Just for fun: a promotion/ relegation model for the NHL

wrongsideofthepond.com

Happy Friday, BSB faithful!  The Rangers will take on the Blues on Saturday, but that’s not what I am here for today.  We all know the Rangers suck and are rebuilding/re-tooling/limping toward the finish line, etc.  Tomorrow night won’t change anything there.  So, to keep some levity in an otherwise morose time in Rangerland, I want to engage in a hypothetical exercise.  Yesterday on Twitter, Tyler Dellow posited a notion of the NHL moving to a 40 team, dual-league relegation model, similar to the way European soccer leagues operate.  As a break from the normal Rangers-related content around here, I thought it would be fun to explore the feasibility of this idea.  Let’s take a look…

First, some background.  The system itself is commonplace in Europe.  The basic idea is that you have a large set of clubs eligible for multiple leagues within a country’s professional structure, with merit-based promotion or demotion between the leagues.  For our example we are using a two-league system. Each league, call them “A” and “B” for our quick analysis, contains 20 teams and each team plays all others a set amount of times.  Soccer typically plays less league games with all the international play and league/European cup tournaments, which is why they only have a 38-game season, with each team playing each other twice; once at home and once away.

For the NHL, you would have to expand this to something closer to the 82 game season we see today.  If you double the math, you get a 76 game season, with each team playing all others four times; two home and two away.  You would lose a couple games worth of revenue, but with less teams, each game becomes that much more important and in theory, create more individual revenue.

In Europe, instead of playing for playoff seeding, they play for admission into the European cups, like the UEFA Champions League or the Euro League, in which teams from different leagues and countries play for continental titles.  This won’t factor into our analysis here, as the NHL would obviously never scrap the playoff model, not to mention other country’s leagues aren’t nearly as strong as the NHL, as opposed to soccer where leagues from England, Italy, France, Spain and Germany are all fairly comparable.

At the conclusion of every season, the bottom three teams in the “A” league (or four in Tyler’s example) are relegated to the lower “B” league and the top three from the “B” league are promoted to the “A” league.  This system incentivizes lower league teams to strive for success in the standings, allowing access to the greater revenues and media exposure of the higher league, while also motivating the bottom of the league to win to avoid relegation.

So, would this work for the NHL?  I think it would require some wholesale changes that would be difficult practically to implement given the current environment, but also highly unlikely due to a draconian unwillingness to make fundamental changes to an illogically constructed league on the part of the NHL.  It’s still fun to imagine what this would look like, so let’s continue on, the NHL’s obdurate attitude be damned.

Well then, what major differences would we have to account for?  I suppose the first thing we can start with would be the overall economic system.  Soccer, for the most part is pure free agency.  Players typically aren’t drafted or traded for; they are purchased.  Many are signed directly to academies where they train as young players and play for the club’s developmental teams (not wholly dissimilar from baseball’s minor league structure, but soccer’s are typically based on age).  More established players are acquired via a transfer fee, a monetary value paid by the purchasing club to the player’s current club to release the rights to that player.  The player then negotiates a new contract directly with their new team.  This tends to solve one of the biggest problems is trades as we know them, comparable value and team need.  In soccer, whichever team pays you gets the player, and you go out and buy his replacement from a club that fits your needs.

This would dovetail directly into the conversation of Draft order for the NHL.  After the implementation of the salary cap in 2005, I would be incredibly surprised (even in my fictional world where any of this this is possible) if the NHL ever did away with the Draft system of talent acquisition.  I think this is something of a problem that takes care of itself.  Most NHL draft picks take at least a year in the minors to develop into NHL-ready players.  You could have your “B” league losers nabbing the top picks, which could help create additional movement between the leagues on a year-over-year basis.  It would also give the team’s the ability to market their new acquisitions in their sweater right away, and creating marketing opportunities, and therefore revenue, for the lower league around Draft time.

Free agency would still favor the bigger clubs as attractive options.  However, certain destinations like Edmonton, Winnipeg, Columbus and Arizona are tough free agency draws, as it is.  I don’t think any systemic changes will prevent free agents from preferring New York, Montreal, LA, Toronto and Chicago over those cities.  After spending a couple years in the lower league and loading up on draft picks, a Winnipeg might come through promotion in a really good place, talent-wise and actually be in a better position to recruit free agents based on their organizational strength.

You would also have to re-work the model of controlling a player’s rights.  In soccer, a player is basically paid an entry level three-year contract, but after that it is a market value contract with five-year term limits.  Depending on a player’s development curve, big clubs tend to come calling with 18 months or so on that original five-year contract and pay big transfer fees to the developing club.  It’s that type of cash infusion to the selling organization that can help smaller teams with quality development models improve their brand and financial standing as time goes on.

