Expansion draft controversy gives Bettman the chance to flex (Trending Topics)

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 22: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (L) encourages people to boo him as majority owner Bill Foley looks on before the Vegas Golden Knights was announced as the name for Foley’s Las Vegas NHL franchise at T-Mobile Arena on November 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The team will begin play in the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The thing everyone is talking about this week in the NHL is the league’s general managers being reticent to release their protected players lists for the upcoming expansion draft.

It’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want those lists going public. Not for the stated “We don’t want guys to feel hard-done by” reasons they’ve trotted out in an attempt to defend the dopey decision. In a league where arbitration hearings sometimes leave people crying, and one in which we’re constantly reminded, “It’s just a business,” hurt feelings shouldn’t enter into it.

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The actual reason GMs don’t want to expose their lists is that it helps to highlight how many big-money, bad contracts they have given out in recent years to guys who were never going to be worth the money. Everyone is guilty, from GMs widely considered clueless like Jim Benning to smart geniuses like Steve Yzerman. Everyone has at least one or two Brandon Sutter or Ryan Callahans on the roster that they’ll look to expose.

What’s amazing is that these guys think they’re pulling a fast one, as though fans don’t know all about Cap Friendly (or CapGeek before it) and how easy it is to quickly identify problem deals. Hell, half the excitement among fans league-wide surrounding the expansion draft isn’t that they’ll get to see the new Vegas Golden Knights team come together. They couldn’t — and shouldn’t — care less. They only care how the expansion draft will affect their teams. Will Vegas take the big-money vet who kinda sucks now? Will they take the promising 23-year-old who hasn’t cracked the top-six yet but who the team also couldn’t protect? That’s what people want to know.

And hey, let’s not pretend like Gary Bettman wasn’t the commissioner the last time there was an expansion draft. And let’s not forget that protected lists back then were…….. public. I don’t know what changed, but whatever it was, it’s stupid.

Greg talked Thursday about how this isn’t on The League, as many people are arguing. That’s partly true. But while GMs are behind the decision, it’s ultimately The League that is letting them keep all these lists secret, because who-knows-why.

Like, if there’s a baby in a restaurant who’s excitedly banging a knife and fork on the table and making a racket and jostling things around, then they knock a glass on the floor and it shatters, who’s at fault? Well, I guess you blame the baby because the baby knocked the glass off the table, right? But also, the parents have to know when to take the knife and fork away because the baby’s gonna make a mess.

Instead, the league is going to allow teams to not-publish their lists of protected players, which serves the purpose of shielding GMs from criticism in the end. If you only know one guy from each team who goes to Vegas, the GMs have plausible deniability. “Did you protect (insert goodish player they probably should have protected but who would have definitely been on the borderline)?” “Oh, uhhhhh, yeah. I did do that. Yes.” If you publish the lists, it just invites criticism.

But again, that criticism was going to be about 65 percent of why people cared about the expansion draft in the first place. Another 30 percent was how it affects each team in the end. And the last 5 percent is for the combination of Vegas fans and “they’re actually good be good next year” truthers.

To give you an idea of the depths to which the league will sink to let a very small number of rich old guys protect themselves, at the expense of making itself more popular with literally anyone who’s not already addicted to hockey or at least their favorite teams — my continuing theory is that there are no casual hockey fans — there’s the TV plan.

Oh yeah, the league will televise the expansion draft, insofar as it will hold a televised event to reveal who’s on the roster. So exciting!

Except that event will take place around the same time as the NHL Awards (never mind that protected list in behind the curtain!), possibly even on the same day. And it will happen a full 24 hours after the draft has actually been completed. The likelihood that there’s a slow trickle of news during that day on this front seems quite high. Enterprising local beat writers will probably be able to shake loose some idea of who was or wasn’t protected, and maybe even who got picked.

Maybe the big nationally televised Insiders in this league play ball a little bit and don’t reveal who got taken in advance — the NHL will probably never have a reporter daring enough to start throwing Woj Bombs — but the odds that we know at least part of that initial Vegas roster well in advance of whatever dreary broadcast actually happens seem, let’s say, high. Which negates the point of the big reveal show.

The Vegas front office will, in fact, have the better part of three whole days to put together its expansion roster. Which is a bummer in and of itself. This seems like something that could be banged out on TV in three hours the day after the Cup Final if they really wanted to. But “if they really wanted to” is the operative word.

The draft won’t be televised, just the results of it. It would be like if the NHL draft were held in a big board room with no fans in attendance, no TV cameras, no live reporting from inside the building, then Bettman came out and did little more than read off a list of all 350 prospects taken. “With the 274th pick, the New York Rangers selected…”

LAS VEGAS, NV – NOVEMBER 22: The team name and logo for the Vegas Golden Knights are displayed on T-Mobile Arena’s video mesh wall after the Vegas Golden Knights was announced as the name for the Las Vegas NHL franchise at T-Mobile Arena on November 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The team will begin play in the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

This is the first expansion draft in almost two decades and, like everything else the league does, it’s done not with the fans in mind, but with protecting its own interests and shrouding everything in unnecessary secrecy. There’s no charm here. No one under the age of 50 thinks there’s any merit to continuing the old-school, cloak-and-dagger BS that has plagued this league for far too long.

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If Bettman has any guts as the commissioner, he will tell the GMs to take their concerns about being outed as incompetents and scream them into the nearest toilet. Instead, he kowtows. He says, “Whatever you want.”

The owners are Bettman’s bosses, and surely he doesn’t want to piss them off. But if his job is to make the league more popular (or at least, more profitable) then a good way to do that would be to, I don’t know, maybe throw the fans a bone on one expansion draft. Push back, like, a little bit.

The extent to which GMs wield power in this league is confusing as hell. Do you think Adam Silver would put up with half the crap Bettman does from these guys? The GM meetings this week only underscore the issue; every GM’s idea to fix every problem is bad and made out of a desire for self-preservation.

Look at the standings issue. Everyone acknowledges that some games being worth two points and some being worth three is nonsense. But why does it exist? It creates artificial parity so GMs can say to their owners — and their fans — “Hey, we’re only five points out of the playoffs right now, on March 28.”

Because remember, if you go with a 3-2-1 points system, the standings don’t change much from what they look like right now. But the gaps get bigger between good and bad teams. It’s the same reason there’s no real incentive for a return to the ’80s goalscoring days: When more goals get scored, the good teams tend to be the ones who score them. The good team scoring 60 percent of the goals in a five-goal game only wins by one, but in a 10-goal game the 60 percent difference is that much more stark.

Fake parity behooves GMs as much as it does teams fighting for a playoff spot.

But to that point, this is the one place Bettman can and should really put his foot down. You don’t want to mess with the in-season product too much because you’re happy with the profits, fine. The expansion draft has no real effect on any of that.

So Gary, bud, here’s your chance. Just say “no.” Just once.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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