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Scott Burnside Gets It Half Right

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Scott Burnside writes in his latest ESPN column that NHL owners got the economic system they wanted after the lockout. The switch to a cap/floor system limited the rate of growth on player salaries. It also fundamentally transformed the NHL into a "get the most for your dollar" salary efficiency landscape. Burnside is absolutely correct about this:

League officials have quietly said the beauty of the cap is it creates a "survival of the fittest" environment. They were talking about the on-ice product, suggesting that with a narrow gap between what teams must spend to reach the floor ($40.7 million this coming season) and the ceiling ($56.7 million), only the best hockey people will succeed

I've mentioned this before, but smart teams are going to develop sophisticated approaches that help them squeeze every bit of value of each dollar they spend. The Thrashers employ a more "seat of your pants" style and results have been pretty much a disaster. In the three season under the salary cap, the Thrashers cap payroll has ranked #1, #10 ,#23 and yet the team has finished #19, #12, #29 in the standings, a poor return on investment. Burnside correctly names Atlanta as one of the three teams most mis-managed in the cap era.

The bottom line is, if you don't know how to run your team -- Atlanta, Florida, Toronto, come on down -- then you reap what you sow. [b]In most markets, except Atlanta, that means a changing of the guard; and the team, in theory, brings in smarter hockey people who make better decisions and the team gets better[/b] and makes more money and stops complaining about the salary cap going up.

Burnside goes on to argue that the New NHL shouldn't just be about the survival of the fittest among GMs but markets themselves.

If teams can't cut it, even with revenue sharing and cost certainty in place, they should be gone. Simple as that. Shut the doors and say good night, Irene.

Can't hack it in South Florida? See ya.

Made a hash of it in Atlanta? See y'all later.

Fans won't turn out in Phoenix? Put that cactus in a box and catch you later.

At the very worst, if these franchises can't make it under the system they shut down the game to put in place, the NHL should turn out the lights and turn them on again in places that care about the game.

Now I'm all for accountability, but there is problem of logical inference here. We simply don't know if Atlanta or Florida will support a decent NHL team, why? Because they've never had any sustained hockey product worth getting excited about. Name me more than 5 NHL markets that will sell well if the hockey product is poor? Other than Toronto or the NY Rangers you can't do it. When the Red Wings trotted out terrible teams fan stayed away and Illitch had to give away cars at games. When the Blackhawks moldered the fans sat on their walletts. Heck, the Bruins regularly field decent regular season squads but fans still don't step up and fill that arena.

Burnside takes a perfectly legitimate argument--the cap puts a premium on good management skills (a trend also apparent in the NFL and NBA)--and then goes all "Bitter Canadian" on southern markets who have never seen a good hockey product. I'd like to say that I'm shocked and surprised by this, but anyone who spends more than a hour at HFBoards Business of Hockey Board has seen this tired routine before, "the south won't support hockey, move those teams back to Winnipge, Quebec, or Hamilton!" or this one "the market has spoken the south won't support hockey" which conveniently ignores the fact that Winnipeg, Quebec and even Edmonton struggled when their clubs were on the bad side of an unfavorable exchange rate.

Let's move away from southern xenophobia and examine the facts. The south does support hockey when a) the product is good and b) the market is big. Dallas is very successful. Tampa put out a terrible hockey product for their first decade and fans stayed away, now that the product is good the fans buy tickets. The Thrashers are like the early Lightning--early enthusiasm (the Thrasher averaged 17,000 their first year) faded after season after season of losing. But both Atlanta and Miami are huge markets where hockey could do well if they gave their customers something to get excited about.

The other two markets, Nashville and Carolina are well managed (which was Burnside's original point you may recall) but they still struggle because their market's about a fraction of that of Dallas, Atlanta and Tampa. In the long run those cities may simply be too small to sustain even well run franchises. Nashville is extremely effcient with their budget (the Oakland As of the NHL) with only modest fan support so far.

What is most silly and short sighted about Burnside's article is that he wants to take away franchises from two markets that have the capacity to support a NHL team (Atlanta and Miami), but he doesn't mention the two markets which are probably too small (Carolina and Nashville) because they are well managed. But you need both to succeed in the south and the truth is that it would be much easier to hire good management in Atlanta and Miami than it would be to add 3-4 million more people to Raleigh and Nashville. But hey, don't let facts and logic get in the way of a good anti-southern rant Scott!

Let's see what happens if we move the Thrashers to say Winnipeg and finish in the basement year after year. I'll bet people will just flock to that 14,000 seat stadium and shell out their hard earned money to watch the Yannic Tremblays and the Chris Tamers of the NHL season after season. I'll bet people in Quebec would just go crazy if their NHL franchise's biggest addition over the summer was a household name like Ron Hainsey.