The NHL’s hard salary cap, which came into being after the 2004-05 lockout, changed the league’s competitive landscape forever. The days of gross overspending being viewed as a path to victory are largely over.
Even so, it’s tough to argue that there are not ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ teams in the NHL today. The Ottawa Senators, of course, are generally viewed as being in the latter category. Unfortunately for teams like the Senators, the hard cap hasn’t seemed to completely eliminate money’s influence in the game. You basically have to go back as far as the Anaheim Ducks winning in 2007 or the Carolina Hurricanes winning in 2006 to find a Stanley Cup champion that didn’t come from a big market with cash to spend.
So, the question becomes: As Ottawa’s young players start to enter their primes, how can the team look to compete if it doesn’t have surplus funds available? The answer, I think, lies in a commitment to analytics. The present day Ottawa Senators are probably never going to outspend the New York Rangers, just like the Oakland Athletics are probably never going to outspend the New York Yankees. But, if there’s anything that player personnel decisions around the league continue to demonstrate, it’s that there’s an opportunity for arbitrage available to teams that are willing to commit. Proof of that exists in the form of the current iteration of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The “fancy stats” movement has evolved at an incredible pace in hockey over the last number of years. What was once viewed as a fringe movement now holds a seat at the table in almost every NHL front office:
Of course, the degree to which General Managers actually listen
to their analytics teams varies significantly. Simply having one isn’t enough. Actively listening is where the opportunity exists, and, as a result, it’s what the Senators will need to do on their road back to competitiveness.
The aforementioned Carolina Hurricanes are a great example of what this can look like. A quick look at CapFriendly shows that they didn’t use a lot of cap space last season, and yet they were just as successful as many big market teams. Consider that, as per Corsica, Hurricanes skaters generated a comparable number of wins above replacement as Toronto Maple Leafs skaters last season. It certainly wasn’t because the Hurricanes spent money like the Maple Leafs. The Hurricanes were able to do it by cultivating a stellar group of young players and surrounding them with the right
supporting cast, not a shiny and expensive supporting cast. Does that not sound like something the Senators could do?
I draw the comparison to the Toronto Maple Leafs for one major reason: The Leafs are widely viewed as both a progressive organization when it comes to analytics and a significant spender in the league today. This admittedly narrow comparison suggests that a focus on analytics can at least help to reduce the impact of that spending gap. You can spend and win, but you can also be a budget team and do the same if you are able to make consistently good player personnel decisions. The dollars don't necessarily seem to create a distinguishing factor that shapes the win column. Money certainly makes things easier, but the Hurricanes are proof that the job can be done without breaking the bank.
As the Senators look to compete within the next few seasons, it’s incumbent on ownership and upper management to continue building out the analytics team they have started as per above. A relatively small investment off the ice can help to ensure that more costly mistakes aren’t made on it. That, in short, is a key part of the path to victory for a team that doesn't have much cash to burn.
As always, thanks for reading.
Michael Stuart was the Tampa Bay Lightning writer for HockeyBuzz from 2012 to 2015, and has been the Ottawa Senators writer since September 2019. Visit his archive to read more or follow him on Twitter.