DGB Grab Bag: Luong-Owned, Cap Circumvention, and Iginla's "The Shift"

Plus, MLB is experiencing a tactical shift similar to the NHL in the mid-90s, but at least baseball is trying to deal with it.

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Jul 27 2018, 12:28pm

Screen capture via YouTube

Three Stars of Comedy

The third star: Roberto Luongo – Oh come on, as if anyone in Montreal these days should be able to recognize what a decent hockey player looks like.

The second star: P.K. Subban – Word of advice from personal experience: Do not challenge any kid in this age range to a dance contest right now. They're all hopped up on Fortnite moves and will destroy you. Subban got off easy with the floss, just be glad you turned the camera off before he dropped a full-scale take-the-L on you.

The first star: NHL players go vintage – This is some brilliant photoshopping, although I'm not sure why the Patrik Laine one looks exactly the same as he always does.

Photo via Joey Tang/Bardown.com

Outrage of the Week

The issue: The Capitals re-signed defenseman Brooks Orpik this week, a month after trading him to the Avalanche, who immediately bought him out. Assuming he makes his bonuses, his new deal with the Caps combined with the buyout just happens to pay him the exact amount he was originally scheduled to earn.

The outrage: Doesn't all this kind of feel like cap circumvention?

Is it justified: Is it circumvention? Sure, in a sense. Should we be bothered by it? Not at this point, no.

We could have written pretty much the same thing a few weeks ago, when Marian Hossa was traded to Arizona. Hossa, of course, isn't going to play for the Coyotes or anyone else. His career is over. But by trading him, the Blackhawks dumped his cap hit, which helps them. Even with the long-term injured reserve as an option, the Hawks gain offseason flexibility and reduce the threat of bonus overages. Clearing Hossa off the books was a good move, and the Coyotes were more than willing to help.

That felt like cap circumvention to a lot of fans. After all, the CBA says you can't trade cap space. But that's basically what the Coyotes did, netting themselves a decent young player in Vinnie Hinostroza for their troubles. The two teams didn’t break any rules, but they sure seemed to violate the spirit of how things are supposed to work.

To some extent, the Orpik deal feels the same way. The CBA specifically says that you can't buy a player out and then re-sign him. But the Caps didn't buy him out—they sent him to Colorado to do it for them, and gave the Avs a nice discount on Phillipp Grubauer as a sweetener. Then they brought him back at a much lower cap hit, even though he'll end up pocketing the same amount of money—just with some of it laundered through Colorado.

Again, as with the Hossa case, nobody disputes that this was all perfectly legal according to the rules. It just feels like it shouldn’t be.

And that's probably true … if this were 2007. Back in the early days of the cap, teams were still figuring out what was allowed. Like little kids testing a new babysitter, they eventually started trying to push the boundaries of what they could get away with. How would the league respond? How strict would they be?

Years later, we know the answer: The league really doesn't care. As babysitters go, they were pretty content to sit on the couch and watch TV while the kids did pretty much anything they wanted. As long as nobody broke the new lamp and/or signed Ilya Kovalchuk for 17 years, it was all good. And even that Kovalchuk penalty ended up being walked back.

At some point, if you let the kids get away with everything, it's not their fault for doing whatever they can. It's the same with NHL teams. Of course they're going to stretch the limits of how the CBA works. The league has basically made it clear that they're fine with it. At this point, it would be borderline negligence for teams to not be making these sorts of deals.

That doesn't mean fans can't be annoyed, especially when they see recent Cup winners like the Caps and Hawks sidestepping the sort of cap limitations that are supposed to bring them back to the pack. But at some point it becomes a waste of energy. The CBA isn't a holy text; it's just a list of rules about how the league should work. Clearly, the league thinks that teams taking advantage of quasi-loopholes is part of that. That includes stuff like the Hossa trade or the Orpik signing or the Leafs burying guys who still want to play on the LTIR or whatever else. As long as they treat everyone the same way, then teams know the playing field. Fans should too.

There is one catch here: The league could always decide that they don't like these moves after all, and retroactively punish teams for them. That sounds ridiculous, but we've already seen it once, with the whole cap-recapture debacle from the last lockout. Maybe some day the league will decide that indirectly trading cap space or re-signing players you traded into a buyout isn't legal after all, even though they already approved those moves. If so, some of these teams might be out of luck. That's life in the NHL, where you can never assume that anything the league does will actually make sense.

