Answer: Let us assume that the current NHL existed as is, but did not contain a salary cap structure. What would happen?
Naturally there would be an advantage to certain teams with rich owners or lucrative markets. Some would argue that is not a bad thing for the sport since these may already be traditional hockey hotbeds like Toronto.
It seems likely that the league would have been grouped into the "haves" and "have nots" similar to how talent is distributed through Major League Baseball.
As a Penguins fan, I can see both sides of the argument. The salary cap helped level the playing field for the Penguins after their terrible performance in the early 2000s allowed for stockpiling of top draft picks.
When that group progressed, they eventually made two Stanley Cup finals, losing and winning against the Detroit Red Wings. In 2002, the idea of competing with the Red Wings, let alone playing them for a championship was silly.
After the team started to establish themselves as successful, the salary cap then started to work against them to some extent. Players like Rob Scuderi, Ryan Malone, Hal Gill, Max Talbot, Mike Rupp and many others have left because the Penguins have little salary cap space to work with because of whom they have chosen to invest in.
Whether the NHL would be better off with or without a salary cap is up for debate. There is not a simple answer to that "what if" either. This is a topic where I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter via the comments.
photo courtesy of tattoodonkey.com