When the current NHL CBA was implemented, NHL fans were told it would level the playing surface, making it possible for all 30 teams to have a shot at Stanley Cup contention. That, however, ultimately failed to work out a promised.
Under the previous NHL CBA, which lacked a salary cap, the perception existed that the highest-spending teams were “buying” themselves championships, at the expense of those which couldn’t afford the luxury.
In the 1999 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Conference Finalists were the Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars. The Sabres were 22nd overall in payroll at over $26 million, the Avalanche 12th overall at $30.8 million, the Maple Leafs 7th at $34 million, while the Stars – the eventual Stanley Cup champions – had the second-highest payroll at $39.8 million.
The 2000 Conference Finalists were the Stars, Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. The Flyers were second overall in payroll at $50.3 million, the Stars were fourth at $42.3 million, the Avs were fifth at $41.5 million, while the Devils – the eventual Cup champions – were fifteenth at $31.3 million.
In 2001, the Conference Finalists were the Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Avalanche and St. Louis Blues. The Avalanche – the eventual Stanley Cup champions – had the third-highest payroll at $51.692 million, the Blues the fifth-highest at $47.092 million, the Devils the tenth-highest at $39.151 million, and the Penguins fourteenth at $33.677 million. The Cup Final featured two teams – the Avalanche and Devils – which were in the top ten in payroll.
The 2002 Conference Finalists were the Detroit Red Wings, Avalanche, Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes. The Wings, the eventual Cup champions, lead the league in payroll with $66.643 million, while the Avs were third-highest again, at $59.523 million. The Leafs had the sixth-highest payroll at $51.565 million. The Hurricanes, who defeated the Devils (10th overall again in payroll at $43.118) and Montreal Canadiens (13th, at $41.277 million) on route to the Final, were 18th overall in payroll at $31.994 million.
The 2003 Stanley Cup Final featured two teams in the top ten in payroll (the Devils – 8th overall at $56.072 million – and Anaheim Ducks – 10th at $45.519 million). Along the way, they downed the Ottawa Senators in the Conference Final (18th at $34.34 million) and the upstart Minnesota Wild (30th at $20.743 million).
The 2004 Stanley Cup Finals marked the first time during the period of this particular CBA (1995 to 2004) that neither finalist were among the top ten in payroll. The Tampa Bay Lightning, ranked 21st overall in payroll ($34.065 million), downed the Calgary Flames, 18th at $36.402 million, to win the Cup.
What was unusual about that year was, of the Conference Finalists, only one – the Philadelphia Flyers (68.1785 million – fourth-highest that season)- ranked in the top ten in payroll. The San Jose Sharks, whom the Flames defeated in the Western Conference Final, were 20th overall at $34.455 million.
It was apparent throughout most of the years of the previous CBA that, with rare exceptions, teams which ranked among the top ten in payroll stood a better chance of reaching the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals, and doing so frequently, than those whose payrolls were considerably lower.
So, did the current CBA “levelled the playing surface” as promised?
In the 2006 Playoffs, the Carolina Hurricanes, Buffalo Sabres, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers reached the “Final Four”. Only the Oilers (ninth overall at over $38.446 million) were among the top ten in payroll. The Hurricanes –who defeated the Oilers to win the Cup – were 16th at $35.308 million. The Ducks were 19th at $32.060 million, the Sabres 25th at $28.5 million.
The 2007 Conference Finalists were the Ducks, Red Wings, Sabres and Senators. The eventual Cup champion Ducks were fifteenth overall at $40.461 million. The Sabres were 17th at $39.991 million, while the Red Wings 18th at $39.872 million. Only the Senators (the seventh-highest payroll at $43.630 million) were among the top ten.
Under this CBA, no longer was there a huge disparity between the top spending teams and the lowest spending, thanks to the guaranteed $16 million gap between the cap maximum and minimum every season. It certainly appeared teams didn’t need to be among the highest-spenders to ensure playoff success.
By season three, however, two of the four Conference Finalists were among the top ten in payroll.
The 2008 Conference Finalists were the Philadelphia Flyers (first in payroll at $56.563 million), Dallas Stars (fifth overall at $49.856 million), Detroit Red Wings (14th at $48.346 million) and Pittsburgh Penguins (22nd at $44.554 million).
Though the ’08 Cup Finals saw the first clash of finalists (Red Wings and Penguins) not among the top ten in payroll, the first indication more high-salaried teams would be among the Conference Finalists had appeared. Indeed, not much separated the Stars payroll from the Red Wings.
By the 2009 Conference Finals, two of the four teams were once again among the top ten in payroll: the Chicago Blackhawks (fourth overall at $57.933 million) and the Red Wings (climbing from 14th the season prior to seventh overall at $57.436 million). The Penguins, 22nd the year prior, were 11th at $56.678 million, an increase which contributed to their Cup championship that year. The Hurricanes, 16th overall during their 2006 championship run, were 22nd overall ($51.071 million) in 2009.
In 2010, three of the four Conference Finalists were among the top ten: the Flyers (first in the league at $60.444 million), Sharks (fourth at $57.025 million), and Montreal Canadiens (eighth at $56.376 million). The Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Cup champs, had slid to 13th at $55.762 million).
Three of the four Conference finalists were also in the top ten in payroll in 2011. The Vancouver Canucks were second overall at $62.871 million, the Boston Bruins seventh at $60.179 million, and the Sharks eighth overall at $59.348 million. The Lightning, back to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2004, were 22nd in payroll at $50.356 million.
2011 also marked the first time since 2003 two Cup Finalists were among the top ten in payroll.
Not every one of these aforementioned high-salaried Conference Finalists since 2006 were among the league’s best in the regular season.
The 2006 Edmonton Oilers, for example, finished 16th overall in the standings, and were considered underdogs throughout their run to the Cup Final. The 2010 Canadiens barely made the playoffs and their run to the Conference Finals was considered a surprise.
Being a high-salaried team is also no guarantee of advancing to the Conference Final or Cup Final.
The NY Rangers, Washington Capitals, Flames, Devils and Maple Leafs have at various times been among the top ten in payroll since 2005-06, yet failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs. Some even missed the playoffs entirely, proof that just because a general manager can spend, doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll spend wisely.
What’s also striking is how the number of lower-salaried teams reaching the Conference Finals or Cup Final declined over the course of this CBA.
It’s also apparent that clubs which regularly operated on lower budgets, especially if they’re in the bottom third of the league, either lack the depth to qualify for the playoffs, or if they do qualify, almost never advance beyond the first two rounds.
The numbers suggest that, despite the implementation of a salary cap, the more a team is willing to wisely invest, the greater their chances of playoff success.