WE ARE BACK and with several guests. I join the writers at clocker sports and we discuss all things Chicago on today’s episode.
For the first-ever Clocker Sports roundtable, the guys keep it local and talk the state of the four major sports in Chicago. From the Cubs and Sox hot start, the Bulls and Bears at crossroads, and the Blackhawks making one last push. Be sure to join us every Thursday @ 9p CST to be a part of the show!
On March 10th, the NBA and NHL were entering the home stretch of their respective regular seasons, as teams jockeyed for playoff positioning and qualifying. Major League Baseball teams were in the middle of their Cactus and Grapefruit league Spring Training schedules, with the earliest opening day in league history set to take place later that month on March 26th.
On the morning of March 11th, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was the first North American pro athlete to test positive for Covid-19. Later that day, the NBA suspended their season indefinitely for health and safety reasons. The NHL and MLB followed suit the next day, announcing the suspensions of their seasons on March 12th. As the calendar advances to early June, all three leagues have remained sidelined.
Return or No Return: Major League Baseball’s Dilemma
But sidelined has not necessarily meant seasons have been canceled. “Return-to-play” has been the phrase of choice by sports leagues as they each work with their players to negotiate the terms, guidelines, protocol, and logistics for the resumption of their respective seasons.
On May 26th, the NHL became the first of the three leagues to formally announce their return to play plan, ending the regular season but expanding the playoff pool to 24 teams. The NHL will ultimately choose two hub cities that will host each conference’s playoff rounds. The NHL tentative return date is late July.
On Thursday, the NBA announced a different approach for their return to play, eliminating the bottom eight teams from resuming play, while instituting an eight-game seeding schedule to determine the final makeup of the league’s traditional 16-team playoff format. The NBA is looking to finalize an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to utilize Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando as their operating base. The NBA is hoping to restart on July 31st.
And then there’s Major League Baseball.
Will Baseball Return, Or Take Their Ball and Go Home?
MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have figuratively dropped the ball as they attempt to put together their own return to play plan. The league and the players are nowhere close to an agreement on the specifics for a return, and, as is usually the case with baseball, money is at the forefront of the negotiation hurdles. A tradition like no other, indeed.
MLB had been floating several unofficial return-to-play scenarios throughout the pandemic shutdown to any baseball scribe that would listen, in the hopes certain writers would take them and run with it. This served a dual-purpose for the league. First, it kept baseball in the sports news cycle by having writers post and Tweet various theoretical proposals, allowing the sport to carry the day so to speak from a fan interest standpoint. During a pandemic shutdown, there was not much competition for sports media exposure that the league had to worry about.
The second reason for the leaked concept proposals was to serve as a sort of a trial balloon to gauge player feedback and response. In the age of social media, when a writer puts something out there that has implications to players, you can be sure that those associated with the game will respond.
The first official proposal by the owners to the players union did not take place until May 12th. At a high level, the proposal called for an 82-game regular-season schedule starting the first week of July, with teams playing only their division counterparts in both leagues, as a measure to mitigate COVID-19 related health concerns over prolonged travel.
Additionally, the proposal also called for expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams in total, as well as implement a “universal” designated hitter in both leagues. And while the proposal provided comprehensive details regarding protocols for protecting players, team, and stadium personnel from COVID-19 infection and transmission, the financial component was not included in the initial presentation of the MBL proposal. But rumors of a significantly reduced compensation structure were already swirling, and that immediately became a sticking point for the players and the union.
Baseball’s Return To Play Battle – How Did We Get Here?
Back on March 27th, the owners and players agreed to an initial framework that, among other things, guaranteed the players a pro-rated payout of their full 2020 salaries based on the number of regular-season games played. For example, if the league wound up playing half of the normal 162-game regular season, the players would receive a 50% payout of their full 2020 salary. There was also a 50-50 post-season revenue sharing feature included in the original framework. At the time that seemed significant, as baseball has never had a revenue-sharing plan between owners and players, like the NFL, NHL, and NBA all have, in varying formats.
