Usually a team can only accomplish two of the three -- clubs that dump veterans and their salaries get younger and cheaper, but they rarely get better, at least in the short term. Teams that get better usually do so by signing an expensive, talented player at the peak of his earning power, which is certainly no way to get cheaper.
With the adoption of an official salary cap, the NHL formally elevated the importance of prudent management above that of sheer resources. Even teams that can afford it can no longer just throw money at players in an effort to buy success. The New York Rangers tried that approach, leading the league in payroll for seven consecutive seasons during which they did not make the playoffs once.
What matters now is not so much the absolute number of dollars a team will spend on player salaries -- the floor (approximately $34 million) and ceiling (approximately $50 million) for payroll is dictated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the league office. Thus, the league’s most generous team will outspend the league’s most frugal by a maximum of $16 million, roughly enough to pay the salaries of two or three first-line players.
This is indisputably a significant difference, to be sure, but not necessarily decisive when one factors in injuries, high-dollar players who under-perform, etc. What is most important in the current NHL is becoming the team that gets more out of its money by paying less for standings points than do competitors.
Standings points are what get teams to the playoffs. At the end of the regular season, the league looks at the number of points a team has, not the number of victories. Wins, while emotionally satisfying, are important primarily because they’re the method by which teams collect points. Furthermore, the teams that are able to reduce the cost of obtaining those points are more likely to succeed as business entities.
In 2006-07, Chicago’s payroll was approximately $36 million* and the team ended the season with 71 points. Thus, the Hawks spent $505,000 per point (total payroll divided by points). In comparison, the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks spent $403,000 per point, a full 20% discount below what Chicago paid (a $44 million payroll divided by 110 points).
As has been well-documented elsewhere, the Blackhawks have gotten a bit less expensive during the past two weeks or so; the incoming contracts of Sergei Samsonov and Andrei Zyuzin are about $1.2 million less than the outgoing deals of Jassen Cullimore and Adrian Aucoin.
Those two trades also made the Blackhawks younger, exchanging two players in their mid-30s for two players in their late 20s. What pushed these seemingly routine trades to the cyber-equivalent of the front page among fans is that they did not cost the Hawks any of their high-round draft choices.
Those moves, combined with the expected ascensions of Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille, and perhaps Patrick Kane to the NHL roster give the youthful Hawks a ‘lean and hungry look,’ to borrow from Julius Caesar, as well as a bit of room to sign a high-dollar free agent if they so choose.
Making a team younger and cheaper is not difficult. The Nashville Predators, for example, are in the process of doing that right now, but it will probably cost them their status as a playoff team. What makes the last few weeks exciting for Hawk fans is that the team appears to have become better, as well.
Whether that improvement will be enough to capture the 25 standings points necessary to become a playoff team again remains to be seen.