Back-to-back and salary cap don’t mix

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JONAS SIEGEL

PITTS­BURGH — Scotty Bow­man won backto-back Stan­ley Cups more than once in an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer be­hind the bench, but the 83-year-old won­ders now how fea­si­ble it is in to­day’s NHL.

“Well, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen a lot,” Bow­man, a nine-time Cup win­ner, told the Cana­dian Press. “It’s tougher to do now — no ques­tion about that.”

Not one team has gone back-to-back in the salary cap era, with Sid­ney Crosby’s Pitts­burgh Pen­guins look­ing to be­come the first.

Bow­man guided the last re­peat win­ner in Detroit, with the Red Wings win­ning by sweeps in 1997 and 1998. He also helped the Mario Lemieux-led Pen­guins com­plete a back-to-back set of cham­pi­onships when he took over for Bob John­son — who passed away from can­cer — for the 1991-92 sea­son and be­fore that, drove the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens to four straight crowns in the late ’70s.

He be­lieves win­ning two in a row to­day is in­her­ently more dif­fi­cult be­cause of the salary cap and re­sult­ing par­ity of the league.

“Dif­fer­ent era, dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances evolve around teams and the struc­tures now, with the salary cap be­ing prob­a­bly the ma­jor is­sue,” said Mark Messier, the Hall of Fame cen­tre who won back-to-back Cups two times with the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers.

Briefly a member of the Rangers front of­fice, Messier thought con­struct­ing a team good enough to win even once was tough, but keep­ing that group to­gether un­der the con­di­tions of the cap, that was al­most im­pos­si­ble.

Chicago is a re­cent ex­am­ple of that, with their ros­ter trimmed of sup­port­ing tal­ent af­ter Cup wins in 2010, 2013, and 2015.

Pitts­burgh man­aged to keep the guts of last year’s Cup ros­ter in­tact this year — though they lost No. 1 de­fence­man Kris Le­tang to a sea­son-end­ing in­jury — but Bow­man noted their strug­gles in build­ing ca­pa­ble units af­ter their vic­tory in 2009.

“When you pay three or four guys a lot of money it’s hard to keep your team,” said Bow­man, now a se­nior ad­viser to the Black­hawks where his son, Stan, is GM.

What the Pen­guins have done, Scotty ob­served, was de­velop qual­ity tal­ent in­ter­nally around Crosby, Le­tang and Ev­geni Malkin, nam­ing Matt Mur­ray as a shin­ing ex­am­ple.

A first-time Cup win­ner in 2009 and then again last year, Crosby said his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the chal­lenge had grown.

“I think I had that ap­pre­ci­a­tion com­ing in, but I think just go­ing through it and un­der­stand­ing how tough it is to win, you need some bounces, you need some luck along the way,” he said.

Had there been a cap in the late ’90s, Bow­man’s Red Wings would have had trou­ble keep­ing their star-laden group to­gether for mul­ti­ple sea­sons. The ’98 Wings had seven fu­ture Hall of Famers, in­clud­ing Steve Yz­er­man, Bren­dan Shana­han, Igor Lar­i­onov and Sergei Fe­dorov.

Detroit might have been even bet­ter, too, with Vladimir Kon­stanti­nov, a Nor­ris tro­phy fi­nal­ist, whose ca­reer came to an end when he was se­ri­ously in­jured in a car crash the week af­ter the Wings won the Cup in ’97.

The Preda­tors be­came the 16th dif­fer­ent team to reach the fi­nal since the 2005-06 lock­out and Messier thought par­ity — a di­rect re­sult of the salary cap — was pri­mary in why it was hard for teams to re­peat. A more evenly-di­vided league made the reg­u­lar sea­son a chal­leng­ing slog, he said.

Pitts­burgh’s Olli Maatta, 22, agrees the hard­est part of the re­peat bid is teams al­ways gun­ning for the de­fend­ing champs.

“It’s a grind. It takes a lot men­tally, as well as phys­i­cally.”

“You’re ba­si­cally red-lin­ing your team, push­ing them as hard you can. It’s like a race car go­ing 500 miles there, red-lin­ing that car — that’s what you’re do­ing to these play­ers and these teams just to qual­ify for the play­offs,” Messier said. “And then once you get to the play­offs, now you’ve got two months of in­cred­i­bly de­mand­ing, phys­i­cal and emo­tional hockey. “So for a team to not only have the tal­ent and the play­ers to be able to get there and do it, to re­peat the whole process again and then stay away from in­juries and bad luck, bad bounces, it’s be­come very dif­fi­cult.”

Messier won­ders what it means for the fu­ture of the tra­di­tional dy­nasty, which was once ubiq­ui­tous in the NHL. Philadelphia went back-to-back in 1974 and 1975; Bow­man’s Cana­di­ens fol­lowed with four straight; the New York Is­lan­ders won the next four and then came Messier’s Oil­ers win­ning two in a row, four of five and five of seven. Pitts­burgh cap­tured two straight crowns be­hind Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and then it was Detroit, the last re­peat win­ner.

“I don’t know if that’s go­ing to hap­pen again. I think it’s just too many good young play­ers, too much de­mand on the teams’ fi­nan­cially, phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

For­mer Red Wings head coach Scotty Bow­man holds up the Stan­ley Cup af­ter beat­ing the Carolina Hur­ri­canes in Detroit on June 3, 2002. He’s lifted the Cup nine times.

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