Sports This Week - The NHL is getting off to a great start

The start of the National Hockey League season has been quite gratifying so far.

I’m still not convinced we need professional hockey in early October and I’m less convinced local hockey of every level needs to be rolling in September, but at least the weather opening week has felt like hockey weather.

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For the record (and, yes, I know it won’t happen because sports are all about money), but all leagues, save football, are too long. The NHL could be just as intriguing at 70 games, pushing the sport to a mid-October start and working toward a Stanley Cup finish before April Fool’s Day.

But back to the matter at hand, the start of the new season, which, as noted, has been pretty solid.

Two aspects of the current NHL are certainly evident early: the overall speed of the game and that there is more offence being generated, which should be expected coming off the openings speed creates.

Two other observations are also rather obvious.

The first is that refereeing in the NHL remains among the most inconsistent in pro sports. The two referee system has, in large part, meant two guys missing or making bad calls, rather than just one. It is high time an eye-in-the-rafters was implemented with the ability to make missed calls and overturn bad ones.

The second observation is the league getting younger. That is in part because teams are looking to add speed, but it is also the impact of the hard salary cap in the league, which is both a good thing, and an anchor on the sport.

The cap has helped create the overall competitiveness of the league because it limits owners from spending money to essentially buy wins.

But the best players are still inking huge deals. John Tavares is a fine example, getting $11 million a year in Toronto, a contract that is likely to be exceeded shortly by Auston Matthews and nearly matched by Mitch Marner. The three big guns will chew up 30-plus million in salary cap. That means others on the team cut up a smaller pie, so a veteran who should expect a salary based on years of experience quickly find themselves pushed out to be replaced by younger, cheaper players.

Whether that is a good thing is unclear at the NHL level, but it does hurt junior hockey as players are siphoned off to the pros who could have been the fan-drawing stars as juniors.

Then there is the monotonous chatter about the salary cap in every discussion about teams these days.

Of course in Canada sports media tends to be Toronto-centric, so the story of the Leafs not being able to sign budding star William Nylander also revolves back to the constraints the team is about to face moving forward in terms of the salary cap. It is of course a consideration for the Leafs but they knew they had young stars who would need new contracts when they made the move for Tavares, so it’s hardly an excuse in this negotiation.

But the salary cap is now the focus in terms of any effort to make a team better, from making a trade, to signing existing players. The first question should be ‘how do we make a team better?’ not “how do we make a move that fits under an imposed salary cap?” It takes away from good teams just focusing on building their fans a winner, and provides an excuse for bad teams who point at the cap as the culprit when they can’t ice a better team.

At least early on the games have been fun to watch, even if the salary chatter is dull.

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