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VHL 40 in 40 #35: Marathon

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Marathon

Marathon is a term often used to describe the regular seasons in various sports and leagues. Yet while the VHL's regular season is hardly a sprint, being the longest element of its regular schedule, it's hard to ever get too excited over a race with pre-determined results. The bad teams will lose, the good teams will win and the in two weeks of the playoffs, the season will truly be decided. The only thing changed by expansion was that finishing first in the playoffs meant slightly less risk of being knocked out early on, with a bye straight into the conference finals. Or so it would seem. The issue, however, is that something else changed in the post-expansion VHL. There is a new feeling of unpredictability and overall league parity where everyone appears to have a fighting chance to get a positive result in any game of the season, no matter the opponent. As a result, there have been some spoiler teams affecting the conference title races, unexpectedly strong performances by teams supposedly just jostling for draft position and most importantly, genuine battles for those final playoff spots.

It's important to not get too carried away: bottom-feeding teams somehow accumulated points over 72 games before expansion and some last place finishes in recent seasons were among the worst in league history. Playoff races were infrequent but not entirely non-existent, especially before the short-term implementation of cross-over, before which three contenders could end up fighting up for two spots in the post-season. Nonetheless, important changes have gradually levelled the playing field to an extent or at least maintained the status quo, as it seemed at one point around S20-S21 that the top franchises with the top GMs would create a significant gap which would have been difficult to overcome. Instead, changes to the salary structure put a dent into many an ambitious dynasty before the big watershed moment: expansion. It wasn't necessarily mentioned in the briefing, but in hindsight it is clear that adding two new franchises diluted the talent pool and weakened the leading teams, thus allowing non-contenders to still maintain a competitive edge in any given match-up. Expansion also meant changes to the playoff format, including now 60% of the VHL making the playoffs, as opposed to just 50 previously. More teams with a chance and more teams which, on paper, wouldn't have been near the top teams of yesteryear.

It still took a while for any of this to bear fruit. There were the ever-present battles at the top of the league, but the top three in each conference didn't come under the threat for long after the opening week or so of each season, if at all. Then came Season 36. The previous season was the most successful for the VHL's expansion franchises (Quebec won a cup, Cologne a playoff series) and so they intruded into the places belonging to the original eight teams. With New York and Riga content to be rebuilding after prolonged cup runs, it were the struggling Seattle Bears and Vasteras Iron Eagles who were worst off in Season 35, neither obvious picks for future success, nor good enough at the time. The Bears strengthened in the ensuing off-season while the Iron Eagles opted to wait it out and somehow, chaos ensued.

“It was a really weird experience for me to be part of that playoff race with Vasteras back in Season 36. The Iron Eagles had a 17 point lead on us at some point towards the trade deadline and since we were getting older and realized that our current core would not be enough to be a contender, we decided to start a rebuld. We sold a couple of players at the deadline, one of them even to Vasteras, and then things went crazy. After stripping down our roster to just a few players we made a miraculous run while Vasteras was barely able to win any games anymore and at the end of the regular season, we had beaten them for the last playoff spot! While it was awesome to be a part of such a memorable playoff race, I actually wasn't too happy with the outcome at the time. As a rebuilding team we were hoping for a good pick in a draft with a lot of talent, but instead of a lotto pick and a chance at Tom Slaughter we only ended up with the 6th Overall. Luckily things still worked out for us as we got our current goaltender Blaine Olynick, and this playoff race still is one of the craziest VHL moments I ever experienced.” - David Collier

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David Collier and Willem Janssen were on different sides of an exciting playoff race

“It was certainly interesting to be a part of a playoff race, but if anything it was irritating. We'd essentially been trying to successfully transition out of the rebuild phase and into a playoff team for a while, and with myself and Bagelface as the only major players (at least until the Toriyama trade), it took a bit for us to fully hit our stride. Before S36 we were pretty sure that we'd be able to reach the playoff spot, and for us to fall off and lose a close playoff race was discouraging.” - Willem Janssen

There is nothing more to add on the Cologne vs Vasteras debacle of Season 36, other than essentially, whenever one of them looked superior on paper, they were inferior on the ice. The Express, having gone toe to toe with the powerhouse Helsinki Titans less than a season earlier, struggled to score with almost an identical roster (though crucially missing rookie star Davey Jones), allowing surprise package Vasteras to sneak past them into a playoff spot. Once the Iron Eagles started to buy, Cologne sold and somehow ended up in the playoffs instead.

As the VHL was coming to terms with one genuine battle for a playoff spot, there was little time to catch a breath as the North American Conference was throwing in curveballs of its own. The Seattle Bears, pencilled in as the third team in the conference struggled mightily to fulfil expectations and against, of all teams, the New York Americans, one season off from being rock bottom in the whole league. Apart from rookie sensation Conner Low on defence and goaltender Brick Wahl, there wasn't much of note for the Americans, especially since they had traded their top scorer Keiji Toriyama to Vasteras. Nonetheless, they kept on pushing the Bears and though Seattle, like Cologne, ultimately squeezed into the playoffs as expected, they were pushed all the way.

