Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Dynasties, Salary Caps, and Budgets: Oh My

It's a matter of some debate, and ususally only settled by personal opinion: what team was the NHL's last dynasty? Was in the '97-'02 Red Wings? The '94-'03 New Jersey Devils? The '91-'93 Penguins? Or was it the Oilers of the 80s? No-one will argue whether or not the Oilers were a dynasty: they were. But were the other teams mentioned?

All of them won at least two Stanley Cups, in a short time frame, with relatively the same roster and play-style. Granted, the Devils' Cup in '95 featured a markedly different roster than their cup winning team of '03, but at least several of the key components -- Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, and Scott Stevens -- remained.

If these teams don't pass the litmus test for dyntasty-hood, one can only assume that the criteria would be several back-to-back cups (in which case the Red Wings would still apply.) Since the expansion era, as talent gradually began to distribute evenly around the league -- and by evenly, I mean relative to the disparity between the 70s Canadiens and the 70s Kings -- it's become harder and harder to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. With the advent of unrestricted free agency and colossal salaries, it's much more difficult to keep a championship team together, and it almost takes an alignment of the stars and planets for it to occur.

But what about in the era of cost certainty? One of the weightier arguments in favor of a salary cap is the parity promoted league-wide: one need only look at the free agent talk this summer, where you hear rumors of Eric Lindros going to Calgary, Scott Niedermayer going to Edmonton, and Markus Naslund going to Florida, to grasp this sudden and drastic climate change. Instead of the usual suspects being players in the free-agent market, they are the ones forced to cut, buy-out, trade, and let go of big-named players. So does this mean it is even more difficult to build a championship dynasty?

The easy answer is yes. Last season's cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are going to be in-tough to keep together their high-powered offensive nucleus of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis and their star netminder, Nikolai Khabibulin. To add insult to injury, this nucleus was built through years spent in the basement of the NHL, and just as its potential was realized, the salary cap hits and possibly forces its deconstruction. (To be totally fair, however, the small-market Lightning would have been in-tough to sign these players merely from a revenue standpoint.)

A counter-example, though, might be the Ottawa Senators. What might have been had a $39-million salary cap been imposed in 2000? It's quite feasible that the Senators would have won at least one championship, and possibly more: they were always the whipping boys of far-larger-budget teams in the playoffs (Toronto and New Jersey). In common with last year's Lightning, too, is the Senators spent almost a decade as the weak sister of the NHL, slowly amassing a staggering degree of talent from high draft positions and excellent scouting.

So perhaps all it takes is a couple of losing years in the basement coupled with brilliant management and drafting?

Well, not so fast.

The stipulation here is that a team spends a long period of time losing. It is entirely possible that turnover will be so quick and so regular that it might be unrealistic to expect a team to be so bad as to have multiple consecutive first-overall (or even top 5) draft picks. With the number of free agents bound to be on the market each and every year, even the worst of teams will have a glut of available talent with which to bolster a sagging roster.

"Ah, but," you say, "teams don't have to sign these guys if they're rebuilding." True, they don't. But when a profit is practically guaranteed with the new economic system, fans will be clamoring for a return to success after a losing season, and will be expecting management to take action. The only way to guarantee losing is to situate yourself at the salary cap limit with an underachieving roster, and this, obviously, is not much of a strategy.

With all that said, it's not impossible. Shrewd management and hawk-vision scouting can produce a young nucleus, and key free agent signings can provide the last pieces of the puzzle. The ultimate reality, though, is that championship teams tend to have to reward success with higher salaries, and the window to produce back-to-back championships is quite small. The Patriots of the NFL have succeeded with stellar coaching, management, and defensive play. Will the NHL find its Patriots? Or will the record books show turnover in the 'Stanley Cup Winner' column to rival that of the free-agent markets?

As always, time will tell.


At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the salary cap will give incentive to players to stick around, as they will not be lured away with the promises of a much higher contract. There's a finite limit as to what a player can make and I don't think many players will walk away from a Cup winning team for a .5-1 million dollar salary increase.

Of course, we haven't seen what exploiting can be done of this current system by agents and GMs, so I'll continue to remain foolishly optimistic.

As for Dynasties? I think there are a number of factors you have to throw in. Being a dominant team, both in the standings and on the ice, is one. Winning lots of Cups would be the other one, lots of Hardware would be another one (Hart Trophies, Vezina, etc).

I don't know if I agree with any team that's won 2 cups together in a short time qualifies as a dynasty. Honestly, I think these types of labels are best presented long after said team has finished up. Exception could be made to the Oilers, for many, many reasons, though.

- Trevor


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