Lethbridge: Death of the NHL dynasty

By: Stephen Lethbridge, Contributing Writer
@stephenleth

The 2011-12 NHL season is officially over, and the Los Angeles Kings have won the Stanley Cup. The Kings had a lot to live up to this season. They were front-runners for the Cup before the season started, acquiring Mike Richards in the off-season, and then Jeff Carter near the trade deadline. But coming into the playoffs as the eighth seed, it looked the Kings faced insurmountable odds, yet they breezed through the first three rounds, beating the top three seeds in the Western Conference in the process, and managed to take the Cup in six games over the New Jersey Devils, the first Cup in Kings franchise history.

The Kings’ Stanley Cup win marks the seventh different team to win the Stanley Cup since the lockout in 2003-04. The Kings’ championship win also marks another streak; it’s now been 14 years since we’ve seen repeat Stanley Cup winners. The Detroit Red Wings were the last team to do it, in 1997 and 1998. This streak is also the longest span of time without seeing a repeat champion in the illustrious history of the trophy. We are indeed living in the age of parity in the NHL, where it is arguable that the time of the “dynasty teams,” like the Montreal Canadiens of the 70’s and the New York Islanders of the early 80’s, is over.

It’s no coincidence that since the establishment of the salary cap, we’ve seen so many repeat Cup winners. Even though it wasn’t the intended effect of the cap, it has been one of the most noticeable outcomes. Hockey was similar to other sports, in that large market teams, like the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, could afford to spend more on their player salaries and attract more talent than smaller market teams, particularly expansion teams. This meant that year after year, we saw the same teams competing for the Stanley Cup.

L to R: Dustin Brown ($3.175 million cap hit), Anze Kopitar ($6.8 million), ($4.25 million, UFA), Mike Richards ($5.75 million) and Jeff Carter ($5,272,727) take up about 36% of the Kings’ cap room between just five players. (Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

That’s not to say that teams that have won the Stanley Cup since the lockout don’t have players on large contracts. One needn’t look any further than the LA Kings of this season to see that. Three players on the team had cap hits above $5 Million: Drew Doughty, Mike Richards, and Anze Kopitar. These players’ salaries alone accounted for approximately 30% of the team’s total cap hit for this season, and that’s not to mention numerous other players whose salaries landed between $3-$5 Million, like Dustin Penner, captain Dustin Brown and Willie Mitchell. Thus, the Kings were forced to fill out their roster with younger players on lower salaries. Players like Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Trevor Lewis, and Alec Martinez played integral roles for the Kings throughout the course of the regular season and the playoffs.

The catch-22 in this situation, however, as we’ve seen other recent Cup winners encounter, is that as these players develop and need to be signed to new contracts, teams are not able to accommodate their demands. The most notable example of this is the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks. Similar to the Kings in the sense that the team had several high-talent players with big contracts, they were not able to resign support players that helped them win the Stanley Cup, players like Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish and Andrew Ladd. In the contemporary NHL, teams are constantly in flux, especially the lower half of their lineup, their third and fourth lines, and this helps to create the equality we see in the NHL today.

Depth might be the most important quality for a team to possess if they hope to contend for the Stanley Cup. It’s well and good for a team to have two or three stand out players, superstars like Alexander Ovechkin or Shea Weber, but without a solid back end to their line up, it is unlikely a team will be able to go the distance. This dependence on third and fourth line players, like Dwight King this year, or Chris Kelly last year for the Bruins, also helps to foster growth, especially in young players.

Going back to the 2010 Blackhawks, Troy Brouwer is a good example of this. He started his career in Chicago, playing his first three seasons with the club and winning the Stanley Cup. Early on, he created a reputation for himself of being a dependable third line player, with the ability to contribute effectively on both sides of the play when needed. Then, he was traded to the Washington Capitals where he signed a new contract, and has become an integral member of the team and one of their assistant captains. Brouwer is one of many players that has benefited from the forced parity in the NHL brought on by the salary cap.

Despite being surrounded with a star-laden lineup, Jonathan Toews hasn’t come close to leading the Blackhawks to another championship without their depth and role players. (Chicago Man, Flickr)

That is not to say that the Blackhawks were happy to see Brouwer go. But that is the reality of the salary cap-era NHL. Some general managers are forced to rebuild parts of their team every few years. A key to the dynasty teams of the past was the ability to keep a strong nucleus of players together. Take the New York Islanders of the early 1980s that won four straight Stanley Cups. Of course, those Islander teams wouldn’t have been as successful without players like Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy or Denis Potvin, but they probably wouldn’t have had as much success, or won as many cups without dependable role-players like Bob Nystrom, Wayne Merrick and Dave Langevin in the lineup.

Those days are gone in the NHL, of set-in-stone lineups for numerous years, and the most a team can hope for nowadays is to sign their star players to long-term contracts and model the team around them. While it is unfortunate for those GM’s and fans of teams like Chicago or the Anaheim Ducks, it does keep things interesting. Other sports’ championships have become somewhat stale in recent years. In the NBA, you can bet that just about every year, one of the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers will make an appearance in the finals. In baseball, the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and now the Texas Rangers, have been strong contenders for the World Series for several years.

The NHL may be the only league in which, at the beginning of the year, almost any team in the league can make a push for the playoffs. Compare the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Ducks teams from the past two seasons. In 2011, the Ducks were perhaps the hottest team in the NHL heading into the post-season, and the Florida Panthers finished dead last in the Eastern conference. This year at the same time, the Panthers held a division title and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to double overtime in Game 7 of the first round, and the only thing the Ducks were contending for was a pick in the draft lottery.

While it is true that the Kings’ players are still coming to terms with winning the Stanley Cup and that many of their key players are locked up long term, there’s every chance that a new group of players will be hoisting hockey’s ultimate prize this time next year.

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