Salary Cap or Poor Management Behind NHL Parity?

by | Jan 17, 2018 | Soapbox | 9 comments

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.



  1. An example of the effect of the salary cap, Lyle, is the current situation with Toronto. Every team faces this at some point. The Leafs have three decent players approaching UFA status – JVR, Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov. They are not expected to be with the team after this season because their new deals will not allow Toronto to pay their young stars when their contracts are up. As a result, Toronto needs to find players to take their spots on the roster. The teams that sign these three players will presumably benefit from the addition of good players to their rosters. One possible side-effect will be a shift toward the norm in the league – the Leafs may drop in the standings and the teams that sign JVR, Bozak and Komarov may be improved with them in the lineup.
    It would be easy to argue that the league benefits from tougher competition as a result; it would be equally easy to say that the league is promoting mediocrity by encouraging teams to let good players leave simply on the basis of the cap.
    The long-term answer, I believe, is fewer but stronger franchises in the league but, at the moment, expansion is in and contraction is out. Parity (or mediocrity) is the result.Shame, that.

    • Maybe signing 38yr old Patrick Marleau for 3yrs at $6.25 per hinders resigning the players mentioned. Does Bozak require an increase over his $4.2? how much do you think Nylander, Marner and Matthews will get. Nylander is 24 days older then Pastrnak who signed for 6yrs cap hit of $6.666 should he get more then that? Toronto big question for me is what are they going to do with JVR, he’s the one you don’t want to see walk out the door, but you would like to see a stud d walk in. Would you flip him at the trade deadline for that damn, is there a western playoff team that needs scoring and willing to give you that dman?
      I don’t see Toronto over paying for Nylander or Marner, Matthews is a different question.

  2. There lots of bad contracts or dead money that were there before current GM took over like LA having Blake after Lombardi. Problem is unlike other sports to buyout NHL contract its like 2/3rds… If it was 1/3rd that would help eliminate a lot of bad wasted deals and money. I’d also have liked every team to get 2 buyouts without costing on Cap after lockout. Instead of having to use those buyouts in that year or whatever… Let them have the 2 until the next CBA so can allow players a chance to pan out of cut ties easier like Mike Richards. That was a real bad trade, Dean only made like 5 good trades as Kings GM losing every other short/long term. Carter, Gaborik are easy to see from the 5… After that if recall off hand getting Justin Williams would be in the top 5… Then the Vinny Lecavlier along with Luke Schenn is 4th or 5th.

    Many teams setup for the Expansion draft then got weaker from who they lost anyways. So last season only like Penguins/Predators went for broke even knowing they would lose substantial assets etc… Many players who got big contracts like Brown or others faded or failed. Kopi getting 10M a year didn’t earn that last year for sure. Over paying players from Price to McDavid is another problem… You shouldn’t be allowed to have a contract for 1 player that exceeds the current salary cap. So if the Cap is 80M, then that would be the max total value of the deal using actual math and economics.

    Problem is I’d never get job as GM even if I managed better than anybody who would. Unless know somebody or have nepotism its really no chance to get in. NHL is really a closed society filled with former players getting jobs or their relatives… Its like back in day or Game of Thrones having all these inbred family members. When sisters are having kids with their brothers it creates problems. Even with what they call pure bread dogs all that inbreeding creates certain genetic flaws. Paying players for what they did in the past instead of what they are worth more is another problem. Brown was worth like 8 years 23M perhaps… Instead they paid him nearly 6M a year being one of highest paid players on team…

    Game changing makes a player like Brown who maybe have value 5-10 years ago have less… A hit like Cogliano the last iron man gave only to get suspended is another example. What was once a nice hit becomes a 2-5M penalty or suspension… Stay at Home D-men are worthless in todays game… Yet still they paid Robyn Regehr 3M cap hit per year or guys like Forbort getting 2M+… Vlasic is like what 8M or something insane… Paying goalies too much on the cap like King Henrik makes it impossible to win… Basically 6M is highest cap hit a goalie can have if expect any hope to win the Cup. Guys like Price or Rinne will never win including King Henrik with those cap hits.

    Often the cap was projected to be higher in a year only to be a few million less… Then a GM is paying guys expecting to have 5M more in cap space like Kings only to end in cap hell for years to come ;). You had that 20 year contract of the bust 1st overall goalie or whatever Islanders did combined with the 10 year Yashin deal :). Paying guys like Russell who can only block shots like 4M. These players get over paid when the market don’t have them worth that money. Its not like they could leave for KHL to get more money or another team.

    Mismanaging paying for the past instead of current value is biggest problem though. Its like NFL often the Super Bowl MVP would leave that team for a big payout only to washout and bust…

  3. Missing in all this is the loser point. That more than anything creates this false parity. Expansion has zero to do with the overall trend. More than enough talent out there if nhl wants it (looking at you chl deal).

    • Totally agreed on the loser point. The NHL should either go back to 2 points for a win, 0 for a loss or what I would like, 3 regulation, 2 OT, 1 shootout. Personally I would get rid of the shootout and play a longer OT and if there is a tie, then so be it. There have been great games that should be a tie. But realistically Bettman and the NHL won’t go back. If they are going to keep it you shouldn’t be rewarded the same way as winning with actual players on the ice. The ROW column only matters in the event of a tie for playoff standings. So even if you lose, you sort of win. How does any team gain ground when teams above and below maybe losing, but still getting a point. That is the reason for this mass pileup in and around the wild-card line.

      • Great point, Chrisms. I like the 3 point regulation win system – we’d see bigger gaps between teams and serious effort to break ties in regulation.

    • True Chrism, before Boston Montreal game last night, I was saying with them playing 3 times in 8 days it was possible the one team could’ve game away with 5pts and the other 4pts. Hard to pick up or get separation from another team.

  4. I’d say both, but mainly the salary cap. The salary cap is destroying all of the elite NHL teams, it also doesn’t help that the elite NHL players want over 10 million per year.

  5. Thank GOD FOR PARITY otherwise we end up like NBA broken and boring unless three guys collude to make your city a championship contender. I don’t ever want to see that.