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NHL's cap is the great equalizer

| Sunday, May 2, 2010

In the good, old free-spending days of the National Hockey League, if you couldn't actually buy a Stanley Cup, you could still make a few payments. With sound judgment and some luck, there were victory parades.

For many small-market, low-budget franchises or richer teams that practiced fiscal restraint, however, the old days weren't so good. A thrifty, scrappy Tampa Bay squad might win a Cup while the New York Rangers overspent and underachieved, but the competitive gap between big and small spenders yawned like an empty net.

"I know when we played Detroit in the playoffs, our payroll was at $23 million, and theirs was $79 million," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile said. "That's pretty hard to compete with. ... I think the system now is better than it was."

The Predators lost that 2004 quarterfinal series, 4-2, but at least they reached the postseason. Other cash-strapped teams usually watched from home. Since then, "the system," spawned by the 2004-05 lockout, created a new, parity-pocked landscape featuring that great equalizer, a salary cap.

"It's a lot leveler now, and teams (spending) at the cap have a chance," said former player and coach Barry Melrose, an ESPN analyst.

Like the NFL and NBA, the NHL's salary cap and form of revenue-sharing presumably allows more teams to compete. Some organizations still cling to tight budgets, but no more than $16 million separates the top from the bottom-spending clubs. Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland estimates that two-thirds of the teams are within $3-to-$4 million of the cap.

"In the old system, I think about eight teams spent like we did," he said. "The league is now incredibly competitive."

Holland's Red Wings survived their seven-game playoff series with Phoenix, a franchise that declared bankruptcy last year and is now owned by the league. Yet the Coyotes somehow set a points record and finished higher than Detroit this season.

In the first-round Eastern playoffs, the bottom three seeds knocked off the top three seeds, an improbable sequence that included No. 1 Washington blowing a 3-1 lead and losing the series to No. 8 Montreal.

In the West, the top three seeds advanced - but not without difficulty.

"You look at some teams as being favored, but if any team wins a series, it's not a major, major upset," Holland said.

The cap ceiling was $56.8 million this season and likely will rise next year, although accurately determining each team's expenditures is dicey because of performance bonuses, injuries, trades and other variables. But closing the money gap only goes so far. It also takes sound management and creative numbers-crunching. Deadline-day trades are now predicated largely on expiring contracts. Teams are locking up young stars with longer deals; complementary players get the shorter contracts.

"I like flexibility," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "I don't like being tied down."

Flexibility is good, but talent and crafty decision-making prevails in the end.

"The draft and player development have never been more important," Holland said. "Every decision we make is critical, because you're tying up cap space."

For some GMs like Poile, who had strict, team-imposed limits before the salary cap arrived, it was a smooth transition to the new world order. For others like Holland, the change was more radical.

"We had an unlimited payroll in the past in relation to a lot of other teams, but we still had a budget," he said.

He paused and added: "It was a big budget."

Holland, who said his payroll immediately shrunk by half after the lockout, proved he could assemble championship-caliber teams under any system. The Red Wings won three Cups in six seasons before the cap, and then, post-Cap, won another Cup and lost to the Penguins in seven games in last year's Final. Their 19 straight playoff appearances is the best in any professional team sport.

What generally works for Detroit and other teams is locking in young stars with longer contracts and judiciously building a supporting cast. The problem, when a Sidney Crosby or an Alex Ovechkin doesn't drop into your lap on draft day, is finding those stars.

"You've got to draft, you've go to develop, you've got to identify that core and sign that core at a number you can work with," Holland said.

When you can.

"You give some people some money, and you think they're gonna play at that level," he said, "and then they don't play at that level."

Every off-season poses a new array of tough choices. Last year, Holland passed on re-signing free agents Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson and Jiri Hudler and instead kept Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk. After losing to Detroit in the Finals two years ago, Shero lost several free agents, kept a few and added some new ones, and the Pens won the Stanley Cup.

The cap system differs from those in the NBA and NFL and has its own nuances and complexities. The league held seminars to help explain it.

"Everything was brand new," said Shero, who was Poile's assistant at the time. "For every team, it was really learning on the fly."

Shero said he and Steelers director of player personnel Kevin Colbert - a Pens season-ticket holder - sometimes get together and sort out cap strategies. Yet money still matters, to a point. You generally have to spend something . Even though high-salary Toronto failed to make the postseason, most of the 16 playoff clubs are above the mid-range of the cap.

As usual, one club below the line is Nashville. The Predators might not have the resources to win a Cup, but the franchise has made the playoffs five of the past six years, before the cap and after.

"It's not like it was before," Poile said. "It's a lot better being within 10 million of the highest spending team than 50 million."

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