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One Timers

Craig’s List: NHL payroll disparity a major predictor of playoff success

15 June 2015: Chicago Blackhawks Goalie Scott Darling (33) [6151] celebrates with fans and teammates by hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head in action during game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center, in Chicago, IL.

Craig’s List is a collection of news, notes and thoughts on the NHL season from Craig Morgan, a 23-year veteran of sports reporting. The series will touch on a variety of trending topics every Sunday.

I have long been a critic of Major League Baseball for refusing to add a salary cap. Some baseball teams manage short-term success without the benefit of huge payrolls. The World Series champion Kansas City Royals did just that with a payroll ($113.6 million) that was less than half the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ($272.8M), but if you study the past decade or so, World Series champs that finish outside the top 10 in payroll are the exception. World Series champs in smaller markets like Miami have a hard time keeping their teams together.

The NBA is perhaps the best example of parity achievement, with small markets such as San Antonio and Oklahoma City enjoying success. It’s not a perfect comparison, however, since one or two players make all the difference between winning and losing in pro basketball.

The NHL is somewhere in between the two, but it hasn’t achieved a level playing field and it’s easy to see why. While the league set its cap at $71.4 million last season, the floor was $52.8 million. Winnipeg is last in spending at $59.29 million according to generalfanager.com, so the disparity isn’t quite that wide, but the top teams are spending nearly $74 million, a difference of almost $15 million.

“That’s three very good players,” NBC’s NHL analyst Ed Olczyk said. “That can make a huge difference on a team.”

It’s nice to believe that your small market team can win the Stanley Cup, but outside Carolina, a look at the Cup champs since the 2004-05 lockout (Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit,) shows a huge correlation between spending and winning.

I’d like to see the widow between the ceiling and the floor shrink significantly.

The NFL requires all teams to spend within 89 percent of the ceiling over a four-year period. If that model were applied to the NHL, all teams would have had to spend about $63.55 million this season. If the NHL phased in smaller increases in the cap ceiling over the next few years with that 89 percent floor still in place, we could see more parity in the league without over-burdening smaller markets.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is unlikely to shrink, however, because a percentage of influential owners want the right to spend more and the league must consider all of its constituents. That leaves smaller markets teams with a tough task.

They can’t afford as many mistakes in the draft or free agency, and if all goes well, they’ll either have to spend above their budget to keep their winning teams intact, or sell off some parts that have become too expensive to keep, and then start the process all over again.

26 March 2016: Pittsburgh Penguins forward Bryan Rust (17) skates with the puck in the third period of the Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings NHL hockey game, at Joe Louis Arena, in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Tony Ding/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Tony Ding/Icon Sportswire)

WILD, WILD EAST

A week ago, Philadelphia and Detroit were in a frantic race for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot. With two weeks remaining in to season, the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders have joined this manic ride to the postseason, with Pittsburgh still not out of the woods.

Five points separate those five teams with only Detroit on the outside looking in heading into Sunday’s games. On the other hand, Boston has played one more game than Detroit and two more than the Penguins, Islanders, and Flyers and the Bruins close the season with road games at Chicago and St. Louis.

Adding to the drama of this race is that it involves major hockey and media markets. New York is No. 1, Philly is No. 4, Boston is No. 7 and Detroit is No. 12 among media markets while Pittsburgh has hockey icon Sidney Crosby.

Buckle up for a wild and well-chronicled ride.

 

CAROLINA TAKES A STAND

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new law that stripped anti-discrimination protection for gay citizens. Included in that law was a ban on transgendered people using bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates. The legislation came in response to a Charlotte ordinance that allows transgendered people to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

While the Carolina Hurricanes were brief in their response to the law, their statement did take a stand for enlightenment and inclusion.

“The Carolina Hurricanes and PNC Arena are devoted to providing a welcoming and respectful environment for all fans. We stand against all forms of discrimination.”

Let’s see how and if the team follows up its words.

24 MAR 2016: Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) makes a save during the regular season match up between the Calgary Flames and the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by: David Berding/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by: David Berding/Icon Sportswire)

LOOSE PUCKS

Both Coyotes GM Don Maloney and president/CEO Anthony LeBlanc were emphatic in shooting down recent reports that the Coyotes might trade defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson to the team that selects Arizona native Auston Matthews in this year’s NHL Draft.

“I’ve heard rumblings we may trade OEL for Matthews. That will never happen,” Maloney said a town hall meeting with fans.

“We’re not trading Oliver for a draft pick,” LeBlanc added.

Ignoring for a moment how valuable OEL is to his team, it’s important to remember the Coyotes have two major center prospects on the way in Dylan Strome and Christian Dvorak. They have no top prospects coming on defense. The deal makes zero sense.

Seven of the Western Conference’s eight playoff teams have 0.500 or better records in their last 10 games.

The lone exception? The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, who are 3-5-2 after Saturday’s win against lowly Calgary.

There is a widespread belief that the three-time champs simply lack motivation and will just turn it on the postseason, but a look inside the numbers shows the Hawks are a mediocre possession team. Possession normally translates directly to playoff success. Many traditional analysts would be surprised by a quick Chicago playoff exit, but a hard look at the data shows it would be anything but shocking.

Devan Dubnyk is doing it again. The Wild goalie made 29 saves for his fifth shutout of the season and 19th of his career in a huge 4-0 win in Denver that opened up a five-point lead for the Wild over the Avalanche in the race for the Western Conference’s final wild card spot.

Dubnyk is 10-2-1 in his past 13 starts and has stopped 321 of 345 shots for a 0.930 save percentage. Last season, Dubnyk’s hot streak propelled the Wild into the playoffs after he came over in a trade from Arizona. He is crafting a repeat performance.

Six of Canada’s seven teams have been eliminated from playoff contention, with only Ottawa still in the hunt, but they’re still eight points behind the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. There has only been one NHL season in history when no Canadian teams made the playoffs. That came in 1969-70 when Toronto and Montreal were the only Canadian franchises.

It’s going to happen again and no doubt the backlash will be fierce this time around.

 

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