Lightning, Flames Are NHL's Hottest Models
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page D01
TAMPA, May 24 -- When the Stanley Cup finals begin Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum, there will be 28 people who will be watching with extreme interest. They are the general managers of the NHL teams that are not here, the men who will be charged with reshaping their rosters to fit the new financial reality that is coming to the league.
The Tampa Bay Lightning is a model franchise and, to a somewhat lesser extent, so are the Calgary Flames. Their players are young, fast and employ an exciting up-tempo style of play. And most important, they are cheap. Both teams began the season with payrolls of around $36 million, which rank in the bottom third of the league.
But while these finals may be closely scrutinized by the management of competing teams, the games may not attract many viewers on television. The NHL's ratings have been about one-fourth of the NBA's this postseason, and having Calgary and Tampa Bay -- two little-known, small-market teams -- play in the NHL's showcase event isn't going to help.
This year's Stanley Cup finals come with the NHL at a crossroads. With two-thirds of the 30 teams losing money, the strong possibility of an owners' lockout that could cancel some or all of next season and with many fans tuning out, several franchises -- the Washington Capitals among them -- are looking to the Flames and Lightning as examples of teams that don't need to spend a huge amount of money to succeed.
For those fans who do tune in to the finals, they will be watching some of the hottest young players in the league, although they are not as well known as stars from such big-market franchises as Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas.
Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis and Calgary's Jarome Iginla are candidates for the Hart Trophy, which is given to the league's MVP, but they are hardly household names. Their teams, too, have long been afterthoughts. After a mostly miserable 12-year existence, the Lightning is making its first finals appearance; Calgary is here for the first time since 1989, after missing the playoffs the past seven seasons.
Four of Calgary's best players this postseason -- goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and forwards Ville Nieminen, Shean Donovan, Marcus Nilson -- earn a combined $3.33 million annually. That's more than $1.5 million less than former Capitals center Robert Lang earned this season, and almost one third what former Washington winger Jaromir Jagr made. Kiprusoff, Nieminen, Donovan and Nilson are all 29 years old or younger.
The key players on the Lightning's roster are also young and relatively inexpensive. St. Louis, Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin and Vincent Lecavalier have an average age of just over 26 and have an average salary of about $2 million apiece.
The Lightning and Flames, who are the first Canadian team to play for the Stanley Cup since 1994, have committed to keeping their young players together for several years, something many of Tampa Bay's players said has been equally important to their success.
They are the antithesis of the free-spending New York Rangers and Capitals, who didn't make the playoffs and then gutted their rosters late in the season in anticipation of a work stoppage.
The league's collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, and the owners are seeking some sort of a hard salary cap that could place a ceiling on payrolls per team in the mid-$30 million range. That would limit how much money teams can spend on new players. Gone would be the era of big-market teams attempting to buy success.
"The economic structure is broken," said Howard Bloom, publisher of the Ottawa-based Sports Business News online journal. "It must change dramatically. In particular, I think you are going to see teams pattern themselves after the Lightning. They are young, quick and exciting. That's the type of team that will succeed whenever the CBA issues are resolved."
It's the direction to which many teams, including the Capitals, are already headed.
"If you look at the playoffs the past three years, the final four has been different," Capitals General Manager George McPhee said. "Some of those teams like Anaheim got there with low payrolls. [General managers] around the league have realized for some time that success can be had without spending a lot of money. . . . So it can be done."
Tampa Bay and Calgary are proof.
"With our team, the model is to maximize the resources we have," Calgary defenseman Steve Montador said. "It's based on getting the most out of the players, and getting players who fit your system. It has worked for us."
Whether Tampa and Calgary's success can be maintained for the long run remains to be seen. In recent seasons, Anaheim and Carolina advanced to the finals with small payrolls. Neither made the playoffs this season.
"This success we are having isn't going to change who we are," Calgary GM-Coach Darryl Sutter said. "We are not the kind of team that will ever buy or rent players. We're going to continue doing it with hard-working young players. That's the kind of team we are, and the team will always be."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company