Friday, April 27, 2007

The Premature Dismantling Of A Top Team

In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. They were the best team in the NHL and had a good young roster that looked poised to contend for and possibly win more Stanley Cups. That didn't happen. It didn't happen in part because the system was set up to prevent it from happening. In 2005, it looked quite possible that small markets like Tampa Bay and Ottawa were well on their way to dominating the last half of the decade. This would be a ratings disaster for the NHL (as opposed to the current ratings disasters they have). One major thrust of the new CBA was to provide mechanisms to increase player movement (in part to break up the pending dynasties in small markets). No team has suffered more from this process than Tampa Bay. During the lockout I wrote a piece predicting this would happen. Though I was strongly disagreed with by the leading Tampa Bay Lightning blogger John Fontana things have come to pass roughly as I predicted.

Lowered free agency ages forced Tampa into signing stars Vincent LeCavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St Louis into big money longterm contracts much sooner than it otherwise would have. Under a salary cap, this forced them to let most of their other talented players go. Some of the players they lost are Nikolai Khabibulin, Daryl Sydor, Pavel Kubina, Jassen Cullimore, Cory Stillman and Fredrik Modin. That is a supporting cast that would make the difference between being a mid-level team and being a solid contender.

Tampa Bay suffered from the fact that the CBA made it hard to keep a successful team together and has enforced parity upon the league. The current Tampa Bay team is a shell of what they could have been.

In 2005/06, the first year the NHL played after Tampa's cup win, Tampa won the last playoff spot in the East Conference and lost in the first round of the playoffs. This season, things were a little bit better with the re-emergence of Martin St Louis and Vincent LeCavalier's jump to superstardom where he won the Rocket Richard Trophy. Tampa finished seventh in the east and again lost in the first round of the playoffs. They suffered from some poor goaltending which kept their improvement among the offensive stars from making a bigger impact upon the standings.

In part because of the lost revenue from the lost run of a Stanley Cup calibre team, it has been widely reported that Tampa will lower their payroll next season. This is in spite of the rising salary cap in the NHL. This salary cap was sold as being good for small markets, but small markets cannot afford to spend at that level. It is a firm advantage to the larger markets. With Tampa's payroll dropping while most payrolls climb, Tampa should be worse next year.

I imagine that the easiest way to lower payroll is to trade one of the big three players. Will Tampa do this? If not, what else can they do? Jettison everybody else with any talent (Dan Boyle, Vaclav Prospal, Filip Kuba...)? It doesn't look like they will be able to add anyone significant and lower their payroll. This is a shame, because Tampa is one good goaltender away from being a solid contender. We likely will not be able to see this happen. We will likely see a weakened Tampa team next year that couldn't afford the addition of a truly dominant goalie.

Tampa Bay fans should be furious. They had a really good team and changes to the NHL's rules have led to its premature dismantling.

Don't blame the CBA for Tampa paying significantly above market value for Lecavalier and Richards while choosing to let their goaltender leave without replacing him with anyone of quality. No team with shoddy goaltending can win and it was a poor management decision to let a good goalie go without replacing him.

Lets compare that to Ottawa who let Hossa and Havlat go because they wanted/got big bucks and replaced them with cheaper, but still good, players and as a result are still a contender.

The dynamics of where money gets spent and on whom has changed a bit but the new NHL is not all that different from the old NHL. Teams who spend their money wisely will win, teams that don't, will struggle. Tampa did not spend their money wisely and you should not blame the CBA for that.
The CBA forced them to make some hard choices that they would not have had to do otherwise. So I blame it.
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