new CBA will maintain it in a limited form.
Could it work in the NHL?: Anything like the most recent MLB rule would be fought hard by the NHLPA. After all, NHL teams are even more obsessed with hoarding draft picks than their MLB brethren. It’s hard to imagine a team like the Oilers being willing to spend $42-million on Milan Lucic if they knew they’d also have to ship their first-round pick to a division rival.
That said, a modified version of the idea in which only league-supplied picks were in play could work. Under that scenario, the league could create new picks to compensate teams that lose certain UFAs. Those new picks could fall within the existing rounds, or perhaps in a new round altogether – MLB sandwiches a mini-round in between the first and second for exactly that purpose. That wouldn’t even be all that new of a wrinkle for the NHL, which already creates compensation picks for unsigned draft picks.
From a fan’s perspective, there would be pros and cons of the approach. On the one hand, the NHL’s free agency market has been withering away over the years, as teams make sure to re-sign top players rather than lose them for nothing. Adding some compensation to the mix could encourage teams to let more players walk, resulting in more off-season fireworks on the open market. On the other hand, that would dry up the market for midseason rentals, making the trade deadline even less active than its recently been.
There are arguments on both sides. But either way, the NHL would want to make sure that any new free agent compensation rule didn’t leave any obvious loopholes for teams to exploit. They’ve been down that road before.
IDEA #2: COMPETITIVE BALANCE LOTTERY
Hey, NHL fans love lotteries, right?
While MLB doesn’t let the ping pong balls determine the order for their amateur draft, they have used an interesting system to try to give smaller markets a boost. Each year, teams with small local markets and/or revenue streams are eligible for bonus draft picks. The league holds a lottery each July, and awards a half-dozen picks after each of the first and second rounds. No team is guaranteed to win a selection, and the picks aren’t high enough that they’d impact anyone’s revenue strategy, but they’re meant as a small nudge for teams in a weaker financial position than the big boys.
It’s worth noting that the lottery might disappear as part of a new CBA; the league and players agreed to postpone this year’s drawing until January, just in case they decide to scrap the whole thing.
Could it work in the NHL?: It could, although you wonder if it would even be necessary. The NHL would probably argue that they have enough competitive balance already. (Some fans might argue that they have more than enough.) Besides, the league already has a much bigger CBA piece in place to help smaller markets, one that’s completely missing from any of MLB’s agreements, past or present.
Oh, hey, speaking of which…
IDEA #3: A LUXURY TAX, BUT NO SALARY CAP
Baseball is the only one of North America’s major sports leagues to not have any kind of salary cap. Instead, they use extensive revenue sharing along with a luxury tax to level the playing field, while still allowing teams to spend as they choose.
In theory, that allows big market teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers to outspend everyone else, just like the Red Wings, Rangers and Maple Leafs used to do in the pre-cap NHL. And indeed, those three big-market MLB teams had the highest payrolls in baseball last year. But the gap wasn’t as big as you might expect, and smaller market teams like the Royals, Indians and Pirates have had some success in recent years.
Baseball is still very much of a league of haves and have-nots. But if they argument against a revenue-sharing and tax approach is that the biggest spenders will just win every year, recent MLB history hasn’t shown that to be true.
Could it work in the NHL?: Sure. You’d just need the players to be willing to shut down the whole league for two years to get it.
Look, there are plenty of arguments to be made against the NHL’s current cap rules, including the high cost of escrow and a salary floor that teams can avoid through loopholes. Maybe the league really would be better off if it scrapped the whole approach and followed baseball’s lead (or at least adopted an NBA-style soft cap).
But Gary Bettman became the only commissioner in sports history to burn an entire season on a work stoppage to get this system, and he’s not about to give it up. Barring an all-out labour war that makes 2004-05 look like a tickle-fight, the NHL’s cap is here to stay.
IDEA #4: THE WILD CARD PLAY-IN
We don’t normally think of things like playoff formats being part of a CBA negotiation. But they can be, and MLB introduced a fairly major change in their 2011 deal. They doubled the number of wildcard teams in each league from one to two, with those two teams facing each other in a one-game playoff to determine who’ll advance to the division series.
It’s a neat idea, although not one that everyone loves. Adding playoff teams waters down the regular season in the eyes of some, and it seems odd that a team can fight all year to qualify for the postseason only to be sent home after a single game. Still, the wildcard game has created some unmistakably memorable moments, including a recent one for Canadian fans.
Could it work in the NHL?: Talk of expanding the NHL’s playoffs comes up from time to time, and adding one or more play-in games for each conference would be one way to do it. The idea has come up before, although it doesn’t sound like it’s ever gained much traction. Then again, the NHL only added the concept of a wildcard a few years ago, so one step at a time.
The argument against is that over half the league already makes the playoffs, including teams that lose more than they win; bumping that number up to 18 or 20 teams would be overkill in the eyes of many fans.
Still, the excitement of starting the postseason with a few winner-take-all games would be hard to resist. And the unpredictability of a single-game elimination round would make it all the more important for playoff teams to push to finish higher in the standings and avoid the risk of an early exit.
IDEA #5: SHORTER SCHEDULE, BIGGER ROSTERS
Both of these ideas were in play during current MLB negotiations, with reports that the owners could be willing to add an extra roster spot or even reduce the traditional 162-game schedule. Neither ended up being part of the new agreement, although you can bet they’ll come up next time around.
For the most part, both ideas are focused on addressing player concerns around fatigue and safety. (Although not entirely; the expanded roster proposal was partly a tradeoff to get rid of the 40-man September rosters.) That’s a good thing, and most fans would support it. Owners might too, but only if the players sacrifice a bit on the financial side. As MLB commissioner Rob Manfred put it, “You want to work less, usually you get paid less”.
Could it work in the NHL?: The NHL schedule has evolved over the years, steadily increasing from 50 games at the start of the Original Six era to a high of 84 in the early 90s before dropping down to the current 82 in 1995. There’s been periodic talk of reducing it again, but owners don’t want to lose home dates and so far have been able to satisfy the union with this year’s new “bye weeks” to allow players to rest up.
As for roster size, if it were to change in hockey it would probably go in the other direction, with teams carrying fewer players. That could make sense in an era where lower roster roles like enforcers or hard-hitting grinders are falling out of favor. But there doesn’t seem to be much traction for that idea either, at least not yet.
IDEA #6: GETTING THIS ALL RESOLVED WITHOUT MISSING ANY GAMES
There was a time when Major League Baseball was the undisputed king of the work stoppage, having one at least every five years from 1972 through to the 1994 strike that wiped out the World Series. But since then, nothing. And while this year’s negotiations nearly ended that streak, there’s been little if any talk of the impasse actually extending into the season.
For comparison, The NBA has lost games to a work stoppage twice, most recently in 2011 when the league lost 16 of its 82-game schedule, but seems likely to avoid a repeat this time around. The NFL had an extended lockout of its own in 2011 but hasn’t missed any actual games since 1987.
Work stoppages and CBA disputes are a fact of life in the pro sports world, but other leagues seem to have realized that missing actual games is an absolute last resort.
Could it work in the NHL?: In Gary Bettman’s league? New draft picks, wildcard games and reduced schedules are one thing, but let’s not get ridiculous.