But until that day comes, borderline cap circumvention moves are pretty much fine. The league has been crystal clear on this. At least until they randomly change their minds in a few years, there's no point complaining about it.

Obscure Former Player of the Week

The Canucks parted ways with Trevor Linden this week, ending his four years as team president. It's being framed as a mutual decision, although at least some of the messaging around that has sure seemed a little iffy.

Either way, at least this Linden exit can't possibly play out any worse for the team than the 1998 version did. That was the season that Mark Messier arrived, took Linden's captaincy, and eventually made it inevitable that Linden would move on. That set the stage for a truly weird stretch of Linden's career—he started and finished in Vancouver, but had a three-year stint in between in which he was traded four times as he bounced around the league.

So today, let's pay our respects to Linden by giving Obscure Player honors to one of the players he was once (kind of) traded for him: Branislav Mezei.

Mezei was a hulking Czech defenseman who was projected to go in the first round of the 1999 draft. He did, thanks to a trade that sent Linden from the one team you don't remember him playing for (the Islanders) to another team you don't remember him playing for (the Canadiens). In exchange, Montreal gave up the tenth overall pick in the draft, and the Isles used it on Mezei. He went one pick ahead of Oleg Saprykin, who we'll hear from again a few sections down.

Mezei lasted two seasons with the Islanders before they dealt him to the Panthers for Jason Weimer. At the time, Weimer reacted to the deal by describing the Islanders as "a winning team that also has such a winning tradition," just in case you were wondering if this was a really long time ago.

Weimer wouldn't last long as an Islander; he was off to Minnesota a year later. But Mezei stuck around in Florida for five seasons, developing into a relatively reliable defensive defenseman and decent fighter. He ended up playing 240 NHL games before heading to the KHL. Is there a fan-made tribute video of him on YouTube that uses a Nickelback song and lots of still photography because he didn't generate enough highlights to fill an actual highlight reel? You know there is.

Trivial Annoyance of the Week

It's been kind of a fascinating year to be a baseball fan.

Or not even a fan. You don't have to love the sport. If you're even just vaguely aware of it, or have any interest at all in how pro sports works, there's an ongoing story that hockey fans will find interesting.

It goes something like this: Baseball has been evolving, or at least changing, thanks to new strategies that are spreading across the league. Those strategies tend to favor the defense, and limit offense, and that's upsetting the balance of what people expect from a baseball game. And as it turns out, there don't seem be any easy answers to restoring the balance, because those defensive strategies are really effective.

All of this might sound familiar to hockey fans. Baseball is basically going through its own neutral zone trap phase. Welcome to the dead puck era, MLB.

In baseball's case, the key shift has literally been a shift—teams are deploying their defense in a new way that turns out to be incredibly effective against certain types of hitters. Teams are also using their pitchers differently, relying on a parade of hard-throwing relievers rather than letting starters go through the lineup three or four times. Some teams are getting even more radical. But for the most part, it's been a steady evolution over the last few years, as teams realize how effective certain strategies can be, and get comfortable deploying them.

Again, this is all familiar to hockey fans, who watched The Trap go from being a fringe strategy that a few teams used occasionally to the default setting for every game plan. The story that's playing out in baseball right now is basically a reboot of what the mid-90s looked like in the NHL.

But here's what's not familiar: The baseball world is actually reacting to what's happening.

There's been a ton of debate over what, if anything, the league should do. The players have ideas. The media is writing think pieces about the changes, and how they should be addressed. And the commissioner has promised to "be bold" in making rule changes to keep the game's entertainment value where it needs to be.

Compare that to the NHL in the 1990s, where the reaction to watching the game change into something else right in front of us was…. well, basically a big shrug.

No radical changes. Not much appetite to even admit there was a problem. And certainly no promises of "bold" leadership from the commissioner. Instead, we got some vague talk about minor rule changes and assurances that scoring would be back up any day now. And that lasted for 20 years. Literally.

