The lockout we are currently experiencing is not unprecedented. As many have noted, Gary Bettman has presided over 3 work stoppages during his career as the NHL Commissioner. The owners definitely won the 2004 lockout resulting in significant changes to the way players are paid and to the rules of the game.
The owners recognized that after the lost season of 2004-2005 they needed to do something to restore fan interest. They believed that increasing scoring and opening up a game that had become dominated by the neutral zone trap (and its variants) was just the ticket. The changes they made to the rules aimed to emphasize the skill players, the speed players, and reduce the influence of the slow-footed goons who had turned the NHL into a snooze fest. Key among these rule changes were the following:
- Eliminate the two line offside pass. This rule change reduced the role of the red line to only determining icing. A player could now precede the puck across the red line and play it on a pass from inside the defensive zone. Long passes through the neutral zone would open up the ice and bring back speed to the game. Not everyone was sold on this change. Some argued that it would eliminate the forecheck as teams dropped back to take away the "hail Mary" pass to the forward on the opposite blue line.
- Decrease the size of the neutral zone. Want to kill the neutral zone trap? Kill the neutral zone! The intent was to make the attacking zones at both ends larger, allowing the attacking team more space to move the puck, increasing possession time, and setting up scoring opportunities.
- Institute the "tag up" on offside plays. If an attacking player was in the attacking zone when the puck was dumped in, allow that player to return to the neutral zone and "tag up" before re-entering the attacking zone. By eliminating extra stoppages, the league believed that flow of the game would improve.
- Crack down on delaying tactics. Prior to the lockout, it was not uncommon for a tired defensive player to fire the puck over the boards from inside the blue line to get a whistle and an easy line change. Now that tactic would receive an automatic 2 minute delay of game penalty. Similarly, if a goalie froze the puck unnecessarily, he would receive a 2 minute delay penalty as well. Another tactic of a tired team in the defensive end was to ice the puck to get a whistle. No longer. A team committing an icing infraction would not be allowed to change players. It was hoped that keeping tired players on the ice would increase scoring.
- "The Trapazoid." This could just as easily been called the "Martin Brodeur rule." Prior to this rule, a goalie who was skilled in handling the puck would act like a 3rd defenseman, and launch the breakout from the corners before the attacking forwards could ever reach the puck. This tactic made the neutral zone trap even more effective since dumping the puck in to the attacking zone was essentially a turnover. By limiting the area that the goalies could handle the puck to above the goal line, and a small area behind the net it was anticipated that more scoring opportunities would be created via more possession time in the attacking zone, and making the neutral zone trap less effective.
- The instigator penalty. One way to increase the skill level of the game is to increase the number of skilled players on the roster. The instigator penalty added a 2 minute minor penalty to the usual 5 minute fighting major, putting the instigator's team down a man, rather than the usual matching 5 minute majors. This penalty took away the tactic of a "goon" going after a opposing player who took liberties with one of his teammates. It now became necessary for a goon to get the opponent to voluntarily drop the gloves for a fight. The initial result was staged goon on goon violence, as no one else would fight them. And, once that was seen to be stupid, the elimination of the goon from the roster. Often a "tough guy" was retained, but he had to be able to actually skate, and handle the puck like a hockey player.
- The Shootout. Kissin' your sister. Nobody likes a tie game, so the NHL decided that all games would have a winner and a loser (of a sort). If, at the conclusion of a 5 minute overtime period of 4v4 hockey, the score remained tied, a shootout would be used to determine the winner of the contest. This is all well and good, but it ensured that 3 points would be awarded in any game that went beyond regulation. Before the lockout, if no one scored in overtime, the game would be declared a tie and both teams would receive 1 standings point -- a two point game. No longer.
Payroll Structure and the Salary Cap
The salary cap was the real reason for the 2004 lockout. Player salaries were out of control, with star player salaries routinely exceeding $10M per year, and vast differences between the payrolls of big market and small market teams. When the NHLPA finally collapsed in smoldering ruins, the owners got their salary cap, at $39m, and an immediate rollback of player salaries by 24%. The salary cap was not really an issue for most of the NHL. Only seven free-spending teams felt the pinch once the 24% rollback was put in place:
- Detroit Red Wings - $20.2M over
- New York Rangers - $19.1M over
- Dallas Stars - $13.1M over
- Philadelphia Flyers - $12.8M over
- Colorado Avalanche - $9.2M over
- Toronto Maple Leafs - $8.5M over
- St. Louis Blues - $7.9M over
These teams were forced to release or not renew the contracts of key players, replacing them with cheaper alternatives, in order to get below the cap.
