Burnside: No more excuses


It's been a rite of spring for much of the past decade. The Edmonton Oilers scratch and claw and sneak into the NHL playoffs at the last possible moment, sending shivers of excitement through Oilerdom.

The onetime dynasty plays a handful of gripping games against the deep-pocketed Dallas Stars, losing in overtime, dropping a heartbreaker on a late goal, maybe sneaking in an overtime win. And in a week, the Oilers' season is over.

Fans are quietly disappointed in that uniquely Canadian way, but hardly surprised and rarely angry. Ownership and front office staff shrug their shoulders. What else could anyone expect?

Guess what? Those days are over.

If the Edmonton Oilers, rife with young talent and with enough cap room to add at least a couple of proven NHL free agents this summer, don't make the playoffs next spring, those same Oilers fans will be up in arms. There may even be calls for the heads of much-loved general manager Kevin Lowe and equally adored coach Craig MacTavish. And that's a good thing.

With a new economic system that puts limits on team spending, the safety nets are gone for teams whose results were viewed through an economic prism.

To paraphrase Al Davis: No excuses baby, just win.

Scouts, agents and general managers believe the new CBA, expected to be ratified late next week in Toronto and New York, provides a landscape that for the first time in recent memory will pit hockey acumen against hockey acumen. And to the smartest will go the Cup. Or at least that's the theory.

"If the playing field is leveled with a cap, you'll find teams that will be successful will be by virtue of their general manager and their scouting staff. This will prove the true mettle of the GMs," said a top agent. "It is going to be fascinating."

Craig Button, former GM of the Calgary Flames and now a pro scouting consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, predicts owners across the NHL will have higher expectations for their teams. As a result, front office staff will be under pressure to produce in an unprecedented fashion -- and heads will roll in an unprecedented fashion.

"Owners will feel that their team should compete right away. But somebody's going to finish 30th, somebody's going to finish on the edge of the playoffs. There's going to be a lot of turnover," Button predicted. "The excuses are gone now. The coach can't just throw up their arms. There's going to be a lot of people exposed, and that's a good thing."

One of the strange by-products of the spending sprees of recent years, which saw the average NHL salary climb to $1.8 million, has been coaches and general managers in the most unstable markets enjoying the greatest job security.

Doing a lot with a little seemed enough for ownership in many of these markets.

Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff assumed the general manager and coaching duties, respectively, in Buffalo in the summer of 1999. After making the playoffs their first two years, the economically fragile Sabres failed to make the playoffs during the three seasons leading up to the lockout.

Nashville GM David Poile and coach Barry Trotz have been with the club since its inception in 1998 and have one playoff appearance (2004) to show for their work in one of the most economically bleak climates in the league.

In their four years of existence, the Columbus Blue Jackets have yet to come close to making the playoffs under GM (and sometimes coach) Doug MacLean.

Likewise the Atlanta Thrashers have yet to appear in a postseason game in five years, despite the efforts of two of the game's most dynamic players: Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

As for the Oilers, since Lowe and MacTavish arrived in the summer of 2000, the team has failed to make the playoffs twice and has been bounced in the first round twice, both times against Dallas.

Yet these small-market GMs insist they are looking forward to the challenge of competing on an equal playing field, even if it means the expectations and the price for failure are significantly higher.

"I think there will be a lot more pressure on general managers and coaches. For me personally, I think that's a good thing," said Regier, whose job in recent years has been a painstaking exercise in matching dollars spent in player salary against the points those dollars were likely to represent in the standings. Too often, it wasn't enough.

"I think the last few years have been difficult for many teams," Poile said. "It unfortunately hasn't been too much of a level playing field, and it would be nice to have a level playing field. I know we're not all created equal. But as close as possible would be nice."

In the past, big-market teams such as Toronto, the New York Rangers and Colorado could erase mistakes at various levels of their organization by virtue of spending more money on players.

"That will no longer exist," said Mike Keenan, who is about to enter his first year as GM of the Florida Panthers.

Teams will have to have an organizational framework "that is skillful and that is deep in all areas," predicted Keenan, whose first step toward building a successful organization was hiring longtime friend and former Ottawa coach Jacques Martin to coach a team high on youthful promise but short on results.

It stands to reason the GMs most familiar with financial hardship may be well-positioned for a cap that will force teams to spend between $21.5 million and $39 million on salaries. Poile has never worked under a formal salary cap, but he has had a budget in Nashville that acted as a salary cap. Likewise for Lowe in Edmonton, Regier in Buffalo and Darryl Sutter in Calgary.

"On our team, we could not make mistakes because our budget was what it was," Lowe said.

Already, other teams are reacting to what will be a seismic shift in the landscape.

The Maple Leafs, whose scouting and development programs have been an afterthought because they have built through acquiring established veterans at the expense of youth, recently hired former Carolina head coach Paul Maurice to run their AHL team.

Meanwhile, the decidedly small-market Hurricanes added two professional scouts for a total of three as they prepare for a system that will see players become free agents at age 27 (by the end of the 2008 season) or after seven years in the league, a system in which Carolina can expect to be a buyer as often as the next team. Safety net or not.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.