NHL GMs Forget They’re Competing With Each Other

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Michael Leighton #49 during the NHL regular season game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA.

So this is where I get a little confused.

All the NHL owners have ever wanted is parity. The lockout was about finding a mechanism to bring parity to the league. And the salary cap has instilled parity throughout the league. And the NHL is super proud of the parity. This is an NHL email blast from earlier this week:

With just 38 games remaining over the concluding five days of the 2010-11 regular season, the National Hockey League’s incomparable competitive balance is highlighted by the myriad match-ups still possible when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin next Wednesday night.

Incomparable competitive balance. It’s a strategy, as well as the world’s worst wrestling name. But it’s what the league wanted and what the league got. So mission accomplished, NHL. Which is fine. I’m a goal-oriented person, so I really do take some delight in items getting crossed off of the old to do list.

But does parity or competitive balance, or whatever you want to call it, mean that teams have to stop trying? Does parity mean NHL teams just resign themselves to their fate? Are the playoffs about fate and destiny rather than talent and hard work?

The reason I’m asking is that the Philadelphia Flyers put goalie Michael Leighton on waivers earlier this week, so they could bring him up to the NHL. Any team could have claimed him, paying just half of his $1.6 million salary, with the Flyers on the hook for the rest.

The only catch? Leighton couldn’t play for a new team until next season. But a playoff-tested goalie who’s been playing very well in the AHL while rehabbing from back surgery?

I’m not sure there’s anyone who would question a GM taking a chance on a goalie with a history of back problems, but who’s been playing well. Especially at such a cheap price.

But forget about Leighton’s skills for a second. The Flyers called up Leighton because they wanted some goaltending insurance for the playoffs. Maybe they have some concerns about their young goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. Maybe they have some concerns about backup Brian Boucher. Or maybe they just remember how many goalies they needed to use last post-season, and they wanted to stock up.

But whatever the issue, the Flyers felt they needed Leighton up in the NHL. So much so, that they were willing to risk over $800,000 next season for the chance to have him.

So why didn’t a playoff-bound Eastern Conference team take a chance and grab Leighton? Why didn’t they try and disrupt the Flyers’ plans in some way?

It’s because NHL GMs have begun to conflate parity with safety. They often don’t make bold moves, like grabbing the goalie another team wants, because they’ve conditioned themselves to try and keep the playing field as even as possible. If a GM made a strong move, like grabbing Leighton to take him from the Flyers (and, I might add, to obtain a solid goalie), he’s afraid other GMs might start to do the same type of thing, and soon the competitive balance could be disrupted.

GMs are comfortable claiming relatively minor players but when it comes to disrupting the plans of one of the best teams in the Eastern conference, they suddenly get very shy and restrained.

What happened to the entrepreneurial spirit Kevin Lowe showed for that one beautiful summer when he threw around offer sheets like they were business cards? Why didn’t trying to steal strong players from opposing teams become a thing in the NHL?

Parity is fine. Tight playoff races are exciting. It’s cool that it’s the final few games of the season and we’re still waiting for teams to clinch. But that doesn’t mean GMs shouldn’t get aggressive.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to disrupt your opponent’s plans. GMs can compete with each other without somehow destroying competitive balance in the NHL.