|Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby holds off New Jersey Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk. (REUTERS/Gary Hershorn)
When Sidney Crosby began the hockey season, he was skating on a line with Eric Tangradi and Mike Comrie.
Which is a lot like putting figure skates on Georges Laraque and expecting him to be elegant.
Ginger Rogers should dance with Gene Kelly. And Crosby, the most accomplished centre in the National Hockey League, should not be forced to carry around plodders, also-rans, wannabes, and those who can't possibly comprehend or take advantage of his immense talents.
And how do I say this nicely? This is what the salary cap era has done to the National Hockey League. It has stepped all over the toes of the greatest players in the game. It has, in a very serious way, choked the life out of hockey, at least in the big picture, out of the game I love.
One night, Crosby was with Tangradi and Comrie. Last night he began with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis as his linemates. And somewhere Bryan Trottier must be thinking about how good he had it -- having Mike Bossy on one side and either John Tonelli or Clark Gillies on the other.
Phil Esposito had Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman.
Wayne Gretzky always had Jari Kurri.
Guy Lafleur played with Steve Shutt and either Jacques Lemaire or Peter Mahovlich.
Marcel Dionne, at his best played, with Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer.
But on opening night, Sid the Kid, who is probably underpaid at $8.7 million US per, had wingers with a combined salary of $1.3 million. Up to now, he has been doing his best Billy Idol -- Dancing With Myself. And to think, the salary cap was introduced to save hockey, save owners from themselves and keep franchises alive and thriving.
Tell that to Sheldon Souray, Jeff Finger, Wade Redden and Cristobal Huet -- almost $20 million worth of NHL of talent -- each of them skilled enough to find a place on an NHL team. But there is no place for them.
Because each of them had the temerity to accept a contract from an NHL general manager that, frankly, was larger than his capabilities. They didn't make a mistake, their teams did: But they are buried for it now, paid meaningfully to play games that mean little, three of them in the American Hockey League, one of them in Europe, all of them centred out because the contract didn't work under the salary cap structure of their individual team.
Here is what I'm trying to comprehend: The NHL took a whole season off, toyed with its fan base, to get what it calls cost certainty. Cost certainty then was $39 million.
Today, it's $59.4 million.
The cap has gone up $20 million in five seasons, which means the hockey business is good. But here's what makes even less sense: As the cap has increased, it has become more and more difficult to handle. The opposite should have occurred. Ideally, if you have more to spend, it should be easier to balance the books. But when you see almost every NHL roster dotted at the bottom with players you have to Google to find out who they are and where they came from, you are forced to take a step back and wonder in whose interest all this is.
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, revitalized hockey in Chicago, invigorated the hockey world, then sent half their team packing. All in the name of cap management.
The New Jersey Devils have begun the season playing three men short -- and who knows when they will have a full compliment of players. (In almost every other sport, coaches would kill to have larger rosters: In the NHL, the opposite is occurring.) On Wednesday night, they progressed to playing only two men short. All in the name of cap management.
Cap space has become the equivalent of power in the NHL. But hardly anyone of consequence has any.
Players aren't valuable any more. Cap space is. And the Pittsburgh Penguins don't have any room. And if you wonder why Sid the Kid isn't scoring 150 points a season, take a look at his linemates. Mario Lemieux may have turned Warren Young and Rob Brown into 40-goal scorers, but The Kid is no Mario. There aren't any of those anymore.