While you were not following hockey this summer the Blue Jackets amassed one of the top 10 salary totals in the NHL for next season.
Now surely, the large cap hits of Marian Gaborik, Nathan Horton, and Sergei Bobrovksy play a big role in the salary increase, but it’s not like those are league maximum deals, just above average. This is clearly a new age of management with John Davidson and Jaarmo Kekalainen in charge of finances, but how does such a small market team, with typical (which is to say poor) small market success justify the jump into the top 10 most spending teams? Well a lot of it comes back to dealing with the move to the East.
The Cost of Living
The Metropolitan Division will likely be the most challenging division in the NHL. There has long been a notion that the old Atlantic Division was the best in the league, each of the five teams have made the postseason within the last two years, and there is a powerful dichotomy between skill and speed (the Penguins and Islanders) and stout defense (Rangers and Devils), and that’s to say nothing of the well-balanced Flyers. All five of those teams will be part of the Metropolitan along with the always dynamic Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes, who have fallen on hard times lately, but are still one of only 8 teams to win the Stanley Cup in the Salary Cap era. But let’s not forget where the Blue Jackets came from: the Central Division was easily the best in the West and after the Jackets stormed to relevancy the line between Atlantic and Central was rendered almost indeterminable.
But realistically the restructuring of the Metropolitan Division has made it stronger. The Central, with the loss of Columbus and Detroit and their replacement with teams like Dallas, Colorado, and Minnesota is not stronger. In the new four division system there will be no more cheap playoff berths: there are at least four really good teams in each division and as such the Jackets have no choice but to build a competitive team if they want to capitalize on their near breakthrough last year. The best way to build a strong team is to pay for talent, and that’s what the Jackets have done for this coming season.
But did they really have to? There are some big market teams in the Metropolitan: the Rangers, Flyers, and Capitals all play in top 10 population markets, and although the Penguins aren’t in a large market they are a merchandising machine, but that doesn’t say much for the bankrupt Devils, the Hurricanes, or the barely surviving Islanders. If the Jackets were in the middle of spending here, then the “cost of living” would be well-deserved, they would be spending to keep up with the rest of the division, but consider these numbers, for the whole league the Flyers have spent the most, the Penguins third, the Jackets ninth, Rangers tenth, the Hurricanes are nineteenth, the Capitals are twenty-first, the Devils are twenty-fifth, and the Islanders rank dead last in actual salary.
Uh huh, well then, for all intents and purposes half of the division is essentially in the bottom third of spending for the league. And the Blue Jackets have spent the most in the division without going over the maximum cap, so they aren’t really trying to merely keep up with their rivals, but in many ways be ahead of them. So then still, what are they doing?
Where the Money Goes
Overall the Blue Jackets have spent $62,283,808 of their $64,300,000 cap, and they have done so with an exceptionally even hand. Overall the team has spent the ninth most on forwards in the NHL, with division rivals Pittsburgh and Washington (no surprise there) both having invested more. The team has spent the seventh most on defense, but that’s just fine given what this team will need to do to be successful in the Metro, that is to say, keep one of the really high scoring teams, either Pittsburgh, Washington, or the Islanders from scoring in order to beat them out of a playoff spot. The Jackets split the difference in the NHL with the 15th most money spent on goaltending.
All of this further reinforces that the Jackets are a good team. They haven’t overspent their hand at any position and have clearly made a commitment to win now. The trouble is that the years of mismanagement and poor drafting before the reign of Davidson and Kekalainen will make this a challenging proposition if the team doesn’t win soon. Spending this much money is fine when you get results and therefore sell tickets, this move could blow up in the face of the team if they should continue to struggle.
There is a calculated risk in climbing the salary cap totem pole for the Blue Jackets: they haven’t yet proven that they can make the money required of a team that spends to the cap limit, but they have a lot going for them. They are moving to the Eastern Conference which means almost all of their games will start by 7:30, that should entice advertisers to invest more in commercials that will be seen by more fans. The fans have showed up: the team has topped 7,000 season ticket sales with nearly 1,000 new plans sold this year. For the first time the Jackets will actually have a full complement of games against their physically nearest rivals: the Pittsburgh Penguins, and as a native of Pittsburgh, I can guarantee you that one way or another all of those games will be complete sellouts. The team will also get a significant boost because they will now have more games against the second and third closest logistical teams as well: Detroit and Buffalo.
Nothing would do more to put Columbus on the hockey map better than winning the inaugural season of the Metropolitan Division, and between Davidson’s willingness to spend and Kekalainen’s ability to make good moves, that isn’t quite so impossible as it seems.