Tuesday, May 17, 2005

spector gets medieval on the League's ass -

More awesome analysis from the hockey ghost. I wish I could just link to specific pieces, but I can't, so this copy/paste thing will have to do::: archived 05/17/05 :::

Read the following yesterday in the Calgary Herald, courtesy of the insightful Bruce Dowbiggin:

Unless the league and the NHL Players' Association get a miracle settlement before June 1, all unsigned 2003 picks such as (Jeff)Carter/ (Mike)Richards and 2004 draftees without a bona fide offer could
find themselves free agents by summer. The same will happen a month later for a cavalcade of established stars, unless teams make qualifying offers to players under contract.
OK, nothing odd about this, yet another speculative article about RFAs and unsigned draft picks becoming unrestricted free agents. I've covered that possibility, as have other pundits and bloggers. Perhaps the best take on this was TSN's Bob McKenzie when he wrote:

The truth is the fate of all these players, from Crosby to Carter to Richards to any of the restricted free agents to any player who had a contract this season, will be determined as part of the CBA negotiations. For lack of a better term, it's called transition. It will be a significant element of the negotiations above and beyond the NHL and Players' Association agreeing on a new economic system.
McKenzie further explained:

For argument's sake, let's declare the Philadelphia Flyers' unsigned draftee duo of Carter and Richards as unrestricted free agents. They can sign with any team in any league in the world.

Well, maybe not. The NHL is in the midst of a lockout. Individual NHL clubs are not permitted to conduct business as usual. NHL teams cannot sign players right now. If they did, they can't register the contract with the league. Could a renegade team break ranks and sign Carter or Richards, mount a legal challenge against the NHL?

It's possible, I suppose, but if that happens, we've got a much bigger story than the fate of Carter and Richards. A renegade act of that magnitude during the lockout might well spell the end of the lockout. I'm not holding my breath on that one.
Made sense to me. Even if Richards, Carter, other unsigned draft picks or NHL restricted free agents win the right to shop themselves as UFAs, no NHL clubs could sign them until a new CBA is in place. Most importantly, no NHL team will "break ranks" to sign them and put the league into a position of weakness. No NHL owner will risk becoming a pariah amongst his fellow owners at this state of the game. But Dowbiggin, who's been covering the NHL labour follies for years for the Herald and CBC television, as well as published two important books on the subject, reports of an interesting twist:

(I)f the powerful International Management Group has its way, that free agency would not be affected by any CBA reached at a later date, leaving their clients free to sign where they wish whenever the NHL rises from the dead. For Calgary's management, so loyal to (NHL Commissioner Gary) Bettman's strategy, that result could well mean ta-ta to Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Kris Chucko, its 2004 first-round pick. In short, the league would be turned upside down. That's certainly the implied threat that is being delivered to the league this week by IMG -- which represents (among others) super prospects Sidney Crosby and Gilbert Brule, as well as NHL stars Joe Thornton, Mats Sundin, Robyn Regehr, Sergei Fedorov and the Sedin twins. IMG is in the process of sending a letter to the NHL, reserving its rights to have a number of its clients declared unrestricted free agents no later than July 1 of this year.

"Due to the current labour situation and the actions of the NHL," writes
Terrence Prince of IMG, "it is not 'business as usual' and, accordingly, it
is inappropriate for the parties to act as if it is 'business as usual.' "

The NHL's bind has to do with its obligations under the previous CBA for
signing or re-signing players.

According to IMG, "all unsigned players who were drafted in 2003 and 2004 will be free of all current NHL team restraints unless they are either signed by June 1, 2005 (in the case of the 2003-drafted players) or receive a bona fide offer by June 1, 2005 (in the case of the 2004-drafted players)."

Group 2 players such as Iginla, Thornton, Rick Nash, Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk must receive a qualifying offer by June 30 to see their rights retained by current clubs. But Bettman has forbidden teams to negotiate with any locked-out players. There will be no contracts or qualifying offers; IMG will argue that makes them free agents without restraint.

