Back in 2004-05, when the NHL’s collective stat line was 0-0-0, minus-$2 billion thanks to the lockout, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman never budged from his stance that a salary cap was in order. He insisted stability would come from, as he stated with nauseating redundancy, cost certainty.
At the time, his position was largely with small markets (see: Buffalo) in mind, so they could compete on a financial level with the big spenders. In theory, it would create parity and give all teams an opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup. In essence, he rerouted pressure from ownership to management.
His message: Good decisions will be rewarded.
The direct effect was that fewer teams were losing money. The NHL grew more competitive and financially stable. The little guys matched up with the big guys. The final four teams in 2005-06 were Buffalo, Carolina, Edmonton and Anaheim. A year later, it was Buffalo, Ottawa, Detroit and Anaheim.
Bettman this year had a fantasy final four: Montreal, the most storied franchise in NHL history; New York, an Original Six team playing in the nation’s largest market; Chicago, another Original Six team from a large market on the verge of a dynasty and Los Angeles, the second-largest market two years removed from a title.
The NHL has its dream Stanley Cup final with the Rangers and Kings in a best-of-seven series starting Wednesday. New York and Los Angeles, the two largest U.S. markets on opposite coasts, will play for a title for the first time since the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1981 World Series.
Still, with Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago again winning the last four titles, it begs the question: Did Bettman level the playing field?
The salary cap created competitive balance Bettman wanted. Teams such as Buffalo and Edmonton have nobody but themselves to blame for their ineptitude in recent years. The same goes with Toronto, Calgary, the Islanders and any other team that has consistently fallen embarrassingly short.
Bettman’s stroke of brilliance, or luck — and it’s actually a combination of both — can be found in two ways. He created competitive balance by limiting the money teams could spend on players, but he also forced teams to construct tighter payrolls and rethink their approaches when it came to personnel.
It comes down to spending smart, not spending more. Teams with the best evaluators usually wind up with the best players. Managing rosters requires a strong stomach, a stronger backbone and creativity. It’s not as if GMs working in big markets had built-in advantages when it came to knowledge.
Chicago didn’t become a dominant team because it’s from a major city. The Blackhawks were 49 years between Cups. Stan Bowman tore it apart in three months, kept his core intact and rebuilt another champion in three years. Bowman and his scouts had a strong grasp on player value.
The Kings are back in the finals for the second time in three years for the same reasons. They made smart decisions when signing players. They made good trades. They drafted well and developed good players. The Bruins, using a similar blueprint, won the Cup in 2011 and lost last year to the Blackhawks.
And then there are the Rangers, Exhibit A for all that was wrong with the NHL before 2004-05 and now an example of what the NHL designed for all teams. For seven years, they were among the league’s biggest spenders. For seven years, they missed the playoffs. For seven years, they were a punch line.
In 2003-04, their roster included Mark Messier, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Kovalev, Brian Leetch, Petr Nedved, Eric Lindros and Bobby Holik. And where did this collection of all-stars finish? Near the bottom of the standings, with a 27-40-7-8 record.
Not until they were faced with a hard salary cap did the Blueshirts see the errors of their ways. They were forced to ignore big names and play no-names, which described Ryan Callahan before he was named captain and long before they could get Martin St. Louis for him in a trade with Tampa Bay.
New York is still infatuated with superstars, and the Rangers haven’t ignored them. In recent years, however, they’ve become more judicious with their money. They’re playing for their first Cup since 1994, but it’s not as if they came out of nowhere. They reached the conference finals twice in the last three years.
Their top five scorers took different routes to Broadway. Mats Zuccarello was an undrafted free agent who led the Rangers with 59 points. Derek Stepan was a second-round pick. Brad Richards was the marquee unrestricted free agent in 2011. Derick Brassard was a veteran acquired in a trade. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was a prospect in the multiplayer swap that sent overpaid mistake Scott Gomez to Montreal.
The Kings missed the postseason in six straight seasons, including four after the lockout while they revamped the roster and waited for their prospects to mature into NHL players. They kept the right players for the right price, made the right trades and developed players the right way.
Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown were first-round picks. They traded for Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and Marian Gaborik. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick could have made more than his $5.8 million average salary. He stayed because, well, why leave?
Most players aren’t looking for maximum money. They’re looking for the best combination of money, opportunity for success and living conditions. Nearly every free agent wants at least two of the three. That’s where it gets very difficult for certain teams from smaller markets.
Teams from major markets are finally getting it right. Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and New York offer all three. No wonder they’re attractive. It’s not because they’re the biggest or best cities. It’s because their general managers made enough wise decisions and keep their teams in contention.
That’s really what Bettman had in mind. And he knew it could work anywhere.