Looking at that list, one would think that the Detroit Red Wings would be the most negatively impacted by the cap, and that St. Louis would get of relatively easy. In fact the opposite was true. Detroit was able to jettison a number of aging stars with high salaries (D. Hasek, D. Hatcher, C. Joseph, B. Hull, R. Whitney) and replace them with younger and cheaper players. The Red Wings core was just coming into its prime, and with the addition of Mike Babcock as head coach, the Wings repeated as President's Cup champions as the leader in the regular season standings and increased their standings points from 109 to 124. At the same time, St. Louis was forced to let go key assets (P. Demitra, A. MacInnis, S. Mellanby, C. Osgood, C. Pronger), resulting in the greatest decline in points (-34) from 2003-04 to 2005-06 in the NHL. They went from being a playoff team to 30th in one season (winning the draft lottery and selecting Eric Johnson first overall in the 2006 draft).
The Colorado Avalanche also declined after the lockout, but not to the degree many would have you believe after giving up Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, Paul Kariya, and Teemu Selanne. Colorado went from 4th in the Western Conference to 7th, dropping from 100 points to 95.
A team un-afflicted by the salary cap also had a massive decline from 2003-04 to 2005-06. The Boston Bruins were $3.6M under the cap after the 24% salary rollback, but managed to drop from 2nd in the Eastern Conference to 13th. Clearly the salary cap was not the sole, and not even the most important factor in how a team responded to the lockout.
Winners and Losers
When all was said and done, and the 2005-06 season had ended, the competitive impact of the lockout was less than obvious, but some teams definitely came out of the lockout better than others. Just looking at the regular season:
Goal differential winners (change from 2003-04)
Goal differential losers
- St. Louis Blues, -88
- Tampa Bay Lightning, -61
- Boston Bruins, -57
- Toronto Maple Leafs, -51
Standings points winners (change from 2003-04)
- Carolina Hurricanes, +34
- New York Rangers, +25
- Anaheim Ducks, +22
- Buffalo Sabres, +19
Standings points losers
- St. Louis Blues, -34
- Boston Bruins, -30
- Toronto Maple Leafs, -14
- Tampa Bay Lightning, -13
Clearly the winners of the lockout, in terms of improvement, were the Hurricanes, Rangers, and Ducks. The losers were the Blues, Bruins, Lightning, and Maple Leafs. And we cannot forget the Red Wings (no matter how much Avalanche fans would like to) who managed to improve their performance in the regular season, maintaining their top position, while also decreasing their payroll by the largest amount in the post-lockout NHL.
Lessons to be learned
Defense and goaltending became even more important in the free-wheeling post lockout NHL. Teams who lost top defenders (MacInnis and Pronger in St. Louis), or whose goalies started to stink (Toronto, Boston, Tampa) paid the price. Teams who learned to play to the new rules offensively without giving up on defense tended to fare well. The Carolina Hurricanes are a case in point. The output of core players on the Hurricanes roster propelled them upward in the standings. Rod Brind'Amour went from 38 to 70 points from 2003-04 to 2005-06. Eric Staal went from 31 to 100. Justin Williams went from 18 points to 76. Carolina also did a good job collecting new talent from elsewhere with Ray Whitney chipping in 55 points, Matt Cullen adding 49, and Frantisek Kaberle 44.
What to expect
It is highly unlikely that massive rule changes will follow the current lockout. The game itself has slowed down since the go-go season of 2005-06, but that was to be expected as coaches regained control and found schemes to defeat the new rules. The emphasis on enforcing rules against obstruction has also waned, bringing back more of the clutch-and-grab style of the pre-2004 lockout days. It is more likely that any new rules will be focused on player safety (e.g., hybrid no-touch icing). If there are big rule changes to increase scoring again, we can assume that the owners have discovered that they have marginalized their sport again (South of the border) with the lockout.
We can expect greater disparity in salary outlay between big and small market teams. Expect to see the new CBA include changes to the team salary minimum (salary "floor") to make it a percentage of the cap, rather than setting it a fixed interval ($16M in the last CBA) below the cap. Actual player turnover will not be as dramatic as 2004. The first instance of the cap caught several teams unaware, and they were forced to drop high earning players. This time around, expect to see a rollback, through increased escrow, in all salaries equivalent to the percentage decrease in the salary cap from last season. In this way, no team currently under the old cap will be forced to release players to reach the new cap.