NHL Roundtable: P.K. Subban in Habs pantheon; cap relief issue; more
Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers will sit down for a discussion of the hockey world's hot button issues. This week, Brian Cazeneuve, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir discuss the importance of P.K. Subban (the subject of a feature story by Michael Farber in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated), the future of the NHL's Olympic participation, the Kings' salary cap situation, and Hockey Hall of Fame oversights. First up:
• SI projects P.K. Subban as the recipient of the torch passed down by Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. Hyperbole ... or a fair assessment of his potential as a franchise-defining figure?
BRIAN CAZENEUVE: P.K. Subban may be the most exciting player to put on a Canadiens jersey since Lafleur, but something as difficult to define as torch-holding worthiness surely must include some sort of sublime performance in leading your team to multiple championships. That could certainly happen with Subban by the time his career is done. The Habs are competitive enough and the league is balanced enough so that it could even happen this season. But until Subban holds the Stanley Cup in both hands, I don't think we should think about him holding anything from Flanders Fields in the way that Richard, Beliveau and Lafleur did.
SARAH KWAK: I don't know. I think P.K. is kind of the perfect torchbearer for this generation. I think he represents so much of what the NHL is right now—warts and all. He's flashy, and he knows it, but he's also very aware of his own shortcomings. There's an element of his game and persona, where he's out to prove himself and prove a point to his haters. But when all is said and done, will we look back at the Montreal Canadiens of the 2010s and '20s, and think of Subban? And will it be with the reverence and awe that accompanies only championships? That remains to be seen, and that's the only way, really, to put him in that category with those players.
ALLAN MUIR: Sure, Subban has that larger-than-life charisma that can captivate a fanbase, even one as spoiled by greatness as Montreal's, but I think he's lacking a couple defining elements. You touch on titles, Brian, and that's definitely part of it. He doesn't belong in the conversation with those guys until he has a couple of rings on his fingers and those are a lot harder to come by in a 30-team league than they were back in the heyday of the Rocket and Le Gros Bill. But the bigger obstacle is that he's not French. Even as society in Quebec becomes less homogeneous, it still reveres Francophone heroes with unique passion. P.K. is one of them by virtue of the laundry not birth. He may go down as one of the greats in franchise history, but I don't think he'll ever truly become an icon.
• A league source told a Toronto radio personality on Monday that the NHL is done with the Olympics. You buying into that story? What are your thoughts if that's the way it plays out?
This is a financial issue in the NHL’s eyes. The feeling on the part of the league and many general managers is that the NHL provides players and coaches in order to make it possible for the world’s best to appear at the Olympics, and yet the NHL doesn’t get its fair share of revenues, image rights, even complimentary tickets and hotel rooms. There is also always the chance of a John Tavares-like injury to a key player. The World Cup of Hockey does not and never will carry the same meaning or weight as the Olympics with either fans or players. But the league can control the game schedule and TV schedule with that event and also grab the revenue, sharing it just with the players association.
Having said that, I think a lot depends on location, location, location. The next two Winter Olympics will be held in Asia (PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018 and either Beijing, China or Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2022). The NHL will almost certainly stay away from those because there won’t be enough cross-benefit to the league with games starting at 3 a.m. on the East Coast and players flying so many miles that the league has to break for an extra day or two at both the beginning and end of the Games. If a U.S. city does not win the rights to stage the Summer Games in 2024, then a North American city such as Quebec City or Denver would have a leg up in the bidding for 2026. That’s when the NHL would come back to the Olympics.
That pretty much sums it up. You can't blame the league for wanting to exert greater control over its assets and that's something the IOC isn't inclined to relinquish. It's clear that they're paving the way for the severing of ties by rolling out an ambitious program geared toward increasing the league's international profile. That starts with the rebooted World Cup and probably extends to a Champions League-type club competition involving teams from the NHL and other top leagues. We'll also probably see more regular season games staged in key international markets, and not just at the beginning of the season, either. Ultimately, though, these decisions require a partnership with the players, and the lure of wearing their country's colors on the world's biggest stage is pretty powerful. I get that South Korea is less than ideal for television, but players are drawn to this event by patriotism not marketing opportunities. They'll expect their voices to be heard before a final decision is made.
