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THN.com Blog: Did lockout deliver competitive balance?

Alexei Ponikarovsky and big-market Toronto will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season while Karlis Skrastins  and the Panthers are poised to make their first appearance for the first time since 1999-2000. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Alexei Ponikarovsky and big-market Toronto will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season while Karlis Skrastins and the Panthers are poised to make their first appearance for the first time since 1999-2000. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)

The NHL founded the great lockout of 2004-05 on several key issues, imploring anyone who would listen that a new system needed to be implemented to heal the business.

The most oft-repeated mantra revolved around a necessary cost certainty scheme that would ensure the health of all 30 franchises in their existing markets. We all know how that story is unfolding; in locales such as Phoenix, it’s like watching a train wreck in super sloooowwww motion.

Woven into the lockout rationale tapestry was an ideology that would help ensure competitive balance, one in which the rich big boys wouldn’t be able to purchase championships and cover up mistakes with written checks instead of bodychecks.

So how has that theory played out? Consider the following data for three-year stretches pre- and post-lockout:

Number of teams to qualify for the playoffs at least once:
2002-04: 24
2006-08: 23

Number of teams to reach the conference finals:
2002-04: 12
2006-08: 9

Number of Stanley Cup winners
2002-04: 3
2006-09: 3

Some observations from the data:

• Two teams failed to make the playoffs in the six-season stretch pre- and post-lockout; small market clubs Florida and Columbus. They both appear poised – though not guaranteed – to break that cycle.

• The only big hockey market team to win the Cup in the six-year window is Detroit, who accomplished that feat both pre- and post-lockout. Otherwise, there is no discernible relationship between market size and championships.

• Of the teams that have failed to qualify for the playoffs post-lockout, one is a big hockey market, Toronto. Two more are substantial, Los Angeles and Chicago. The other four (Phoenix, St. Louis, Columbus and Florida) are smaller hockey markets.

As for the ability to attract free agents, old trends persist. Last year’s A-list guy, Marian Hossa, went to Detroit; two other big names, Cristobal Huet and Brian Campbell, went to Chicago; and big bucks were thrown at Wade Redden and Markus Naslund to choose Manhattan. The previous year, the Rangers gobbled up Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, Daniel Briere went to Philadelphia and Ryan Smyth to Colorado. In 2006, Boston got the big prize in Zdeno Chara.

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Conclusions: competitive balance is working OK post-lockout. If Columbus, Chicago and Florida all make the playoffs this season, we’ll only be left with three teams on the outside in a four-year stretch. That’s not horrible.

On the other hand, the talent wealth isn’t being distributed as evenly as promised. The Nashvilles, Atlantas, Buffalos and Phoenixes still aren’t highly desired destinations for top echelon players, either because the offers aren’t forthcoming or stigmas attached to the franchises – or a combination of the two. It may not be as bad as pre-lockout – heck, Chris Pronger did initially give Edmonton the OK and Sheldon Souray went there, too – but it’s not Utopia.

The kicker, of course, is the fact competitive balance, from a results perspective, was pretty darned good pre-lockout. If anything, it was better than it is now and didn’t appear to need fixing. We hadn’t had a repeat winner since the late ‘90s and playoff team turnover was very strong.

Perhaps the real proof will come in the next three years, when we get a six-year sample of the current model. If we continue to get repeat conference finalists and the same small market clubs are bottom-feeding and failing to attract top talent, we’ll know for sure the lockout accomplished even less than we already perceive.

Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.

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