Winning a championship is a blessing and a curse because ultimately the only move from that apex is down, as has been the case for many of this decade’s NHL dynasties.
This process of keeping as many stars as possible on the team while finding replacement parts to fill the gaps left by their ever-increasing salaries is the trick to maintaining competitiveness in the league. In the NHL, a team’s best path for sustained success is not by increasing the frequency of transactions, but rather by increasing the intensity of player development.
The Golden State Warriors have exemplified this particular effect this season after making the last five NBA finals and winning three. They are currently 2-12, and as their list of injured players grows, this season looks more and more like a lost cause in the team’s first season back in San Francisco. Now, I am fully aware that the Warriors do, in fact, play basketball, so let’s get on to some hockey.
The NHL is arguably the league with the most competitive parity of the four major sports. It has a hard salary cap, and finding, let alone affording, more than two or three bona fide superstars on the roster is borderline impossible with top players taking up large quantities of the salary cap while teams still field rosters of at least 20 players. Over the last decade, however, some teams have found consistent success. The Blackhawks and the Penguins have three championships each over this time span, and both are shells of their former selves but have reacted differently to the cap pressures of winning and winning sustainably.
The Blackhawks are surging after starting the season with a 3-6-2 record in October. It was painful to watch, and their coach is lucky to still have a job after that dreadful start. Since their last cup victory, they steadily performed worse and worse in the playoffs, culminating in a sweep by Nashville in 2017 and have missed the playoffs ever since.
The Penguins currently occupy a wild card spot in the standings but their star, and the hockey player with the most name recognition in the world, Sidney Crosby, will undergo a surgery that will have him out of the lineup for at least six weeks. The Penguins follow the “next man up” mantra, and young players Jared McCann and Dominik Kahun have lately stepped up to fill open roles in the offensive rotation. The Penguins are on a streak of making the playoffs 13 consecutive times, but they were also swept in the first round last year.
The model of these teams during their cup runs was relatively straightforward: Keep the superstar cores together and cost-controlled, and use whatever is left in the salary cap to fill the rest of the roster. For the Penguins, the players that stayed together through all three cups were Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-André Fleury, with their netminder now between the pipes for the Vegas Golden Knights.
In Chicago, the Blackhawks have an even longer list of players present for the three cups, including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marián Hossa, Patrick Sharp and even the since-fired Coach Joel Quenneville, who has taken his talents to the Florida Panthers. Unsurprisingly, the best players are the most effective at winning cups, so it is imperative to keep them.
After their championship runs, the Blackhawks have traded and reacquired players they lost to keep under the salary cap. In so doing, the Blackhawks have definitively demonstrated this is not the way to keep a competitive edge. The players they got in return some years later were not the same ones they traded or let sign deals elsewhere after their championships. They were slower like Brian Campbell, less effective like Andrew Ladd and Patrick Sharp, and perhaps somewhat traumatized by negative experiences on other teams like Brandon Saad.
Although the Blackhawks were able to find older pieces in the short term to fill their lineup once they could no longer afford all of their championship players, there was little developing youth in the pipeline as youth and draft picks were mostly traded to support the Blackhawks’ constant roster moves. The Blackhawks are finally relying on their youth and are reaping the benefits of the strong play of Alex Debrincat, Dylan Strome, Kirby Dach and others.
The Penguins, throughout their championship runs, have turned to youth to improve their teams. Their current goaltender Matt Murray won his first and, through a quirk in the rules, second Stanley Cup with the Penguins as a rookie. Jake Guentzel, another rookie during their cup run, turned into a completely different animal during the playoffs, tying the record for most points in a postseason by a rookie in 2017. Both of these players continue to be integral members of the Penguins roster.
Now I mentioned the Golden State Warriors because the model for continued success we have been examining in hockey may apply in basketball. The Warriors have maintained the core players, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, who have all signed for the next few years. They have also acquired D’Angelo Russell to round out that core. Through their monumental underperformance this season, mostly because of injuries to everyone, they will likely keep the first-round pick that a winning season would have sent to the Nets. For these reasons, I do not think that the plight of the Warriors will continue very far into the future. This season might be painful, but the cap and roster situation is clear: Drafting and youth represent the path forward for the struggling team.
Really young, inexperienced, yet talented players are ultimately the most cost-controlled and effective way to inject new talent into a roster and keep a competitive edge. Teams are risk-averse, but in the NHL the maximum salary for a newly drafted player is $925,000. More development and fewer transactions must be the name of the game for teams looking to maintain a competitive edge.