About a month ago, we warned you that New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello seemed to be choosing his words oh so carefully regarding his slapdown by NHL headquarters when it charged him with circumventing the Collective Bargaining Agreement after his signing of free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
Despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary and a statement from an "independent" arbitrator who exonerted Lamoriello and the Devils' ownership, the NHL ruled that the GM had indeed acted outside the bounds of the CBA in initially signing Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million dollar deal. The league then fined the Devils some $3 million and took away two draft choices, including a 2011 first-rounder.
It was a particularly harsh punishment made even harsher by the fact that the league had allowed similarly structured deals to stand. Given the circumstances, one could argue that the NHL picked its spot in nailing Lamoriello and the Devils after looking the other way on contracts put forth by some pretty heavy hitters in Commissioner Gary Bettman's circle of ownership, including Philadelphia's Ed Snider, Boston's Jeremy Jacobs and the heirs to Bill Wirtz's hockey empire in Chicago.
At about the same time, large segments of the media started accusing Lamoriello, one of the most successful GMs of the last two decades and a man whose teams have been as accomplished as those of media darling Ken Holland's Detroit Red Wings, of suddenly being stupid and incapable of managing the NHL's salary cap. It was an odd charge, given that the cap is not only largely Lamoriello's creation, but because he, unlike many of his GM colleagues, was the first to exploit some of its loopholes, including the ability to avoid a cap hit by sending NHL players to the minors. (Scoring star Alexander Mogilny being the obvious trend-setting example.)
Which brings us to Lamoriello's statement of a month ago that the Kovalchuk ruling was a "non-subject right now" (the right now a somewhat veiled threat that the battle with the NHL's New York office, from the Devils' point of view, wasn't over) as well as his subsequent action of dressing fewer than the league-mandated 18 skaters and two goaltenders for regular season games.
Injuries and the fact that the Devils were right up against the cap ceiling of $59.4 million at the start of the season undoubtedly played a role in Lamoriello's decision to shorten his bench. But one can't help thinking that it's also Lamoriello's way of exposing the NHL's history of what seems to be selective prosecution in the Kovalchuk case.
You see, the league does have a rule regarding roster size, but as it so often does, it left itself an out in case a franchise ran into a "situation." The rule is 18 skaters and two goalies, but the league allows for "emergency conditions." It doesn't exactly state what those conditions are, but the Calgary Flames last season were allowed to play a short bench for a fistful of games because they, too, had injury problems and were up against the cap.
That decision created howls of protest in the media, the NHL Players Association, and from GMs who felt the Flames were doing everything from bending the rules to suit their situation to denying fans the opportunity to see a full squad compete on a nightly basis. There were even complaints from GMs that Calgary's short-bench tactics disrupted the competitive balance in the Northwest Division and Western Conference with a definite impact on several teams fighting for a playoff berth that couldn't count on the Flames playing a competitive game when they were chronically short-handed.
It's impossible to say whether the NHL agreed, but it did look the other way, allowing the Flames some room under the "emergency provisions" clause even though the emergency went on for weeks.
Fast-forward to this season and look at the Devils. Injuries to defenseman Anton Volchenkov and forward Brian Rolston along with a suspension to winger Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (since demoted to the minors), forced Lamoriello to make a decision. He could have dumped a high-salaried but aging player in the minors a la Mogilny or as Rangers GM Glen Sather recently did with Wade Redden, or he could shorten his bench. He chose to shorten the bench.
Lamoriello, who was in Buffalo on Wednesday night when his Devils beat the Sabres 1-0 in a game played at playoff level intensity, declined all comment on this matter. But it's clear to this observer that he's backing up his "non-subject right now" threat with a ploy designed to embarrass the NHL powers who nailed him after overlooking similar contracts and lure the NHLPA into filing a grievance.
The PA is on record as "currently reviewing [New Jersey's actions] to make sure the CBA is being adhered to," PA director of communications Jonathan Weatherdon said in a recent statement. Translation: if this keeps up and players lose jobs and income because of it, we will take any and all actions necessary to make it stop.
That's a problem for the NHL in that it has already set a precedent in looking favorably on what the Flames did last season. How and why the league would do that if shorting the bench would upset the competitive balance in the Western Conference is an issue the NHL is eventually going to have to explain and perhaps even defend in a grievance hearing. Should an arbitrator rule that the NHL has violated some aspect of the CBA, it would appear that Lamoriello and the Devils will have their revenge.
Along the way, Lamoriello's decision doesn't seem to have hurt the competitiveness of his team. It lost a short-bench (15 skaters) game to Pittsburgh, but the score was close (3-1) and the Devils' forwards seem to enjoy playing a three-line rotation that gives them lots of ice time. It was much the same on Wednesday vs. Buffalo where fans were treated to a first-rate goaltending battle between New Jersey's multi-Vezina-winner Martin Brodeur and the current trophy holder, Ryan Miller. The game went to overtime before it was decided 1-0 on a goal-scorer's tally by Kovalchuk.
As far as being a handicapped team, the Devils were able to dress 16 skaters (recently-signed former Sabre Adam Mair took the place of Letourneau-Leblond, who cleared waivers and was assigned to the AHL) and they outskated Buffalo for the bulk of the contest, especially in the first period when they outshot the Sabres 15-2.
Lamoriello should be able to keep this up for awhile. The recent groin injury to Rolston is the dreaded sports hernia. After surgery today, Rolston will be out four to six weeks and undoubtedly go on long-term injured reserve, which will buy the Devils some serious cap relief. The way Bettman has set things up, particularly after the green light he gave Calgary last season, playing under the mandatory roster limit is a form of "cap maintenance," not circumvention.
