The year is 2004. The NHL chatter is ramping up after another long summer, but an uncertainty looms. The NHLPA and the league have been in labor disputes for nearly two years — the writing was on the wall for the upcoming season. Gary Bettman and company were fighting for a more favorable salary structure for a league that reported only 11 profitable franchises in the previous season, but the Players’ Association wanted to ensure the contracts and the wallets of the athletes. We won’t get into which side was any more or less at fault, but rather we’ll take a look at what impact the first ever completely abandoned major sports season had on the future of hockey in Raleigh.
Fast forward to 2005. The two sides have reached an agreement and the contract has finally been ratified. Hockey is finally back, and it’s getting a makeover.
The offensive zones are getting bigger, expanding to 64 feet from the blue stripe to the goal line. As a result, the neutral zone as well as the area behind the net are reduced. The trapezoid is painted on all 30 NHL rinks in order to restrain goalies from playing the puck in the corners. Additionally, pad regulations reduced goaltenders’ allowed profile by 11 percent. These design choices are intended to create more space in the zone and in the net for offensive creativity and excitement. More room in the zone means more open space for puck movement, as well as more leverage for attackers to use against handsy defensemen. And smaller goalies means higher shooting percentages, something the league desperately needed.
The NHL is allowing passes to stretch over two lines in order to thwart what coaches are calling the neutral zone trap, in which a team would retreat to their own blue line and seal off their zone, leading to overly defensive and unexciting hockey. Furthermore, the league is implementing a more complicated “tag up” offsides rule. The offsides rule that we know and love today is meant to encourage more flow and less stoppage in the modern game.
And even the officiating is seeing a redesign. Referees aren’t being asked to actually start calling obstruction penalties by the book, something that only seemed to last a few years before it was back to the status quo.
And perhaps most importantly, the NHL is moving to a hard salary cap rule, limiting teams at $39 million.
The results? Well, NHL hockey was completely transformed. The dead puck era was declared over, and the NHL entered an era of self-proclaimed golden years. But what if none of this happened? What if we actually saw NHL hockey in 2004-05 and these rule changes weren’t implemented?
Chances are we wouldn’t have been parading through Raleigh on a hot June day in 2006. Assume that the NHLPA accepted the first proposition that Bettman put forward, and the season commenced as planned in the fall of 2004: no rule changes, no salary cap.
First, about the salary cap. Major League Baseball is currently the only major sport league to operate without a salary cap. While there is a deterrent to spending an astronomical amount of money on payroll in the form of a “luxury tax”, we still see that teams in larger markets with deeper pocketbooks are competitive more consistently.
More money equals more talent. In many ways, the salary cap implementation in the NHL allows for small market teams like the Carolina Hurricanes to operate on a level playing field with huge markets like Toronto, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers. The impact was felt immediately. The 2006 finals pitted Edmonton against Carolina, two small market teams.
But say the lockout did in fact happen, but the only visible change to the league was the salary cap implementation. Would those Hurricanes, largely considered also-rans coming into the season, make noise in this alternate timeline? You wouldn’t think so. No one could really accurately predict the results that the rule changes would have on the league and the style of play. But the Hurricanes forwards thrived off of it.
In many ways, the circumstances surrounding the 2004-05 lockout were a perfect storm for the Carolina Hurricanes. A salary cap implementation allowed for them to compete with teams with fatter wallets in larger cities. And the rule changes that resulted in an exciting new NHL game was a spark that lit a fire under Raleigh.