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The NHL had a salary cap years ago, you know. The first one was implemented during the Great Depression, when the Original Six teams were limited to $62,500 payrolls with no player earning more than $7,000. Hockey fans in the 1930s had to choose between three square meals and three periods of hockey.

Just ask Chris Chelios.

OK, that was a joke, but this is not: 80 years and three zeroes later, fans remain most hungry for the action. The NHL generated revenues approaching $3 billion last season, enough to implement a $59.4 million salary cap for 2010-11. Twenty-nine players will pocket at least $7 million this season.

Inflation, you say? Not quite.

An item purchased for $7,000 in 1930 would be bought for $91,381 today, so clearly the cost of living hasn't contributed to skyrocketing salaries nearly as much as the price of stupidity. It's another argument for another day, specifically when the collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2012.

The idea for me today is building the best 23-man team possible, complete with four solid lines, using actual salaries for this year from nhlnumbers.com -- not cap numbers that have been distorted by teams circumventing the cap -- while adhering to the NHL spending limit.

For me, it was an exercise in getting the biggest bang for my buck and assembling the best team money can buy. Anybody can max out the cap with superstars, spend cheap on the fourth line and claim they have a Stanley Cup team. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are great players, but they're making too much money to land spots on my team.

Strange things happen once you fire up the calculator and make decisions based on real dollar amounts. Yes, there are a few surprises.

Ryan Miller is the best goaltender in the league and didn't make the cut because he's making $6.25 million this season. My two goalies, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard, make less than one third of that combined. Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk, known as a bad boy in these parts, took the final roster spot after evolving last season into a very good player. The bruiser is a bargain at $1.75 million.

You wonder how Detroit does it every year when it has Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski all making $6 million or more. My squad doesn't have anybody making more than $5 million, and it was difficult enough. But mine is stronger down the middle, has more offensive skill, is better defensively and deeper and has better goaltending.

One thing you learn immediately is that adding talent to one area means subtracting it from another. It makes for difficult decisions, continuous second-guessing and a splitting headache. Certainly, you can comb through every player on my roster today and come up with alternatives at every turn.

Fair enough. That makes two of us.

You'll find the best approach is the one many teams have employed in recent years. It calls for good young players, preferably proven talents who are still on their rookie (see: dirt cheap) contracts. Lightning center Steven Stamkos is a 50-goal scorer who is making $875,000. Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers is a rookie of the year earning the same salary along with Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty.

But there are other good deals out there.

Vancouver has a 30-goal scorer in Alex Burrows and a 44-point defenseman in Christian Ehrhoff, neither of whom is among the best players at his position on the team. But when they're a combined plus-70 and making $5.6 million combined, it's hard to keep them off any team.

Canucks center Ryan Kesler landed a spot on my roster despite making $5 million this season because he was among the top 10 centers in scoring, was in the top 25 in overall scoring and is terrific at both ends of the rink. He was a blue-light special last season, when he earned only $1.7 million.

Patrick Sharp's production, when compared to his $4.1 million salary, was the primary reason the Blackhawks found it better to trade half of their Stanley Cup-winning team rather than lose him and trim elsewhere. Penguins center Jordan Staal -- when healthy -- is one of the better two-way players in the game and would be a No. 1 center on many teams. He's in a checking role in Pittsburgh and making just $3.5 million.

The position giving me a migraine was right wing. Martin St. Louis, making $4 million after finishing sixth in scoring with 94 points, one point behind Stamkos on a bad team, was a lock. Chris Stewart remained under the radar for most of last season in Colorado, but he had 36 goals. He's making only $2.5 million.

Philadelphia winger Claude Giroux is an emerging star based on his play in the postseason, when he had 10 goals and 21 points in 23 games. He's capable of scoring 25 goals and 70 points this season. The price tag: $765,000.

All told, my team has two scorers (Stamkos, St. Louis) among the NHL's top 10 and five (add Zach Parise, Kesler, Loui Eriksson) among the top 25. They collected 172 goals and 417 points last season and this year will have a combined salary of about $18 million.

Bolts center Vincent Lecavalier and Rangers center Chris Drury, two players set to make $18 million combined this year, totaled 38 goals and 102 points.

Parise had 38 goals and 82 points by himself for the Devils last season. He's making $5 million. Luckily, there was enough room on my team to keep him.

Is there room on yours?

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com