A hard cap will make winning harder

AL STRACHAN, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 11:59 AM ET

It's not hard to understand why the National Hockey League's owners want to impose a hard salary cap. Why wouldn't they? It would not only protect them from their own stupidity, a commodity which has been more than abundant in recent years, it would protect them from the stupidity of their so-called partners.

But there are also a significant number of fans who also say they think a hard cap would be beneficial to the game. Their reasoning is nowhere near as easy to understand.

For starters, a hard cap turns fans into accountants. Trade fantasies are a part of hockey, but once the cap is in place, a fan couldn't just say, "I think it would be a good deal to trade Player X for Player Y."

He would have to say, "If we moved Player X, and made some cap room, then we could maybe also send Player Z to another team which also has some room under the cap and then maybe we'd be able to get Player Y -- but only for two years because after that, some of our younger players would have had their salary increases kick in and we wouldn't be able to fit him under the cap any more."

Consider another hypothetical situation. It's early March and the Maple Leafs are in first place overall and odds-on favourites to win the Stanley Cup (you were warned that this is hypothetical).

Just before the trading deadline, their goalie, who happens to be the best in the league that year, breaks his leg. The back-up isn't very good because in a hard-cap world, you don't waste your precious wiggle room on a guy who plays a dozen games a year.

Another team has an aging goalie who's still great but nearing the end of his contract. They'd gladly deal him to the Leafs for prospects, but guess what? The Leafs have no room under the cap. Good-bye Stanley Cup hopes.

A quick glance at the National Basketball League illustrates salary-cap problems -- that league has a soft, or flexible cap, not the kind of hard cap NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants to impose on his league.

A certain team not too far removed from the Air Canada Centre finds its cap room limited because of the acquisitions of aging players who, for one reason or another, can't play. But they have to be paid, so there goes the cap room and the chance of bringing in some help.

All the cap has done for the Raptors is prevent them from getting better by making good players inaccessible while people like Hakeem Olajuwon and Alonzo Mourning eat up the cap and don't play.

What happens to a hockey team that builds its team around a couple of star players only to have those players hurt? If they suffer a genuine career-ending injury, cap adjustments can be made.

SEVERELY LIMITED

But a single injury doesn't usually end a career. It does, however, often severely limit a player's ability. He eventually rejoins the team, but he's not the player he was -- and he's certainly, through no fault of his own, unable to make the kind of contribution that would warrant his significant share of the capped payroll.

It's not uncommon for a team to suffer two or three injuries of that nature over a couple of years. But when contracts are in the three-to-five year range, such injuries can have a long-term impact on a salary cap.

Injuries can make a good team bad, but the fans are doomed to accept it and to know that their favorite franchise has no chance of being competitive for years to come because it has no more room under the cap.

In simple terms, this is the situation: Owners want a hard cap because no matter how incompetent they might be, no matter how bad a product they might put on the ice, no matter how much disdain they show for the fans, they are guaranteed a profit.

But why would fans want it?


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