Cap brings parity, and tough decisions
It was a few hours before Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, and a group of writers was sitting at a table with Kevin Lowe.
While the rest of us looked forward to a great game capping a wonderful first season out of the NHL lockout, I can't forget an introspective Lowe, then Edmonton's GM, talking about the tough decisions that lay ahead for the Oilers and the difficulty of keeping together a good team in the new cap system.
Now, looking back, Lowe was in that kind of mood perhaps because he knew then what the rest of us would find out later: Stud defenseman Chris Pronger wanted out, and no matter what trade Lowe made, the Oilers wouldn't easily bounce back from it.
"You've got a good memory," Lowe, now the Oilers' president, told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "That was kind of the strange element for me in terms of the euphoria you'd have as a player from all those years going to the finals. You would celebrate a good year. But at that point, I was already in that mode of thinking ahead to the summer and what was ahead of us. It was more foreshadowing than probably I even expected."
Was it ever.
The Oilers still are recovering from Pronger's departure (Lowe on Tuesday called Pronger the "only superstar" the team has had in the past decade), and from having to perhaps overpay free-agents-to-be (like Shawn Horcoff and Fernando Pisani), in the wake of a great playoff run. Liberalized free agency in the new collective bargaining agreement was a tough pill for the Oilers in this particular case.
But they are not alone. Four and a half seasons into this CBA, this much is clear: The post-lockout NHL promised parity and delivered on that. A daily look at the standings will paint you that picture, three-point games and all. The flip side of that talent base being forcefully spread around 30 teams is that keeping a good team together has never been harder.
The days of the dynasty are long gone, at least the old definition of a dynasty.
"You make the playoffs four years in a row, that's a dynasty now," Ken Holland said in a semiserious tone.
But the Detroit Red Wings' GM, who has presided over the model hockey franchise of the modern era, said the cap system has delivered exactly as billed.
"Ultimately, a cap league is a cap league no matter what sport," Holland said. "And if you look at the NFL, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl last year and missed the playoffs this season. It's hard to stay good for a long period of time. It's designed for parity; it's designed for competitive balance."
Just four years removed from that thrilling Edmonton-Carolina final, the Oilers and Hurricanes find themselves 29th and 30th, respectively, in the overall NHL standings. Just three years removed, the teams from the 2007 Cup finals also have seen better days; the champion Anaheim Ducks are life and death to make the playoffs, and the Ottawa Senators already missed them last season.
Free agency and limited cap space have been a toxic dynamic that has forced dramatic turnover on many NHL rosters and certainly on the first four Cup finals teams of the post-lockout NHL.
Only six players from the Hurricanes' 2006 Cup run have stayed put: Rod Brind'Amour, Chad LaRose, Eric Staal, Niclas Wallin, Cam Ward and Ray Whitney (Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward and Erik Cole all left and returned since then). Only five players are left from the 2006 Oilers: Ales Hemsky, Horcoff, Pisani, Ethan Moreau and Steve Staios.
Make it eight from the 2007 Ducks: Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, Todd Marchant, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, George Parros, Ryan Carter, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. And seven from the Sens of that season: Daniel Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza and Anton Volchenkov.
"We lived it right from the opening year of this system," Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com this week.
Imagine having a talented lineup but having to fit it under a $39 million salary cap. That was the case in 2005-06, when the Sens came out of the lockout with an incredibly talented roster that had been carefully built through the draft: Alfredsson, Spezza, Fisher, Dany Heatley and Martin Havlat up front; Phillips, Volchenkov, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden on the back end. Problem was, nearly all of them would need new deals over a two- to three-year period, and they all couldn't stay.
"I wasn't the manager then, John Muckler was, but basically right then and there, we had to decide between Redden and Chara, and he decided at that time to keep Redden and sign him to a two-year deal," said Murray, who was the Sens' coach at the time. "The other guy was Martin Havlat, who was becoming unrestricted. I believe he had asked for $6 million a year, and John felt we couldn't pay him that, and he traded him and really didn't get anything back. So Ottawa, right away, was greatly affected by the cap system."