The owners are contending that at the time the initial agreement was reached, there was not enough information available about the rate of expansion of COVID-19 infections, and the subsequent safety measurements and guidelines that were implemented by Federal and State governmental agencies to combat the spread. Key among those measurements were restrictions placed on mass gatherings of 50 or more people at events, including sporting events. That restriction prevented the possibility of fans being able to attend baseball games for the foreseeable future, thus eliminating revenue streams for the teams from gate receipts, parking, concessions, and merchandise sales.
The owners have been referencing an “economic feasibility” clause in the March agreement that, per MLB, was intended to re-open the financial arrangement previously agreed to by players and owners for 2020 return to play if fans were not allowed to attend games. As one might imagine, the players, the union, and their lawyers have a different interpretation of that language, and so far have not been willing to budge off the pro-ration provision of the initial agreement.
When the owners finally presented their amended compensation plan on May 26th, the union and players roundly rejected the proposal publicly. The plan called for a sliding scale of reductions based on player salary, with higher-salaried stars having to bear the brunt of the salary reductions versus players making the league minimum or in-between. Overall player compensation would have been reduced from $4 billion to $1.2 billion.
The players countered with their own proposal on May 31st. In it, they re-affirmed their position on maintaining the original pro-ration formula. They also proposed an increased 114-game schedule. This would have meant the players achieve a 70% pro-ration of their 2020 salaries or $2.8 billion of the initial $4 billion player pool. MLB has since rejected that proposal, and, although not formally providing a counter-offer, it is rumored that the league is discussing implementing a 48-50 game schedule without fans.
Return To Play Or Risk Permanently Harming The Game
Given the state of a national economy ravaged by COVID-19, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, the optics of Major League Baseball owners and players fighting over billions of dollars look bad. The initial optimism that the “boys of summer” would take center-stage and be the first major North American professional sports league to return to action in early July has quickly waned and has left fans wondering if there will be a season at all.
If that were to happen, it would be more than bad optics at play for the game. Baseball entered 2020 having already endured a rough off-season, in which two of the league’s premier teams, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox, were implicated in sign-stealing scandals. Both fans and players alike were angry at how blatant the level of cheating was at its peak. And both were equally frustrated that Astros and Red Sox players were given immunity from punishment, in effect, for their cooperation during the separate investigations.
If baseball were to compound things by not being able to reach an agreement between the league and its players for a return to play for 2020, and have to cancel the entire season, this could have a lasting, negative impact on the growth of the game.
Baseball Needs To Find Its Next Generation Of Fans
Baseball has made it clear it wants to capture the interest of the younger generation to help expand their market share and ensure a replacement demographic for baby boomers is in place to carry the sport moving forward. To that end, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has been working almost maniacally to find creative ways to speed up the game through pace-of-play initiatives. Reducing the average length of games to zero through the cancellation of the season was probably not what he was intending. You cannot capture the imagination of the younger generation by giving them a bag of air.
Assuming the league could resume from a health and safety standpoint – and that’s a big if – the owners and players are blowing a tremendous opportunity to capture the interest of both hard-core and casual sports fans alike who are starving for live sports. How perfect would it be for baseball to return to play Fourth of July weekend? A nation reeling from the impact of COVID-19, and now boiling over with the uprising and protests regarding the murder of George Floyd, racism, and police brutality might welcome a three-hour distraction in their lives.
Sadly, it does not look like a resolution to the negotiations is anywhere in sight. The rhetoric between the owners and players is as off-putting as it has ever been. The mighty dollar is once again the anchor that weighs down and submerges both sides.
In the short-term, baseball is facing an 18-month hiatus between seasons if the 2020 season gets scrubbed. If that were not depressing enough, consider that the current labor agreement expires in December 2021. That opens up possible scenarios of a lockout by the owners, or a strike by the players if the current discord between the two sides cannot get resolved by next year.
There is so much at stake for both sides. Unfortunately, they both seem content to stand their ground, ultimately taking themselves and the game of baseball with them off the cliff and out of sight, out of mind.
But do not worry, the boys of summer will hopefully be returning this year, to a sheet of ice or a hardwood court near you.
