Super teams like Penguins are emerging, but middle class lives
The NHL isn't the NBA.
Not yet, anyway.
Unlike professional basketball, where the proliferation of super teams has whittled down the pool of potential league champions to only a couple of possibilities before opening tip in October, there is still a semblance of parity in professional hockey.
Given the events of this offseason, however, parity is on the run in the NHL, especially in the Eastern Conference.
It started when the Toronto Maple Leafs, a 105-point team last season, added one of the game's top centers, John Tavares, on the opening day of free agency.
It continues to bubble with reports the Tampa Bay Lightning, who went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals twice in the last three years, could add the league's most talented defenseman, Erik Karlsson, in a trade.
The Leafs and Lightning are part of a five-team upper class in the conference.
The Penguins, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins haven't yet made giant personnel splashes in the offseason, but they're still on essentially even footing with Toronto and Tampa Bay.
The five players on the Penguins' top power-play unit will combine to make more than $37 million next season. Boston's top line is approaching $20 million. Once Tom Wilson works out a new contract, Washington's top line will be around the $20 million mark as well.
These are elite teams that act, play and spend like it.
Sometimes, in sports and in life, when financial inequality rears its ugly head, the middle class bears the brunt of it. That's not necessarily the case in the Eastern Conference.
There's a strong crop of teams that are maybe a half-step away from being elite but have a legitimate chance to win and an appetite to keep improving their rosters.
The Philadelphia Flyers signed top-six scorer James van Riemsdyk. The Columbus Blue Jackets added third-line center Riley Nash and have Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky in contract years. The Florida Panthers added sniper Mike Hoffman. The New Jersey Devils have the reigning Hart Trophy winner in Taylor Hall.
The middle class will be just fine in the Eastern Conference.
The lower class? That's a different story.
The elite teams making an offseason splash are doing so at the expense of the bottom teams in the conference.
After losing Tavares, the Islanders look to be in for another significant rebuild. Adding GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz is a good start, but it's just a start.
The Ottawa Senators appear to be in utter disarray. Hoffman was sold off for spare parts after allegations of social media misdeeds by his fiancee. Trading a generational talent like Karlsson isn't likely to make things better, short term or long term, no matter the return.
If elite teams like the Penguins, Bruins and Capitals wish to make any further offseason improvements, they also likely will come thanks to parts the bottom teams have sold off.
Once Karlsson is off the market, the most attractive trade chips left belong to teams who easily could slip into the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference.
New Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon has all but hung for-sale signs on high-end winger Jeff Skinner and top offensive defenseman Justin Faulk.
Rumors about the Montreal Canadiens dealing captain Max Pacioretty have swirled for months.
If there's one thing the NHL has over the NBA in the pursuit of parity, it's that the top-heavy nature of the Eastern Conference probably will be a short-lived phenomenon.
Unlike the NBA and NFL, where the salary cap is merely a minor nuisance that can be circumvented via trade or contract restructuring, the NHL's cap is firm.
When the Capitals wanted to re-sign John Carlson, they had to jettison veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and promising backup goalie Philipp Grubauer. When the Penguins wanted to sign Jack Johnson, they had to trade away Conor Sheary.
A similar day of reckoning will come for Toronto and Tampa Bay eventually.
But they definitely will have to be reckoned with first.