Plenty of room on the bench

How tough are times? Even the NHL is cutting back on staff – albeit for somewhat different reasons

By Todd Humber

Empty cubicles, vacant offices and cobwebbed assembly lines. Those are all signs of the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery. But Canadian office and manufacturing workers aren’t the only ones seeing fewer colleagues in the workplace these days.

Keep a close eye on your television during Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts and you’ll see many players in the NHL have, well, a little more elbow room when they’re hanging out on the bench.

New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur makes a stick save, as Pittsburgh Penguins Mark Letestu watches, during the first period. The Devils dressed only 15 players for the game, something that caught the attention of the players' union. (Photo: Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

During one game in October against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New Jersey Devils dressed only 15 skaters. That garnered the attention of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), the union representing players. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), teams are allowed a maximum of 23 players on their rosters. It furthers states that, “except in case of emergency, there shall be no reduction of the required minimum playing rosters of the clubs, below 18 skaters and two goaltenders.”

The CBA doesn’t define what constitutes an “emergency” for dressing fewer than 20 players. In the case of the Devils, they’re playing shorthanded because they have no cap space and were hamstrung by injuries and a suspension.

For the 2010-2011 season, teams can spend no more than US$59.4 million on players’ salaries (the NHL pays its players in U.S. currency). The league minimum salary for this year is $500,000 and the Devils have 15 players making more than $1 million with star forward Ilya Kovalchuk taking up $6.6 million of the cap space on his own.

The Devils started the season with no cap space, and therefore no flexibility to call up players from the minors should problems arise. Whether that’s a smart move (the Devils, in theory anyway, maximized their talent level by spending every available penny) or a huge mistake (injuries and suspensions are part of the game, so why take the risk of having such a short bench?) is in the eye of the beholder.

But they’re far from the only team to play shorthanded. At least 10 teams are carrying fewer than the maximum, including four of the six Canadian teams — the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.

There are varying reasons for the extra leg room on the bench. In some cases, leaving holes in the roster is designed to save cash-strapped teams a bit of money. In others, it’s a strategic tactic designed to give more personnel flexibility later in the season. It’s all about talent and risk management.

The NHL reportedly isn’t taking the complaint from the NHLPA too seriously. The union, for its part, is a little bit toothless at the moment. It’s without a leader, but Donald Fehr — the fiery former head of the players’ union for Major League Baseball — is expected to take the helm later this month.

The current CBA expires on Sept. 15, 2011. Expect the salary cap and minimum roster sizes to be a significant issue when negotiations open up. In the meantime, players might want to stretch out, relax and enjoy all that empty space on the bench. With fewer players to rotate in and out, they’re going to need the rest. 

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit


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