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Detroit Red Wings executive Jim Devellano (The Canadian Press)

Detroit Red Wings executive Jim Devellano

(The Canadian Press)

Little need for collusion in today's NHL Add to ...

Is there any other milieu with as many unwritten rules as hockey?

First there was this guy blowing the lid of the ‘unwritten’ enforcer’s code, now we have Detroit Red Wings executive Jimmy Devellano talking about an ‘unwritten rule’ regarding offer sheets to restricted free agents.

Funny that the just-expired CBA and the NHL rule book together total nearly 800 pages - but nevertheless neglect to cover some pretty important stuff.

If you haven’t heard about Jimmy D’s sheep and cattle line by now, you probably need to click on another story.

But if you have, Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman has written a very interesting and thought-provoking blog post about Devellano’s remarks, which might be considered a gaffe in that he accidentally revealed a deeper truth about the league.

The gist of Elliotte’s piece: Devellano’s remarks could be interpreted as evidence there is collusion among the owners, which might be a matter of sensitivity, say, in an ongoing labour dispute with the players.

“Is Devellano’s comment proof enough for Fehr to file a grievance or take it to an outside court? Does he try to use the threat of it as leverage in CBA negotiations? Is the NHL even worried about it, ready to argue that it was simply an off-the-cuff comment not to be taken seriously?” Friedman asks. “I don’t know the answer to those questions since I haven't spoken to those at the top of the NHL or NHLPA. Understand this, however - the ‘cattle’ comment got all the hype. But behind the scenes, it’s the ‘unwritten rule’ that’s being talked about.”

Elliotte is as well-connected a hockey reporter as there is, and he raises an interesting point.

I’m prepared to believe the worst of professional sports leagues and their owners, but conspiracies are hard to orchestrate and my initial instinct is to answer the basic question (is it actionable?) with a ‘no.’

There are a couple of reasons for this.

In the case of baseball’s collusion scandal, there was ample evidence of the owners deliberately holding down salary inflation in violation of some pretty specific contract language (as Elliotte points out).

But the NHL’s average salary has increased by almost 50 per cent in the past eight years, since the offer sheet process was codified in the post-lockout CBA.

And while offer sheets aren’t exactly common, there have been enough of them since 2005 involving good players (Shea Weber, Nick Hjalmarsson, David Backes, Tomas Vanek, Dustin Penner, Ryan Kesler) to suggest that if the owners are colluding, they’re not very good at it.

True, there were more offer sheets (13) tendered between the 1994 and 2004 lockouts than in the eights seasons since then.

But that’s because the NHLPA and the owners negotiated punitive provisions in the CBA addressing that issue.

In a salary cap era there aren’t a ton of teams out there with gobs of money to spend and a willingness to burn a bunch of high draft picks at the same time.

In Jonathon Gatehouse’s excellent biography of Bettman, The Instigator, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke - he of the barn fight taunt when Edmonton signed Penner to a fat offer sheet from Anaheim - makes an interesting point about the offer sheet dynamic.

Burke points out the trend of young players signing boffo contract extensions as their entry-level deals expire to forestall offer sheets (see: Hall, Eberle, Seguin, Tavares, Doughty, Stamkos, etc., all the way back to Ryan Getzlaf, who Burke signed to a long-term contract at age 22).

“I’m not sure the right guys are getting paid in this system,” Burke told Gatehouse. “The Vanek and Penner offer sheets changed all of us, and now we lock these guys up.” (Full disclosure: I provided the author with some minor assistance for a portion of the background work)

The beady-eyed among you will recall that Burke threatened to offer-sheet Phil Kessel before swinging one of the more one-sided trades in recent NHL history to spring him out of Boston. But he didn’t.

Not because there’s collusion, but because there doesn’t need to be.

 

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