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The Verdict: In salary-cap squeezed NHL, playoff berths are priceless

Sunday, 04.01.2012 / 12:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian

You will check the National Hockey League standings today, of course. But feel free to refrain from memorizing them -- they will change, perhaps dramatically, by tomorrow.

THE VERDICT

Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

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Parity is paradise for professional sports, and nowhere is competitive utopia more evident than in the NHL. There is a distinct possibility that what is nominally the final game of the regular season—Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks on April 7—could resolve multiple issues. The puck drops at 9:35 p.m. Chicago time that Saturday night, so it might be early Easter morning before the Blackhawks learn the identity of their first-round playoff opponent.

“Everything is so compressed now,” says Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ vice president/general manager. “[There are] very few teams under .500, and the number one team in a conference might average one win a month more than the number eight team.”

After the lockout that claimed the entire 2004-05 season and produced a collective bargaining agreement with a hard salary cap, the NHL has trended markedly toward equal opportunity. Since 2006 there has been a different Stanley Cup champion in each of the six seasons and ten different teams in the Cup finals—a slightly more inclusive mix than exists in baseball, football and basketball.

Absolutely, current events in the NHL are much more unpredictable than ever. For instance, go back 30 years to 1982 and you will find the New York Islanders en route to their third of four straight Stanley Cups. That followed a streak of four straight Cups by the Montreal Canadiens, and it preceded a run of four Cups in five years and five in seven by the Edmonton Oilers.

Or, examine a larger sample size from 1968 through 1988. Only five different franchises won a Stanley Cup during that period—Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia, Edmonton and the Islanders—while just a dozen different teams reached the finals. This period includes a turbulent era when the World Hockey Association appeared and ravaged NHL rosters for seven years. One would have thought the rival league would have caused complete havoc in the NHL. But there was considerable stability, at least among the elite.

Once the Stanley Cup Playoffs commence, logic would not necessarily dictate that the Presidents’ Trophy winner will prevail. Accumulating the most points during the regular season can be fun, but the honor can be as perilous as the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Since the award was established in 1986, only seven of 25 teams who earned it followed up with a Stanley Cup—not an especially dazzling success ratio. The Vancouver Canucks were the last April favorite to fall in June, but at least the Canucks went the distance before bowing in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.

Five Presidents’ Trophy winners did not get past the opening round of the playoffs, and duty compels us to report that the 1991 Blackhawks were the first to suffer such an indignity. After amassing 106 regular-season points, the Blackhawks were spilled in six games by the Minnesota North Stars, who limped into the postseason with 68 points and a record that was 12 games under .500. The Blackhawks took little solace from the fact that the North Stars advanced to the finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A shocker of that magnitude is unlikely to occur this postseason, however, because the disparity in talent is not what it once was pre-salary cap. Think about it: What would constitute an “upset” now? The Kings have hung around all winter and might not land within the top eight teams of the Western Conference. But if the Kings qualify, does anybody want to play them? A best-of-seven series against Jonathan Quick? The Buffalo Sabres have put on quite a push in the East. If they make it, then knock off one of the top dogs, would it really rank as earth-shaking?

Not in this NHL, and that is why fans will doubtless abandon sleep to watch those glorious sudden death Stanley Cup playoff classics that do not end suddenly at all. Of one thing you can be sure: Hockey’s postseason is such a pure and comprehensive test that there will be no fluke survivors. A lucky bounce will occur, as will an inconvenient injury or a debatable whistle. But teams cannot go through that gauntlet of up to 28 postseason games without identifying a mission and making whatever sacrifices are necessary to attain it.

The National Football League reminds us 24/7 how anything can happen, so don’t touch that dial. And who can blame an industry with the foresight decades ago to distribute television money equally? Franchises prosper, whether in New York or Green Bay, and when the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars qualify for their conference championships in just their second year of existence, the NFL’s system is validated.

Now parity is synonymous with the NHL. Scotty Bowman, who knows all about repeating champions, says they’ve become extinct. You can find a dinosaur in a museum, but not a dynasty on ice.

“You won’t see teams repeating year after year any more,” says the Blackhawks’ senior advisor for hockey operations. “Can’t happen with the salary cap.”

Nobody felt the wrath of financial rules more than Stan Bowman, who had to prune a deep championship roster after the 2010 Cup conquest.

“Not only has the cap compressed standings,” he says, "but three-point games, where you can get a point in an overtime loss, have made it more difficult for teams to separate from others. The tiers, the layers that once existed, aren’t what they used to be. You don’t see two or three teams setting themselves apart. This, plus the maturation process of the cap, has made everything so tight.”

Under the new NHL business model, only two franchises have failed to make the playoffs since 2006. Unless the Florida Panthers collapse, that number will be reduced to one—the Toronto Maple Leafs. Forbes Magazine recently assessed the Leafs to be worth $521 million, number one in the league. The Leafs are annually at or near the top of per-game revenue via perpetual sellouts, their ticket prices are hefty, and they are Canada’s national team. But in the egalitarian NHL, riches cannot necessarily buy happiness.

A playoff berth, as the credit card commercial goes, is priceless.