IMG is indeed a very powerful agency representing some very important NHL and prospective NHL players. When they speak about the status of their clients, other hockey people, including other player agents, sit up and take note. So what, you ask? IMG can rattle the cage all they want, but that still doesn't matter since no NHL team can sign their players even if they manage to legally win for those RFA and unsigned prospect clients the right to declare UFA status. After all, and Dowbiggin points this out, the NHL has already stated that the status of those players would be "grandfathered" into the next CBA to prevent teams from poaching off each other.

But as Dowbiggin notes:

It is less clear, however, how the league will stop any legal findings in the absence of a new collective agreement. What's to stop Thornton from signing with an American Hockey League team as a free agent in the absence of a new CBA, then choosing his favourite NHL club later when play resumes?

Again, critics will claim that the new CBA will determine that. But not if those players have been legally declared unrestricted free agents prior to the signing of the next CBA.

To underscore the seriousness of its position on free agents and unsigned draftees, IMG has retained the services of high-priced labour expert, lawyer Jim Quinn of Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York. While the NHL could challenge the authority of agents on this issue, it knows Quinn is a power-play expert on sports labour issues. (Oh good, more lawyers.)
"The NHL is taking the position that our players' contract years expire, but clubs can keep their rights over players indefinitely," says IMG's
Calgary-based J.P. Barry. "The NHL cancels the draft, but still decides to
have a combine for undrafted amateurs. These are patently inconsistent
positions, so we decided to retain a specialist in this area to provide us
with some deeper specialized analysis.''

And there's that interesting twist I noted earlier.

If IMG mounts a successful legal challange against the NHL on this, and wins the right for current RFA players and unsigned prospects to become unrestricted free agents before a new CBA is implemented, there probably won't be anything the league could do to prevent this from happening. The league wouldn't be able to legally "grandfather" those players rights back to their former clubs under a new CBA. You can beat NHLPA director Bob Goodenow won't be stumping to have that clause included. After all, he successfully fought for unrestricted free agency for his players in the 1994-95 lockout. That has become a sacred cow to the players. It won't bother Goodenow or his constituents if IMG wins the right for their clients to become UFAs prior to the signing of the new CBA, and should they become successful, it'll mean RFA players and unsigned prospects of other player agents/agencies could also win the right to be declared UFAs.

It would be then up to those players to decide if they want to re-sign with their former clubs or test the UFA waters for a better deal. As Dowbiggin noted in his column, this would have the potential to turn the NHL upside-down. Imagine the horror for the Philadelphia Flyers if Richards and Carter are allowed to skate away with no deal and then end up signing elsewhere. Worse, imagine the jolt to the Bruins if Joe Thornton, their franchise players who is in the prime of his career, was lost as an unrestricted free agent. How about the nightmare scenario for the Atlanta Thrashers in losing one or possibly both of their young franchise players, Kovalchuk and Heatley.

Or the kick to the gut of Flames fans to see 2004 playoff heroes Iginla, Kiprusoff and Regehr vanish only to reappear playing somewhere else. Now of course, that's assuming IMG can legally win UFA status for their players. If not, then nothing changes, fans in those aforementioned cities breathe easier, and everything stays pretty much the same. Yes, it's speculation, and could perhaps have little or no bearing on the current labor talks. But then, why would IMG take this route if there was little or nothing to gain?

Let's face if, if IMG does seek legal recourse in this matter, it'll provide the NHLPA with a key bit of leverage to use against the league in negotiations. If IMG's challenge becomes reality, if there's a possibility RFAs and unsigned prospects could be cut loose before a CBA is in place, it would result, once a new CBA is in place, in a free agent signing frenzy the like of which we've never seen. Such a feeding frenzy would sorely test the limits of the new CBA, particularly the supposedly "hard cap". If there were a loophole to be exploited, you know a general manager or a player agent would find it, and then, whoooo-doggie, the floodgates open.

Just how much "restraint" do you think big market clubs would have, knowing that UFAs in their prime like Thornton, Iginla and Kovalchuk were on the open market? Or promising young prospects like Carter and Richards Still, this could be little more than an empty threat by IMG, merely a pressure tactic to be used by the PA against the league and the team owners. It's uncertain how quickly the wheels would turn for the player agency in their pursuit of this objectivity, indeed, it could take months, by which time, a new CBA could be in place and this becomes a moot point. Bettman and the team owners had better hope this is nothing but an empty threat by IMG, because if it isn't...Uh-oooh!


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