There has been some chatter recently about the Penguins potentially moving Evgeni Malkin in order to free up some cap space to acquire some wingers, and open up more ice time for Jordan Staal. While I don’t plan to get into the topics you see everywhere else that discuss whether or not this would be a prudent move for the Penguins, I do want to talk about the underlying issues of a team’s ability to build a roster.
Elliotte Friedman of CBC argues that the fact Pittsburgh hit a grand slam with four consecutive top picks and has to entertain the idea of trading one of them due to cap constraints means that the system is broken. However, I think it means the system is working perfectly. Pittsburgh should not be rewarded unconditionally for being the worst team in the NHL from 2001-02 to 2005-06. Should they have a couple years of Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal on the same team to build themselves back up? Absolutely. Should they be able to keep these players on their team for the next fifteen years without any potential cap issues? Of course not, or it would create a business model in the NHL where the best way to be competitive would be to spend at the cap floor and completely tank for four to five years, and then have numerous top picks on your team for their entire careers. This system would not be in the best interest of the fans, owners, or the NHL. The way the current system works is the teams that are actually well run (see: Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils) and never draft in the top ten are still able to remain competitive by acquiring top players from teams that consistently draft in the top five. This sounds much more equitable to me.
In addition, even if I did agree that the system was broken, it is in much better shape than the NBA or NFL. I know this isn’t the strongest argument, as saying the NHL isn’t as bad as the others doesn’t by default make it good, but I think it bears mentioning. The Penguins would be in an even worse position if they were in the NBA. Four top picks in the NBA draft would quickly be demanding max contracts, which would literally be impossible for an NBA to accommodate under the salary cap even if they wanted to – two of the big four would have been gone a long time ago. Compare to the NFL, where four consecutive top two picks would absolutely cripple a team’s financial flexibility, and severely inhibit their ability to acquire players potentially even worse than in the NHL. Teams like the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts are able to build around their stars by investing in scouting and making late-round picks count.
I do not agree with franchises being given the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury as a reward for icing a terrible product for almost half a decade. Let them have the players through their pre-arbitration years as a way to build the franchise back up, but once that is over, the players are fair game – this is why offer sheets and free agency exist.