By Michael Battista
In this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks, the highest seeded team in the Western Conference, were swept in the first round by the Nashville Predators. If I guaranteed this outcome earlier this season, I would have been admitted into a psych ward. But that’s exactly what happened, and while it was amazing to watch, it also served as a reminder of how much the salary cap matters in the NHL.
For those who are unaware, a salary cap in sports means that every team in a league has a limited amount of money they can spend on players’ salaries. Its purpose is to keep rich teams from buying all the talented athletes, which would leave other teams at a disadvantage. However, it has a side effect in the NHL where traditional championship dynasties have virtually disappeared.
The NHL had a history of teams winning multiple consecutive championships. The last time it happened was when the Detroit Red Wings won back to back in 1997 and 1998, just over a decade before the NHL set a hard salary cap for the 2005-2006 season.
On his show, “Pardon the Interruption,” ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon explained this situation in regard to the Blackhawks.
“When they won the Stanley Cup in 2010 by beating (the Philadelphia Flyers) and the hard NHL cap forces you to basically turn your team over by half… they came back in three years and they won (in 2013),” Wilbon said. “And they had to go away for another year, and they came back and they won (in 2015). And this is the cycle you have to have.”
Every year after the Blackhawks won, the team lost players in order to make room for new talent or resign contacts. After a team wins, the next season can see big roster changes thanks to contracts expiring and players wanting more money or traditional young talent getting a chance to play. As a result, hockey fans see the Blackhawks win the championship in 2015 before falling in the first round of the playoffs the next two years.
Hockey will never see a time like the ’60s to ’80s ever again. The Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup 12 times between those years. The New York Islanders won four cups in a row between 1980 and 1984 before falling in the 1985 final. Their opponent, the Edmonton Oilers, went on to win five of the next seven Stanley Cups.
All of these teams had incredible arsenals that didn’t have any restrictions. Montreal had players like centers Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau and right winger Yvan Cournoyer who all won at least 10 cups with the team. Edmonton had the power trio of centers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and defender Kevin Lowe.
These teams basically housed half of the league’s all-star team. Teams with no money, like the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers, posed no threat and were left with little to compete with.
But it isn’t doom and gloom in regard to repeated success, it’s just a new process in effect. With the cap currently set at $60 million and teams able to spend up to $70.2 million in certain circumstances, brand new “salary cap” era dynasties took place.
The aforementioned Blackhawks are a perfect example, as they have been able to balance franchise talent like right winger Patrick Kane and center Jonathan Toews with young rookies, including five on this year’s roster. The constant reshuffling and rebuilding allows this team to be a constant presence in the playoff hunt and three recent Stanley Cups.
The Los Angeles Kings are another great example, no matter how much I hate them. They won two times in three years between 2012 and 2014. Young talent like defenders Brayden McNabb and Drew Doughty mixed with experienced players like goalkeeper Jonathan Quick are what got the Kings its rings. Even though they beat the New York Rangers in 2014, I respect their organization’s strategy.
The Edmonton Oilers are using a similar strategy right now. They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2006 when they lost in the Stanley Cup finals. Now with center Connor McDavid in his second year and a sustainable Oilers team around him, these Edmonton boys look like they can become a team to recon with as shown by their playoff series win against the San Jose Sharks this season.
So, in the end, I love the salary cap. Sure, my rich New York Rangers can’t rule the world like their baseball brothers in the Bronx did in the late ’90s or buy a ring in 2009, but it maintains parity for everyone. Plus, if a team does repeat as champions, it makes the accomplishment even more special.