Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask the Globe's roster of hockey writers to answer a question on the hot topic of the day.
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Today's question: Should the NHL and the players association amend the CBA to require all teams to dress 18 skaters for every game?
I do think roster limits need to be introduced to prevent teams from playing salary-cap games, but I'm not sure that they necessarily have to set at 18 every night. When I started covering hockey some 30-plus years ago, teams dressed 17 position players and two goalies - and coaches needed to make a choice. Either they ran five defencemen and four lines; or six defencemen, three lines, plus a penalty killing specialist and an enforcer. It worked fine, and given how coaching staffs were a lot smaller than they are today, it forced the men in the fedoras to work a little harder on the bench, to get the match-ups they wanted.
Roy McGregor said it a couple of weeks back and he's right - you don't necessarily need 18 skaters a night to ice a competitive team, and if you cut back, well, the player you drop is usually the one that's causing the most mayhem anyway.
The problem is that the rule that applies to roster size is too vague as it is currently written. Teams are asked to dress 18 plus 2 goalies, except in cases of emergency. But what is an emergency? To New Jersey, last week, before Brian Rolston went on the long-term injured reserve list to temporarily solve their salary-cap issues, they had an emergency that could be blamed in equal parts on injuries and poor cap management. For one forgettable (and losing) night, they went with 15 position players. That to me is the absolute minimum that you can get away with, in this day and age, given the speed of the game, and its physical demands. Go any lower and suddenly, players risk injury because they are being overplayed.
Accordingly, if the league and the NHLPA were of a mind to amend the rule on the fly, in the same way they changed the rule relating to the back-loading of contracts, I would introduce minimums and maximums. The maximum would be 18. The minimum would be 15. Anything lower (14 skaters, 13, 12 even) would make it look like a pick-up game at the local rink - Mickey Mouse in other words, which is not how the best league in the world wants to be known or described, at any time.
To continue where Eric left off, the NHL is not yet a beer league, although the actions of the people who run it often make it look otherwise. And so it is when it comes to the roster rule.
The NHL has yet to descend to the level where a team cannot ice a full complement because Henrik's wife kicked up a fuss about him playing hockey for a third night that week and sawed his stick in half (45 years ago, someone did this to one of my dad's teammates) or Daniel's boss made him work late or Roberto misread the schedule, which meant an emergency call to Rent-A-Goalie, but it sure seems headed that way.
Agreed, dressing less than 20 players for a game is not a calamity. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson and others said in the wake of the Devils fiasco that players on their top three lines would love it because of the extra ice time. But to dress less than the roster called for because your owner and manager can't figure out the salary cap is bush-league in the extreme. This goes double when it is shrugged off by the commissioner and his sidekick, who can get away with this because the players union is still impotent.
A minimum needs to be written in stone. Eric's suggestion of 15 would work, although I'm inclined to say 17. But an allowance should be made for the (very) rare circumstance beyond a team's control like natural disasters and the like.
Dressing 18 skaters, and two goalies, for every game should be mandated and enforced. Good grief, this is the NHL we're talking about, not the Austrian second league.
NHL teams have the bodies, and if they manage their money properly they should have the cap room to call up a minor leaguer and get him to a game on time. If they can't - if they have to dress only 14 skaters as the Calgary Flames once did - then it's their fault and they should be chastised, penalized or forced to read the CBA in a dimly-lit room for 48 hours.
Guess I'll join the consensus - yup, teams should have to dress a minimum number of skaters, whether it's 16 or 18 or some other number. The PA's going to want to protect jobs, after all, in fact, you'd think they'd be going bananas about this stuff.
But salary caps are all about chicanery and gaming the system (dumping one's costly mistakes in the minors or the KHL anyone?), so if past practice is any indication, some clever legalist, probably in the employ of the Devils, will find a loophole. And pardon the cynicism and union agitprop, but might this whole cap/roster crunch thing be of a piece with the seldom-voiced desire on the part of some owners to do away with guaranteed contracts? Sure, we'll dress 23 every night, but it would sure help if we had the flexibility of cutting underperforming big earners loose à la NFL.
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