In today’s episode, I discuss the importance of athletes playing video games. I give you my best bets for the Madden simulation games, discuss landing sports for Cam Newton, and talk about the cultural impact of “The Last Dance” documentary.
Welcome to Episode 1 of Punching the Clock. hosted by Steven Ryan. On this podcast, we will be discussing the current events in the sports world, culture, and the E-sports world.
A theme across a variety of sports recently has been new rules or ideas to make the games and leagues more appealing to fans. MLB has begun timing various parts of the game, cutting down on mound visits and mandating a minimum number of batters a reliever must face in an effort to speed up the product.
Every offseason it seems like the NFL has a new definition of what a catch. The idea of adopting the “Elam Ending” became popular in various NBA circles following the 2020 All-Star game.
On the most recent edition of the Luke & James Show, we were in agreement that the NHL could benefit from allowing the public to view what happens when on-ice decisions are subject to video review. That’s not the only rule change I would make.
Improving the NHL with Rules Changes
Make Every Game Matter
The NHL draft lottery gives the best odds to win the top pick to the team with the worst overall record. The era of rewarding teams for losing needs to end. I would continue to slot playoff teams in the draft by how they finish.
I propose ordering the non-playoff teams by comparing the percentage of games each earns points in games against the others. The team with the highest percentage gets the number one pick and continue in this fashion until the team with the lowest percentage is drafting one pick before the worst playoff team.
It’s important to note that the games that count toward this final percentage are only ones between non-playoff teams. I do not want to punish a team for being able to compete with the top teams in the NHL. Using the percentage of games a team gains a point is the best way to deal with the unbalanced schedule.
An eight-team division might have five playoff teams. If the rule was based strictly on the number of points, the three non-playoff teams would have fewer chances than other teams to move up in the draft order.
To give a better idea of how this would work, I compared the four teams in last place in their respective divisions. My math is based on if the season ended today. Under the current system, the Detroit Red Wings are a runaway favorite to have the best odds at the number one pick.
In my system however they are struggling, gaining points in just 12 of 34 games against other non-playoff teams means their percentage is 35.3. The Los Angeles Kings have played fewer games against non-playoff teams because of their division and conference, but have made the most of their chances. Their point percentage is 48.1% after picking up points in 13 of 27 chances.
The New Jersey Devils and Chicago Blackhawks give an example of how this type of race could be exciting. Points in 19 of 29 games gives the Devils a robust 65.5 percent. Like the Kings, the Blackhawks have done well despite fewer opportunities. Gaining points in 17 of 25 games against non-playoff teams checks them in at 68 percent.
Other non-playoff teams have to be calculated. But under my proposal, the Blackhawks would have the best pick of these teams, the Red Wings would have the worst.
Why This Should Happen
There are multiple reasons this would benefit the NHL. First, consider the glut of games at the end of the season for non-playoff teams where it is, unfortunately, in their best interest to lose. That’s not fun for fans. Under my proposal, fans of non-playoff teams would be able to root for their teams to win late in the season. It would also make games between non-playoff teams more important and hopefully increase attendance at these games.
Second, hockey is a physical sport with a drawn-out season. This proposal gives players a reward to continue to play hard throughout the year. If they come up just short of making the playoffs a high draft pick could be useful in multiple ways to help them make the playoffs the next year.
Finally, while hockey owners are significantly less likely to cut payroll and tank in the hopes of high draft picks, this proposal removes any motivation to do so. Every team is competing for something and quality players are being paid to play.
Do It NHL
Restructuring the draft order is beneficial to players and fans in the NHL. It can make owners more profitable. Being the first league to do this would make the NHL seem innovative.
Monday, February 24 marked the NHL trade deadline. There were two distinctly different ways the trade deadline could have gone down. The first would have involved very little activity. Given the parity in the league and coaching changes from more than a quarter of the teams, it would’ve been understandable if general managers elected to keep their rosters intact.
Fortunately, many teams aggressively pushed for the playoffs and didn’t hesitate to make deals. The result of this aggression was a new record of 32 trades. We’ll be taking a closer look at teams that disappointed at the deadline and teams that should feel much better about their chances.
