Today Puck Propaganda has added a new propaganda entry to The Field of Excellence. This one focuses on the NHL’s Best Structural Rule Change, which turned out to be a very easy choice once you looked at the negatives of the other major candidates. The article itself doesn’t touch on these other candidates or the problems they had, so I’d like to share a bit of that with you now. The two that stood out the most besides the eventual winner were league expansion and the salary cap.
The expansion of the NHL has had many positive aspects on the sport, such as increasing its exposure, creating new fans, generating additional revenue, and so on. However, because we looked at all aspects of NHL expansion and not just one expansion moment in particular, we found that it had too many negatives to be considered as the best structural change. For one, every expansion initially diluted the hockey product and sometimes this took years to recover. Even now there are likely not enough high-end players to make every team as balanced and competitive as they could be.
Another downside to expansion has been the introduction of teams to unsuitable markets. Do we really need two teams in Florida or a team in Phoenix at all? The move of Atlanta to Winnipeg just last year proves that hockey works better in markets that are better suited for it and hopefully this will spark further corrections down the line. I for one also think we could remove a few teams entirely to make the product better, but as that will likely never happen I’ll just settle for there never being more than 30 teams at least.
Moving on to the salary cap, this one is a more recent development in NHL history and at first it appeared to be a godsend. Its purpose was to prevent the wealthy clubs from being the only ones capable of assembling the top teams by simply outspending the poor. In the beginning it seemed to be working just fine, as all teams had to fit their contracts within a certain threshold, thus creating parity in the league. However, it didn’t take long for downsides to appear.
First, it created havoc with some teams as they were forced to dismantle their roster to fit it under the salary cap. The most glaring evidence of this is the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning team from 2010. After winning the championship, they were forced to part with key pieces, such as trading away Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd for next to nothing and releasing their #1 goaltender Antti Niemi, who had filed for arbitration. Had the salary cap not been in place they would have been more likely to keep this team assembled.
Second, owners started to circumvent the cap restrictions by giving out ridiculous contracts for the sole purpose of lowering the cap hit. Since the Islanders awarded Rick DiPietro with his awful 15 year contract in 2006 there have been numerous other contracts over 10 years in length. One of the best examples is Ilya Kovalchuk’s 15 year deal with New Jersey that allows the Devils to have one of the best wingers in the league at a modest cap hit of $6.67 million. Meanwhile Detroit seems to have mastered the art of this by having Zetterberg signed at a cap hit of $6 million for 12 years, Franzen at $3.9 million for 11 years, and Kronwall at $4.75 million for 7 years. While the cap hits are low on all of these, the actual cash paid out per season is far higher early in the contract, so in addition to helping teams spend more without harming their cap situation it sees the players get their money faster.
This problem was created by flaws in the CBA that both the owners and players have taken advantage of, but nonetheless it has ruined the perceived benefits of the salary cap. This may get fixed with the new CBA, but until then it must be said that the salary cap hasn’t been all sunshine and lollipops.