Elite Players or Superior Depth?

The Devils and Canucks have more $2M+ players than anyone else in the NHL.

With a salary cap in place, there have been various theories on how best to spend money.  Are teams better off spending on a few elite players, or are they better off gathering more high-to-mid-tier players and beating teams with superior depth?  The Chicago Blackhawks had the best of both worlds last season, but once they actually had to make a decision, the depth was booted out the door and the stars all stayed.  Was it the right call? I think it's an open question, and in attempt to provide the beginning of an answer, I'll look at what the various teams seem to believe based on where they're spending money for the 2010-11 season.

The chart below tracks the pay range teams are using to spend their money.  Any slots highlighted in blue mean that the team has a below-average number of players in that pay range.  Any slots highlighted in red mean the the team has an above-average number of players in that pay range.  One final note: any players that teams have managed to send away to Europe or the AHL (like everyone's favourite Oiler, Sheldon Souray) are still included in the chart, and all of these cap numbers include bonuses (many thanks to NHLnumbers for the salary information):

Spending_medium

Some brief observations:

  • The ten teams with the most left-over cap space are the Thrashers, Avalanche, Islanders, Blues, Oilers, Lightning, Hurricanes, Predators, Panthers, and Coyotes.  Almost all of these teams are underspending in at least one of the two most expensive categories.  Some of that is a function of opportunity (you can only pay an elite player if you've got one), but some of it is no doubt because these teams feel that it's more difficult to get surplus performance from players at or near the top of the market.  On the other hand, no one who spends to the cap uses this strategy voluntarily.  I'm now more interested than ever to see what David Poile does with Shea Weber.
  • The exceptions to the rule above are the Lightning and Hurricanes who have both continued to spend on the very best players despite lower overall payrolls.  Both clubs have been able to achieve this by spending less on the players earning between $2.00M and $4.99M and relying on smart low-cost buys to make up for the shortfall.
  • The Oilers are in an interesting spot with six players in the 3.50M to $4.99M range, and all six locked up for next season as well.  Several of the top-spending teams are currently avoiding that market in order to pay superstars.  The Red Wings, Capitals, Canadiens, Sharks and Rangers have all stayed away, while the Bruins and Senators are the only big spenders filling the gap.  I wonder if this is a market that many of the rich clubs find overvalued.
  • The Canucks and Devils were both pegged before the season as Stanley Cup contenders (not many folks saying that about the Devils now!).  Both teams spent more than average on players in the $5.00M to $6.49M pay range, and sit at the top the list for players with a cap hit of at least $2.00M with fourteen.  Looking over the rosters of both squads, it certainly looks like they should have a very strong top nine forward group and a top four defense when everyone is healthy.
  • The Penguins have nine players with a cap hit of at least $3.50M compared to a league average of 6.6.  In order to pay for those luxuries, they've completely abandoned the $2.00M to $3.49M market and actually have fewer players than average with a cap hit of $2.00M or more.
  • The Sharks and Rangers are both spending significant money at the top of the roster, which should make them, like Pittsburgh, particularly vulnerable to injuries.  In San Jose's case, it's not such a big deal, but New York is relying on Marian Gaborik to stay healthy (how's that going?) in order to have success.
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