The NHL did something this week, so it goes without saying that they found a way to make their fans angry.
In this case, the “something” was the annual GM’s meetings. This is the time of year when all of the league’s general managers, fresh off of not doing all that much at the trade deadline, get together to talk about the state of the game. The meetings started off as usual – with lots of interesting ideas being offered as to how things could be improved. Then they ended off as usual – with the decision to change virtually nothing.
But it was something that happened in between that got the most attention, at least among fans who still pay attention to this stuff. And you get the feeling that the league didn’t intend for it to be that big of a deal. On Wednesday, word got out that during a discussion on expansion, the league had asked the GMs whether each team’s protected list should be made public. No, the GMs replied, they’d “prefer” to keep everything secret.
That’s right. For the first time since 2000, the league will be holding an expansion draft. And the league’s GMs want you to know as little as possible about the whole thing.
This would be, to put it mildly, idiotic.
It also probably shouldn’t be remotely surprising. Keeping crucial information away from their customers has practically become a league policy over the years. Think back to Gary Bettman’s bizarre assertion that fans don’t care about salary information and cap hits, even though cap considerations drive every decision any team makes. Think of the way most of the league’s teams still insist on citing team policy to keep key details out of contract announcements, even though the information inevitably leaks to the media just minutes later.
The league just spent a week making trades involving conditional draft picks, then didn’t bother telling us what the conditions were.
It’s ridiculous, but it’s a well-established pattern at this point. You get the feeling that the league would be quite happy to keep the results of the actual games away from fans if they felt like they could get away with it. The Rangers played the Canadiens last night. Don’t you worry about who won, just hand over your cash and get out of here.
And yet somehow, the whole protected list issue still caught fans off guard. The first expansion draft in a generation would seem like a perfect opportunity for the league to get fans talking. Of course the NHL would want as much buzz as possible. Of course they’ll want fans to be picking through the lists in anticipation. After all, tens of thousands of fans have already spent the year running mock drafts. As far as marketing the product goes, this is a goldmine.
And maybe more importantly, fans have been told all season that virtually every move or non-move anyone made was driven in part by expansion considerations. Your team made a weird signing? They’re thinking of their protection list. They passed on a trade? Sure, but it’s the list. They called up this guy instead of that guy? Think of the list. It’s all about the list, and has been all year.
Now the draft is almost here, and the NHL says: “What list? Oh, these? You didn’t really care about those, did you?”
It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. The GMs don’t want the lists to be public for the same reason they don’t want anything they do to be public: Because that invites scrutiny, evaluation and criticism. Being an NHL GM is a tough job, to be sure. They get hammered daily by fans and media, sometimes fairly and sometimes not. Keeping the decisions they make hidden away from public view would cut down on all that stuff. Of course they’re going to want to do just that.
It’s a good plan, except for that annoying detail of fans needing to know this stuff. You can’t talk about something all year, use it as an excuse for any strange decision you make, and even plan on putting the whole thing on TV, and then get cold feet when the fans start to actually care.
As foolish and sort-sighted as all of this sounds, maybe you can write it off as a minor annoyance. But there’s a bigger issue here. NHL GMs shouldn’t have made this particular call, because they shouldn’t be making calls like these at all. No other league gives as much power to its general managers to shape the game as the NHL does. And over the years, it’s become clear that the GMs will use that power to achieve their top priority: Protecting their own turf.
That’s why we’re stuck with a widely another unpopular rule: the loser point. Giving out points for losing doesn’t do much to make the playoff races, despite how often the league claims otherwise, exciting. That’s just the cover story that sounds nice and appeals to our basic ideas of fairness. The playoff races are closer than ever because of parity brought on by the salary cap and other factors. Distributing extra points around the league, largely at random, doesn’t help.
But what the loser point indisputably does achieve is something far more important: It inflates everyone’s record. Suddenly, that underwhelming 37-45 record turns into 37-35-10, which looks a lot better. Something like 25 teams finish .500 or higher each year, in terms of points percentage. It all makes the GMs who built those teams look better, which helps shield them from criticism from fans, media and owners. And that’s why as long as the GMs are the ones who get to decide whether the loser point stays, we’ll have it around forever.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The NHL does have a commissioner, one who’s job is ostensibly to be a leader who pushes the league forward. Bettman could hear his GMs propose something like hiding the expansion lists, walk into the room, and smack everyone in the head while saying “Guys, you’re being completely ridiculous right now.”
He might even sneak in a quick “Hey, just as a reminder, we’re supposed to be talking about what’s good for the league here, not your individual jobs.”
That’s what a leader would do. But it’s apparently too much to ask.
The other argument against exposing the lists is a player’s view. To be clear, the players will almost certainly want to know who is and isn’t being protected – nobody wants to be blindsided in June, and agents will work to make sure their players know their status. But all things being equal, they probably wouldn’t want the lists revealed to the public. After all, would you want the whole world to know if your boss decided you were expendable?
I wouldn’t, and neither would you. But I also wouldn’t want the world to know if I was demoted, or fined, or suspended. I’m sure players don’t like it when we all know that they’ve been benched or scratched or put on waivers or dropped off the special teams unit. They’d probably rather not have everyone know that their coach thinks they need to earn the respect of their teammates, but sometimes your coach goes out in front of the media and says exactly that.
The point is that being a pro athlete is just a different job, with pros and cons that don’t show up in most other lines of work. Sometimes that includes having the public find out more than you’d like about where you stand in your organization’s plans. That’s just part of the deal when that same public is the reason you get to work in what’s become a multibillion-dollar industry.
The NHL had a LIVE All-Star draft where they shamed the last player chosen, but we can't be having public knowledge of expansion lists.
— Greg Brady (@sn590gbrady) March 9, 2017
And again, whatever the players might think of the issue, they’re not the ones driving this week’s controversy. The NHLPA hasn’t weighed in here, at least formally. This was the GMs, looking out for the GMs. As always.
The big loser here may end up being George McPhee. He and his staff are going to spend the next few months obsessing over expansion scenarios. He’ll be making trades, both official and of the handshake variety, while running the numbers and playing out various scenarios.
And then he’ll pick his team, and nobody will know what he was working with. No doubt, he’ll end up getting criticized for “passing” on guys who weren’t available at all. It’s the single biggest task any GM has faced in this league in almost two decades, and McPhee won’t be able to show his work. Sorry George, your 30 colleagues have reputations to worry about.
But there is some good news here, buried in the details. As Luke Fox wrote earlier today, the league left itself some wiggle room by making it clear that the decision isn’t final. Read between the lines, and it’s not hard to see this as what it was: A league that knows a dumb idea when it sees it, and floated a trial balloon to see whether they could get away with it anyway.
If the fans shrug, you’re all set. If you get a reaction like the one we’re seeing right now, you can always come back later and say you never formally announced anything. “Gosh, of course we were always going to make the list public. Silly fans, what made you think otherwise?”
So sure, the league will probably come to its senses, reverse its course and we’ll get the lists. That will be the right ending. But don’t forget that they tried. And they’ll try again next time, and the time after that.
If anything, this is on all of us for being surprised. Heck, for even still having the capacity to be surprised at this point. You can knock the NHL and its decision-makers for a lot of things, but they’re not exactly subtle with this stuff.
NHL GMs — and by extension the league itself — continue to send the message that they view you as more of a nuisance than as the reason they’re in business in the first place.
It all makes one feel like they increasingly believe the NHL would would be a great business if it weren’t for all these customers.
In completely unrelated news from this week, the GMs are also struggling with the prospect of a flat cap next year, because league revenues are stagnating.