PALM BEACH, Fla. - In the NHL's salary cap system, teams don't always get what they pay for.
Six of the league's biggest spenders found themselves out of the playoff picture on Wednesday morning, which is why this week's news that the salary cap is expected to jump again doesn't necessarily signal the NHL has become a league of "haves" and "have nots."
New Jersey, Calgary, Ottawa, San Jose, Minnesota and Toronto are all in the top half of the league in spending, according to capgeek.com, and are among those currently chasing a playoff spot. Meanwhile, a number of other teams are thriving despite spending well below the US$59.4-million salary cap.
"You don't necessarily have to be there (to be competitive)," said Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman.
When Yzerman was hired by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at the end of May, he was given a tight budget. The team is currently carrying a roster that is more than $10 million below the salary cap, but finds itself inside the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
There's no guarantee Yzerman will ever be given the green light to be as free-spending as his colleagues.
"In due time, if we can be successful in our plans, we feel we'll be able to compete and potentially our budget will change," said Yzerman. "For the time being, I'm very comfortable with the budget that we have. (I think) that we can compete. Obviously, we'd all love to have the same resources as other teams but that's not the reality.
"It will never be that way no matter what system (we have)."
No one is currently getting better bang for their buck than the Thrashers, who have the league's lowest payroll according to capgeek.com. Despite that, they sit alongside the Lightning with a matching 15-10-3 record.
Atlanta president Don Waddell, who relinquished the GM duties to Rick Dudley earlier this year, says he isn't concerned that the NHL is projecting the salary cap to rise above $62 million for the 2011-12 season. If that happens, the salary floor would climb over $46 million and teams like the Thrashers would have to increase their payroll to be compliant.
"Right now we're trying to manage our expenses," said Waddell. "If the cap goes up, it's something that we'll face as we get into next year. Those are not big numbers—those are easy manageable numbers."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to note that the poorer teams still see a benefit when the salary cap jumps because more money is handed out in revenue sharing. Roughly 10 teams qualify for revenue sharing payments each season.
"If the salary cap goes up, it means revenues are going up," said Bettman. "It means revenue sharing goes up. You've got to look at the system in its totality. It's a little premature for us to be worrying about (teams having trouble spending to the salary floor)."
One notable exception is the New York Islanders, who are only above the floor this season because they're getting hit for more than $6 million from the buyouts given to Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt.
Owner Charles Wang stands to see his costs increase for next season if the league's projections are accurate. However, he doesn't qualify for revenue sharing because the Islanders play in a metropolitan market with more than 2.5 million people.
At the other end of the scale, life isn't necessarily easier.
New Jersey and Calgary are in the top five in spending and find themselves near the bottom of their respective conferences. Even though the Chicago Blackhawks are doing much better than that, they'd probably be having a better season if GM Stan Bowman didn't have to dismantle his championship roster to get under the salary cap.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are carrying a lower payroll than those three teams, but they're also paying defenceman Jeff Finger $3.5 million to play in the American Hockey League. GM Brian Burke declined to reveal if he sees a rising salary cap as a competitive advantage in his rebuild, but he did make it clear that he intends to take advantage of it.
"Whatever they give us to spend, that's what we're going to spend," said Burke.
A long winning streak has propelled the Penguins into top spot in our weekly look at the NHL's teams from top to bottom (with last week's ranking):
1. Pittsburgh (4): Marc-Andre Fleury has turned it around after a rough start to the season. Says GM Ray Shero: "At the end of the story was if it didn't change, what was I going to do? You aren't going to be able to trade him so I'm stuck. 'So Marc, could you please play good?' That was me to him.''
2. Detroit (1): Wishing a speedy recovery to Mike Modano. He hinted to local reporters that his career might be in jeopardy after having a tendon in his right wrist cut by a skate.
3. Washington (2): Alexander Semin is on pace for a 50-goal season and due to become an unrestricted free agent in July. It could be his last year in a Capitals sweater.
4. Montreal (5): A big area of improvement has been the penalty kill. The Habs have gone from an 83 per cent success rate last season to a league-best 89.3 per cent so far this year.