“The only two ones I have really been a part of since becoming General Manager were in the Season 36 and 37 campaigns. I think as a GM, you would obviously rather be doing so well that you don't have to worry about the playoffs. With that being said, it definitely adds a lot of intrigue when you are in a tight battle to play for the Continental Cup. In Season Thirty-Six, we were not supposed to be competitive whatsoever, so I was hardly upset over not making it. I remember some of the active guys on the team being quite excited though, so it was really effective for keeping players on the team interested. The next year was even more fun with a lot of new active players. It hurt a lot more missing out by a point, but we used it as motivation to get better and not be in that situation again. So in conclusion, while it can raise the excitement level, it isn't really worth the stress and I'd much rather be a safe bet to make the playoffs.” - Chris Miller

In Season 37, Cologne would enter a full-blown rebuild, allowing Vasteras to finally return to the playoffs, where they would remain, with little success but plenty of contributions to league activity and excitement, for the next three seasons. Over in North America however, the Americans were becoming a force to be reckoned with and following the high-profile additions of Odin Tordahl and Tom Slaughter looked poised to become top contenders in the near future (which they did). The Bears were still around looking to make the most of their core though and a blockbuster trade for reigning MVP Ethan Osborne and one of the league's premier defencemen Willie Weber meant they actually were seen as serious cup contenders. Instead, the inexplicable struggles continued. Rarely have VHL teams genuinely faltered due to a lack of chemistry but in a league with a growing amount of strong teams, Seattle seemed to do just and constant slip-ups meant that they were on the verge of having given up lottery picks for no success whatsoever. The Bears recovered, just, to overcome the Americans who were only happy to be there, but it took all 72 games including a key final day match-up between New York and Seattle to settle it. It was a glimpse of the continued struggles for the Bears and the huge potential of the Americans and for that season, in conjunction with Season 36, it ended up being truly exciting.

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Seattle and New York were also inspirational in the making of this article

Things have died down since, though at the time of writing there is another playoff race going on in Season 40, once more with the Cologne Express not being able to contain the underdog Vasteras Iron Eagles. This time around, it's a battle which is expected to end at the trade deadline when Vasteras sells off its remaining pieces but of course Cologne proved these things are not as simple as they look in Season 36. On the whole though, it's hard to call these freakishly competitive seasons as trend-setters, as the VHL seems to have reverted back to form with the main competition taking place between the 4-5 serious contenders. There are arguably more contenders than before expansion and there are quite a few shocks during the season where a rebuilding team will go on a winning run against a star-studded roster with cup ambitions, but playoff races which would inspire extensive articles seem to have dried out.

“I think we will still have good playoff races most years. They might not happen every season and we will keep seeing seasons where there are two rebuilding teams in a conference, but even then a race might occur, as Vasteras is showing us right now. We will keep seeing rebuilding teams play surprisingly good and we will keep seeing favourites struggle, so I expect quite a few playoff races in the future, even if some of them might not last until the end of the season. To a certain extent the deadline is what most teams are working towards in today's VHL and when a lot of playoff races get decided, because many teams who are actually in a race for a playoff spot decide to sell at the deadline and then drop off. Playoff races that actually happened over the course of the season might not show in the final standings because one team decided to throw the towel early, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't a race. And as Cologne and Vasteras have shown in Season 36, even a team that seemingly gave up on its chances might still end up surprising a lot of people.” - David Collier

“Just look at the current state of affairs. In the North American Conference, Quebec is trending up, New York is staying elite and Calgary is somewhere around average. Seattle is going into a full rebuild and Toronto is just starting to trend upward with a batch of new top prospects. With Calgary likely to go down, Toronto can easily jump into that other spot leaving just three competitive teams. This is the same with the European Conference with Vasteras and Riga trending down going forward, and Cologne and Helsinki improving and Davos just entering a rebuild. It doesn't seem like we will see many playoff races in the near future, but I suppose you just never know with how this league and this sim engine can work.” - Chris Miller

“It's tough to predict what will happen in the future because whether or not there's a playoff race is a product of GM decision making. If GMs are more aggressive, going through shorter rebuilds or retools, close, competitive playoff races are more likely. However, if GMs are more content to be patient and wait for the team to develop before making aggressive moves to compete, I think it's likely that the cycle between competing and non-competing teams will continue at a consistent rate. The Cologne/Vasteras and Seattle/New York playoff battles generally seem like outliers in the league's history at this point but it's tough to see what will happen in future years.” - Willem Janssen

Meanwhile, parity on the whole, it is difficult to say with certainty if it has increased or not. There has been some fluctuation, spreading to extremes like those described in detail above, but on the other hand there have been some superbly dominant regular season performances, such as by Helsinki in S33 and New York in S38. It is telling that neither of those teams ended up triumphing in the Continental Cup and in my opinion at least, there is an added element of unpredictability in the upper echelon of the league: the playoff are, not to sound clichéd, truly a separate season in the VHL. It is tempting to say “now” at the end of that sentence but on reflection title races were almost never (with very rare outliers) as one-sided as some liked to insist. It seems fair to assess the situation as stable, with expansion and the not so new salary restrictions cancelling out the growing amounts of TPE and talent and better, more long-term thinking asset management, resulting in about the same amount of league-wide parity.

