The NHL's have-nots are on the rise, but for how long?
Posted: Thursday August 4, 2005 4:32PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 5:44PM
Flyers GM Bob Clarke looks like the cat who ate the canary after landing Peter Forsberg.
As the unprecedented NHL free-agent frenzy continues -- Scott Niedermayer going to Anaheim! Peter Forsberg's with the Flyers! -- it is time to take a deep breath, buy stock in a moving company and spare a fleeting thought for the cultural phenomenon known as the Lake Wobegon Effect.
For those unfortunates among you who are not familiar with Lake Wobegon, America's leading fictional town, humorist Garrison Keillor's delightful creation is a place where, as Keillor notes weekly, "the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are all above-average."
Now, everyone being above-average might work just fine in a make-believe 'burg, but out here in the real world, or even in the reinvented NHL, it just doesn't compute.
After Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke landing Forsberg and Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje on defense -- and put himself above the $39 million cap, necessitating the trade of Jeremy Roenick -- the Flyers certainly appear above-average. But while going about the business of allocating the now contractually limited resources, every NHL general manager probably is convinced he is in the process of fashioning a team that is -- like the children of Lake Wobegon -- above-average. As they tell themselves and their fans, now they have a chance.
Of course they all had a chance before, not that the NHL wanted you to know this. The issue of competitive balance, trumpeted early by the league in the stuttering negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, was a red herring. True, there was a stark payroll imbalance that certainly bore watching and perhaps could have turned toxic, but the correlation between money and success in the NHL was slight compared to, say, baseball.
Consider: In the previous four playoffs, 14 different clubs have appeared in the 16 slots in the conference finals (only Colorado in the West and New Jersey in the East made two appearances). When a team like Minnesota (a low $20 million payroll) can reach the final four in 2003 and the Carolina Hurricanes, Mighty Ducks and Calgary Flames make appearances in the Stanley Cup final in consecutive years, calling their success aberrations seems silly. The once-in-a-lifetime thing of a low-budget team in the final became a vain woman's 39th birthday -- an annual event. Every playoff the NHL was seeing Haley's Comet.
Still, some bulwark franchises -- the Red Wings, Avs and Devils -- were the equivalent of comfort food: You knew you were in for something pretty good. Because the Wings, Avs and Maple Leafs have essentially maxed out their money, there has been a weird, almost disconnected feeling since Aug. 1 when the merry-go-round of free-agent movement in the Salary Cap era began.