Managing the salary cap is a topic that has come under increasing scrutiny as we progress into the years following the 2004/05 NHL lockout. It is a key responsibility of general managers and their surrounding front office members. How can we appropriately gauge their savvy at this, though? One method, which I will explore in following (and which I explored in the NFL previously) is comparing cap space to team performance. In theory, there should be a clear relationship between teams spending and winning more and vice versa. While this trend generally holds true, there are circumstances which can lead to anomalies.
To track this relationship, I looked at a team’s cap space every season for the past ten seasons (i.e., 2007/08 – 2016/17). I, then, averaged these ten figures and ranked them. The same method was done for points percentage (P%; points that a team had in a season divided by the maximum amount of points they could have had) over this period. Next, I plotted these numbers and colour-coded them for clarity. In part 2 of this article, I will chart every Colorado Avalanche season in the same fashion and discuss the results.
To explain the table that follows, a low rank (e.g., 30, 29, 28, etc.) in cap space means that a team had a small amount of cap space (and vice versa for a high rank). A low ranking team (e.g., 30, 29, 28, etc.) in P% had a low P% (and vice versa for a high rank).
As you can see, there is definitely a connection between money spent and on-ice performance. While there are some teams who buck the trend, it is necessary to further dissect this time period to tease these discrepancies out. First, we have the plot from the first five years of the ten year data set:
From this plot, I’m interpreting Nashville’s front office to have performed the best. While Pittsburgh and Washington both achieved a higher level of sustained success, they also had numerous future Hall of Famers on their roster and an increased payroll. Working with the second most cap space over this five-year period, the Preds, under the guidance of David Poile, had five over-.500 seasons, four playoff berths, and two trips to the second round.
On the other end of the spectrum, Toronto would be my choice for the worst front office performance. When I looked at the NFL, teams in the red quadrant tended to be riddled with front office and head coaching turnover. This is evident with the Leafs. 2008 marked the end of John Ferguson Jr.’s tenure as GM and ultimately led to the hiring of Brian Burke. This year also marked the year in which Ron Wilson was hired as head coach. Preaching an outdated philosophy of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence,” Burke made a plethora of head-scratching signings and trades to leave his imprint on the Leafs. Edmonton was another team that performed much worse than their cap space rank would suggest. They also hired a new GM in 2008 in Steve Tambellini and went through a slew of head coaches in this time period (Craig MacTavish [00/01 - 08/09], Pat Quinn [09/10], and Tom Renney [10/11 - 11/12]). The Minnesota Wild are the last team I want to touch on from the red quadrant (the other teams who occupy it made the playoffs the majority of the seasons in this time period, so I’ll give their over-spending a pass). Following in the footsteps of the two previous teams, the Wild hired a new GM and head coach after the 08/09 season (a year removed from winning their division). After this, they missed the playoffs for the next three seasons. Now, to explore the next time period in our data set, 12/13 - 16/17:
The Senators and Islanders both deserve commendation for making the playoffs three out of the five past seasons while also being in the top five with regard to how much unused cap space they have. With this in mind, what Anaheim has done in this time frame is all the more impressive. The Ducks have made the playoffs each of these five seasons. Their year-by-year conference standing in this time frame is as follows: 2nd, 1st, 1st, 4th, 3rd (making them the second-best team with regard to P% in this time frame, behind Chicago). They did all of this working under more unused cap space than the league average. General Manager, Bob Murray, and his steady direction deserve a huge amount of credit for this. Although, continuing with the trend we saw in the last section’s ‘red’ teams, Murray fared poorly in his first few seasons following his hiring (in 2008) - he finished 8th, 11th, 4th, and 13th in the Western Conference in this period. Keeping that in mind, the team’s improvement following this stretch lends credence to the notion that patience with GMs and front office executives, however tough it may be, is almost necessary. Murray’s savvy drafting, maintenance of a productive offensive core, propensity at finding effective bottom-6 players, and reluctance at over-paying solidify his spot at the helm of the best front office of the past five seasons.
Looking at this time frame’s ‘red’ teams, we can see that Toronto and Edmonton continued the habits that have led to their sustained mediocrity (although, with the drafting of generational players, their position in the blue quadrant seems all but guaranteed for the next five years). New teams cropping up here include the Philadelphia Flyers and Vancouver Canucks. Both teams made the playoffs two of the past five seasons and they both hired new GMs in 2014. The Flyers slogged through the first two years of this time period with aging veterans getting payed more than what they were worth. With Ron Hextall’s 2014 hiring, the Flyers have progressed to become a team with a loaded farm system and a core on the right side of 30. The future looks even more bright with the pick of Nolan Patrick and I expect this team to be in either the blue or green column in the next five-year period. The Canucks, on the other hand, felt they had a Stanley Cup-contending team at the beginning of this time frame. Although, as they aged and key parts from their 2011 Finals team began to depart, a rebuild was inevitable. GM Jim Benning, and Mike Gillis before him, have instead opted to “retool”. The handing out of lofty contracts to players like Loui Eriksson and Brandon Sutter (to name a few) have resulted in an extended retooling period that won’t come to an end until the Sedin twins retire and free up the huge chunk of cap that they occupy. The coming years do not look like they will offer much of a reprieve in terms of on-ice performance, but I do foresee a shift to the yellow quadrant as their larger contracts come off the books.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this article, where the best and worst Colorado Avalanche seasons, with regard to this metric, will be explored.
Salary numbers were taken from NHL Numbers
Points Percentage was taken from the NHL website