The Columbus Blue Jackets are challenging for a playoff position despite trading away star Rick Nash last summer. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Each time you stare at the NHL standings in this most unpredictable of seasons, you can’t help but do a double-take.
Is that really the Nashville Predators – who have missed the playoffs just once since 2003 – in 14th place in the West and challenging Florida, Colorado and Carolina for best odds of drafting first overall this summer? Are the Detroit Red Wings (a.k.a. the longtime and current standard-bearer for consistency and excellence) actually out of a playoff spot right now – and behind Columbus? Could we be looking at a post-season that doesn’t include the familiar colors and logos of teams from Philadelphia, New Jersey and Manhattan? Are we living in a world where the Islanders, Leafs and Blue Jackets all could be in the playoffs in the same season?
The answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. You don’t need an optometrist appointment or a toxicology test to see if someone slipped you some LSD. There is a distinct and undeniable power shift going on this year. And it proves that, despite its flaws, the NHL’s salary cap is working precisely as intended.
Some still contend the league needs dynasties and/or major markets to thrive in order to grow the game. I’ve always disagreed with that philosophy. Any pro league is only as strong as its weakest market. You don’t want to emulate Major League Baseball, where small-market teams in Kansas City and Pittsburgh exist primarily as talent development systems for big-market monoliths to pick and choose from. You want to be able to sell genuine hope to every team’s fan base.
This season has made that possible for beleaguered fans in places like Toronto and Long Island. Neither the Leafs nor the Isles are expected to appear in the Stanley Cup final anytime soon, but at long last, there is light at their tunnel’s end. There are young players (e.g. John Tavares, Nazem Kadri) who have bright futures ahead. Patience in rebuilding those franchises is beginning to pay off.
And although fans in Calgary, Nashville, Philly, Florida and Colorado won’t have much to cheer about over the course of the next few months, help is on the way for them as well in the form of a high draft pick in a deep pool of NHL prospects. If the Preds wind up getting the first overall pick, they’ll either have an offensive phenom such as Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin, or a defensive cornerstone in Seth Jones to make people forget about the departed Ryan Suter. Players like Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin also would go a long way toward boosting the fortunes of the Flyers, Panthers, Flames, Avs and just about every non-playoff team.
The cap has guaranteed that, for every salary-based action a team takes, there is an equal and opposite reaction at some point in a team’s evolution. The Devils threw everything they could to retain the services of Ilya Kovalchuk, but it ultimately cost them Zach Parise. The Canucks and Flyers took bold gambles signing Roberto Luongo and Ilya Bryzgalov to big-money, long-term contracts and now face major challenges getting out from under those deals. The Preds found the money to keep captain Shea Weber, but had no alternative but to watch Suter leave and improve the fortunes of the Minnesota Wild.
As I’ve said before, I don’t believe in 100 percent parity. On some level, NHL teams that receive more financial support from their fans should be able to take advantage of it. However, that’s what the cap floor and ceiling are there for. And if we’re being honest, none of us should want to go back to an era where the Leafs, Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings simply outspent for every big name on the free agent market and let everyone else choke on the exhaust wind of their respective tail pipes.
The salary cap certainly isn’t perfect. But as a talent redistribution system and a hope generator for fans in all 30 markets, it has performed as advertised.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.