Why Ilya Kovalchuk Isn't The Poster Boy For A Failed CBA

[Ed. note: This post focuses on a recent Ken Campbell column about the prospect of the Atlanta Thrashers dealing Ilya Kovalchuk. It doesn't focus on the Capitals in any direct way, but since it's a commentary on the state of the league as a whole, as well as the fate of Southeast Division foe, we think it's a topic worth touching on.]

The NHL's season's almost two-thirds of the way to its conclusion, the vast majority of the league can still make a reasonable claim of being a playoff contender, big contracts are becoming more affordable by the day, and the trade deadline is just six weeks away. All of which naturally means that trade discussion is heating up and, as usual, there are a number of big names that are being thrown around as possible trade candidates, among them Sheldon Souray, Tomas Kaberle, Marty Turco, and Scott Niedermayer. But no one's attracting as much attention as Thrashers winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and with good cause. After all, there's an awful lot to discuss about a potential Kovalchuk trade: what the Thrashers might fetch in return, how his acquisition alters the Stanley Cup Playoff landscape, what a blow that big might mean for the Thrashers franchise.  And, if you're The Hockey News' Ken Campbell, the fact that the trade would undermine the league's financial status and collective bargaining agreement:

[A Kovalchuk trade] will also go a long way toward proving the collective bargaining agreement was a sham and that we missed a year of hockey for a whole lot of bupkis.

Now that's a hell of a statement, and one that caught me by surprise.  I, for one, would have never made that connection, and although I was skeptical about the claim I was curious to read Campbell's case.  Unfortunately it turned out it was built on speculation, strawman arguments, and either a distortion or complete lack of understanding of asset management. 

In essence, Campbell makes three points.  They are:

  1. The current CBA is a failure because it doesn't provide teams like Atlanta enough financial protection and forces them to give up their best players.
  2. The CBA is not strong enough to protect teams who do a poor job of personnel management.
  3. The Thrashers are being forced to move Kovalchuk due to financial constraints, part of an ongoing theme for the franchise.

For sake of structure, it's easiest to look at the points one at a time.  So, without further ado, let's move on to point number one, which I think it's fair to say would be Campbell's thesis:

(1) The current CBA is a failure because it doesn't provide teams like Atlanta enough financial protection and forces them to give up their best players.

What Campbell says:

Wasn’t the season-long lockout and subsequent CBA supposed to prevent this very thing from happening? Didn’t the league sit out the 2004-05 season so struggling non-traditional hockey markets wouldn’t be forced to trade their superstar players at the primes of their careers? Wasn’t the mere presence of a salary cap supposed to even the playing field for everyone?

Yes and yes. Has it turned out that way? No and no. The reality is there remains a huge division between the have and have-not teams in the NHL, which is a major reason why the Thrashers will almost certainly be forced to deal Kovalchuk prior to the March 3 trade deadline.

Why he's wrong:

I'm going to deviate from Campbell's order briefly to go ahead and get this out of the way: it's ridiculous to say the salary cap hasn't helped to level the playing field.  Yes, it's true that there are teams who have an advantage because they can spend more money, but realistically there's never going to be a way to eliminate that fact.  The best anyone can do is hope to mitigate it and increase parity - something that the fact that 26 of the league's 30 teams are within five points of a playoff position with almost two-thirds of the season complete suggests is happening.

Campbell's other point, and perhaps his bigger one, is that the cap and CBA were put in place  "so struggling non-traditional hockey markets wouldn’t be forced to trade their superstar players at the primes of their careers".  It's true that's part of the benefit of the cap and the CBA, but the sentence is misleading.  It should read, "Didn’t the league sit out the 2004-05 season so struggling non-traditional hockey markets wouldn’t be forced to trade their superstar players at the primes of their careers because they couldn't afford to keep them, knowing what big market teams like Detroit, New York, and Toronto could offer?"