What about the salary cap?  Well, this could get really interesting.  I think you could have a lower cap in the “B” league, which would encourage teams who are being relegated to sell off their more expensive players prior to relegation.  You could see a lot more trades and cap maneuverings based on this type of system.  This would also allow recently promoted teams a big chunk of extra cap space in free agency once they engage in the “A” league offseason.  If you really wanted to get crazy, you could implement the loan system they have in soccer, where the newly relegated “B” league team would loan the player to an “A” league team for a period of time and share the cap hit if the relegated team did not want to lose the rights to the player.

One of the biggest challenges to this type of model would be geography.  The greatest distance between current NHL clubs would be the Panthers and the Canucks.  They find themselves approximately 3,500 miles apart, give or take.  In contrast, France is the largest European country with a top league using this format.  It’s two most distant teams for this year are Monaco and Guingamp, with a distance of approximately 850 miles separating them, which is roughly the distance of the Rangers traveling to Nashville.  For a more extreme example, take a look at England.  It’s two farthest clubs are Newcastle and Bournemouth.  They are abut 350 miles apart, or the equivalent of the Rangers heading over to Pittsburgh.

So, why would this be an issue, when teams travel now and for more games?  First, you have a balanced schedule under this type of system, so you aren’t playing more games against your closer geographic rivals.  Second, is the current conference alignment.  What happens if you have four Western Conference teams all relegated in the same year and four Eastern Conference teams get promoted?  It could cause massive travel headaches due to geographic imbalance.  In Europe, the worst-case scenario really isn’t a big deal, but in North America, it’s considerably more challenging.

How about the playoffs? I would personally scrap the conference system as a whole and have one big league table.  Also, since you are going from 31 teams to 20 for each league, less teams should make the playoffs.  Dellow suggests an eight-team playoff format, but since half the league currently gets in, I would go to a 10 team and give the top two teams a bye as a reward for finishing at the top of the standings.  Since there is no additional revenue coming from Champions’ League or Euro League participation, it’s a nice incentive to fight for those spots.  Keep the best of seven, rise and repeat in the lower league. For promotion, I would have the playoff champion automatically promoted, and if that team isn’t the top team in the league, the top three regular season records would be included with the playoff winner.  Motivation for both regular season success and winning in the playoffs, especially for teams with lower records.

Which of course brings us to how to get the league up to 40 teams.  With the addition of Seattle, the league will be up to 32 teams.  So, we need eight more.  AHL teams tend to be placed in smaller markets, with a few exceptions, so direct promotion of current franchises wouldn’t work for a number of reasons.  The biggest issue being ownership groups of AHL teams simply don’t have the same revenue base or overall wealth to compete with NHL clubs.

We could start with cities that have been on the shortlist for a franchise; Kansas City, Quebec City, Hamilton (but only if they are called the Mustangs) Portland and Hartford.  Now you only need three.  I would look for markets with track records of success with professional sports, like Houston and Milwaukee.  You could even throw in a non-traditional market like Indianapolis or New Orleans.  There are a few AHL cities that could work, like Charlotte, Providence or San Diego, so you would have plenty of options for creating those additional franchises.

What about talent dilution? The NHLPA would obviously be thrilled about adding an extra 185 or so jobs with more teams but might find the new economics effecting 12 of the current (or soon to be current) clubs to be disappointing.  I think a common theory dismissing the attractiveness of this plan would be the dilution of the talent pool.  NHL players are the top 1% of the top 1% of the players in the world.  Adding 185 extra players would presumably have an effect on the overall quality of the product.  I would look at it as an opportunity for finding market inefficiencies as analytics continue to evolve.  When there is less proven talent available, you have to get creative in how you not only construct your roster but deploy your players in different situations.  Whether that would actually happen or not, who knows, considering the rigidness in which NHL coaches and front offices operate, but it would be an opportunity.

Obviously, this type of change is never going to happen.  Never ever.  I do think it would be a really cool concept for realignment and adding some accountability/motivation to be competitive at all times.  There are definitely some issues to iron out and logistics you would have to keep a close eye on, but I think it would be doable.  At this point, league owners would fight tooth to nail to keep their franchises out of a model that saw massive losses in revenue as a consequence of poor performance, but it would just be so much fun.

The best part of implementing massive changes like this would we could finally go to a “3-2-1-0” points model, where you see three points for a regulation win.  Man, this would be so much better than the current NHL.  What do you all think?