“I have to start to wonder if there is less. Among the competitive teams, there is a lot of parity but there is a clear top group of teams and a clear bottom group of teams. They are pretty definitively separated and if there are no real races, I'm not sure how parity can be doing well. As I said previously, I just don't see it changing with the way teams either want to do a full-scale rebuild or go for it.” - Chris Miller

“At least in my tenure in this league, I'd have to say that I don't feel like there's much of a change, and I can't see it changing soon. "Parity" used to be the VHL's favourite buzzword for a while, but I personally haven't noticed anything that different aside from these two playoff races. In my opinion the draft has a fairly large effect on that, especially when considering how much more depth recent drafts have had. As the drafts get deeper, it's likely GMs leaning towards rebuilding will attempt to gather draft picks for a rebuild, while teams pushing to compete will be able to get more valuable players for their draft picks due to the increased values of said picks. There hasn't been an increase or decrease in parity - it's fairly stable, or at least it has in recent years. Although not all teams have been title contenders, there always seems to be a consistent cycle between rebuilding and competing - teams sell off as their core of players get older, build a group of young players, develop them, enjoy some semblance of success when the players reach their prime, then sell off again as the players get older. This cycle seems to ensure very little change, and while playoff races are entertaining, I don't think any major increase in parity is going to occur unless some form of rules are put in place.” - Willem Janssen

“I don't think there has been much of a change in parity in the time I was here. I could see us having more parity in the future, but we would need a few more drafts like the one we just had combined with very good member retention, which is a tough thing to accomplish and something that's not too likely to happen in my opinion. I don't expect parity to change much over the next few seasons but if we were to improve our member numbers significantly and raise the talent level as a whole, I think a new expansion or a significant cap raise would be on the horizon. Having more players than our current teams can sustain wouldn't be a good thing, so we would either have to raise the cap to allow bigger, more talented rosters or get more teams into the league. If we were fortunate enough to be faced with that decision I think most people would prefer the expansion, which would spread the talent thinner again and get us back to right about where we stand right now in terms of parity, just with more teams in the league.” - David Collier

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I don't think that's what I was going for

This is usually the part where I tie things up with a conclusion, but my wonderful assistants have done an excellent job of summarising this topic already. To sign off, it would appear to me that while Season 36 and 37 were blips on the radar which will hopefully, but unlikely be repeated at regular intervals in the future, overall there has been some much-needed stability and sufficient drama and plot twists to justify that marathon (and truly, it is the accurate term) that is the VHL regular season. I leave you now with a few more thoughts from these three fine gentlemen.

“I'd say it's because there aren't usually many middling teams in the VHL, and when there are it's often one per conference. Normally teams tend to rebuild at around the same time that previously rebuilding teams start to move towards being a contender. It's pretty rare to see this balance shifted, at least in my time in the league. Usually there's a pretty clear-cut idea of who will make the playoffs before the season starts, at least in my experience in this league.” - Willem Janssen

“I think it's about the amount of quality players available in general, we just have a relatively low amount of good players compared to the number of teams. So even if teams didn't decide to go for full-on rebuilds, like they do every season, we still wouldn't have enough players to sustain 9 or 10 good teams with close to full rosters. That's okay though, I think we have a good balance right now that allows young players and semi-actives to get opportunities and playing time while there also are enough impact players to make for an interesting race at the top.” - David Collier

“It's easy to point to expansion since now less teams fill up that cap as well, but I think they make it more interesting if anything. The definite issue is that teams either want to be on the rise or in the dumps and there are not enough in-between teams that can keep it interesting. New York was an in-between team in Season Thirty-Seven, that was able to keep things interesting while still progressing upward. One of the reasons we put in the equal opportunity for the draft lottery was to discourage tanking, but I wonder if it does quite the opposite. If a team just isn't ready but they could squeak in the playoffs, they may want that fourth spot since they would still have an equal shot. At the end of the day, I guess I don't really know why playoff races seem more rare these days, but perhaps it does have more to do with the implications of definitively missing out on the playoffs, than it does with the TPE cap or anything like that.” - Chris Miller

End of Part 35
Special thanks to Chris Miller, Willem Janssen, and David Collier

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