Bettman scores with new NHL

It seems like every time I see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on television these days, he’s smiling.
And why shouldn’t he be?
It isn’t often the head of a major organization, much less the commissioner of a sports league, has a year the likes of which Bettman is in the midst of enjoying.
His list of achievements in the past 18 months reads like a shopping list;
•Impose a salary cap to save the league’s owners from spending themselves into extinction.
Check.
•Implement a new set of rules to help speed the game up and increase scoring chances.
Check.
•Instruct the on-ice officials to crack down on obstruction by enforcing the rulebook to the full extent of the law—even if it means having 30 power plays per game.
Check.
•Win a power struggle with your most hated rival and, in the process, have the union which that rival represented turn on its leader—fracturing its once impressive unity and rendering it temporarily ineffective.
Check.
Bettman would never admit publicly to that last one, but you know he didn’t shed any tears when NHLPA head Bob Goodenow resigned and was replaced with the much more agreeable Ted Saskin.
All and all, it’s been a pretty good year for the commissioner.
And the fruit of Bettman’s labour is on display for all to see in this year’s Stanley Cup finals.
At one end of the rink you have the Carolina Hurricanes, a skilled young team built around speed and an impressive power play. The cornerstones of the franchise—namely Eric Staal and Cam Ward—both were drafted by the Hurricanes and developed in-house.
Carolina GM Jim Rutherford then went out and surrounded his young talent with a few affordable veterans, including Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, to provide the necessary leadership and experience for a long playoff run.
Add into the equation the fact the Hurricanes possess one of the lowest payrolls in the league and you have what many consider a model franchise for the league’s 29 other teams to emulate.
At the other end of the rink you have the Edmonton Oilers, which have benefited more from the salary cap than any other team in the league.
For the first time in recent history, Edmonton was a big player during the off-season, making a pair of big trades for Mike Peca and Chris Pronger, respectively.
Normally trades made in the off-season wouldn’t be cause for raucous celebration, but the Oilers definitely were not your average team in terms of what they have been able to do in off-seasons past.
For years the Edmonton faithful watched helplessly as their top talent was traded out of Rexall Place.
Oilers’ GM Kevin Lowe was caught in a Catch-22. Edmonton often drafted and developed quality players, but they couldn’t afford to re-sign the budding stars once they became eligible for free agency.
Faced with the prospect of losing the talent without compensation, Lowe opted instead to trade them for cheaper prospects and began rebuilding anew.
That all changed with the introduction of the salary cap.
Suddenly the Oilers were able to make trades for top talent and then offer those players new contracts without the fear of having their bids trumped by big-market teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and N.Y. Rangers.
In setting a league maximum on the amount of money available to a player on an annual basis, the question free agents asked themselves changed from “How much money can I get” to “Where do I want to play?”
Edmonton has long had a reputation of being a great hockey town, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that, all dollars being equal, quality players like Peca and Pronger were more than happy to play for the Oilers.
The other luxury the salary cap afforded Lowe was the ability to be a buyer at this year’s trading deadline.
In years past, Edmonton couldn’t afford to give up valuable prospects for what would amount to a rental player—someone who might help them for a month and then sign with a richer club come the summer.
By properly managing the salary cap, Lowe knew he had enough room to get the goalie he desperately needed at the deadline and have a chance at re-signing him.
Lowe got Dwayne Roloson—and the career back-up was unbelievable between the pipes until a knee injury ended his season in Game 1 of the final Monday night.
A season removed from the lockout that cost hockey an entire season, it is safe to say Bettman knew what he was doing when he dug in for the fight.
Almost every decision he’s made, with the exception of the ridiculous delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass, has worked out brilliantly.
Now if he could somehow find a way to convince the American TV audience to tune in to a game, hockey truly would enjoy the resurgence it so justly deserves.

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