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November 1, 2014
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Spread the Wealth




[05.20.14 EDIT: It's even worse than I thought! I had Malkin's cap hit wrong. His hit was $9.0 million this season and $9.5 million in 2014-15. Egad! The article has been fixed. Let me know if you spot any other errors. Thanks.]


The deepest team wins.

In the salary cap NHL, securing championship depth requires maximizing every dollar spent and properly allocating financial resources. Ray Shero got fired, in part, for his perceived inability to manage the cap, specifically his tendency to favor superstar talent over quality depth. Of course, Shero enjoyed the cursed blessing of having two scoring champs and league MVPs on his roster. Investing $17.7 million in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin doesn't leave much room for error. Can a team win with two contracts over $8.7 million? Are there any magic ratios at play when dividing cap space?

Shero and the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 when the salary cap was $56.7 million. That season, Crosby made his customary $8.7 million, but Malkin and Jordan Staal were still on rookie contracts. The Penguins had only two other players making $5 million: Sergei Gonchar and Marc-Andre Fleury. In 2014, the Penguins had five players making at least $5 million: Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, James Neal, and Paul Martin. That number will increase to at least six next season when Kris Letang's contract extension kicks in.

Back in 2009, Pittsburgh's top three cap hits among forwards totaled $17 million, representing 29.98% of the salary cap. The top 12 forwards had a combined cap hit of $34.8 million or 61.83%.

In 2014, Pittsburgh's top three cap hits among forwards totaled $22.7 million and devoured 35.30% of the now $64.3-million cap. That increase of 6.32% over 2009 may not seem like much, but that money has to come from somewhere. And in this case, that somewhere was the bottom six forwards.

The 2014 Penguins committed $38.5 million to their top 12 forwards. That number translates to 59.88% of the cap, which is actually down from 2009. Keep in mind, the 2009 Pens added Billy Guerin at the deadline, so his $4.5-million hit kind of skews the team's numbers. Either way, the total percentage spent on the top twelve forwards is fairly similar. The clear distinction comes in how the money got spent.

In 2009, Shero committed 29.98% of the cap to his top three forwards, 17.11% to forwards four through six, 10.23% to forwards seven through nine, and 4.59% to forwards ten through twelve. And again, I'm going by cap hits. For instance, Tyler Kennedy may have been a third-liner, but his cap hit didn't even rank in the top twelve forwards. Eric Godard's cap hit was $200,000 more than Kennedy's. My concern is where the money got spent.

In 2014, Shero dedicated 35.30% of the cap to the top three forwards, 14.93% to forwards four through six, 6.38% to forwards seven through nine, and 3.27% to forwards ten through twelve.

The 2009 Penguins had 14.82% of the cap invested in their bottom six forwards. The 2014 Penguins spent only 9.65% on the bottom six. That 5.17% difference equates to $3.32 million.

How much difference could $3.32 million make? The Chicago Blackhawks spent roughly the same amount on Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Bollig. The Boston Bruins have Shawn Thornton, Reilly Smith, and Carl Soderburg under contract for a combined $3 million. The Los Angeles Kings have Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, and Dustin Brown each making roughly $3.3 million. The Kings also have young guys like Tyler Toffoli, Dwight King, and Trevor Lewis making a combined $3.3 million. So, yeah, the extra money in the bottom six can help. A lot.

Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston have won the past three Cups for a reason. And each team's cap distribution highlights the problems in Pittsburgh. In 2013, the Blackhawks invested 11.54% in forwards seven through twelve. The 2012 Kings dedicated 12.75% to forwards seven through twelve. The 2011 Bruins committed 16.16% to those same bottom six. When they won in 2010, the Blackhawks spent 15.49% on the bottom six.

If one averages out the percentages, the past five Stanley Cup champions, including the 2009 Penguins, invested 14.15% of the salary cap in their bottom six forwards. In 2014 standards, that 14.15% would equate to approximately $9 million.

Once again, the 2014 Pittsburgh Penguins had a mere 9.65% invested in the bottom six, down 4.50% from the championship average. That $3-million gap could very well mean the difference between a second-round exit and hoisting the Cup.

