By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

As the NHL’s regular season comes to an end, setting the stage for another exciting Stanley Cup Playoffs, fans are focused primarily on the activities on the ice and on the out-of-town scoreboards. With parity never having been more prominent than it is this season, the standings in both the Western and Eastern Conferences remain very fluid. Only half of the 16 playoffs spots have been clinched at the time of this writing, and teams that were written off at Christmas time such as the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs remain mathematically alive in the final week of the regular season.

It is a very good thing, then, that the on-ice action has been so hot because the hockey card market at this point of the season is decidedly not. There has been a very noticeable lull in the release calendar, with not a single new product being released in the month of March. Crown Royale and Upper Deck 2 were the most recent releases, and there is nothing slated on the calendar until April 14th when ITG releases Between the Pipes. Among the licensees, Upper Deck has April 19th marked for SP Authentic while Panini has Pinnacle slated to release on either April 13th or April 20th depending on which source you read. To go nearly two months without a major new product release has effectively lulled many collectors into boredom as they anticipate the newest product only to see it delayed yet again.

There is, of course, a very valid reason for the numerous delays: collectors have spoken loudly and often against redemptions for autographed cards, and the companies are holding off on releases until they get as many signed cards returned as possible. They want to go live with a significant percentage of autographed content at the packout, which is very sensible. 2010 will be best (though certainly not most fondly) remembered as being The Year of the Redemption Card. Upper Deck struggled mightily with redemption cards throughout the year, including the ill-conceived idea to produce “Mystery Redemptions” in 2009-10 SP Authentic, and after a promising start so too has Panini. The sight of multiple redemptions in a single 7-card pack of Limited had a severely negative effect on some collectors’ attitude vis-à-vis Panini, and they have worked hard to minimize that error being repeated with future releases.

Virtually every product that was slated to be released in the early months of 2011 has been bumped back in an attempt to boost the percentage of live autographs. At some point decisions will have to be made to get a hard cut-off date for some of these products established. Collectors are reasonable people; if it’s a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or other top-tier player that is holding up production, they are willing to grit their teeth and be patient. Indeed, in the case of an Upper Deck spokesman such as Crosby, they are even tolerant of his autographs being redemptions because there is a strong sense that they will eventually be returned. What is less understandable for some collectors is seeing some mid-tier names on the checklist that are redemptions and wondering to what extent those individuals delayed the process.

On numerous occasions this year it has been rookies and lesser stars not returning the autographed cards in a timely fashion. As just one example, we have seen P.K. Subban RCs as redemptions in every single product this year. Upper Deck blew through their entire sticker stock of Subban autos in Artifacts, O-Pee-Chee, and Black Diamond, and as a consequence the true rookie cards in SPx were redemptions. Though his Limited RC is now live on the market, collectors are still waiting for his Certified RCs to be shipped from Panini. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, the two big Oilers prospects, have had their autographed rookies cards inserted as redemptions in key products. With such major names taking their time to sign cards and sticker sheets, the only way to avoid redemptions is thus to delay the product’s release. The downside to the ongoing issue with procuring autographs from players has thus made 2011, to this point, The Year of Delay.

Back at the end of October, I wrote the following in an article for SCF:

The announcement [of autographed RC’s in Certified] was a huge hit with collectors that have become accustomed to waiting until after Christmas for autographed/memorabilia rookie cards. Panini’s move garnered tremendous positive feelings and people began to get on board with the new licensee. *

It is now April and many collectors are still waiting for some of their redeemed cards from Certified. Much of that good will may have been squandered, and the numerous delays in new Panini products is not helping matters. The first preview for Playoff Contenders was revealed in mid-January with a mention of a late-March release; the product is now bumped back to May 25th. It is a sad bit of irony that the playoffs will be nearing their conclusion by the time Contenders hits the market. It will be a worthwhile move if they are able to have the autographed content 100% live upon release, but if there are still major hobby stars appearing as redemptions it will largely have been for naught.

There is, of course, an upside to the lull – it has allowed collectors the opportunity to “fill in the blanks” with some holes in their collections from prior releases, and others are turning to some of their early-season favourites for another round of box & pack breaks. Some have taken to starting new side projects to help fill in the time, going after a particular jersey subset or old set projects. While this is fine and keeps collectors occupied, many would much rather be breaking open brand new boxes of SP Authentic, Pinnacle, or Contenders.

*Richard McAdam. “A New Dawn for Hockey Collectors.” Sports Card Forum 28 Oct. 2010.