As the systemic dismantling of this summer’s Stanley Cup champions continues in earnest, league watchers are crying foul. Where detractors of the current, hard revenue based cap once denounced the communistic, unilateral sharing of league revenue as the prime illustration of illogic in the CBA (alongside the long-long term contract loopholes), Monday’s exit of Antti Niemi from the Chicago Blackhawks has helped turn the club into the latest martyr’s of the cap.
The death of the NHL dynasty, if you will, has gained sentimental traction amid a maelstrom of arguments against the current CBA that are bound to follow the Kovalchuk saga as the various concerned parties position themselves for the next round of bargaining negotiations in two years time.
And amid all the hysteria that has followed the exits of Versteeg, Burish, Byfuglien, Sopel, Ladd, Eager, Madden and Niemi, few seem to ask; couldn’t the ‘Hawks have won it within the strictures of the cap?
You see, Dale Tallon’s era was one of successful mismanagement, engineering a cup run on two great draft picks and a slew of shoddy contracts, expensive term extensions and exorbitant bonuses. And that is without mentioning the messy and costly re-signings of the “Chicago-five,” when Tallon failed to meet deadlines in tendering qualifying offers to five restricted free agents.
The sum total was an all or nothing run to the cup under a new GM who had to find a means of fitting the wage demands of franchise cornerstones Toews and Kane into a jigsaw that already contained Huet, Hossa and Campbell at a combined cap hit of $18 million.
While one can credit Tallon with turning Chicago around from the NHL’s retirement home into an attractive franchise for free agents, he did so by over paying for talent and with a lack of foresight that placed three millstone contracts around the clubs neck for a total of 24 years prior to the conclusion of Toews and Kane’s entry level contracts.
Subsequently the Blackhawk’s are no poster boy for the death of the NHL dynasty; indeed Stan Bowman has done a miraculous job of retaining the core of the clubs cup-winning team whilst shelling eight key, but essentially replaceable players, amongst whom only Byfuglien and Burish were internally developed draftees.
Of course the club is still over or skirting the cap depending on your source and still five players shy of a full roster; but the worst of the restructuring appears over for now.
It seems then nostalgia for the days of powerhouse dynasties is colouring perspective of the contemporary NHL in a manner that is beyond anachronistic. Indeed the last of the nine Hall of Fame recognized dynasties concluded twenty years ago and brought to an end eleven years of dominance from two clubs; Edmonton and the bookended New York Islanders.
Back in 1983, when an Oilers team boasting Gretzky, Kurri, Coffey, Messier, Anderson and Fuhr began their unlikely journey into hockey history, the NHL was a disparate professional body represented by 21 franchises and, much as today, relative market share was dictated by the size, locale and regional interest of its clubs.
The only differences in those days were internal cap’s set by the depth of a franchise owners pockets, as opposed to the salary cap floor of the post lockout NHL.
While many now argue the grip of the salary cap has elevated the importance of prospects and draft picks to the detriment of the free agent market, maybe it is worth noting that the only aforementioned Oiler who was not drafted by Edmonton was Wayne Gretzky, himself circumventing the draft to play professionally underage in the upstart WHA.
Furthermore the expansion of the NHL to an additional nine clubs in the years that followed the Oilers dynasty has diluted the potency of the draft and watered down the overall talent pool in itself assisting the parity of the league as much as a league-wide hard cap.
Subsequently the notion of a dynasty, while not wholly redundant, would be far harder to achieve were small market clubs allowed to operate at lower costs as much as bigger clubs, bemoaning market share inadequacies in the CBA, allowed to cash in on their advantage. After all, neither the New York Islanders nor the Edmonton Oilers were considered marquee, big market money clubs at the time of their dynasties. In fact neither club had been in the league for more than eight seasons prior to their ascendency.
To further illustrate the point in a more relevant context; eight clubs have vied for supremacy in the five Stanley Cup finals that have occurred since the current CBA was mandated compared to nine clubs in the five cup finals that preceded the lockout.
While that is an absurdly small sample of finals and foregoes the perpetual strength of certain clubs prior to the work stoppage, it suggests the ideal of the dynasty and the death of such an ideal is not a workable argument for restructuring the current cap in light of expansion.
A more compelling argument could be the entry level contract crunch, build-it-up and tear-it-down business models that the Blackhawks, Ducks and Hurricanes all fell foul off due to good draft picks following seasons in the abyss. Not that it is an inherent fault of the cap, but an issue of clubs trying to cheat on cap space while their young stars play for peanuts and bonuses.
Not that that constitutes a valid argument either, obviously.
Apart from all those clubs at some point in the past five years being within the party of reviled revenue pinching small market clubs in dire need of success (and yes that includes the would-have been dynasty Blackhawks who played in front of a ghost town mere seasons ago), the Detroit Red Wings have provided a more than adequate model of how to run a consistently successful club in the current schematics of the salary cap.
Yes, they have bent the rules more than a little with the spurious contracts handed out to Zetterberg and Franzen, but their continued endeavours in scouting, development and administrative and coaching continuity have kept them in contention each and every season following lockout while division rivals Nashville are providing a blueprint for clubs operating on a shoestring budget.
What sets Chicago apart from Anaheim and Carolina, aside from their original six status, is the snowball effect of mismanagement and the conclusion of two primo ELC’s that meant they had to go all in this season and explode the club in an unprecedented and unseemly manner just months later as fans tried to digest and weigh the end of their drought, with the derailing of the bandwagon.
But with it should come with no sympathy or arguments of Chicago being robbed of seasons of supremacy through the cap. Simply put: Tallon bought the cup, loaded the club with externally sourced and overpaid parts and the fans will inevitably pay the price. There is no proving the Hawks would have won the cup without Huet or Hossa or Campbell, but remove two of those contracts and the parameters of the salary cap would have been far less constricting and the dismantling far less severe.
Meanwhile true dynasties such as Edmonton and the Islanders did it with teams whose leading lights were drafted into the club and who developed as their clubs achieved immortality. Could their rosters have survived with the ELC crunch? Maybe not, but the Islanders and Oilers were not strapped down by supplemental talent either.
As for the champions Tallon built; they have merely proven you can’t cheat the cap, even if you win a cup. Getting sentimental over possible dynastic teams is asinine. Ultimately would anyone have cared had Florida adopted the all-or-nothing cap management game plan as opposed to a hallmark club? No doubts current issues with the cap such as ELC’s and revenue sharing will be addressed in due time and while Bowman does a stellar job of keeping the Blackhawks competitive (even after the exits, there is little to suggest Chicago will suffer a tremendous fall from grace) Chicago fans can console themselves with the ultimate prize; paid for and received.
Originally written for The Maple Leafs Hot Stove.