The 2014 Penguins committed 35.30% of the cap to Crosby, Malkin, and Neal. The past five Cup winners have spent an average of 25.34% on their respective top three forwards. The remaining forward spending is equally problematic:

2014 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Players: Cap Percentage
Forwards 1-3: 35.30
Forwards 4-6: 14.93
Forwards 7-9: 6.38
Forwards 10-12: 3.27
Total: 59.88

2009-2013 STANLEY CUP WINNERS
Players: Cap Percentage
Forwards 1-3: 25.34
Forwards 4-6: 17.12
Forwards 7-9: 9.47
Forwards 10-12: 4.68
Total: 56.61

Those numbers tell the story. The 2014 Penguins spent 50.23% on their top six forwards, while the last five Cup winners check in at 42.46%. Even more alarming is the disparity between the top six and bottom six. Pittsburgh had 83.88% of its offensive budget in the top six forwards. The past five Cup winners committed 75.00% of the offensive budget to the top six and 25.00% to the bottom six.

In 2014, Pittsburgh spent $38.5 million on its top twelve forwards, allocating $32.3 million to the top six and $6.2 million to the bottom six. If one uses the 75-25 split standard of the previous five Cup winners, Pittsburgh would have spent $28.8 million on the top six and $9.6 million on the bottom six.

Again, Shero's decision to build around two superstar centers makes cap management tricky. Shifting $3.3 million from the top six and fortifying the bottom six is easier said than done. Crosby and Malkin aren't going anywhere. Neal and his $5-million cap hit seems the obvious place to cut. But goal-scorers cost money. Turning Neal into two or three tough, grinding wingers would be a swell solution until Crosby and Malkin start complaining about a lack of skilled finishers.

The 2014 Penguins had 29.39% committed to their top six defensemen. That's a bit light. The previous five Cup winners spent 32.66% on defense. Taking another $3.3 million out of the blue line would weaken an already vulnerable unit. And don't forget Letang's contract extension will see his 2015 cap hit jump to $7.2 million, up from $3.5 million this year.

Pittsburgh's 2014 goaltending tandem of Fleury and Jeff Zatkoff cost only $5.5 million. Fleury's $5-million price tag sounds significant, but that's the going rate for a solid No. 1 goaltender. His cap hit will rank 14th among goaltenders in 2015, behind such names as Cam Ward ($6.3M), Kari Lehtonen ($5.9M), and Jimmy Howard ($5.3M). Fleury has earned every cent of his regular-season salary. His typical season is 65 starts, 37 wins, a 2.30 goals-against average, and a .915 save percentage. Try finding that production elsewhere for less than $5 million. Fleury is a bargain.

The previous five Cup winners have dedicated 8.61% of the cap to goaltending, right in line with Pittsburgh's 8.55% allotment in 2014. And having Fleury and Zatkoff locked in at $5.6 million in 2015, when the cap is expected to increase, will only continue the savings.

That said, a new GM could be tempted to part ways with Fleury, who has just one year remaining on his contract, and opt for a middling veteran earning less than $3 million. While pairing Zatkoff with Viktor Fasth ($2.9M) or Ilya Bryzgalov (unrestricted) hardly inspires championship confidence, it may be a necessary risk to compensate for the Crosby-Malkin expense. And then the Tristan Jarry era can begin in 2015.

Pittsburgh's next GM would be wise to follow this blueprint:

2009-2013 STANLEY CUP WINNERS
Players: Cap Percentage
Forwards 1-3: 25.34
Forwards 4-6: 17.12
Forwards 7-9: 9.47
Forwards 10-12: 4.68
Total: 56.61

Defensemen 1-2: 16.96
Defensemen 3-4: 10.14
Defensemen 5-6: 5.56
Total: 32.66

Goaltending: 8.61

The NHL won't finalize the 2015 salary cap until June. Analysts expect the final number to come in between $69 million and $71 million. Here's how that same blueprint will look in terms of dollars if the cap is $70 million:

2009-2013 STANLEY CUP WINNERS
Players: Millions
Forwards 1-3: 17.7
Forwards 4-6: 12.0
Forwards 7-9: 6.6
Forwards 10-12: 3.3
Total: 39.6

