Dave Bolland’s contract is up at the end of the season and his future in Toronto has become a hot topic. Bolland, who has played just 15 games for the Maple Leafs this year, is reportedly looking for a long-term deal worth between $4- and $6-million a year. Although it sounds like a lot of money for a player who’s scored more than 40 points just once in his career, it’s not an obscene amount for a second/third line centre in today’s NHL.
One of the under-discussed changes brought about by the NHL’s transition towards a managed economy post-2005 is how it’s affected the distribution of money between players—that is, it hasn’t had the same effect on every one. You get a sense of this by comparing how players were paid prior to the 2004-05 lockout and since. For example, if you’re interested in Dave Bolland, you might be curious about how centre salaries have changed. If you want to do an apples-to-apples comparison, you’d be curious about what the highest-paid centre made in 2003-04 compared to what he makes now, what the second-highest earned made, and so on down the line.
As the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association can attest, the NHL’s positional labels are sometimes a bit fanciful, so I took the 120 players who took the most faceoffs in 2003-04 and compared their salaries with the 120 players who have taken the most faceoffs in 2013-14. That produces the following graph:
It's pretty evident that the change in the NHL's economy effected players at different spots in the NHL's salary structure differently. The highest-paid centre in 2013-14, Sidney Crosby, makes only $1 million more than the highest-paid centre 10 years ago, Peter Forsberg. The 10th-highest paid centre in 2013-14, Paul Stastny, actually makes less money than the 10th-highest in 2003-04—Jeremy Roenick and Pierre Turgeon each made $7.5 million.
A little further down the line, things get rosier. The 58th through 61st highest-paid centres in 2003-04 made $1.6 million. This year, they're each making $3 million. We can graph the change in salaries for each spot in our two groups to get a look at how their salaries have changed over the years.
What this really tells us is the story of how the NHL's salary structure has changed. Two groups of players have benefited more than the league average—those from about 20 through 80 on the pay scale and players at the bottom of the league, whose salaries went up as the league minimum rose. The highest-paid centres in the NHL haven't seen nearly the same salary growth. Once you understand that, the money that Bolland is reportedly seeking becomes easier to comprehend. Players like Bolland were, in a weird way, the winners of the 2004-05 lockout (along with, obviously, the owners).
Of course, that doesn't mean that this is a sensible thing for teams to do. Why do players like Bolland get a larger piece of the pie now? Have they suddenly become that much more valuable to hockey teams than they were prior to the salary-cap era? Have players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin suddenly become much less valuable? It seems unlikely. What's more likely is that what we see now is the result of structural changes in the game. In the old NHL, there wasn't a salary floor. As a result, you'd have teams like Nashville spending $23 million or so in the same division as Detroit with a payroll of $78 million. By compressing the range of team payrolls, the NHL forced a re-allocation of dollars between players.
In all probability, teams that are fortunate to have one of the very elite under contract are getting outrageous bargains, while a lot of teams pay players money that they don't come close to earning based on what they provide on the ice. You can pay Bolland 50 percent of Crosby's salary instead of 20, but it's not going to have any impact on how good they are relative to each other.
A salary-capped league is really a contest to spend your scarce salary dollars as efficiently as possible. But there are different ways to do it. If true stars are grossly underpaid relative to what they produce, one or two of them gives you a big edge. If you can underpay your own draft picks relative to their production for a while, drafting well provides big bang for your dollar. If players from a certain part of the world or players who aren't typical hockey personalities take an unfair hit to their value, a willingness to work with them can provide a team with value.
However a team does it, it needs to find efficiencies somewhere. One way is to avoid paying players whose price is artificially inflated by the NHL's collective bargaining agreement. If those are the Bollands (or the David Clarksons) of the world, then they are the types of players for whom you want to find a substitute. It might be by having a development system that produces a player who can provide 90 percent of Bolland's value for $800,000. It might involve a trade for a player a team elsewhere wants to move and is willing to retain some salary. Maybe it will be a player who was bought out, like Mikhail Grabovski. The point is, any management group can pay a player whatever the market says he's worth. The best management groups are the ones that identify those players who don't provide sufficient return for their price and avoid them in favour of cheaper alternatives. They're also the management groups that, year after year, tend to be at the top of the league.
Is the Maple Leafs' management in that class? The Bolland negotiations will provide another data point on that. If the Leafs end up in a long-term deal for big money, it's a commitment that they probably can't expect much value from in terms of the player being worth more than his contract. Every deal like that is a small cut that increases the value that they have to find elsewhere in order to be elite.
Put another way, the Leafs presumably aspire to be the Chicago Blackhawks: a Stanley Cup winning team. The Blackhawks were willing to trade Dave Bolland to the Leafs for a second-round pick and a pair of fourths because they couldn't match what the market would pay Bolland due to their commitments to other players. If you aspire to be the best, does it make sense to make commitments to players that the best teams wouldn't make?