The National Hockey League has a boring offseason relative to every other major professional sports league, and it’s time for that to be addressed. For entirely too long, the rules and construction of the league have been based upon what makes a general manager’s job easier, more comfortable, and as close to failure-proof as possible. The lack of player mobility via the current restricted free agency system is the epitome of the flaws within the structure of the league’s approach to fan engagement, and it’s largely because GMs care more about playing nice with one another and keeping everyone employed than they do about winning. That needs to change for the sake of future growth in revenues as well as current and ongoing viewership.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for the abolishment of the salary cap or anything ridiculous like that; I just want general managers to actually use the systems in place as they’re ostensibly meant to be used, rather than ignoring them as a means to deflate player salaries. The unwritten rules of baseball have garnered attention lately, rightfully being recognized as a bit archaic in facets (particularly when it comes to celebrating). The unwritten rules of hockey on the ice require a different conversation for another day, but today I’d like to discuss the issues that the off-ice “agreements” pose for the league going forward, particularly when it comes to the negligence surrounding the RFA system.
Teams refuse to offer sheet players, particularly prospects who could command much better pay elsewhere. There are players who are waived that should absolutely be picked up, but aren’t; depth pieces on expiring contracts like a Tanner Jeannot (hey, I’ve gotta keep my brand strong) never see a legitimate payday until they’re becoming an unrestricted commodity. Offer sheets of a low pay grade don’t happen, even with contenders who are slammed against the cap ceiling, and it’s all because of the aforementioned handshake agreements taking place behind the scenes. General managers are too afraid of retaliation or losing a trade partner if they use the system.
Looking at the state of things, I have a number of questions. Is this really a league of tough guys, or is it a collection of egotistical rich dudes who get their undies in a wad whenever somebody does something mean to them? Does the aforementioned “keeping stars in small markets” thing even work? Let’s dig into the answers.
To the first question, the answer is pretty clearly that the NHL is a league of things like “respect” and “tradition” rather than cutthroat competition. If that weren’t the case, the Penguins, Blackhawks, and other dynasties of the league would’ve been inundated with offer sheets to cripple their salary structure or rob them of great talent. Instead, players and fans are subject to lifeless offseasons full of thinly veiled ownership and front office collusion. This isn’t the mark of a win-at-all-costs league like you’d see with the NBA or NFL, and that’s part of what makes the NHL so infuriating. For a league that’s supposedly looking to market themselves as an entertainment product, they sure aren’t putting much work into the off-ice elements that surround that incredible foundation of the on-ice product.
The restricted free agent system is supposedly just a different classification of free agent meant to keep players in their drafted organizations for a bit longer, or at the very least provide the team with more leverage in negotiations. This was mostly meant for small market, fledgling teams like Nashville or Florida that weren’t seen as attractive destinations for a long time. However, even just glancing at recent events, players with star billing can force a move via the media or general malcontent status. Look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who haven’t managed to keep any of their drafted studs are players acquired; is the system really helping them that much, or is it just making the jobs of GMs around the league easier?
This draws me to the real purpose of the article: the NHL needs to fix the way that restricted free agency works, specifically in that they need to remove the compensation system currently in place. The NBA has this down to a science, with the basic rule being that a team can offer sheet a player, and the team holding their rights has the ability to match it. There’s no absurd de-incentivizing stipulation like the NHL has, so there’s more player movement overall. This is part of why the NBA and NFL are much more attractive as a young viewer; there’s enough going on with free agency and the offseason to keep people engaged, excited, and reading/viewing media coverage of the team. Maybe this is a bit selfish, but I’d rather spend my summers writing about how the Flyers went out and acquired Elias Pettersson or Miro Heiskanen rather than just speculating in my head about how that would be a shrewd, but unrealistic move because nobody wants to offer sheet anyone.
Removing the compensation restrictions on contracts wouldn’t fix the problem immediately, but eventually a GM would be too tempted by a player to resist going after them and would break the ice. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s questionable if the executives running the show would be willing to look at the future benefits rather than settling for the marginal gains they’re bringing in thanks to lower contract values in the current RFA market. Whether the NHL ever makes any progress into the modern era of the 12-month sports media news cycle is entirely up to their whims, but it should be of significant interest as they make the jump to ESPN seeking more eyes. This is far from the biggest obstacle the league needs to rectify, as the Chicago Blackhawks and Bill Peters have shown us, but in terms of making hockey a more popular sport it’s a considerable obstacle for the foreseeable future.