Gary Bettman longs for parity and Adam Silver strives for excellence. This is the fundamental difference between the NHL and NBA and their respective commissioners, and that difference is never more clear than right now in the aftermath of each final and on the eve of free agency.
But for all the faults of Bettman and the NHL — none more short-sighted than limiting revenue by constantly undercutting big-market teams through more ways than the salary cap — it is still a preferable system. The NHL Players’ Association has fought tooth and nail for more freedom, but look to the NBA to see what too much player freedom can look like.
There are, what, 20 teams in the NBA that have absolutely no chance to sign a big-name free agent? And apparently you need three or four stars now just to be in the conversation for making a conference final. Forget actually winning a championship.
So let’s say you’re the general manager of the Nuggets or Blazers, or a fan of the Kings or the Magic — now what? Is the only way to build a winner by tanking, picking a terrifically talented and totally inexperienced kid in the draft, and then hoping that people want to come play with him?
How many NBA players are getting “max contracts” who don’t deserve them, too? Then they have these opt-out clauses, so they pretty much can go play wherever they want. From what I can gather, Chris Paul didn’t just demand a trade from the Clippers, but demanded he be sent to the Rockets. He said either he was going to opt out of his contract and sign with the Rockets as a free agent, meaning the Clippers would get nothing in return, or he’d opt in and they could trade him. How’s that for owner Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion investment?
Meanwhile, the NHL salary cap enforces a strict system of communism. Last season, 25 of the 30 teams spent within $4 million of the $73 million cap, which goes up to just $75 million this season. The Predators, out of small-market Nashville, were a blast to watch while losing just four games in the first three rounds before losing to the Penguins’ pseudo-dynasty in the Stanley Cup finals. The Predators also had the seventh-lowest payroll in the league.
For even more contrast, Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the Predators making the biggest trade in franchise history — and one of the biggest trades the league has seen in years. They sent their indomitable captain, Shea Weber, to the Canadiens in a one-for-one deal bringing back the electric P.K. Subban. For the longest time, Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin denied he was ever shopping Subban. Yet despite the enduring love of the majority of the fans, Subban’s flashy style never quite fit the current culture of the organization. So despite all the protests that he wasn’t going to be traded, he was shipped out and it changed the face of both franchises.
Now if Subban was moved to, say, Carolina, and he lost a lot in a dreary environment, it might be pointed out that the teams have too much control and the players too little. But there are no-trade clauses now all around the NHL — too many, actually. The market has come to bear that marginally good players are in line for at least some sort of movement protection, and it limits teams’ mobility, and hence their ability to compete.
The balance has to be struck between the want of a full-league competition and that of a few teams that are so much better than the rest of the league. People might point to the NHL as a model for parity — goodness knows Bettman does — but they still have had three teams combine to win eight of the past nine titles. They’ve done that through generational players such as Sidney Crosby (Penguins, three Cups), Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks, three Cups) and Drew Doughty (Kings, two Cups). But their general managers have had to make moves on the fly to keep up, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Meanwhile, the NBA has one two-week period to look forward to — the NBA Finals. For the past three years, everyone knew it was going to be the Warriors versus the Cavaliers, so why would there be any interest for the first three rounds of the postseason? Forget having any interest in the regular season.
The difference is in the amount power the players hold, and it creates a league that is either competitive for nine months or competitive for two weeks. Put aside the entertainment value of the game itself, and I’d still go for the former.
See ya, Scotty
It’s been a dramatic fall for Scott Hartnell, from his days as a heart-and-soul player for the 2009-10 Flyers who made it to the Stanley Cup final to now getting bought out by the Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old had just 13 goals and 37 points this past season in 78 games for John Tortorella’s club, which finished in third place in the cutthroat Metropolitan Division with 108 points. The No. 6-overall pick from 2000 is now an unrestricted free agent, and he is going to have to prove he’s still got more in the tank.
Stay tuned . . .
. . . to the opening of free agency on Saturday at noon. It’s not exactly the strongest free-agent class, and that’s exemplified by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk being the No. 1 name out there. Someone is going to give him a huge deal and likely end up regretting it down the road. There are also questions with the Sharks’ big two, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. If they move on (and to different places), then things around the league might start to get interesting.
RIP to Dave Semenko, who for years was Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard with the Oilers. From all accounts, “Cement Head” was a true character, and he even once fought Muhammad Ali for a charity event in 1983.
CLASSIC CLIPS: The late Dave Semenko vs Muhammad Ali during a charity boxing event back in 1983. pic.twitter.com/zueUAr0AcZ
— Robert Söderlind (@HockeyWebCast) June 29, 2017