A half a decade has passed since the National Hockey League went to a salary cap system, and the more we glean from studies like Puck Money, the more we find out what we already knew.
"Young players are, in essence, the lifeblood of the salary cap system," states Laurence Gilman, the V.P. and assistant GM of the Vancouver Canucks. "They provide efficient labour, and enable you to contend with the things that happen organically with your players."
That's the point driven home by Puck Money: that players who produce beyond the expectancy of their pay range have become the most valuable in hockey. Whether that player is Ryan Kesler(notes), who had 75 points last season while being paid $1.75 million, or Atlanta's Rich Peverley(notes), who made $500,000 last season and gave the Thrashers 22 goals and 55 points.
(Note: Both players received big raises for this season.)
It's easy for Pittsburgh to draft Sid Crosby, pay him $9 million and expect 100 points. It is far more difficult for Dallas to identify Loui Eriksson(notes), draft him 33rd overall, then develop him to the point where he produces 71 points last season while making $1.7 million on his first NHL contract.
(Eriksson's cap hit rose to $4.27 million this season.)
"It's the younger players who can come in and have big contributions that make the difference between winning and losing," said San Jose GM Doug Wilson. "We're now in a four-year window where our team is in the prime ages. We've got a lot of young players: Devin Setoguchi(notes) ($1.8 M cap hit), Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) ($3.1 M), Jason Demers(notes) ($543,000), Logan Couture(notes) ($1.24 M) … Look at Chicago, look at Pittsburgh — they had major contributions by very young players. You've got to have all the components in place."
But that plans comes with a caveat from Wilson.
"You can reap the benefits of younger players playing at an advanced role … at a lower salary. But as they evolve, they're going to earn their money. So the decisions you make, there's a level of forecasting there."
That, of course, represents an additional piece to the puzzle. Once you give a player a contract, there's no taking it back — short of a buy-out. On the other hand, once you let a player get away, he's likely gone for good.
A few years ago, Philadelphia Flyers GM Bob Clarke tendered a Group II offer sheet to Kesler. The Canucks GM of the day, Dave Nonis, had the foresight to match the offer.
Kesler went on to produce at great value to the Canucks, ranking third on the Puckmoney list of NHL forwards last season. But after his cost effective 2009-10, Kesler graduated into an elite player who had to paid as such.
Now Kesler's cap hit is $5 million. That's what Gilman means when he speaks of "the things that happen organically with your players."
"Arbitration rights. Salary increases. Free agency." Gilman ticks off the list of things that increase a payroll. "Whether it means retaining your own players (when they become UFAs) or signing unrestricted free agents. For that to happen, you have to be firing on all cylinders in the traditional aspects of hockey.
"You have to draft very well, develop very well. You have to pile you money into player development … to get them as good as possible, a fast as possible."
Even when you do things right, teams are finding that unless its top players cooperate at the negotiating table, there may not be room left over to surround them with a supporting cast that's able to win a Stanley Cup.
This isn't basketball, where 12 players dress and only seven or eight make an impact on the game some nights. Depth wins Stanley Cups; which means everyone might have to take less to put together the best team.
"Your core guys they have to take a little bit of a haircut too. You can't pay guys what they want anymore," said Canucks Director of Player Development Dave Gagner. "Also, we try to talk to young guys in their first deal. 'It might hurt your chances to make the final roster (if they make too much money).' You don't want to make a decision based on salary alone. (Young players) have to get their foot in the door — establishing yourself is the most important part for your career."