High time the NHL got rid of the hard salary cap and follow the NBA

Once again, results in the play-offs demonstrate that ice hockey is bedevilled by a salary system that punishes teams for home-grown excellence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 3:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 10:42pm

Imagine, if you will, the world of finance and commerce working the same as the world of professional team sports. Your company had a really good year on the strength of some extremely talented and diligent employees.

Naturally your competitors are interested in poaching a number of your employees by offering them a significant raise. But you trained and groomed these people and you understand that your success is rooted in them.

So you say, in no uncertain terms, I will match your offer because I want to keep them. Well, now hang on a second here.

The Blackhawks may have lost to the Blues, but they were beaten by the salary cap

Because you have been so damn successful, we are implementing a salary cap that only allows you to pay a few of your top employees well while the other talented ones will be forced to make their fortune somewhere else, most notably with your competitors.

You see you only get to keep so many of your talented employees, even if you have the financial resources to pay all of them. I mean it’s only fair because we have to ensure competitive balance since we lack performance-related balance, right? Yeah, like that’s going to happen on Wall Street any time soon.

However, it is endlessly ironic and hopelessly moronic that those same self-professed champions of free-market capitalism suddenly seek to put cost controls on themselves when they become owners of a professional sports team.

It was the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Union Marvin Miller who revolutionised sports.

Miller was a left-of-centre labour lawyer who routinely beat baseball owners in court and forced these paragons of capitalism to actually behave like capitalists and pay players a wage commensurate with their effort.

The advent of free agency in baseball, and eventually the other three major North American sports, in the mid-1970s has seen the pendulum swing somewhat and eventually forced management to implement cost control measures. Basically, what they were saying was help save us from ourselves.

Today, baseball has implemented a luxury tax for owners who spend too much while the NBA, NHL and NFL all have salary caps. The NBA has a soft salary cap, meaning that teams can go above the cap to pay their own players, while the NFL and NHL have a hard cap.

However, the NHL easily has the most punitive system in place and it’s a truth that was driven home once again this week when defending Stanley Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated from the play-offs in seven games by the St Louis Blues.

The Blackhawks may have lost to the Blues, but they were beaten by the salary cap. They lost eight of the 20 players from their championship roster the previous season because of the salary cap.

This type of mass exodus is nothing new actually for a team that have won three of the last six Cups. In 2010 they lost 10 of their 20 players, half their roster, because they had no more cap space. Many of them went on to be All Stars with other teams.

The Los Angeles Kings are another team hamstrung by success, having won two of the last four Cups they will also see a number of key contributors walk and, like the Hawks, they were also eliminated in the first round.

They drafted and developed these players and many have turned into stars or are on the cusp of stardom. The rest of the league thinks so much of what you have accomplished that they will now pay these burgeoning stars more than you are allowed to because they no longer fit into the limitations of your current salary structure.

However, the amateur draft is reverse weighted, so the worst teams from the last year get to pick first and that should be enough of an advantage.

According to the NHL, a big reason for the hard cap is to keep the seven Canadian teams competitive because while their salary expenses are in US dollars, their revenue is in significantly more devalued Canadian dollars, hence less money for those teams. This year all seven Canadian teams missed the play-offs.

So how is this salary cap thing working now? Because of routinely misguided management decisions, these teams are putting poor products on the ice. But hang in there because teams like the Kings and Blackhawks, who do have good management running their franchises, will soon be contributing talent they aren’t allowed to pay to your cause.

It’s a joke of a system that rewards inefficiency and is inherently flawed. Until the NHL implements a soft cap, like the NBA, and allows teams to pay more than others to keep their best payers, their version of the salary cap is nothing more than a dunce cap.