After NBA superstar Kevin Durant joined the record-breaking 73 win Golden State Warriors in free agency this year, a major question around all sports was whether it come happen outside of the NBA. It’s rare to see the best players join an already loaded team, but this is the second time this decade it’s happened in the NHL. So, you may ask, is it possible in hockey?
The NHL salary cap is more restrictive, and teams leave themselves with less room to work. NBA contract are a maximum of four or five years, so you don’t see declining former stars on the seventh or eighth years of their contracts weighing down their team’s cap situation. You’re also far less likely, in the NBA, to see depth players signed to longer term deals for significant money. Because there are certain mild exemptions to the NBA salary cap, like the ability to go over the cap if you pay a player the minimum allowable salary for a veteran, a team can, in theory, start an off-season with very few players on the roster, load up, and fill out the team with any of the many useful free agents willing to play for a chance to win a championship.
That’s not the only problem with the idea, but it relates to the next one. If NHL free agency was more similar to baseball, and players often signed purely for the highest bidder, free agency would be more active in general. Had Steven Stamkos decided he cared most about money, he could have joined the Toronto Maple Leafs or Buffalo Sabres. Because the monetary difference is smaller, and the best teams in hockey vary less year to year than in baseball, hockey players look for situations where they can win. This is similar to how NBA free agency works, but because of a more restrictive cap, it’s not like a player like Stamkos can look around find another legitimate contender willing to pay him more money. While it’ reported the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks were involved, it would have been hard to offer any more money than the Lightning, and with many of the Sharks best players getting older, it makes more sense for Stamkos to stay where he is. Other regulars in contention, the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues, and Pittsburgh Penguins, plainly lacked the money to do so.
There’s also the difficulty of making it to free agency to begin with. A player can hit free agency at 25 if he starts in the NHL at 18, 26 for 19 year old debutants, and 27 for all others. Teams carry extraordinary leverage beyond that, and push for longer deals. If you have a player who ends the league at 19, and he plays out his rookie deal, and the team is impressed enough to push for an eight year deal, the player has little leverage to fight for a shorter deal, especially before arbitration, and risks any number of career and production threatening injuries trying to get a deal that makes them a free agent before they turn 30. In a physical sport like hockey, as much as the team wants to avoid a scenario where their star players hit free agency in their mid-twenties, players aren’t going to rush to turn down long term job security for a chance at cashing in, or playing with their friends, in their home towns, or for a contender any time soon.
The final point to remember is that if the NHL had a super-team, nobody would notice. In the NBA game, the starters play a higher percentage of the minutes, and the knowledge that Steph Curry, Kevin Durrant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are all on the floor at once is a constant. The Red Wings and Blackhawks both added Marian Hossa to loaded teams, and the Penguins last summer acquired Phil Kessel. But there are just so many minutes that end up geting played by bottom of the roster players, even a team as loaded as Pittsburgh is going to end up having times where the skaters on the ice are five guys you’ve never heard of.
If you’re a team looking to get a big name free agent who can impact your team in a serious way, there’s probably one way, and thats building a contender with low payroll contenders. It helps if, like the Blackhawks a few years ago, you manage to become that contender while your stars are on rookie deals. They managed to bring in Hossa, Brian Campbell, and Cristobal Huet. If you commit your money and term to the very best players, your depth is fairly easy to replace year in and year out, and it provides that flexibility. But until that happens, there’s not a great reason for the biggest names to test the market, or even think about some kind of super-team.