Fans in Chicago should take note. We are wondering how the heck the Chicago Blackhawks will keep their core together next season when the CBA clock strikes midnight. No question the Hawks are the most fun team to watch right now in the NHL and arguably the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. But their depth of talent won't be there forever. With the new extensions that kick in next season for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, the Hawks have 15 players counting for $61 million or so next season. They need to have 23 players under $56 million. Basic math tells you they need to chop off about $10 million from their payroll in the offseason.
"They've signed their big guys, and they're going to have to cut some players, maybe not before the playoffs, but certainly over the summer, just to fit everybody in," Murray said of Chicago. "So, you draft well, you get good as a team, you pay a couple of star guys, then you have the same decisions to make."
It's simple, said Holland: You have a short period of time to go for it. After that, you have to maintain.
"You get your two- to three-year window where you're playing with some cheaper players," he said. "We had that with [Henrik] Zetterberg making $2.6 million. Well, that's no longer the case."
The Wings, as you might expect, have done as well as a team can in this system. They've locked up their core players at reasonable cap numbers -- Zetterberg ($6.08 million average), Pavel Datsyuk ($6.7 million), Niklas Kronwall ($3 million) and Johan Franzen ($3.95 million) -- and will fill out the rest of the roster around them. (You want to talk cap management? The Wings have $16 million or so coming off the books this offseason. Watch out.)
But there's only so much you can do in this system. When Detroit got hammered with injuries to a handful of star players this season, Holland had to sit back and wince. It's not the old CBA; you can't trade for stars on a whim. When those injured players return, they also come back with their cap hit. No room for new star players.
In addition, teams can't horde talent like they used to if they had the financial wherewithal. The 2002 Cup-champion Red Wings, with one of the biggest payrolls in the NHL, iced a fourth line of Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov and Tomas Holmstrom. Gulp.
You're not going to see that ever again under this system. But what you will see, and what we've already witnessed, is the chance for a quicker turnaround for basement clubs.
When Carolina and Edmonton were duking it out in the Cup finals, guess who ranked 27th, 28th and 29th, respectively, in the league standings? Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The Penguins already have rebounded to win the Cup last season, while the Caps and Hawks are knocking at the door.
OK, so franchise draftees like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Toews and Kane don't come around every June. Still, with good drafting and a few key moves, teams can rise in a reasonable timeframe.
"Colorado this year looks like a good example of that," Lowe said, a comment echoed by Holland.
Last season, the Avs finished 28th overall in the NHL standings. Today, they're battling for the Northwest Division crown and a top-three seed in the Western Conference. The injection of youth, led by June 2009 draft picks Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, and the sly pickup of free-agent goalie Craig Anderson, among other moves, have changed the team's fortunes.
The fluctuation from good to bad to good ... the system allows for a dramatic shift either way. "No question," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said.
And who would know more than him? A Cup champion in 2006 to out of the playoffs the next two seasons to an impressive conference finals run last spring to a possible lottery draft pick in June. Next season? Who knows. Maybe Carolina will be back in the playoffs with a healthy Cam Ward and Eric Staal, the seasoning of some younger players, and possibly a Taylor Hall or a Tyler Seguin in the lineup.
"You put Hall or Seguin in our lineup, we make the changes we have to make, we get the goaltending that we're capable of getting, we get Eric on his A-game, I mean, yeah, we can go from the conference finals to picking first overall and back to the conference finals," Rutherford said.
Lowe, GM Steve Tambellini and the rest of the Oilers' front office are taking a beating in their market. Edmonton has possibly the most passionate fan base in the league and a knowledgeable media corps. They don't like what they're seeing right now. But the fact is, throw in World Junior Championship stars Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, a healthy Hemsky, and possibly Hall or Seguin or Cam Fowler, and it's not hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"We're certainly happy with a bunch of the pieces we have," Lowe said. "That's where the optimism is. And yeah, if you can change a few pieces in the offseason, let some contracts expire or move a couple and bring in the right pieces, to Jimmy's point, you can go from 30th or 29th to a playoff team, whereas [before the lockout] it was more difficult."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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