NHL Trade Deadline Reactions
In this category, the Florida Panthers stand out. The Panthers are two points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for a top-three finish in the Atlantic Division and four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card. The Panthers made a few minor adjustments to the fringe of their team in swaps with Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Dallas.
The main deal for the team from south Florida was to send Vincent Trochek to one of their direct competitors, the Carolina Hurricanes, for a package of players including Eric Haula and Lucas Wallmark. The Panthers have not been to the playoffs since the 2015-2016 season.
Not making an aggressive move to increase their chances puts them in position to squander the goodwill they gained in the offseason by bringing in Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky. Panthers loyalists may argue the moves allow some financial flexibility, but their team isn’t usually a destination spot for prime free agents.
The disappointment in the Chicago Blackhawks is two-fold, and one of the causes is similar to the Panthers situation. The Blackhawks are just eight points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Their core is aging, but certainly still would seem to give them a shot at competing in the Western Conference because the talent gap between division leaders and wild card teams is not as wide as it is in the Eastern Conference.
To keep fans interested, and to be fair to their core players, I would have liked to have seen the Blackhawks add to their roster at the trade deadline. That being said, I understand the Blackhawks instead electing to take a step back and attempt to retool for future seasons. The sharpest complaint about the Blackhawks is that they traded Robin Lehner as opposed to Corey Crawford.
Crawford is 35 years old and very likely winding down the amount of time he can be counted on as a regular starting goalie. Lehner is 28 and his past season-plus has been the best goaltending of his career. One player the Blackhawks received in return from the Vegas Golden Knights was 26-year-old goalie Malcolm Subban.
Subban should see increased playing time with the Blackhawks. He played 22, 21 and 20 games in each of his three seasons with the Golden Knights. His stats have markedly declined in each of those seasons. It wouldn’t seem to be wise to assume that Subban is the goalie of the future in the Windy City.
The Good Stuff
Excluding a deep need or appreciation of nostalgia, it’s hard to criticize the job done by San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. The Sharks are in the middle of a monstrously disappointing season considering they made the Western Conference Finals following the 2018-2019 season. Subtracting from this roster should allow them to pile up losses and increase their odds for a premium draft pick.
Trades sending Patrick Marleau and Brenden Dillon to Pittsburgh and Washington respectively garnered the Sharks a second-round pick this year, as well as a pair of third-round, picks next year. It would be surprising to see those picks fall in the top half of those rounds, but adding to their quantity of picks gives the Sharks options for how to approach the draft or future trades. The trades also represented good faith efforts by Wilson to provide both Marleau and Dillon very strong opportunities for a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup.
The highlight of the trade deadline for the Sharks was sending Barclay Goodrow and a third-round pick, previously belonging to Philadelphia, to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The return was Anthony Greco, a 26-year-old forward, who likely will be organizational filler, but more importantly a first-round draft pick.
The 27-year-old Goodrow has played in more games as his career progressed than he did in his first four years in the league but has not been a particularly productive player. His 25 points this season are a career-high.
Even a late first-round pick feels like the Lightning massively overpaid. The only downside for the Sharks was their failure to find a place where Joe Thornton would have a chance to get a ring, but there was likely a very limited market for the veteran.
The Carolina Hurricanes made a pair of trades to replenish their defense as well. They acquired Sami Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils for a fourth-round pick and a pair of players that hadn’t seen much ice time for them. If Vatanen can return to the form he showed earlier in his career with the Anaheim Ducks he can be a useful player.
They also sent a first-round pick to the New York Rangers for Brady Skjei. While Skjei’s stats don’t jump off the page at you he has been durable and should be comfortable with the role the Hurricanes will be asking him to play in their defense corp. The Hurricanes surged to the Eastern Conference Finals last season and are trying to ride that wave back into the playoffs this year, these trades should help make that important goal possible.
Reacting to the NHL Trade Deadline
Tight playoff races and battles for premium draft picks mean that even the best moves may not work exactly as these teams hoped, but these are four teams I’ll be watching closely as the season comes to a close to see how they respond.