Yeah, you know, I remember asking an NHL exec about future Olympic participation right after the last CBA negotiation session wrapped. I was told that the issue wasn't written into the contract, that it would be up for discussion as a separate issue in each cycle. Right away, I knew it wasn't for Sochi that they did that, but rather for PyeongChang and beyond. I still think the players would love to go, but I also understand where the league and owners are coming from on the issue. That said, two things: I hate the idea of the league picking and choosing which Olympics it would like to be a part of and which it will sit out. I think it has to be an all-or-nothing deal. If you want to pull out of Olympic participation, then that is it, and there is no turning back because "Oh look, now they're having the Games somewhere convenient!" By doing that, I think it only cheapens the integrity of the Olympic competition over time. Would we have to asterisk the winners in years without NHLers? Would it hurt the game of hockey or the NHL's image to be seen as cherry-pickers who want to grow the game globally, and yet, have no interest in doing so in Asia? If they want to sit out for totally justifiable reasons, then so be it, but their reasoning shouldn't depend solely on time zones. And secondly, I have to repeat what Caz said: The World Cup is not, and never will be, the Olympic Games.
• It's been a month since Slava Voynov was suspended indefinitely in the wake of allegations of domestic violence, and while few are crying out to see his punishment ended there are some who feel that the league needs to address how his paid absence is affecting a Kings team that is struggling to ice a full roster and remain salart cap compliant. Does L.A. GM Dean Lombardi have grounds for requesting cap relief? If so, how should the league address his complaint?
It isn’t the Kings’ fault that one of their its players may have done something horrible off the ice. The league could handle this by allowing some sort of cap relief with a required minimum absence for a player whose transgression leads to a request for such relief. The league would need to structure this—and you know the PA would insist on it—in such a way that a team couldn't abuse the option if it felt that a player wasn’t living up to his contract. In other words, there may not be a permanent solution to this issue until the next CBA.
Yeah, that's the flip side of this that few fans are talking about. It's all but impossible to game the cap the way it's written but if there were a loophole to be exploited you can bet it would be. That's a trap the league doesn't want to fall into here and that's why they're talking "cap integrity" and holding the line. But there's nothing wrong with adapting to an unforeseen situation like this one by sitting down with the PA and hammering out a mutually agreeable solution. Lombardi was being facetious when he insinuated that it's unfair that teams have to build a cushion under the cap in case one of their players turns out to be a kleptomaniac or a bank robber, but his point is valid. It's tough enough to manage the cap under the best of circumstances. GMs deserve protection against a variable like this.
The Voynov situation is indeed getting sticky, on a lot of fronts. Should the Kings get some kind of salary cap relief? Probably, yes. But it's just like you guys said: there really does have to be some kind of safeguard against the abuse of such a rule in the future.
• We finally saw the late Pat Burns inducted into the Hall of Fame on Monday night. Who now tops your list of players or builders whose admission is long overdue?
I don’t think Eric Lindros belongs. His star was shining too briefly. So what makes him different than Peter Forsberg? Several reasons. Forsberg won the Stanley Cup, made his teammates better, wasn’t a toxic influence on a locker room and he also changed the parameters for European players who could be physical power forwards just like North Americans. As for others who could have been in by now, what about Steve Larmer, Rick Middleton, Mike Richter, Claude Lemieux, Theo Fleury, Dave Andreychuk or Kevin Lowe? I’m not saying that one of those guys jumps out as a huge omission. Some will mention Curtis Joseph, Keith Tkachuk or Phil Housley. None of those guys won much in their careers and I might skip them. I’ll be eager to see how long it takes Chris Osgood to get in. I could see it taking a while, but I think he’s deserving. Mark Recchi will be in eventually, too. Want a name from the past? Where is Rogie Vachon?
Yuck! I mean, those guys were all great players but compared to the legends of the game they fall way short in my book. A few of them posted some staggering career numbers, but those were the result of longevity ... and I like my HOFers to be transcendent. That's why I'd admit a guy like Lindros who dominated the game in a way that no one before him ever had instead of a garbageman like Andreychuk (probably an bit unfair, but you get my point). Other than Big E, the biggest oversight in the player category has to be Sergei Makarov. The guy only led the Russian league in scoring nine times, was MVP three times, and he won gold at two Olympics and eight World Championships. Oh, and he scored 384 points in the NHL despite his arrival at age of 31. It's criminal that he's not in there. I'd like to see his old linemate Vladimir Krutov get in as well. He ate his way out of an NHL contract, but on the international stage he was beyond brilliant. And in the builders category it has to be Don Cherry. Love him or hate him, there's no denying his impact on the culture of the game. It's a shame he's had to wait this long.
I sort of get the whole "Eric Lindros's star shined bright but too briefly" logic, but it's not really his fault that his career was cut short because of concussions. (I don't like to blame the victim, sorry.) Look, he averaged 1.14 points per game over 13 years, which ranks 19th all time. The only player with a better average who is also absent from the Hall is Swedish legend Kent Nilsson. Lindros perhaps is unpopular, but his dominance for a time was undeniable. I saw people asking rhetorically on Twitter when the HOF selections were announced that in the '90s if you had a choice of going up against Mike Modano or Eric Lindros, who would you choose? I think Lindros deserves to be recognized.