Let me start off this post today by saying this. I love the NHL. Like, really love the NHL. They take a lot of my money every year for merchandise and online and cable packages. I watch all 82 games of my favorite team, plus many other games of other teams. I love the NHL. I also think hockey at large is the most entertaining it has ever been. Players are faster and more skilled than ever before. Hockey, in general, is my first love. It was the first sport I played and currently the only sport I play.
Yet, if I look at the state of the NHL in comparison to some other major sports in North America, I find myself disappointed. The NHL has historically been “behind” many other of the major North American sports in some regard. Some of this is because of market and that outside of Canada, hockey is just not the #1 sport in most U.S. cities. Much of it is also an unwillingness from the NHL to be creative, both in a marketing sense but also in a salary cap sense.
The main culprit in all of this is the NHL’s hard cap system. And it is killing any hopes the NHL may have of becoming an exciting sport in season and in the offseason. Here is why.
#1 – A Hard Cap System Penalizes Teams For Drafting and Building Strong Teams
Between the years of 2010-2015, the Chicago Blackhawks won three championships. In each instance, their drafting led to building historic teams that took long Cup runs. However, because of the NHL’s hard cap season, the Blackhawks had to trade away valuable talent to create cap space to keep some, but not all of their team. Between 2010-2015, the Blackhawks had to trade away players like Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, Brandon Saad, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Nick Leddy, Andrew Shaw, and Michael Frolik to name a few. They have also been forced to make difficult cap decisions, as shown in their 2017 trades on draft day, reacquiring Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin (Saad brought cap certainty that Panarin would not have in the near future), and Nik Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy (Murphy also brought cap certainty and Hjalmarsson was due for a raise in a little over a year).
If the NHL did not have a hard cap system but rather an NBA or MLB type luxury tax system, the Blackhawks could have kept their strong team together. Byfuglien left Chicago a forward but is now considered a #1 defenseman in the NHL. Ladd became the captain of the Winnipeg Jets and, in his prime, was a top six winger. Leddy is a top four defender. Shaw just returned via trade, but missed a few years as a middle six forward the Hawks relied on. Brouwer and Frolik had to be let go in the midst of their primes, and Sharp and Campbell had a year or two of solid play left before the end of their careers when they had to be traded as well. One can only wonder how great of a dynasty the Hawks could have been IF they could have kept all of these players. The Hawks are not a small market team, and they have money, so they could have. The Hawks could have brought at least one more Cup, if not more, to the city of Chicago if they had been able to keep this team together. But they couldn’t, and subsequently, the Hawks were forced to trade many of their key assets for just cap space to keep a few players.
#2 – Boring In Season Parity
Yes, I used the word “boring” here. Why? While parity can look good on the surface, the NHL salary cap “inflates” parity in a not good way. The Arizona Coyotes were an example of this last season. For all intents and purposes, the Coyotes were not a playoff team last season. Not on paper, and not in play. They are well coached, but they also had a ton of injuries last season, and they could not score if their life depended on it. Their leading goal scorer last season was Brad Richardson, and he scored 19 goals. Who is Brad Richardson you ask? Exactly! He is a fourth line center. A solid one, but a name that most outside of Coyotes’ fans or crazy NHL fanatics should know nothing about. Most games, Richardson is not noticeable. But again, he led the Coyotes in goals scored last season.
Yet, because of the NHL’s cap system, the Coyotes were in the playoff race until the very end. The Coyotes were not an entertaining team to watch, and have maybe one or two names that stand out. However, because of teams having to sell off assets they develop for cap space, teams like the Coyotes can almost sneak into the playoff picture.
#3 – Boring Offseasons
First, the NHL’s cap season prevents teams from trading draft picks for talent, or using draft picks to sign restricted free agents.
NHL teams need players on entry-level contracts. Entry-level contracts max out at a salary of $925,000. Certain players can get bonus packages going up as high as $3.8 million. For this reason, entry-level contracts are gold for NHL teams. For this reason, teams are trading their first round picks less and less, even if it could help them in the short term. Centers and defensemen are also the hardest to acquire it seems these days, so if a team thinks they can draft a top two center or a top-four defender, they are pretty much always going to make the pick instead of trading it.
