Thursday, September 26, 2013

Making Your NHL Club

There was probably a time in the not too distant past where training camp really was a legitimate opportunity for a young prospect to take a run at a roster place. Years of accumulated commitments, collective bargaining agreements and roster regulations have changed that for the young hopefuls. Nowadays, a young player being invited to an NHL camp only needs to take a quick browse of the CapGeek website before lacing the skates to know how the Vegas odds makers are handicapping his chances of success.

After Game 5 of the preseason, in which Therrien iced an almost identical lineup to last year's edition of the Habs, we can reflect on how training camp has gone and why at the end of it we won't see the slowing veterans turfed by energetic youngsters by whom they were significantly outperformed.

One-way salaries in the business plan

There are two considerations for the one-way contract being sent to the minor leagues. As a guaranteed contract (aka labour victory for players vs. Original 6 days), the salary must be paid at its one-way value. While some young players accept clauses in their contract to take less pay from the club should they play their year in the AHL, these one-way contracts contain no such clause. If Bournival is sent to the AHL, he is paid $210,000 instead of $870,000. If Ryan White is sent to the AHL, he would be paid his full $700,000. 

The calculation here has nothing to do with hockey. But an owner seeing only a marginal difference in effect on the big club (4th liners both, for now) would presumably float a suggesting that the $600,000 in savings of one decision vs. another is worth considering. Owners have been known to take some financial hits in the past. But on the whole, prospects who can't show themselves head and shoulders above the player they might replace have this as a real barrier to accession.

Even in a league where owners have been given the golden opportunity (twice) of salary cost certainty, teams still employ internal salary structures for this very reason. The Canadiens (one of the teams laughing loudest at only having to pay their most important employees 50% of revenue) are likely happy enough with the safety of the maximum cap. However, the team has been known to pinch pennies in the past, and those owners who are fans of hockey second and fans of their own wealth first are always liable to bow to the temptation.

The second consideration of a guaranteed one-way contract is a real salary cap issue. Players sent to the AHL do not escape the salary cap system. The difference between this consideration and the real payment issue is merely one of a bit of arithmetic.

While salaries sent to the AHL can no longer be fully hidden from the cap system, there is some accommodation to lessen the blow. A one-way contract counts against the cap as follows:

cap hit = cap value of salary – [ minimum salary ($550,000 this season) + $375,000 ]

What this means is that contracts cap value for the season is $925,000 or less are effectively free to move vs. the cap. The issue for youngsters comes with salaries over that threshold, of which there are many. With a cap ceiling that is set to encroach on the style many GMs employed prior to the last CBA, every hundred thousand matters. So while we all see Bournival outperforming Travis Moen at camp, and outperforming the memory of Travis Moen's tepid play, the team simply cannot afford to pay nearly a million dollars vs. the cap to have a player better than Moen on the roster.

This is one of the reasons there was such uproar on some of the recent signings and resignings. With a bevy of young forwards coming through the system, it was disappointing that the foregone conclusion of status quo + Briere would be chosen, without even an exploration of the other possibilities. So enter the know quantity of Briere, Parros, Moen, White et al, and another year of wait to develop the chemistry of the team that may one day actually succeed in putting 1993 into its proper place in the past.


Waiver eligibility is another important consideration for teams in the decisions they make. Once a player reaches a threshold of games set by the league, his waiver immunity expires and a move to Hamilton is preceded by an offer to any other NHL club to claim his contract. 

The Habs currently own only a couple of waiver exempt regulars (Gallagher and Galchenyuk), the rest, including Ryan White, George Parros, Travis Moen, Davis Drewiske, Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray all must clear waivers before any moves.

So while it may look today that Bournival and Tinordi deserve a shot, the GM must also consider that a waiver loss and an inevitable injury would lead to a situation where depth is no longer Douglas Murray, but Greg Pateryn, no longer Ryan White, but Patrick Holland. 

The waiver system only really affects players that have value to other teams, but all the aforementioned have at least enough NHL experience to create a stir in Florida and other surprisingly unstocked NHL outfits.

The alternative then is to wait for that injury to happen and move the waiver exempt player up to an NHL place at that time. In this way, at least camp has established the pecking order of injury call ups.

Horizons of success

A good NHL organization has every aspect of its organization pulling in the same direction. A strategic plan built to assemble a pro squad that can challenge other contenders would be set out and implemented from owner to GM to coach.

The reality is, there are not many "good" NHL organizations. Montreal, while once the model, suffers desperately from misalignment of goals throughout. 

Let's leave players aside, as they are a complex group. Let's consider the coach, the coaches.

In Montreal and cities like it, the requirement for keeping a coaching job is near perpetual success. While the definition of success is sometimes flexible enough to allow more wins than expected, most times, it is inherent that wins must outnumber losses. for the coach, the horizon of success is not even as long as a season, but rather a portion of the season. The motivation to learn lessons through losses with the team that will actually challenge for the Cup in 6 years time is non-existent. This is bad.

It doesn't get much better with the GM, certainly not in Montreal. The fortunate are given one or two years to set out and implement a plan, but after a honeymoon, they can be as vulnerable as the coach. Perhaps unlike the coach who simply steps back onto the coaching roundabout somewhere else, the GM must consider that this stint in control might be the last. What's worse is that the damage that a GM can wreak in an organization is far worse than that from the coach. Once out of honeymoon, the horizon of success for the GM closes down to the length of the season as well. The motivation to take on the risk of wholehearted implementation of the plan proposed through entry draft is daunting. The odds seem to favour setting up your successor for undeserved accolades (Brian Burke never did thank Bryan Murray).

The young challengers can't help but become embroiled in this. Placing Tinordi or Dietz on the big club now (when mistakes still abound) in place of trustworthy, but limited Francis Bouillon is not a move the coach would endorse as a self-preservation strategy. And, why would Bergevin opt to accelerate Sebastien Collberg or Christian Thomas' developments when their place in a winning team is not on the two year horizon?

Bulldog Bound

So despite the excitement of seeing players that aren't White or Moen on the Habs, the reality is that all these factors add up to put those two on the team and leave some possibly exciting future contributors in the Steel City. Christian Thomas, Michael Bournival, Louis Leblanc, you never really had a chance other than injury, so don't fret. Wait it out.

The remaining contenders, are there thanks to injury (to Emelin and then Drewiske and Murray). The plan was to make sure there was insurance for injury and now it is being tested. Tinordi and Beaulieu remain in camp, but we must wait a month or so to see what transpires. Pundits agree that time on an NHL bench is not what the sometimes awkward pro needs to iron out the kinks. Rather, the health of Murray would favour Drewiske's chances of NHL winters.

Bournival in particular must find some frustration in this, but he should also know that being the first injury call up is a massive boon to an NHL career. The wait for that call is not usually very long in the rough and tumble NHL, and when real points are on the table, the chance to stir the owner to pay, the GM to deal with cap issues and everyone to look at a different horizon is more manageable.

Time we're done with this exhibition of extended warm ups. On to October 1 already.

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