2012 Off-Season

First off, I do not have a horse in this race between the NHL and NHLPA. I say a pox on both of their houses for making fans have to go through another CBA fiasco. In the end, the owners and the players will both be wins with hockey fans being the ultimate losers – either in terms of a lockout or higher prices at arenas.

The NHL’s recent counterproposal to the NHLPA’s first proposal caused a sensation because the League did not include a salary rollback – like they did following the 2005 Lockout. Way back then, the NHL instituted a 24% salary rollback – something they included in their initial offer to the players as the NHL looked to knock the players’ percentage of hockey-related income from 57% to 46%.

I am not going to delve any deeper into the figures being thrown around by the NHL and the NHLPA because I am not a labor negotiator, nor do I play one on television. Besides all of these numbers and contract negotiations are giving me agita.

The one thing I will say is that both Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are receiving a lot of heat from the media and the fans – rightly so. However, when you take a deeper look at their roles they are merely the pawns of the groups that have hired them.

Like it or not Bettman is the best Commissioner the NHL has ever had. Now before you start coming after me with the torches and pitchforks you have to realize he is also the ONLY Commissioner the NHL has ever had. Prior to Gary leaving basketball for hockey, the NHL’s figurehead was known as NHL President as the power was maintained by a select few owners.

When you think about it, nothing has changed in the NHL other than the figurehead’s title. The league is still run by a select few owners (e.g. Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider) and if you think Bettman isn’t taking his marching orders from the hardline owners, well, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Conversely, the players knew what they were doing when they brought in Donald Fehr and his brother Steve. While salary escalation proves otherwise, the players are still smarting from the “beating” they took during the last negotiations and they wanted to make sure they are perceived as the winners this time around.

Fehr is great at deflection so he should be able to use his skills to get the players the “win” they want. If you don’t believe that Fehr is good at public relations and deflecting, then how is it Bettman and the NHL gets grief for erasing the 2004/2005 NHL season, but it was Fehr and Major League Baseball that was the first league to wipeout its playoffs back in 1994?

Sadly the NHL’s only leverage is to lock the players out – even though the NHLPA would be more than willing to start the 2012/2013 season. The problem is that the leverage then switches to the players with the owners fearing a repeat of 1992 when the players staged a nine-day strike on April 1, 1992.

Enough with the millionaires and billionaires, let’s get back to the NHL’s latest proposal.

According to Kevin Allen of USA Today, here is how the NHL’s salary cap would look under the owner’s newest proposal: “The NHL proposal calls for a fixed salary cap of $58 million next season and then caps of $60 million and $62 million. Under the plan, the league projected a fourth-year salary cap of $64.2 million, a fifth year at $67.6 million and the final season’s cap of $71.1 million.”

The one point that does need to be looked it is how NHL teams would get down to the NHL’s proposed $58 million salary cap. CapGeek.com estimates that 16 of the league’s 30 teams are already over the salary cap – including the New York Rangers who stand at $58.5 million.

While that might not seem that bad, remember, that figure does not include Michael Del Zotto. The Blueshirts could gain some wiggle room based on the Long Term Injured Reserve status of Marian Gaborik and Michael Sauer.

Amnesty buyouts would not give the Rangers much relief because the above-mentioned cap hit does not include Wade Redden’s $6.5 million cap hit. However, it does include Chris Drury’s $1.67 million buyout hit.

As a last resort, the Rangers could contemplate buying out a Brian Boyle ($1.7 million), a Taylor Pyatt ($1.55 million) or a Michael Rupp ($1.5 million). However, that does not help much when you look at the cap hits of possible replacements like J.T. Miller ($1.24 million) and Christian Thomas ($900,000).

This where my idea comes into play as a way to help alleviate the salary cap dilemma that would arise should the cap drop down to $58 million neighborhood. It is a simple idea that borrows ideas from the NBA and the NFL.

Gary Bettman’s former employer, the NBA, allows teams to go over their salary cap into to re-sign their own free agents – the so-called “Larry Bird Rule”. The NFL uses the “franchise” tag to retain unrestricted free agents if certain conditions are met.

I propose that the NHL institute a “franchise tag” that an organization could use on one of its players. That player’s salary would NOT count against the team’s salary cap. In order to prevent teams from taking advantage of this “loophole” during free agency, the franchise tag could only be applied to a player drafted or solely developed by that team.