That's not what's happening with Kovalchuk.  He's asking for huge money - between ten and eleven million dollars a year, depending on the source - and that's just not what he's worth from an on-ice perspective.  It's not an issue of Atlanta being unable or unwilling to pay Kovalchuk -- both CapGeek and NHL Numbers have the Thrashers spending in the neighborhood of fifty million dollars this year, depending on bonuses, and the team has made significant financial commitments in each of the past two offseasons.  Rather, it's an issue of whether Kovalchuk has an interest in signing with a mediocre team with a bad general manager and a shaky ownership situation, and if so, whether the price he's willing to do it at makes sense for the Thrashers from an asset management standpoint.  No cap or CBA is going to keep a player in a city where he simply doesn't want to be playing.

(2) The CBA is not strong enough to protect teams who do a poor job of personnel management.

What Campbell says:

The other reality is there isn’t a financial system or enforced curbs on spending that can overcome incompetent management and ownership.
It turns out there’s no CBA in the world that can protect a team from bad drafting and developing, poor player personnel decisions and ownership wars that seem to keep the franchise in a constant state of chaos.
And while the cynic might suggest Kovalchuk has been part of the reason why the Thrashers have only made the playoffs once in their history, this is not a Jay Bouwmeester situation.

The real reason is more likely because the Thrashers have never been able to fill their roster with NHL-caliber players and have never been able to find a center any better than Todd White to play with Kovalchuk.

Why he's wrong:

He's not.  He's just wrong it what it means when it comes to evaluating the CBA.  The fact that teams can no longer overcome managerial incompetence is in itself an indication that cap is working.  In fact, that was the whole point of instituting a cap.  Make the on-ice results about who does the best scouting, makes the best selections at the draft, makes the best trades, and finds players whose production outpaces their salary cap number, rather than who has the biggest pocketbook. 

The Thrashers have a miserable history, and they've miserable management for their entire history.  They let Steve Staios and Andrew Brunette walk.  They drafted Patrick Stefan over Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin.  They traded Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik.  Beyond top fifteen picks, their draft history is terrible.  A team that doesn't draft well, makes short-sighted and lopsided trades, and lets solid role players walk away shouldn't succeed.  The goal of a capped league is to create a more level playing field, not create parity at all costs despite organizational management. 

Teams that manage their organizations poorly should fail on the ice.  And the Thrashers have been.  There's no problem here.

(3) The Thrashers are being forced to move Kovalchuk due to financial constraints, part of an ongoing theme for the franchise.

What Campbell says:

The Thrashers will have no shortage of willing dance partners when they put the crown jewel of the 2010 trade deadline up for auction. And as was the case with Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa before him, Kovalchuk’s departure will leave the Thrashers in worse shape both in the short- and long-term.

Why he's wrong:

Campbell's creating a strawman argument here, at least if he's using it as a way to provide support for his premise that the current CBA is a "farce".  The reason Kovalchuk's on the block isn't that the team can't afford him, it's that they can't convince him to sign a contract that's reasonable in a salary cap world, and to pretend otherwise just to make a point is ridiculous.  As mentioned before, the Thrashers have been adding salary and seem more than willing to entertain reasonable offers from Kovalchuk's end.

How Heatley and Hossa play in is beyond me.  If the implication is that salary was an issue in either case - which I think is a fair read, given that Campbell's point is that small market teams aren't able to keep their players - he's mistaken.  Heatley was traded because he wanted to leave the city where he'd killed a teammate and friend with his reckless actions; keeping a player who wants to leave under those circumstances doesn't seem like a good idea for your franchise, short- or long-term.  Plus, from a hockey perspective, the trade wasn't a bad one.  Hossa averaged 1.12 points per game in his time with Atlanta; Heatley averaged 1.14 in Ottawa, before sulking his way to West Coast.  Plus Atlanta got Greg de Vries in the trade.  A great trade for Atlanta?  No.  But a fair one given the circumstances?  Yes.

As for Hossa, he left for the same reason Kovalchuk might: he wanted to win.  His decision to accept a one-year, $7.5 million dollar contract to play in Detroit the next season while leaving a five-year, $35 million offer from the Penguins and a long-term offer reportedly worth over $9 million to play in Edmonton on the table should be evidence enough of that.

If Ken Campbell - or anyone else for that matter - thinks the NHL's current collective bargaining agreement is imperfect or needs revision, that alone isn't a sin.  There's an argument to be made there.  Just not this one.

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