By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

I have been advocating for some time now the need for the NHL Players Association to tell Upper Deck and Panini that it is time to scale back the number of licensed products on the market. This is not simply the lament of a player collector that is overwhelmed by the constant influx of new cards—though that statement certainly applies—but rather the growing concern of a hobbyist that the market is on the road to collapsing underneath its own weight. There is simply too much of everything, and only the NHLPA can do something about it.

This call for cuts is not a sudden realization; I’ve been calling for them for the better part of a year now. What has prompted this latest call is the fact that, barring a last-minute delay of 2011-12 O-Pee-Chee, Upper Deck will have released three of its allotted 11 products for the season before the season has even begun. Victory was released in August, Artifacts came out in late September, and O-Pee-Chee went live on October 4th. Two of these are low-end products designed for the set collectors and the kids, and both serve a valuable purpose. Artifacts offers a multitude of parallels and memorabilia cards, giving it an early leg up on Panini to get the first game-used pieces of the 2010-11 rookie crop to collectors. In that light, Artifacts is being rewarded with strong sales from those collectors looking to get their hands on P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle cards that feature rookie-year game-worn jerseys.

One Retired, The Other Was Traded

While that early competitive advantage has a short-term benefit, over the long haul Artifacts will become just another lost-in-the-shuffle mid-range release. Soon Panini will release Certified, UD will have their staple product out with a more desirable batch of Game Jerseys, and that will leave those “firsts” just a nice memory. Each of the products just mentioned will have the leg up on Artifacts because they will have live rookie cards of the 2011 draft class, boasting the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Schiefle, and Sean Couturier should they make the opening day rosters of their respective clubs.

Another drawback to having so many products released before the season begins is that these cards will feature players that have switched teams over the summer still depicted with their 2010-11 club. I cannot speak for all collectors, but looking at the O-Pee-Chee checklist and seeing Paul Mara, Jeff Halpern, Benoit Pouliot, James Wisniewski, and Roman Hamrlik as Montreal Canadiens despite all of them no longer being with the team seems very out of place. Nearly one-third of the team set for a 2011-12 product features players that will be playing on other teams this season, while roster players such as David Desharnais, Hal Gill, and Andrei Markov are not on the checklist, to say nothing of the exclusion of late-season call-ups like Andreas Engqvist. I understand that this happens every season with players who move around on July 1 or thereabouts, but it is nonetheless a problem and dates the product to a time that reduces the relevance of the cards in the set.

So with that being said, what should be done to increase the likelihood of delivering a bigger bang for your hobby buck? Being critical of the status quo is a rather easy thing to do – finding a solution that improves the hobby is a little more difficult. But I believe that we can find answers, and here are three steps that I would recommend:

1. Cut the number of products each company is allotted in half, to 6 each per season.
2. Stagger the releases so that each company can do one in the pre-season if they so desire, but ensure that the majority are released after the season has begun.
3. From those sets which are cut, incorporate the best subsets into what remains.

Anybody miss Trilogy?

By reducing the number of products each company can release onto the market each year, there will be far less of a glut on the market of memorabilia and autograph cards. The drop in supply will result in stronger sales for each product that remains, as collectors would no longer have their wallets stretched so thin by the nearly 30 releases we currently endure. The lower number of sets would allow the product development teams at Upper Deck and Panini to channel their energies on increasing the quality of the memorabilia and autograph checklists, as well as the designs of the cards themselves. If players only have to handle a couple dozen autograph subsets, there will be far fewer redemption cards inserted into products, and even for those problem signers hopefully wait times will be reduced dramatically. Sets that are redundant or do not offer a serious bang will truly not be missed. There will, of course, be some painful decisions made to axe some products that are very popular in the current environment, but the hobby is always able to move on – three years removed from the last release of Sweet Shot, is anybody still lamenting its demise?

It is important to have a very early-season release to wet people’s appetite for what is to come in the new season. Victory thus has a dual purpose: it is inexpensive and helpful to keep young collectors interested in the hobby by only having them spend a portion of their allowance, and it gives older collectors something to bust while training camps are taking place. But the great majority of the product release calendar should coincide with the regular season and playoffs, and be as current as possible. It is unrealistic to expect that the multitude of players that switch uniforms at the trade deadline will all be depicted with their new teams only a few weeks later, but for those lower-end products that come out in November or December we should be seeing guys that moved around in the off-season with their new teams. There is no good reason to have 4-5 sets in 2011-12 products that show Brad Richards as a member of the Dallas Stars. Fix the release calendar such that there is still at least one licensed product per month from October to June, and aim to get The Cup and Dominion out soon after the Stanley Cup has been award to bring closure to the hobby season.

Wouldn't it be great to see this set brought back?

I am a fan of taking good things from products I do not like and adding them to other products that I do like. With fewer products on the market, the companies would have a grand opportunity to make higher-quality releases using the best parts of those products that do not survive the chopping block. Imagine, if you will, Upper Deck bringing back Ice as a standalone product that keeps a strong focus on acetate cards: not only the highly-desirable RC’s #’d /99, but also bring in elements from defunct lines like Trilogy such as Frozen In Time, Ice Scripts, and Clear Cut Combos. They could also incorporate the visually stunning Black Ice memorabilia/autograph cards from UD Black and have a very strong product that would be greater than the sum of its parts. The same could be done with the three products that bear the SP name; a super-set comprised of the strongest parts of SP Authentic (hard-signed autographs), SP Game Used (high-end memorabilia pieces), and SPx (does SPx do anything better than these other two products? I can’t think of anything in it that stands out beyond the Shadowbox inserts) under a single banner would be an incredible product.

So there you have some suggestions about how to make the hobby just a little better. Fewer cards, better products, a more sensible release schedule. I am one who feels that the hobby is currently in a good place but can still find dramatic room for improvement. What do you think?