Commentary

Memo to owners: The cap is what you wanted; make it work

Updated: July 6, 2008, 8:52 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

We must admit we find all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the media and fans over the amount of money spent during the first days of free agency a bit confusing.

We're pretty sure Chicago GM Dale Tallon did not knock down some old woman at the Billy Goat Tavern and pull $56.8 million out of her handbag to pay Brian Campbell to come and play defense for the Blackhawks.

Nor did Cliff Fletcher panhandle on the sidewalk outside the Air Canada Centre to raise the $12 million it took to bring in the anonymous Jeff Finger to play defense for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nor did rookie GM Mike Gillis break into Vancouver City Hall and use taxpayer money to front the unbelievable $20 million deal offered to Mats Sundin -- a deal which presumably remains on the table while Sundin plays The Thinker on what to do next season, if at all.

Nope, all that money is ownership money. True, it comes from fans who pay the ever-increasing ticket prices and shell out for merchandise and subscribe to cable networks, etc. But it's still the owners' money. If they want to have a bonfire and roast hot dogs on it, they can. And if one wants to spend $20.5 million over five years on a defenseman that really doesn't play a lot of defense (as the New York Islanders did in signing Mark Streit), well, that's Charles Wang's prerogative, no?

Another thing we don't really understand is the perpetual moaning about how this system isn't working the way owners thought. This is especially true of owners in small markets for whom this system was designed and put in place after the NHL shut itself down for an entire season in 2004-05.

Memo to owners: This is what you wanted. If you can't make it work, boo hoo.

Yes, the Leafs may have more resources with which to buy themselves out of mistakes like the Darcy Tucker deal, but it doesn't make them a better team does it? Every buyout makes it harder to operate under the salary cap and hardly guarantees a team will be any better.

Check the standings in April, see where the Leafs end up and see if we're wrong. What this new system has done -- as promised, by the way -- is establish the haves and have-nots of hockey acumen.

In the past, it didn't really matter if the Leafs couldn't find a top prospect in a phone booth with a torch and a shovel because they could always buy themselves a few free agents. Ditto for the Rangers, Flyers and Avalanche. By the way, the Rangers have won one Stanley Cup since 1940, the Flyers one since 1975 and the Leafs one since 1967.

Now, that safety net is gone, and those big markets have to play by the same rules as everyone else -- they've had to become smart about hockey, not just spending.

Sure, owners may have been surprised to look down at the NHL spreadsheet a few days ago and find that the salary cap will rise to $56.7 million in the coming season. That's the third time since the lockout ended that the cap, the holy grail of the new economic landscape, has gone up. The Canadian dollar got stronger and fans apparently forgave most of the hockey markets and bought tickets even though promises of lower prices were essentially thrown to the wind. And barring a dramatic change in the Canadian dollar, you can expect the cap to continue to rise.

The bottom line is, if you don't know how to run your team -- Atlanta, Florida, Toronto, come on down -- then you reap what you sow. In most markets, except Atlanta, that means a changing of the guard; and the team, in theory, brings in smarter hockey people who make better decisions and the team gets better and makes more money and stops complaining about the salary cap going up.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the very fantasy of many hockey fans and observers, the constriction of the NHL's 30 franchises, came about as a direct result of the very system that was supposed to ensure the health of all 30 franchises?

League officials have quietly said the beauty of the cap is it creates a "survival of the fittest" environment. They were talking about the on-ice product, suggesting that with a narrow gap between what teams must spend to reach the floor ($40.7 million this coming season) and the ceiling ($56.7 million), only the best hockey people will succeed. But survival of the fittest might also extend to franchises themselves. If teams can't cut it, even with revenue sharing and cost certainty in place, they should be gone. Simple as that. Shut the doors and say good night, Irene.

Can't hack it in South Florida? See ya.

Made a hash of it in Atlanta? See y'all later.

Fans won't turn out in Phoenix? Put that cactus in a box and catch you later.

At the very worst, if these franchises can't make it under the system they shut down the game to put in place, the NHL should turn out the lights and turn them on again in places that care about the game.

And what's so bad about that?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.