For example, the Rangers could place the franchise tag on Henrik Lundqvist and remove his $6.875 million salary from the team’s cap hit because he was drafted and developed by the Rangers.

Along the same vein, the Rangers could decide to franchise Dan Girardi because he was developed by the Rangers as an undrafted free agent. A player like Marian Gaborik (signed as a free agent) or Rick Nash (acquired in a trade) would not be eligible for the franchise tag.

Conversely, a team could decide NOT to use the franchise tag if doing so would drop them below the NHL’s salary cap floor.

If a franchise player were to be traded or leave as a free agent, the team could designate another eligible player as their franchise player and said player would not be eligible for the franchise tag.

This idea offers teams near the salary cap ceiling a chance to “enjoy” some cap relief while allowing teams some ability to retain their own players. In a weird way it rewards teams for developing their own players rather than relying on free agency and trades.

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You just do not go out and replace 40-goal scorers at the drop of hat – even if it is the Broadway. However, Glen Sather and John Tortorella will have to work hard to try and do just that with Marian Gaborik facing surgery in New York on June 6 to repair a torn labrum.

The first word of a Gaborik injury filtered out during the Rangers breakup day on Monday. Gaborik was very coy about answering any questions about an injury or potential surgery. The official word did not come today when Gaborik gave an interview with a Slovakian newspaper.

In the interview, Gaborik said he played the last two months of the season with the injury. While medication and pain injections lessened the pain, he did not have full strength in the shoulder.

While Gaborik mentioned being out five to six months, the New York Rangers official press release did not set a timetable for his return, nor did it specify exactly when the injury occurred.

Even if the Blueshirts go outside the organization and sign the likes of Zach Parise as an UFA or trade for the likes of a Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash or Bobby Ryan, the Rangers are still going to need ANOTHER forward to help revive New York’s inconsistent offense.

While a return to form from Brandon Dubinsky and a full season of Chris Kreider will be big steps forward, the Rangers might still have to look inward to find an offensive spark.

One of those inward possibilities will not be Mats Zuccarello – especially after he took to Twitter to thank Rangers fans for the support. All indications are that Zuccarello has a deal lined up in Russia with the KHL.

The stars could be aligning for a dark horse candidate who just signed his first NHL contract. Undrafted Marek Hrivik might be the biggest beneficiary to Gaborik’s injury.

Like Gaborik, the 6-foot-1 and 195 pound Hrivik is a native of Slovakia. He was eligible for the 2010 NHL Draft and was on the radar for various scouting services. The Hockey News ranked him as their 91st best prospect, International Scouting Services rated him as their #104 prospect, and NHL Central Scouting ranked him as the 194th North American skater.

Here is what ISS wrote about the soon to be 20-year-old LW in their 2010 Draft Guide:

“His outstanding play down the stretch coupled with the fact he kept elevating his game throughout the playoffs has secured his ranking here at ISS for the upcoming 2010 NHL draft. Hrivik has good hands and handles the puck well around the perimeter. He has good size and quick shot. He can make plays in confined areas and under pressure but sometimes handles the puck without much determination. Needs to add that willingness to compete and do anything to score to his resume. Would like to see him play more physical and get to the net.”

After spending 2008/2009 with the Slovakian Under-20 team, Hrivik came to North America and played three years in the QMJHL with Moncton – averaging 31 goals and 37 assists. Hrivik was Moncton’s first round pick in the 2009 CHL Import Draft.

During his Junior years, Hrivik represented Slovakia in the 2009 and 2011 World Junior Championships. In 2010, he helped lead Moncton to a Memorial Cup appearance.

Hrivik received two training camp invitations the last two years: Columbus in 2010 and Phoenix in 2011.

Nick Perri wrote the following description on SNY’s Rangers Blog on April 29, “Hrivik possesses an abundance of skills, including his speed, strength, quick-release, and hockey sense in all zones.”

Hrivik signed an Amateur Tryout Agreement with the Rangers AHL affiliate following the completion of Moncton’s season. Hrivik played eight regular season games for the Connecticut Whale, scoring one goal. His play improved dramatically in the playoffs as he scored five goals and 4 assists in nine playoff games.

“He is a versatile guy who came to Connecticut at the end of the year and earned a contract,” Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said in the team’s official press release. “He has a good skill level, and a really good head for the game.”

Some fans have wondered how good Hrivik really could be given that he went undrafted. Then again, Rangers undrafted All-Star Dan Girardi showed that scouting and drafting is an inexact science at best.

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