The World Is Flat

We’ve moved beyond the quarter-mark of the season, almost at a third of it. In the first month of the season, we all sort of marveled at how sloppy the hockey was. We blamed it on the World Cup, with most teams not getting to have a training camp with their full rosters for more than a few days. While play has tightened up a little bit, as the season enters its third month we’re still left with a product that quite simply, isn’t very good.

What’s become clear is that the salary cap has flattened the entire league so that there’s little difference between the best team and the worst team. If you toss out overtime losses, which are essentially ties settled by glorified skills competitions, no one in the Eastern conference is below .500. Only 12 points separate the conference leading Habs from the bottom-dwelling Islanders. While that’s not a gap that’s going to be made up (likely), it’s not all that large for an entire conference.

Thinks are a little more split in the West, where the conference-leading Hawks have a 17 point gap over the wooden spooners, the Avs. But we’ve all seen what a conference-leading Hawks team in the past looks like, and it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the same vintage. Adding to the Hawks somewhat shaky hold on the West is that they lead the league in wins in overtime, which isn’t really a true test of what kind of team you are. They’re 13th in regulation wins.

Essentially, we have a mishmash of a lot of the same things.

We can look at the cap as the big culprit. When first instituted, the cap went up an average of $3.1 million over seven years. That average is skewed by it holding steady ’08-’09 and ’09-’10, only going up by 100K. Every other year there was a jump of at least $6 million three times and another of over five.

The past two years, and probably for the foreseeable future, we’ve seen jumps of less than $3 million in the cap, going from $69 million three years ago to $71.4 million last year to $73.0 million this year. With TV deals signed, expansion fees not counting toward the cap, a holding Canadian dollar, it’s hard to see where a major cash injection is going to raise the cap at any larger rate.

Looking around, you can see what cap teams have lost in the past two offseasons. You already know the list here, topped with Sharp, Oduya, and Saad. The team they beat in the Western Final, Anaheim, has had to shed solid secondary scorers, Beleskey, Palmieri, and latest neanderthal Patrick Maroon. The Lightning have been able to hold onto everyone, but their reckoning is obviously coming that will see them lose Bishop and probably one of Palat, Drouin, or Johnson. The Rangers lost to the Lightning in that year’s East final, and have had to trade Brassard (for the better Zibanejad, admittedly), Hagelin, Moore, Yandle, and Moore. The Blues have had to shed Backes and Brouwer from last year with no real replacement other than David Perron, which is no replacement at all. We could go on and on.

This is the dream world of the salary cap. Actually, that’s really a load of shit. The dream of the salary cap is to keep owners from spending too much money, i.e. making as much money as they can, and I don’t think they really give a flying fuck what it does to competition on the ice. But in a sports world that is driven by star power and great teams, the NHL loses ground. They have no Warriors. They have no Lebron. They have no Cubs.

What the NHL has gotten is really a bunch of faceless teams that are hard to separate. Each team has stars we’ve heard of, but not much behind it. There is so little to distinguish teams now, which is part of the reason that goaltending plays such a crucial role. It’s harder and harder to fill out 12 forwards and six d-men with mostly difference makers. Get one in the crease and you’re ahead of the game. Your top-ten starting goalies in terms of save-percentage backstop the 16th, 2nd, 5th, 15th, 11th, 13th, 9th, 28th, 22nd, and 4th ranked teams in regulation wins. Your outliers are Devan Dubnyk, Roberto Luongo, and Cam Ward. And the Panthers and Hurricanes are amongst the best teams in underlying numbers and one of the lowest shooting percentage teams, so if their luck rebounds you could see them in the top half in regulation wins too.

I’ve found it a bit off-putting. When scanning any night’s slate of games, there’s very few teams where I want to watch instead of finding reasons to watch. I can’t distinguish teams to greatly. I really wonder how you grow a league like this.

The NHL will point to the NFL, which also has maybe two really good teams and a bunch of sludge. But the NFL is a sports unicorn. It’s once a week, it has a huge gambling aspect, it has TV deals no one else will ever have. No other sport is ever going to be able to replicate this (except for soccer in most of the rest of the world which has a lot of these factors going for it).

I fear this is the hockey world we’re going to have to live in for a very long time.

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