Remember back in the day when hockey fans would actually talk about which players were the best players in the NHL? Gretzky vs Mario. Coffey vs Bourque. Roy vs Hasek. Or which players had a unique ability to do something which others couldn't? The Rob Blake hip check. Or the Denis Savard spin-o-rama. How Dominik Hasek would purposely deflect a puck into the corner with his head. We'd talk about the Red Wings Left Wing lock. The New Jersey Devils Neutral Zone Trap. Why Alex Kovalev had so much talent but always left you expecting more.
Today it's all about the Salary Cap. When I was a kid in the 1980s it was common knowledge only Wayne Gretzky made over a million dollars (CDN) a season. We all just said "well that makes sense. He's the best player." Now all hockey fans seem to talk or care about are cap hits, no trade/no move clauses, contract length or AAV (Average Annual Value). Or how much cap space does my team have or don't have? How can we create more? Does this make any sense? Why are we all wannabe accountants now? I don't remember all hockey fans loving math class in 1986.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm just as guilty as any hockey fan of complaining about a players cap hit. I've incessantly bemoaned Justin Abdelkader's contract for so long that my wife has made it a household rule that I'm not allowed to talk about it. Steve Yzerman thankfully bought Abdelkader out so I guess I'll have to whine about his remaining dead cap space for the next 6 years. Talking to myself while standing in front of the mirror when my wife isn't there of course.
But seriously. Shouldn't we be embarrassed by this? Shouldn't we be talking about how good of a player Jonathan Toews still is? Instead of reminding everyone that his cap hit is 10.5 mil AAV? When did Mitch Marner become a bad hockey player? I'd sure love to see him wearing the Winged Wheel. But ever since he re-signed with the Leafs it's as if he can't play hockey anymore. So what if he's a bit overpaid? He's still a joy to watch.
Some fans use selective justification to accept their team paying a player to be bad. Take Jack Johnson for example. When Jimmy Rutherford signed JJ to play for Pittsburgh, all we heard from Pens fans was how bad he was. How could Jimmy sign this guy for such a long term? So eventually JJ gets bought out and signs for cheap with the Rangers. Now I suppose we'll hear "yeah well he's barely making over league minimum. He's on the third defense pairing. He isn't hurting the team." He's cheap so he's good now!
Back in the time before public salary disclosure we'd say "Glen Hanlon sucks! Why is he even in the NHL! Get rid of him now!" Just like we now hear Red Wings fans saying "Frans Nielsen sucks! Buy him out! Get rid of him now!" But the difference is that back in the 80s we'd never talk about how much money a player was making or not making. But that's likely because we didn't know how much money Hanlon was making. As fans we now wear our good players playing on entry level contracts as badges of honour.
Flyers fans love bragging about what a steal Carter Hart is. And he certainly is. It's almost as if Flyers fans are just as excited about Hart's cap hit as they are about his ability to stop the puck and win games for them. And I certainly don't blame them for being excited about having a talented young goalie starting for them for probably the next 15 years. But he won't be playing on his entry level deal forever. Eventually he'll be making Vasilevskiy or Price money. Then we'll all complain about how overpaid he is even when he's winning a Stanley Cup for the Flyers.
The Tampa Bay Lightning just won a Stanley Cup built mostly by Steve Yzerman. Tampa choked in the playoffs a few times (like Yzerman's Red Wings did in the 90s) before they finally figured out how to get the job done when it counted the most. They basically won a Cup without their franchise player Steven Stamkos. So many Lightning fans want to trade him now. Afterall he makes 8.5 mil AAV! We don't need him! Let's call up Barre-Boulet from the AHL to replace him! Then we can sign our RFA's! Repeat baby!
Never mind the fact that when Steven Stamkos is healthy he's still one of the best players in the NHL. Why are we taking this for granted? I realize it's important for teams to get good bang for their bucks. A successful NHL GM can't just throw money around Willy Nilly. Overpaying average players to long term cap killing contracts they'll never live up to will shorten any GM's lifespan. Well not Doug Wilson or David Poile. They're NHL GM God's apparently. Just ask Peter Chiarelli or Kevin Lowe about cap mismanagement. I can still list Ken Holland's blunders. Just not when my wife is in the room.
But there must be a balance. I wanted to hear more about the Tampa Bay Lightning overcoming their past playoff failures than I did about Tampa Bay Lightning fans wanting to trade their captain Steven Stamkos because he makes 8.5 mil AAV. Now all we talk about are their big 3 RFAs. Sergachev, Cirelli and Cernak. As I'm writing this Sergachev just re-signed. Get rid of Stamkos now! Who's staying? Who's going? Tyler Johnson sucks. Get rid of him. Yzerman sucks! He left Tampa all these awful contracts with NTC and NMC's! Vasilevskiy went from being a great goalie to now being overpaid because he makes 9.5 mil AAV. He just won the Cup!
No one remembers the outstanding job Yzerman did in drafting and developing players to amass a team full of quality depth. You know. The incredible depth which allowed Tampa to win a Cup without an injured Stamkos? Does anyone recall the many shrewd trades Yzerman made?Sergachev for Drouin anyone? Who's Ben Bishop? No one knew who he was before Yzerman traded for him. I shouldn't say no one remembers the great work Yzerman did. Most Tampa fans know he built an excellent team and appreciate what he did for that franchise.
But the naysayers seem to always be the loudest. Yeah Tyler Johnson makes too much money for what he brings. But you know what? When he signed that contract he was still a top player for his team. Brayden Point hadn't emerged yet and Cirelli wasn't even playing in the NHL. We're all guilty of recency bias.
GM's can't be Nostradamus. It's easy for us finger pointing fans to play Monday morning QB and say "They should've done this or that." Again. I'm just as guilty of doing this as anyone else is. But can we as hockey fans have one conversation without talking about what a player makes? Or about how much money a team is wasting on their salary cap?
I miss those days of talking about Peter Klima's garbage pail helmet. Or Craig Ludwig's over sized shin pads. Or the latest Bob Probert or Joey Kocur fight. Bring those days back! I know Steve Yzerman should be kicked out of the NHL for paying Yanni Gourde 5.3 mil AAV. But someday I just hope we can talk about a player or a team without going on Cap Friendly first. I liked math class but I like talking about hockey even more.