I wrote about the Ottawa Senators on Monday, and how Bryan Murray has assembled a pretty good squad on a budget that, well, doesn’t seem to exist. It raises the question of what Murray would be able to do in Toronto, or New York, or Philadelphia, or a market where money is less of an issue. I posited that question on Twitter yesterday.
Twitter dot com’s @garik16 and @DrivingPlay jumped in and suggested that it may not be an advantage if Murray had a wad of cash to spend. DrivingPlay pointed at Lou Lamoriello having more success when his team cost less, and Glen Sather is Exhibit A in all of this. I’ve heard about a million versions of the famous “if I had the Rangers’ payroll, I’d never lose a game” quote from Sather from when he was in Edmonton. A 2010 post on Blueshirt Banter expands on that a bit. Let’s just say it’s true:
“even if I had been in Atlanta and I had the budget that team may or may not have, I still would not have paid Curtis Joseph 24 million for four years. I think you’re a lot better off getting a group of young guys together, teach them about the game and about life and bring them along. You’re much better off than trying to hit a home run with a bunch of 30-year-old free agents.”
Sather had a tonne of success in Edmonton as a coach and a manager, putting together possibly the best team in the game’s history. He oversaw six Hall of Famers, all of them debuting with the Oilers organization at age 20 or younger, and all but Wayne Gretzky were drafted by the team.
It’s interesting looking at those Oilers in context with today’s teams. Certainly you look at Chicago’s roster and much of their talent came to the team thanks to the draft lottery: Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were selected in the Top Three. The team also drafted Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Dave Bolland, Niklas Hjalmarsson, among others, who were big parts in both the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup victories. Marian Hossa played a big part, but the team doesn’t go anywhere without Kane and Toews at the wheel. It’s tough to build a team with spare parts from free agency.
Yet some teams try to do this. Sather’s Rangers in the pre-cap days failed because there was never any youth movement ready to take over. The team gambled on high priced free agents like Bobby Holik and moves for Petr Nedved, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Jaromir Jagr simply didn’t pan out.
The salary cap forced Sather to cut a little back, and the team has done very well at developing talent over the last few years. Henrik Lundqvist, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin are all home-grown. Ryan McDonagh was leveraged early in his career for Scott Gomez. Sather still goes out and picks expensive contracts off the market (hello Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik) but generally the Rangers are a pretty good team, and much more economical than they were when Sather had deep pockets.
Buffalo could be another example. Darcy Regier built a pretty solid team with Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Ryan Miller & Co. They went to the Conference Finals in two straight seasons, and if I’m recalling those days correctly, they didn’t spend a lot of money on free agents to get them there. In 2010 and 2011, the team made the playoffs with an average payroll, but were boosted in 2011-2012 with a wild summer and Regier got to spend all of his new Pegula bucks. That included contracts handed to Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, and an ill-fated trade for Robyn Regehr.
This is far from scientific, but I do think there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that teams with less money to spend have an advantage because they’re able to make those tough decisions that a larger market couldn’t. Murray has already come out and said that his “Plan A” didn’t include Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan, but a 41-year-old Daniel Alfredsson and the sexy-yet-never-scored-50-points-why-are-you-giving-him-a-seven-year-deal David Clarkson.
Teams with lower payrolls don’t make up the bulk of playoff and championship teams, but I don’t think that teams missing out on the playoffs for years and years can cry poor, as there are multiple teams with success that have been historically floor teams. The National Hockey League locked its players out, citing that loaded buzzword “competitive imbalance” even as the league-owned Phoenix Coyotes and future-league-owned New Jersey Devils each made deep playoff runs the previous spring.
Last summer, I’d figured that the Top 10 revenue teams earned 44% of the NHL playoff spots, while the Bottom 10 revenue teams got about 25% of them. Having money isn’t a bad thing, but it’s primary purpose ought to be on long-term deals for restricted free agents rather than unrestricted players. Only two long-term, big-money deals given out to UFAs have paid off, and those are Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, both of which are far from over. Even teams with money are finding that their top players aren’t those taking home the big contracts, but the big money teams have the advantage of their mistakes costing less—they can keep swinging at low-and-away sliders and maybe get the bat on the ball on one of them.
But for lower-spending teams, they don’t have to deal with the winner’s curse as much. The coveted unrestricted free agents come in at a higher price because teams get into a bidding war for not only the dollars, but also the term in the deal. There are so many tempting players on the wire each season, but it’s probably best for a team to avoid the top-end players in a free agent class and focus on depth by finding value buys like Clarke MacArthur and Benoit Pouliot.
One last point, for the team’s with money, would their money not be better invested in bigger scouting departments? When you draft a player, you get his rights for up to ten years on fairly cheap deals, yet that video of the Philadelphia Flyers’ meetings seemed to indicate that they’d only watched each of their target players eight or so times throughout the year. That seems low, and given that the boardroom is uncapped, you’d think that teams would want a few extra scouts scouring the junior leagues to make sure that the players they’re about to invest ten years on and a couple of million dollars from an entry-level deal are the real deal and stand up to par on 30+ viewings.
And once they’ve found another Claude Giroux, well, that’s money they’ve already saved by not using that roster spot on another Vincent Lecavalier.