The NHL board of governors held its annual owners meeting in Boca Raton, Florida this week, and among the topics discussed was the salary cap and the potential changes that could be made to its structure.
While nothing substantial was decided, Gary Bettman’s comments on Thursday indicate that the cap will not decrease like many had hoped, but rather continue to rise.
“Revenues continue to grow so you know how the system works. Revenues grow, the cap grows,” the commissioner said. “We told the clubs to conduct business as usual.”
The salary cap, which was introduced in the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout, has escalated in every year of its existence. The board of governors, comprised of one representative from each franchise, determines the cap level each year, using the overall success of the league as a barometer for where the number should rest.
For the big-market teams, that system is a blessing; for small markets, it’s a growing problem.
There lies an opportunity, however, to revise the cap this offseason when the new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players association is composed. If that can be done, the NHL can correct a problem that, if left on its current path, could have detrimental effects over the course of time.
The fundamental idea of a hard cap is to increase parity, and it's been successful in that regard. No example illustrates that better than the current standings: 22 teams remain in the playoff hunt with only a month left in the regular season schedule.
But while more franchises have the ability to contend for a playoff spot now than ever, the teams that have occupied the top spots over the past few years have almost always been big-market teams: Boston, Chicago, Vancouver, New York Rangers, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, etc.
Nearly every legitimate cup contender in recent history has had a large payroll, the St. Louis Blues being a rare exception this spring.
This begs the question: Is the cap, in its current state, really aiding equality throughout the NHL?
The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes, more teams are capable of making the postseason now than eight years ago, but over the long-term, small-market teams have a worse chance to assemble a championship-calibre roster than they did before the lockout.
Just look at the last four Stanley Cup champions: Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston—all huge spenders. That wasn’t the case before the cap increased to ludicrous amounts, nor was it the case prior to the NHL's rapid growth.
Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Anaheim all won championships between 1999 and 2007, but since the Ducks won the Cup five years ago, small markets have not only failed to win it all, but barely any have gotten close.
The Hurricanes and Lightning each reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but that's as far as any low-budget team has advanced in recent years.
Carolina could barely reach the minimum required payroll this season, $48.3 million, which has inflated quite a bit since the lockout. Today's floor is $9 million higher than the ceiling was when the Canes won the cup in 2006, and it's hard to imagine they would have enjoyed the same results if the environment back then were similar to the present.
This season, the Canes and other similar franchises are spending approximately $15 million less than many of their competitors. That disparity can be overcome, but it obviously makes winning a lot more difficult for those on the wrong end of the economic spectrum.
What often gets misunderstood is that just because the league as a whole has experienced financial growth doesn’t mean each individual organization has endured similar results. The Avalanche, Islanders, Coyotes and several others haven’t been earning much of money lately—certainly not enough to keep them on par with the NHL's general trend, at least.
By imposing a steep salary cap floor, the league is basically preventing some of its teams from turning a profit (or at least making it extremely difficult to do so).
The sad thing is that Bettman doesn't seem to care, and he doesn’t exactly hide the fact that the league’s most profitable organizations are his top priority. As commissioner, he has the power to make the changes necessary to improve financial balance, but don't hold your breath. The rich few are the ones that rake in the majority of the NHL’s income, and putting their best interests first is in Bettman's best interest as well.
Remember: The more money the league makes, the more compensation Bettman receives.
His prerogative is clear, and the lack of consideration for the NHL's smaller markets has made winning the Cup a very difficult task for many teams.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed member of the Carolina Hurricanes media and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh