The 2004-05 Lockout and the NHL’s Parity Error

Twelve seasons have passed since the second of three lockouts Gary Bettman has been commissioner of the NHL, and the League is preparing to add a 31st team with a 32nd likely coming in the next five years.  It is as vital an indication for the League as any that the sport is as popular as it has ever been, and that the League is thriving in spite of the loss of two half-seasons and one full season in Bettman’s term.  However, it is hard to ignore that the lockout which cancelled the entire 2004-05 season might have been for naught.To get a better idea of what real benefits the League has seen since that lockout and the Collective Bargaining Agreement that came from it, we have to look at what the League was looking at leading into it.

First and foremost, the League was having financial issues, and much of it stemmed from the owners’ getting into bidding wars over players they had no business overpaying for.  (Penguins fans of course will recall that the team went bankrupt and were this close to moving to Kansas City.)  The chief victory for the League and its owners in the CBA negotiations was fiscal; to whit: a hard salary cap and floor, which was agreed to be changed on an annual basis; a 24% rollback of all current contracts; the implementation of a contract buyout clause; and a limit on the percentage a team can spend on any one player.

These four key changes were intended not only to permit the bottom dwellers in the League to be competitive, but also rein in those teams which were spending themselves into oblivion.  More to the point, the financial changes were also supposed to lead to competitive parity, an opportunity for teams which had difficulty being successful would eventually have a pathway to Stanley Cup, so long as they were smart with their money and their scouting.  After all, the League had just added four more teams four years earlier, and the best way to improve hopes in those franchises was to help ensure that they could be competitive and not get run roughshod over by spend-happy franchises.

Long story short, the lockout was supposed to improve the financial and competitive balance in the League.  Has it? I took a look at the last twelve Stanley Cups since the lockout, particularly the four Conference Finalists, and found that, compared to the twelve Stanley Cups prior to the lockout, there have not only been as many teams winning the Cup, there have also been fewer teams making it to the final four and those few teams are making more consecutive trips to the final four.  Observe:

Here are the twelve quartets of Conference Finalists from 1993 to 2004, the season prior to the lockout.  Seven teams won Stanley Cups in that timeframe, and twenty-four different teams were in the final four.  The teams in colors indicate teams that made consecutive trips to the Conference Finals.  If you liked parity, you loved the last four seasons, with just two teams (Colorado and New Jersey) appearing in the last four.  Now, have a look at the last twelve years:

Still, seven different teams winning Cups in this span, but this time twenty-one teams making the Conference Finals, and each final four featured at least one team that would make a consecutive trip.  Five teams between 1993 and 2004 won the Cup without making a consecutive Conference final appearance; just two have managed to do the same in the last twelve years.

Clearly, the parity the League hoped to achieve in the wake of the 2004-05-season-cancelling lockout has thus far failed to materialize.