Defensemen 1-2: 11.9
Defensemen 3-4: 7.1
Defensemen 5-6: 3.9
Total: 22.9

Goaltending: 6.0

Total: 68.5


SALARY CAP BREAKDOWNS
Players: Millions [Cap Percentage] (Millions for Individual Group) {Cap Percentage for Individual Group}

2014 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (64.3)

Top 3 Forwards: 22.4 [34.84]
Top 6 Forwards: 32.0 (9.6) {14.93}
Top 9 Forwards: 36.1 (4.1) {6.38}
Top 12 Forwards: 38.2 (2.1) [59.41] {3.27}

Top 2 Defensemen: 8.8 [13.69]
Top 4 Defensemen: 15.7 (6.9) {10.73}
Top 6 Defensemen: 18.9 (3.2) [29.39] {4.98}

Top Goalie: 5.0
Top 2 Goalies: 5.5 (500k) [8.55]


2013 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (70.2)

Top 3 Forwards: 18.5 [26.35]
Top 6 Forwards: 30.2 (11.7) {16.67}
Top 9 Forwards: 35.9 (5.7) {8.12}
Top 12 Forwards: 38.3 (2.4) [54.56] {3.42}

Top 2 Defensemen: 11.3 [16.10]
Top 4 Defensemen: 18.2 (6.9) {9.83}
Top 6 Defensemen: 23.0 (4.8) [32.76] {6.84}

Top Goalie: 2.7
Top 2 Goalies: 3.8 (1.1) [5.41]


2012 LOS ANGELES KINGS (64.3)

Top 3 Forwards: 16.8 [26.13]
Top 6 Forwards: 27.6 (10.8) {16.80}
Top 9 Forwards: 33.2 (5.6) {8.71}
Top 12 Forwards: 35.8 (2.6) [55.68] {4.04}

Top 2 Defensemen: 10.5 [16.33]
Top 4 Defensemen: 18.3 (7.8) {12.13}
Top 6 Defensemen: 22.0 (3.7) [34.21] {5.75}

Top Goalie: 1.8
Top 2 Goalies: 3.1 (1.3) [4.82]


2011 BOSTON BRUINS (59.4)

Top 3 Forwards: 12.8 [21.55]
Top 6 Forwards: 24.1 (11.3) {19.02}
Top 9 Forwards: 30.3 (6.2) {10.44}
Top 12 Forwards: 33.7 (3.4) [56.73] {5.72}

Top 2 Defensemen: 10.8 [18.18]
Top 4 Defensemen: 17.3 (6.5) {10.94}
Top 6 Defensemen: 20.8 (3.5) [35.02] {5.89}

Top Goalie: 5.0
Top 2 Goalies: 6.3 (1.3) [10.61]


2010 CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (56.8)

Top 3 Forwards: 12.9 [22.71]
Top 6 Forwards: 22.0 (9.1) {16.02}
Top 9 Forwards: 27.6 (5.6) {9.86}
Top 12 Forwards: 30.8 (3.2) [54.23] {5.63}

Top 2 Defensemen: 10.6 [18.66]
Top 4 Defensemen: 16.7 (6.1) {10.74}
Top 6 Defensemen: 20.5 (3.8) [36.09] {6.69}

Top Goalie: 5.6
Top 2 Goalies: 6.5 (900k) [11.44]


2009 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (56.7)

Top 3 Forwards: 17.0 [29.98]
Top 6 Forwards: 26.7 (9.7) {17.11}
Top 9 Forwards: 32.5 (5.8) {10.23}
Top 12 Forwards: 35.1 (2.6) [61.90] {4.59}

Top 2 Defensemen: 8.8 [15.52]
Top 4 Defensemen: 12.8 (4.0) {7.05}
Top 6 Defensemen: 14.3 (1.5) [25.22] {2.65}

Top Goalie: 5.0
Top 2 Goalies: 6.1 (1.1) [10.76]


[NOTE: All the cap numbers come from CapGeek.com, the best source for NHL salaries. Please don't confuse it with GeekCap.com, the Internet's premier source for nerdy hats.]



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