Though not admitting to anything, Lamoriello is forcing that issue down the collective throats of the NHLPA, which in turn is causing the NHL to swallow hard. It's unlikely the PA will accept the dubious and undefined "emergency situation" as something beyond a club's control after a week or two of short-benching. Should this matter drag on until Don Fehr is officially ratified as the new executive director of the NHLPA, a grievance appears inevitable. That would have the league defending itself for circumventing the CBA, the very thing it convicted Lamoriello of doing.
And it's not as if the PA wouldn't have a case. In addition to objecting to an extended "emergency," a goodly number of teams have pulled back from the maximum roster size of 23 players (18 skaters, two goalies to dress and three players who stay with the big club even though they aren't dressing for games). At the start of the season, at least eight teams were carrying just 22. A ninth, Buffalo, announced its intention to do so, but had to surrender the idea after buying out Tim Kennedy in an arbitration dispute and adding some free agents. That adds to the concerns of the NHLPA, which sees those moves as a blatant attempt to reduce roster numbers and payroll, actions that take jobs away from NHLPA members. And some people say Lou Lamoriello has suddenly gotten stupid?
I don't think so.
If anything, Lamoriello may be proving himself as the smartest man in the room, the one holding a mirror to an NHL office that seems to think selective prosecution is a tool that only works its way. His lineup decisions may well be a "non-subject right now," but his actions don't ring hollow to the league and the NHLPA.
Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in an attempt to explain what is obscene, once said, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced...but I know it when I see it. "
Well, good for Potter, because I know what I saw New York Islanders defenseman James Wisniewski do and, perhaps, say in the general direction of New York Rangers forward Sean Avery on Monday, and it's difficult to conclude that it rose to the level of an obscenity let alone a suspendable offense.
Wisniewski, responding to some apparent trash-talking, seemed to be suggesting through word of mouth and hand-to-mouth actions that Avery could perform a certain sex act if he were so inclined. The NHL, which has taken a role akin to the Thought Police after handing Avery a six-game suspension two seasons ago for derogatory and sexually related comments about his ex-girlfriends, immediately slapped Wisniewski with a two-game suspension.
You can suggest that the league, like others in pro sports, is stepping up its handling of misguided player actions with the intent of protecting girlfriends or innocent children who might be watching a game and asking their parents exactly what Wisniewski was doing, but the reality is that they are just protecting their products.
By making an action that apparently depicts oral sex a suspendable offense, the league is rightly serving notice on the more intellectually challenged members in its employ that having this type of action going out on national television and forever immortalized on YouTube is simply bad for business.
Thus, a two-game suspension. But where the league went horribly off message was when it handed down the suspension on the same day that it gave Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson a two-game sit-down for his hit from behind on Sabres forward Jason Pominville.
Not only was it a blatant charge and hit from behind, it came not long after the league released a DVD expressly stating that it wants this kind of shot out of its game. The NHL has, in fact, new rules to make certain that happens. To their credit, the on-ice officials made the correct call in handing Hjalmarsson a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct. Where the league fell horribly short was in the area of supplemental discipline.
Two games, the same amount one can now reasonably expect for upsetting the Thought Police, is the newly established standard for a hit from behind where a player is cut, concussed, wheeled off the ice on a gurney, stitched up and denied the opportunity to play until he can prove beyond baseline testing that he is completely concussion symptom-free for seven days.
And how's that working out for you, Marc Savard?
This is a hopelessly indefensible call by the NHL's Hockey Operations Department, equating something that offends the league's sensibilities with a major injury to a player who was in a completely defenseless position without the puck when the hit occurred. Sure, it's on a par with the two games the league handed to Alex Ovechkin last season for one of his indefensible hits on an opponent, but is that the norm now for players not named Marty McSorley, Chris Simon, Brad May or Steve Downie,all members of the 20-plus game ban club? Two is one game more than the league gave Montreal's Mike Cammalleri for his indefensible slash to the head of Wisniewski's teammate, Nino Niederreiter, but it hardly seems as if the punishment fits the crime.
In light of the new rule and the DVD that was sent out to all officials with the demand to enforce it, the league simply stepped into another mess of its own making. If it is serious about changing the culture of the game and making a player responsible for his actions when he delivers a dangerous illegal hit, then a suspension of five to 10 games would have been more logical.
To place Hjalmarsson's actions on a par with the moron antics of Wisniewski reinforces the oft-sent message that the NHL cares more about appearances and perceptions than it does about the physical well-being of its most valuable asset, its players.
Not exactly a good way to do business.
John MacLean of the Devils was awarded the game puck for his first victory as an NHL coach, a 1-0 OT triumph at Buffalo. That was no small present, as the puck also extended Martin Brodeur's all-time shutout total to 111. Previously, Brodeur had kept every one of his shutout pucks, going so far as to saw one in two and give half to Dominik Hasek when the then-Sabres goalie matched him in a scoreless tie at the Meadowlands back in 1996.
That's a better reward than Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman got after his team won its first game under his tenure. Yzerman missed the 5-3 win over Atlanta in order to attend his brother's wedding in Ottawa. He said he did get "a bunch of texts" from people throughout the NHL.
The Hjalmarsson hit ended Pominville's streak of consecutive games at 336...Marty Turco is the assumed No.1 netminder in Chicago, but it's worth pointing out that the Blackhawks started backup Corey Crawford for a win in Buffalo and followed it by giving him a second start against division rival Nashville when the team returned to Chicago. Crawford lost that game, 3-2, giving up a power-play goal in the final minute, but he was otherwise stellar in victory and defeat, serving notice that Turco should not feel secure. Turco, who has yet to record a win after two starts, said he's been around the NHL long enough to know that nothing should surprise him.
"The emphasis is on winning here and that's still my most favorite thing about the Blackhawks," Turco said. "We have a ton of games coming up and (Crawford) played well and we won. That's as far as I look at it."