Salary Cap or Poor Management Behind NHL Parity?
Since the NHL returned from a season-killing lockout in 2005, the parity among its teams has become increasingly apparent.
On Jan. 8, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun took note of this trend, citing the closeness of most of the league’s 31 teams in this season’s standings. That included seven clubs that were outside the postseason picture in 2016-17 hold playoff berths this season.
He also observed two clubs that did well last season (Edmonton and Ottawa) were near the bottom of the standings, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were fighting for a playoff spot while the expansion Vegas Golden Knights sat atop the Western Conference.
LeBrun cited the impact of the NHL salary-cap since its imposition in 2005. He believes “near-complete parity is here to stay,” a view shared by Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford.
The league approves of that level of competitiveness. Commissioner Gary Bettman told LeBrun the system was intended to give every team a shot at not just reaching the playoffs, but also winning the Stanley Cup.
Not everyone, however, is a fan of this system. On Jan. 13, the New York Post’s Larry Brooks declared the NHL has confused parity with mediocrity. He blames in part the salary-cap system for harming the product.
Brooks considers the league’s attempt at parity to be a failure. To make that case, he points out 16 franchises – Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blues Jackets, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes – missed the postseason for a number of years and/or struggled to advance past the opening round of the playoffs since the implementation of the cap system.
The salary cap does make it difficult for successful teams to keep their rosters intact. The high cost of doing so can result in teams being forced to trade away stars it cannot afford to re-sign or watch them depart via free agency. It can also create situations where so much money is tied up in top talent that there’s insufficient cap space to maintain adequate depth throughout a roster.
A closer look at the teams on Brooks’ list, however, reveals those clubs were more the victims of management error than of the salary-cap system. Their follies have been well-documented – some more than others – since 2005 and remain painful memories for their fans.
Many of those clubs had little management stability. Since 2005-06, the Avalanche, Jackets, Flames and Oilers all had four different general managers. The Leafs and Panthers have each had five. The Stars also had five if you include the co-management of Brett Hull and Les Jackson.
Two of the teams on Brooks’ list (Carolina and Vancouver) advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the Hurricanes winning the Cup. The Canucks haven’t won a round since 2011, but from ’06-’07 to ’11-’12 had five 100-point seasons and were regularly among the top teams in the Western Conference.
Some were once-dominant franchises (Devils, Avalanche, Stars, Canucks) that took too long to engage in necessary rebuilding until it was too late. Some (Coyotes, Oilers) relied too heavily on young, inexperienced talent. Others (Leafs, Flyers) invested in expensive veterans leaving little cap room to bolster their depth.
The other fourteen NHL teams during that period, meanwhile, managed to work within the system to varying degrees of success. Some, such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, better than others. Of course, those two clubs are feeling the pinch this season as limited cap space and the departure of key veterans catches up with them. Indeed, both could face a long decline after nearly a decade among the league’s dominant franchises.
The NHL’s system isn’t perfect. It’s challenging even for well-managed teams to maintain competitive rosters and certainly doesn’t prevent bad management decisions. It has undoubtedly played a role in the parity currently seen among the 31 franchises.
Still, there’s no denying that savvy management can at least maintain a reasonably competitive franchise over a lengthy period within a salary-cap system.