How to Survive in the NHL Jungle…by Geoff Brookes

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Are veterans like Lundquist on the chopping block because of the salary cap?

© Geoff Brookes

4-0 … 10-1 … These are scores from upset victories in this young NHL season, after just one week. Last year’s worst team? Shutout win. Last year’s Stanley Cup Champions? Humiliated 10-1.

Those scores don’t involve the Jets, but you could add their 5-2 road victory over Edmonton to that list.

What do these games have in common? They demonstrate the parity that exists in the modern salary-cap NHL.

Don’t be deceived by comparisons to other major sports. The NHL is the only major sports league with a “hard cap”, in which the 50%-50% revenue sharing between owners and players is mathematically enforced. The NHL lost an entire season to get this system in place.

The difference between the NHL and other sports is that there is a special type of withholding in place on salary payments to players, called “escrow”. After the season is over, the escrow is divided between the players and the owners, to get the 50-50 sharing exactly right.

Unlike the NFL, all NHL contracts are guaranteed – i.e. the contracts can’t be torn up by the team, if the player is having a bad year. Unlike baseball, which uses a luxury tax to enforce a very soft “cap”, NHL teams can’t go over the cap – period.

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So, if NHL teams “spend to the cap”, or close to the cap, they are all basically working with the same total dollars for player contracts.

Since you can’t get an advantage by spending more than other NHL teams, there are only three ways that you can get an advantage in the NHL:

1. You can make better use of your cap dollars, either by making good choices on contracts (especially by avoiding bad contracts). Making the most of cheaper, younger star players is the most effective way to get an advantage from contracts. (Young players have restricted free agency rights, that give the team more control over them.)

2. You can gain an advantage through superior coaching and in-game strategies.

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3. Your players can out-work the other teams through superior conditioning and motivation.

Despite the NHL salary cap, there will be differences between teams’ effective talent levels, because teams are at different stages of their player development cycles. Two years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a much less effective roster than the Chicago Black Hawks. But the Hawks’ stars have aged, and the Hawks have lost (and traded) players to keep their total contracts under the salary cap. Meanwhile, the Leafs have had good young talent developing into legitimate NHL stars. So, it matters where the team is at on their development cycle. (The Leafs beat the Hawks in a recent game).

But, with every passing year, it seems like the differences between NHL teams’ talent pools are ever smaller.

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That’s why those aging Hawks can humiliate the 2-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins 10-1. It explains why the lowly Colorado Avalanche can beat the Boston Bruins 4-0.

(Yeah, Ok, it doesn’t help that the Bruins have traded away players like Seguin, Hamilton, Lucic, Kessel, and Thornton. Sorry, that’s gotta hurt for Bruins fans.)

But the point is that any NHL team can beat any other NHL team on any given night. The difference on most nights has more to do with coaching, effort, and a team-wide commitment to implementing a game plan.

Said Oilers coach, Todd McLellan, after the Oilers’ loss to the Jets – “We’re not outworking teams….Our responsibility level (isn’t good).” (Quote is from the Edmonton Journal).

Which brings me to my rather obvious point:

If the Winnipeg Jets are going to make the playoffs, and succeed in the playoffs, it is up to the coaching staff and the team’s leadership group to get the team more motivated, more physically ready, and more committed to an effective game plan than their opposition, on the vast majority of game nights, for the rest of this 82 game marathon schedule.

Everyone knows the truth of this mantra. It’s up to the team’s leadership to make it happen.

Jets coach Paul Maurice knows this very well. Kudo’s to the coach for working with the few levers that he has in the modern NHL, to get his point across.

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Whatever the extent of Dustin Byfuglien’s injury, it was probably not so serious that the big man couldn’t have played against Edmonton. Sitting Buff down for that game seems to have energized the team. The message to the team is clear – if you’re not going to get with the program, you’re risking a visit to the press box. No exceptions.

If the Jets can duplicate their effort and discipline from the Edmonton game, time after time, they can be a very good NHL hockey team.

In the modern NHL, that’s what it takes.

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