October 12, 2010
The New Jersey Devils took the ice against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but something was off: There weren't enough fannies to fill the space on the players' bench, thanks to injuries, a suspended player and an inability to replace them on the roster.
It wasn't Oct. 11, 2010. It was March 8, 2007.
The Devils had 16 skaters, including five defenseman. Brian Gionta(notes) was injured, Colin White(notes) was injured in warm-ups and Cam Janssen(notes) was suspended. They won the game in the shootout, 4-3.
So all of this has happened before and, yesterday, happened again. There were no calls for the Devils and Lou Lamoriello to be placed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement gallows in 2007, because the terms of the "emergency" were more vivid and because Ilya Kovalchuk's(notes) 15-year, $100-million contract wasn't on the books to make demonization easy.
But after Monday, when the Devils iced a roster of 15 skaters and two goaltenders in a 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh, many are wondering if the NHL should step in and slap the team for violating the CBA; if what the Devils did with their roster because of the salary cap can be deemed good for the game.
Should the Devils be punished for their actions? Can this really be deemed an "emergency?" And can someone please get Lou Lamoriello a calculator with a functioning "minus" sign?
First, a definition of terms, via the NHL CBA. Here's the rule that governs NHL roster limits:
The Devils only had 15 skaters because forward Brian Rolston(notes) and defenseman Anton Volchenkov(notes) were injured, and forward Pierre Luc Letourneau-Leblond was serving a 1-game suspension for a late-game fight against the Washington Capitals. They didn't have enough room under the salary cap to replace any of them.
While technically the Devils situation is not classified as an emergency, it appears as though there will be no supplementary punishment dealt out by the NHL.
"Emergencies have historically included games missed due to player injury, games missed due to player suspension and games missed due to roster/cap situations. This is not an unprecedented situation. It has happened before, both pre- and post-lockout," NHL Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told TSN.
One recent example was the Calgary Flames in 2009, who played with 15 skaters at least three times towards the end of the season due to injuries and cap constraints. They did so without retribution from the League for violation of the CBA.
"It's a joke," Hatcher said during the Flyers' season opener against the Colorado Avalanche at the Wells Fargo Center. "I've never seen that happen in my career. In my opinion, he's mocking the league. It's embarrassing."
But this year's New Jersey Devils, down to 15 skaters just three games into the season? That's just blatant mismanagement. The fact it is Lou Lamoriello behind it all, a member of the Hall of Fame and one of the best managers of the past quarter-century, has even his admirers - and there are legions of them - scratching their heads.
Good thing it's not the early 1980s again. Someone might suggest this is a Mickey Mouse way to operate.
Some are wondering if there should be a punishment from the league for dressing fewer than 20 skaters. Well, dressing fewer than 20 skaters is the punishment for botching the cap, and anyway you cut it, that's what has happened in Newark with the Devils.
From Allan Adams of NHL FanHouse, who believes this issue speaks to a larger one about the on-ice product:
His decision raises a lot of questions. Aren't clubs supposed to dress their best teams? Aren't fans doling out their hard-earned cash expecting to see the best possible product on the ice? Doesn't this speak to the integrity of the product, the credibility of the collective agreement?
In the end, it's the fans who end up losing the most.
Several years ago, the Ottawa Senators mused out loud about not taking their best team into Boston for a season-ending game against the Bruins. In that instance, the NHL was quick to intervene, reminding ownership and management about the obligation they had to the fans.
Imagine if Pittsburgh decided not to dress Sidney Crosby(notes) for, say, this year's Winter Classic. You'd better believe the NHL would have something to say about that.
Trouble is the NHL is not consistent at enforcing its own rules and regulations.
(We'll continue in a moment, after we stifle a giggle about the inadvertent comparison between the Devils signing Adam Mair(notes) for their fourth line and Sidney Crosby being scratched from the Winter Classic. OK, done now.)
Then there are the NHLPA implications, like the ones that came up during the Calgary Flames' roster manipulation in 2009. From Bruce Dowbriggin (via MLive):
The NHL Players' Association ought to be concerned as well. For now, all executive director Paul Kelly will only say is that "the situation demonstrates some of the issues and challenges of the league's salary cap system." But with so many teams in cap hell next year, the PA must be wary of allowing clubs to circumvent the cap by simply skating fewer players than the 18 required by the CBA. It robs players of pensionable days, games toward free agency and other benefits. Plus it puts a greater stress of the short-handed team.
These are valid points. All of them. And the Devils should feel lucky that this is a soft, fleshy part of the CBA rather than a concrete one, in the NHL's eyes. New Jersey has seen first hand when the NHL wants to firm up its bylaws instead of looking the other way -- it's one reason they're in salary cap hell now. But much like how the League looked the other way on Marian Hossa(notes) making peanuts at the end of this contract or Roberto Luongo(notes) playing until he's 43, this "emergency" roster exception is still in its "winking allowance" phase rather than it's "OK, it's time we make an example of you" phase for the NHL.
As we said yesterday, this is the Devils' own doing: The culmination of bloated contracts and no-movement clauses, along with being handcuffed by the Summer of Kovalchuk investigations.
A few games of leniency from the NHL is understandable, because injuries happen; but if the Devils are allowed to compete with 16 or 15 skaters on multiple occasions this season in an effort to avoid making more difficult decisions with regard to the cap, then they should suffer consequences, either financially through fines or in the loss of (even more) draft picks.
Because it's no different than demanding a team have a payroll that reaches a salary "floor" in order to ice a competitive product.
Because the Devils will never reduce their ticket prices even if the fans are paying to see 3/4 of the lines they should be seeing.
Because it's not the salary cap's fault Lou Lamoriello doesn't know how to correctly manage it.