Cup contenders simply aren't stupid with their money

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Teams like the Bruins, Hurricanes, Blues and Sharks have avoided disastrous off-season overspends while exploiting market inefficiencies. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Teams like the Bruins, Hurricanes, Blues and Sharks have avoided disastrous off-season overspends while exploiting market inefficiencies. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Have you heard the good news? The highest-paid player still alive in these playoffs is Brent Burns, who makes just $8 million against the salary cap.

When discussing the issue with the Athletic this week, one Western Conference executive noted that it’s these low-ceiling individual obligations that allow the Sharks, Blues, Bruins, and Hurricanes the flexibility to make a deep postseason run.

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Which is true, to a point. While last year’s Cup winner had one player making north of $9.5 million against the cap, everyone else in the conference finals — Vegas, Winnipeg, Tampa — had a combined one player north of $8 million (Steven Stamkos). Lots of other upper-middle-class players, so to speak, were in the $6-million range, though. Vegas, because of its unique situation, didn’t have anyone making more than Marc-Andre Fleury’s $5.75-million AAV.

The difference between these teams and others, then, is not necessarily that they aren’t allocating a lot of money — San Jose, St. Louis, and Boston were all above-average spenders, and the teams in the Western Conference Final were fifth and seventh — to their rosters. Instead, it’s the circumstances surrounding those contracts.

Almost everyone of any consequence on these rosters was signed a few years ago, often when they were either still RFAs and signing into their UFA windows, or when they were 29 or 30, an age at which there have been depressing values for competitive teams for years. As pennywise as you can say Boston is for having that Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line locked up for under $20 million in cap dollars, even a year ago, David Backes and David Krejci were considered embarrassing overspends to the tune of $13.25 million.

For San Jose, the Martin Jones, Evander Kane and Marc-Edouard Vlasic contracts are all quite bad even if they’re useful players at this juncture. That they exploited a poorly run team to get a second Norris-caliber defenseman for pennies on the dollar is a credit to them, but it doesn’t say much about how well they manage their salary cap, necessarily.

The Blues also have some very bad deals on the books: Alex Steen, Jay Bouwmeester, Jake Allen. The Hurricanes are largely absolved of this, except for the Scott Darling situation.

The fact is, though, that this year is anomalous in recent NHL history. There’s almost always one or even two players on Cup winners making big money. Again, Ovechkin in Washington last year, but the two years before saw Malkin, Crosby, AND Letang hoovering up a total of $25.45 million against the cap. What about Chicago before that? What about the Sharks team Pittsburgh beat when four players were making more than $25 million against a cap of $71.4 million? What about the following year’s Nashville team that had two players north of $7 million?

You can go on like this but there’s really only one unifying thread in all of these clubs: They largely aren’t devoting huge chunks of their cap space to middling players. That’s it. As mentioned, there are overpays just about everywhere in the league, but the best teams tend to be the ones that keep that to a minimum and don’t go shopping on the UFA market too often. It really is that simple.

Six guys on the Bruins were signed as free agents. Three on St. Louis. Two on Carolina. ZERO on the Sharks. The Bruins are an exception here but it’s worth noting that most of those UFA guys — Chris Wagner, John Moore, etc. — were depth adds that cost very little. Another was Zdeno Chara, an elite-tier UFA who was quite expensive for a long time but now he’s over 40 and has been with the team for more than a decade at this point, so that barely even counts in 2019.

On the other hand, you have teams like Edmonton and Minnesota (seven UFAs on the roster), Vancouver and Dallas (five each), and plenty more. A lot of the teams that struggle to win with those kinds of obligations are the ones that go searching for middle-six answers on the UFA market and invariably overpay to do it. How many bad teams in this league have guys past 30 who put up like 15 points a year for between $4 million and $6 million. It wasn’t so long ago the Bruins were in cap hell and a mile from being competitive precisely because Peter Chiarelli ludicrously overspent on exactly those kinds of players in the brutally inefficient UFA market (Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, etc).

Point is: You can afford to go big on guys if you need to, but obviously that’s not a requirement and you should only do so if the guy is worth the money (Ovechkin, Crosby, McDavid, that kind of thing). You can afford to sign UFAs as long as it’s low-AAV depth guys, who are often valuable and available on the cheap.

But most of all, the sooner you can identify high-end talent that can be retained with term for years to come, you really ought to do it. Whether that’s by trade (i.e. how San Jose got Burns, Thornton, and Karlsson; Boston got Rask; and Carolina got half its best players) or just drafting and development, it’s always cheaper to have your own guys do the heavy lifting.

The thing that makes these teams the last four standing is that their management groups identified market inefficiencies and exploited them. I feel like there might be a book about this kind of thing, maybe a movie.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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