Friday, 18 June 2010

The Price Of Success

With the number of good, young hockey players making their way through their first contracts while putting up impressive stats, there is a sense that a lot of teams who have built through the draft will run into the inevitable: dismantling the team while still on the rise. Rental players will always be let go during free agency, but what happens when the young players that have been developed within a team's system suddenly find themselves worth more than the team can afford? How do teams keep their young talent under their umbrella after they make deep runs in the playoffs? These are difficult questions to answer since the free agency system allows players to seek the highest bidder, so how do championship teams stay together?

The premise of this article came from thinking about Chicago's group of core players, and how it will be increasingly difficult to keep the veteran contributors in Chicago without sacrificing some of their exceptional young talent. As we saw at the trade deadline, defenceman Cam Barker was deemed expendable due to his contract, and he was traded to the Minnesota Wild for the little-used Kim Johnsson and draft pick Nick Leddy. Of course, Johnsson's contract expires this season, so they essentially traded Barker for a developing player.

Today, after reading Eric Duhatschek's article in The Hockey News, he makes a very valid point: "the shadow of the salary cap hangs over every cup final these days". It was very evident in looking at the starting goaltenders in the Stanley Cup Final as Antti Niemi and Michael Leighton brought home a combined salary of $1.01 million combined this season. Sitting on the bench? Cristobal Huet and Brian Boucher who cashed in at $6.55 million combined.

Essentially, it comes down to a general manager, his scouts, and his support staff doing their homework and not overpaying for one good season. It is paramount to keeping good, young talent at home rather than them finding homes abroad. The return on the team's investment of training the player through the team's development system is zero if the player leaves via free agency. If that's how your GM is running his team, you may never see the Stanley Cup Final in your lifetime on home ice.

In 2007, the Philadelphia Flyers outbid the Montreal Canadiens for Daniel Briere's services. They awarded Briere $52 million over eight years, investing a huge chunk of change when it comes to the salary cap towards one player. Since he signed that contract, Briere has taken home $10 million, $8 million, and $8 million in the following three seasons.

What has $26 million bought the Philadelphia Flyers? No major awards, one playoff scoring title, and one NHL Stanley Cup Final appearance. In comparison, $26 million is approximately how much the Pittsburgh Penguins have invested in Sidney Crosby, and he delivered two Stanley Cup Final appearances, one Stanley Cup, an Art Ross Trophy, a Lester B. Pearson Trophy, a Hart Trophy, a Rocket Richard Trophy, and three NHL All-Star Game appearances. If you were investing in one player, who would you put you money on?

Looking at Chicago's plight in this upcoming off-season, they have a lot of contracts that reflect one or two good seasons of play in the past, and are now albatrosses. Cristobal Huet, arguably Brian Campbell, and Marian Hossa all have contracts that are far more bloated than their contributions would seem to attract, and moving these players will be difficult due to the dollar figures of their contracts. The talk of burying Cristobal Huet in the AHL is not only insulting to the player, but it shows a clear and concise lack of foresight when it comes to the expiring contracts of players like Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, and Antti Niemi - all major contributors to the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run.

They are not the only team who may feel the salary cap crunch, however. Pittsburgh was forced to let a few keys pieces of their Stanley Cup team in 2009 walk, and could be facing the same problem again this off-season. Detroit, who has been a force since the lockout, allowed a number of players to walk due to the salary cap since they won the Stanley Cup in 2008. Carolina and Anaheim also experienced the same problems in dealing with the salary cap in that they had to jettison some of the good talent they had to fit under the cap number.

Let me make something clear here: I'm not against the salary cap. In fact, I'm for the salary cap in so much that it forces teams to remain competitive by having them spend money on players they may never sign otherwise. With the cap in place, it has opened the door to parity, and that means better hockey and better races for playoff spots each and every year.

What the salary cap also prevents is the building of free agent dream teams in the big markets. The New York Rangers used to let the money flow like water from a tap when trying to sign players. Now, as proven by their recent string of playoff failures, it is a lot harder to build a winner when you can't outspend everyone else.

The teams that have won the Stanley Cup since the salary cap was instituted are teams that have grown from within. They all had home-grown goaltenders (Giguere, Ward, Osgood, Fleury, and Niemi), the majority developed their stars from within (Staal, Lidstrom, Crosby, Malkin, Toews, Kane), and they had one or two key additions to their lineup who made huge contributions (Selanne, Whitney, Rafalski, Gonchar, Sharp).

This year's free agency period has a number of big fish in the pool that GMs will undoubtedly look to land. It's not surprising that teams look to improve their standing by adding a key free agent, but it is surprising that those players aren't developed from within.

If you're the Los Angeles Kings, you know you're stock in on the rise. You have excellent players already under contract, and are seemingly one or two ingredients away from being dominant. My question is this: do you make a run at Ilya Kovalchuk long-term in the same manner that Chicago did with Marian Hossa - possibly risking the loss of key players as their contracts expire in the future - or do you continue to build from within while giving yourself some room to play if a player decides he needs a raise?

A lot of NHL teams who have signed the home-run hitter have experienced roster turnover the following season thanks to the salary cap. I guess the real question is this: would you like your team to make one run at a Stanley Cup with the expectation they are going to win it, or would you like your team to be competitive in the playoffs for the next five years? Honestly, Chicago appears to be a one-and-done team thanks to their salary cap problems, meaning that some of their key players may be playing in new cities next season.

Personally, if I'm a fan, I want the five-year investment. There's a better chance that my team could appear in multiple Stanley Cup Finals. And if they win, there's a better chance they may repeat if they don't have to dismantle their roster in the off-season.

And if they don't win, you can just rename the team as the "San Jose Sharks".

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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