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Ray Whitney: restrictive CBA would handcuff good GMs

Nov 23, 2012, 5:36 PM EDT

Ray Whitney Getty Getty Images

Forget the players, what about the poor general managers? If the owners get their way, the NHL’s new CBA – complete with maximum contract lengths and front-loading restrictions – will only serve to handcuff teams with a creative front office.

At least, that’s what Ray Whitney thinks.

“There are some incredibly smart GMs out there, guys like Ken Holland and Lou Lamoriello,” Whitney told ESPN.com on Friday. “They’re not allowed to say anything but what the league is trying to do now is say, ‘We don’t trust you GMs, we want to put in a system that tells you how to run your teams now. We’re going to cut your legs out. Kenny, I know you’ve got a genius mind when it comes to contracts and maneuvering things, but we’re not going to allow that anymore. We’re going to make it so the worst GM in the league can compete with you because your hands are tied.’”

The truth is, big-market teams love being able to throw their wallets around. Case in point, does anyone think the Flyers would’ve bothered trying to pry Shea Weber out of a place like Detroit? Of course not. The Red Wings would’ve matched a $110 million offer sheet without blinking. But Philadelphia knew the Predators would have to think about it. Deep pockets are a huge competitive advantage in pro sports.

Where Whitney’s argument could be challenged is the assumption that Holland is a genius when it comes to “contracts and maneuvering things.”

First off, we probably shouldn’t throw the word “genius” around when it comes to structuring NHL contracts. Offering money up front isn’t something that’s never been done in the history of business. That the league failed to anticipate back-diving contracts when it crafted the last CBA is, in retrospect, astonishing.

Secondly, let’s consider some of the contracts that Holland has handed out. Are the Red Wings really going to be better off in the long run with Henrik Zetterberg (32 years old), Johan Franzen (32), and Niklas Kronwall (31) signed until 2021, 2020 and 2019, respectively? That’s one of those “guess we’ll have to wait and see” things. In that way, it’s sort of like buying a company with a pile of debt. Might work out great. Might be a disaster. The actual taking on debt part is easy though, especially if it’s not your money.

Of course, it’s not the Red Wings the NHL is worried about. If those contracts go south, Detroit will survive. The teams the NHL is worried about are the ones that can’t afford to operate in a market where players demand long-term, front-loaded contracts because teams like the Red Wings give them out.

At any rate, if Holland has been a “genius” at anything, it’s drafting and developing players. And regardless of what’s in the new CBA, that will remain a vital skill for GMs. As will hiring the right coach, selling free agents on the opportunity to win (not just make a lot of money), making trades, and creating the right mix of players.

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