To use the Blackhawks again as an example, their ownership is in pure “win now” mindset, even though the Hawks have missed the playoffs the last few seasons. The Hawks’ stars Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith are getting older. Brent Seabrook is a third pairing defender at this point in his career, and Corey Crawford is likely in his last year in a Blackhawks jersey if he can stay healthy. The Hawks have a few young players with upside, but they really need a bonafide young star to help get back in the playoff picture.
Yet, because of the salary cap, the Hawks held onto their 1st round pick this season. They took center Kirby Dach who could be a future #1 center, but not next year. He may not play an NHL game next year. Many scouts project him to take 3-4 years of NHL play before he reaches his potential. At that point, Toews and Kane will be 34 years old, and Keith almost 40. Toews and Kane will likely be in the NHL, though with probably significantly less offensive impact. Keith could still be in the NHL as well (he is still quick and has had few major injuries), but he is likely not an impact player at that point either. All three of these players will also be under contract still for the Hawks.
In a world where there is no hard cap, Hawks GM Stan Bowman is likely trading third overall pick for a roster player who can play now. Or, he isn’t afraid to use the pick to sign a restricted free agent and give up the pick as compensation. Either way, the Hawks approach to roster formation is likely different if they don’t need a player like Dach on an entry-level contract for salary cap reasons.
Second, the NHL’s hard cap prevents exciting free agent signings in the offseason as well.
I am far from a regular NBA fan, but this past offseason was a sight to behold. The drama and excitement that came with players joining forces to be together led many hockey fans I know to tune in and pay attention to what was happening in the world of basketball. This was especially true considering how boring NHL free agency truly was this past offseason.
Even though some key names were available once the playoffs ended, some of the top players didn’t even make it to unrestricted free agency. Erik Karlsson, the best defenseman in recent memory to be a free agent, signed with San Jose, the team he played for last season, before July 1st. Most other free agents signed in places, predictably, that had enough cap space to sign players available. Florida signed goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, which wasn’t surprising in the least. Star winger Artemi Panarin signed with the New York Rangers, who had the space to do so even though the Rangers are likely not a playoff team.
Overall, this made for a really boring offseason. Most teams really didn’t get much better, if at all. There is no “changing of the guard” that is likely going to happen between teams that were good this season and are likely to be mediocre next season. Because of the parity in the league created by the cap, it is also almost impossible to predict who will be truly “good” or not next season.
You know what would have been exciting?
To see Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin, and Sergei Bobrovsky team up and sign with the same team to win a championship. Yet, it didn’t happen, and in a hard cap world, it is really never going to happen. The closest we have come to this was back in 2012 when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise signed identical 12 year (yes, 12 year!) contracts with the Minnesota Wild. Parise and Suter would have been considered stars at the time, but not franchise changers, and history has shown they have done little to give the Wild any sort of playoff success. They were not at the level of Karlsson or Panarin, that’s for certain.
Yet, here we are, past July 1st, with a number of restricted free agents left unsigned and only one (a really lame one) offer sheet given to a player. We have rumors of trades and signings, but little action. We had teams in need of taking a risk, but instead, played it safe because of the NHL’s hard cap system. The Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks could all spend more than the $81.5 million cap space each team is allotted for next season. In a different cap system, each of these teams would be competing against one another profusely to sign free agents, making big trades, and use their draft picks to acquire assets in the here and now. Instead, the NHL’s hard cap system leaves little drama and mostly boring movement between teams.
One can only hope the NHL takes notice of the hype surrounding the NBA offseason and does what it can to somewhat rebuild a cap system that prevents league-wide excitement, and even attention, outside of NHL fan circles. However, in all likelihood, with Gary Bettman at the helm, don’t expect a change anytime soon, meaning the NHL will continue to be a league of “low” offseason excitement and, at times, boring parity in the regular season.