5. Vancouver (10): Strange stat—reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin is on pace for 10 goals and 88 assists. He scored 29 times a year ago.
6. Philadelphia (3): Danny Briere is getting lots of love in Philly these days and with good reason. He leads the team with 14 goals.
7. Dallas (7): How will GM Joe Nieuwendyk manage this squad if it continues to stay with the league leaders? With no owner, he's in a tough spot to spend any more money.
8. Phoenix (12): Prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer made a strong impression on the league's power brokers this week. He looks like the white knight the franchise has been searching for.
9. Boston (16): The milestones keep coming for Mark Recchi. Having recently registered his 1,500th career point, the 42-year-old is closing in on his 1,600th game. Impressive.
10. Tampa Bay (6): A healthy Simon Gagne makes this team look even more dangerous. There are still questions about the goaltending duo of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis, though.
11. Atlanta (14): Ondrej Pavelec has been a rock in goal for the surprising Thrashers. He's second in the league with a .947 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average.
12. Chicago (11): There's no room for sentiment when you're the defending champs. Coach Joel Quenneville elects not to start goalie Marty Turco in his return to Dallas.
13. N.Y. Rangers (9): The latest linemates for Marian Gaborik are rookie Derek Stepan and Ruslan Fedotenko, who came to training camp on a tryout. Call them the odd couple.
14. Columbus (8): Defenceman Rostislav Klesla led all NHLers with a plus-17 rating heading into play Wednesday. The Czech has never finished a season better than plus-7.
15. Anaheim (17): Joffrey Lupul returns to the Ducks lineup after sitting on the sidelines for 362 days. There were moments he wondered if he'd ever be back after a serious blood infection.
16. Los Angeles (18): It's been a tough season so far for third-year defenceman Drew Doughty. One step backwards for every two forward.
17. San Jose (19): Watch out for Logan Couture in the rookie scoring race. He's closed ground on Jeff Skinner after putting up 12 points in as many games.
18. St. Louis (13): There's lots of reason for optimism here. Owner Dave Checketts says he's close to bringing on investors and the team's local TV ratings are up more than 50 per cent from last season.
19. Nashville (22): They're starting to attract more fans in the Music City. Nashville's average attendance has jumped by more than 1,000 per game to 16,076.
20. Colorado (15): Joe Sakic attended the league's board of governors meetings this week. How long before he takes on a more permanent role with the Avalanche?
21. Minnesota (20): Coach Todd Richards is on the hot seat with the Wild. The results haven't been there.
22. Buffalo (24): The Sabres press box won't be the same without longtime Buffalo sportswriter Jim Kelley, who died of cancer last week.23. Calgary (25): It's good to hear that Harley Hotchkiss will remain involved with the Flames after selling his stake in the team. The Hockey Hall of Fame member was one of the league's most distinguished owners.24. Edmonton (28): Taylor Hall says he's feeling more comfortable now that the goals have started coming. It's probably not a coincidence the Oilers have started winning.
25. Ottawa (23): Scoring has been tough to come by. Daniel Alfredsson leads the way for the Senators with 18 points—the 80th best total in the league.
26. Carolina (21): GM Jim Rutherford would like to see the team start playing better at home. However, they won't play more than two in a row at RBC Center again until February.
27. Toronto (27): Interesting that it was two shootout wins that pulled them out of a recent nosedive. The tiebreaker hasn't been too kind to the Maple Leafs over the years—they are 22-31 since it was introduced.
28. Florida (26): Currently mired in the league's longest playoff drought, the Panthers aren't one of the franchises the league is concerned about. Says commissioner Gary Bettman: "I think if you look at a team that hasn't made the playoffs—what is it, in 10 years?—I think they draw remarkably well."
29. New Jersey (29): It's looking more and more like a forgettable season for a franchise that hasn't missed the playoffs since 1996. GM Lou Lamoriello says he's staying the course.
30. N.Y. Islanders (30): With only one victory since Oct. 21, they are now on pace for 49 points. The last NHL team to finish below 50 points was the Atlanta Thrashers, who had just 39 in their expansion 1999-2000 season.