LOCKOUT 2012- A SILVER LINING?
It can be said with confidence that anyone reading a Senators blog in August is likely someone who’s hoping a miracle happens and the 2012-13 NHL season starts on time. I certainly am. But if we think about it, does a lockout have the potential to actually help the Senators? Here are a few scenarios and my own thoughts on the impact to the Senators specifically. While it’s frustrating that we might be robbed of another hockey season (or part of one) there is some solace to be taken for Sens fans that we can cling to while waiting for hockey to start up again.
Worst case: No season at all
Well I guess if you listen to some people it could even be two seasons we lose, but let’s try not to think about that. There are definite downsides for the Senators as there are to some degree for all NHL teams. A full season gone will hurt season ticket sales more in Ottawa than many other markets. The Senators are not a money-making team. We all know that Melnyk is not making a profit and we should feel lucky to have an owner that loves the game enough to allow Bryan Murray to be competitive in the NHL, even if it’s on a budget of sorts. But a year or longer without any income for the team while still having to pay support staff and other operating expenses will hurt. Other teams in the province (for example) will recover any losses from the lockout in the first year back, we won’t be so lucky.
So that silver lining then? Well beyond the fact that Melnyk is more likely than previous owners to continue to invest in the team despite the losses from a lockout, there really is little chance that the Senators were going to contend this season. While there’s always a chance we could see another surprise playoff finish and maybe even a first round upset, the odds are beyond slim. What can’t be denied is that (barring anything unexpected) this team is going to be better each year for the next few years at least. With only a few players on the decline in their careers and so many young players expected to improve, our team is situated nicely (some might argue better than most teams in the NHL) to be very strong by the time guys like Karlsson and Turris are in their mid 20s and beyond. So while teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Vancouver would lose a year (or more) in which they expect to contend for a cup, we’re not giving up any realistic shot at a parade. Put another way, I’d much rather see a lockout now than when guys like Noesen, Silfverberg, Lehner etc are in their prime years.
Scenario B: Shortened season
This scenario is interesting to me and also seems like the most likely at this point. Most “talking heads” are predicting somewhere between a 40 and 60 game season. The idea being that as more games are lost, the pressure on the owners ramps up to the point where they will concede somewhat to the NHLPA and a deal gets done. Big markets will be happy to lose a whole season or more to get the CBA they want, but smaller markets and eventually some of the mid-range markets cannot afford to wait that long. I think Phoenix is our ace-in-the-hole to a degree in that Bettman and the NHL do not want that franchise moved (or else they’d be in Quebec already). So that said, I think any prolonged lockout effectively puts the Coyotes out of their misery but since Bettman wants to keep that team there, the pressure is on to get a deal done before Phoenix officially flatlines.
So does a shortened season help the Senators? Or at least hurt us less than some other teams? Consider that if we assume guys like Cowen, Silfverberg and Zibanejad play in the AHL they’re progression really doesn’t slow down much at all. Silf and Z-bad in particular need some time to get familiar with North American ice. Of course other teams will have prospects playing in the AHL and other players playing elsewhere during the lockout, but most people who are hoping Ottawa contends for a playoff spot this coming season are basing that hope to a large extent on one or two rookies breaking through right away. A later start to the year makes that a bit more possible. A shorter season also makes the entire NHL a bit more volatile. A nice little hot streak goes a lot further in a 40 game season than an 82 game season. So for those hoping the Sens can overachieve again this year, a shorter season increases those odds. Last but certainly not least, there’s our captain. It’s no secret he’s finally starting to show his age (or maybe just finally looking 30+). One has to assume that a shorter schedule allows him to show more jump day-in, day-out than a full one would. And as we all know, the more we get from Alfie, the better the team seems to do.
Scenario C: Owners get their way
So whether it’s sooner or later, suppose the owners get their way (again). Without knowing all the specifics, one would assume this means things like salary rollbacks of some sort and possibly the cap going down. Relative to other teams, this does seem to help Ottawa. Lower salaries is a given since this team doesn’t make money, but that seems somewhat universal in terms of competitive balance. A lower cap however seems to help Ottawa more than the average team – certainly more than it would help the richer teams. We have almost zero “cap garbage” right now. We have Butler’s tiny buy-out and Gonchar’s salary for another year but that’s about it. Relative to the rest of the NHL we really don’t have any overpaid players. Spezza’s $7M hit (currently) doesn’t look bad compared to other top players in the league. Karlsson’s deal looks like a bargain compared to recent signings as well. Add to that the fact that we’re at or near the floor (currently) so we have as much cap flexibility as possible. So should the cap go down considerably, we’d be in a great position to make some moves or simply keep what we have while other teams might be forced to trade away players they’d rather keep just for the cap room.
Scenario D: Players get their way
So the players’ position is a bit tough to nail down. On the very surface, they appear to be trying to increase “competitive balance” and make it easier for small market teams to compete – all of which would be good for Ottawa. But we all know that deep down what they’re looking to do is carve out as much of the pie for themselves as possible. If the cap were to go up or if the new CBA was such that the cap would continue to climb as it has, one has to think that hurts Ottawa overall. Melnyk has spent to the cap before and would likely do so again if he felt the team was ready to “make a run”, but if the cap gets much higher can he really afford to? Or would he be more selective about when he was willing to? If the cap gets much higher I think the chances of Melnyk being willing/able to let Murray use it all get less and less. And while teams can build through the draft and stand aside when other teams overpay for free agents, it does make it a lot harder to have any prolonged success. Unless the NHLPA really backs up the early PR and fights for a “fair deal that allows all teams to compete”, I have to assume a big NHLPA win hurts Ottawa more than most other teams.
So what do we wish for?
I’m going to assume that no matter what the silver lining might be, we’re all still going to hope for this season to somehow start on time. That seems unlikely of course, and doubly unlikely that it starts on time with some sort of owner-friendly CBA given that Fehr and the NHLPA are not about to let the owners “win” again. But as much as it would suck to miss out on part of an NHL season again so soon after the last lockout, I think the best case for the Senators fans is the idea of a shortened season. If the season ends up being 40 games we’d have Silfverberg and Zibanejad more “NHL ready” after half a season in Bingo, Alfredsson at 100% and raring to go (not to mention Gonchar, Phillips etc) and a realistic shot to put a few win streaks up to grab another playoff spot. Then who knows? Another consolation is that we’d have the opportunity to watch our exciting prospects play in Bingo (either via a road trip or two or on TV as I assume a prolonged lockout will lead to SportsNet and others televising AHL games). So personally, as we all go about preparing for a possible lockout in our own way, I’m going to cling to the notion that a partial season means a better shot at more playoff hockey in 2013.