It's hard for a hockey fan to watch what's happening in baseball right now and not feel frustrated. We don't know what MLB will do, or whether they'll do anything at all—just like in hockey, there are always traditionalists who don't want anything to change. But at least they're having the conversation. They're acknowledging that their might be a problem, and that simply saying "that's the way it is" won't be good enough. They understand that when the game starts changing in front of your eyes, you're allowed to decide whether or not that's a good thing.

Hockey had a chance to do that too, and it failed miserably. Two decades later, we have the most talented players in the history of the sport, and they're out there clogging zones and blocking shots and hoping for one or two chances a game to actually get creative. It didn't have to be that way, as baseball is reminding us right now.

Classic YouTube Clip Breakdown

Jarome Iginla officially announced his retirement this week. The news wasn't a surprise, given that he hadn't played since 2017, but it still came as a bittersweet moment. Iginla was one of the most universally respected players in the game—I'm honestly not sure I've ever heard of a fan who didn't like the guy. He spent all his prime years with the Flames, and even Oilers fans don't seem to hate him. That's saying something.

Today, let's remember what may have been his finest moment in the NHL. Or at the very least, his finest shift.

  • It's June 3, 2004, and the Flames and Lightning are in overtime of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. The series is tied at two, so whoever scores next will have a shot at winning the Cup in Game 6. It's kind of a big moment.
  • Yeah, I don't know why this clip uses the ABC feed but audio from the CBC's Bob Cole and Harry Neale. It's creeping me out a little, to be honest.
  • So we're about 14 minutes in when Iginla hits the ice. The Flames come close right away on a Robyn Regehr point shot, at which point there's an extended scrum where nobody knows where the puck is and everyone is just trying to pummel each other. Remember in NHLPA '93 when the puck would kind of get stuck to the crossbar and it was open house to just crosscheck everyone who moved for like 30 seconds? This is the real-life version of that.
  • The puck finally squirts towards the corner, at which point Calgary's Dave Lowry just casually reaches around with both arms and tackles Martin St. Louis. A reminder that this was 2004 and it was overtime, so that's a 100 percent legal move.
  • The puck comes back around to Iginla, who by this point has gone old school with the no-helmet look. I know it's very dangerous and we should probably stop play whenever a player's head in unprotected, but I swear there are certain players who gain super powers as soon as they lose their helmet. Iginla basically has this music playing for the rest of the shift.
  • Also, I'd forgotten that we went through a phase during the 15 years when Winnipeg didn't have a team where everyone else tried to do the White Out. Man, that was terrible. It was pretty much the main reason the Jets had to come back.
  • The Lightning actually get the puck out to center and have a chance at a relatively easy change. But Vincent Lecavalier whiffs on the dump, and the Flames come back the other way. They get set up, and eventually the puck finds Iginla alone in the middle of the circle. He has time to wind up and unload the shot of his life, and every hockey fan knows exactly what's happening next.
  • Which is to say that, uh, the shot gets stopped but Oleg "Freakin" Saprykin scores on the rebound. Huh. Not how I would have drawn it up, hockey gods, but you do you.
  • Saprykin uncorks the kind of chaotic celebration you only get from guys who can't believe they actually scored while Iginla and Marcus Nilson hug each other instead, which always cracked me up.
  • On the replay, you can see Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle get tangled up with goalie Nikolai Khabibulin just enough to create the opening for Saprykin's shot. It's very subtle, but you might sense some annoyance from Khabibulin when he turns around and stares directly at Boyle from like 18 inches away.
  • We get several more shots of the celebration, which really was an all-timer, even if we ignore the Chris Simon wipeout. Man, we all thought the Flames were winning the Cup on home ice for sure.
  • Speaking of Calgary, we cut back to the fans watching the game on the Saddledome scoreboard. We can beam down photos from Neptune, but if a broadcast ever cuts to fans watching the same broadcast somewhere else, you'll always get a three-minute delay before they realize they're on TV. I've never understood that but I hope we never figure out how to fix it.
  • And that's it, as we fade to black while being reminded that the Flames are up 3-2 in the series. As for how that turned out, well, uh… let's just say they scored the Cup-winning goal late in Game 6 and leave it at that.

Have a question, suggestion, old YouTube clip, or anything else you'd like to see included in this column? Email Sean at nhlgrabbag@gmail.com.