The NHL regular season is a crowded cross-country bus ride that avoids any interesting landmarks. The person in the adjacent seat is either talking to you about his irritable bowel syndrome or how something he calls "She-Ra Law" is destroying America. Every 50 miles, someone starts a sing-a-long but it's always a Creed song.
From October through April, the world's best hockey league provides you with the dreariest, least interesting regular-season product. All the teams and games blend into an incoherent blur. Everybody gets points and fun rarely happens; the NHL regular season is an episode of @midnight.
There's a way to solve this, though, something the NBA already figured out years ago—create a super team.
NBA ratings are at an all-time high and it's not a coincidence that the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers spent three seasons playing some of the most entertaining basketball the sport has ever seen with immensely talented lineups. And now the Boston Celtics are ascending in similar fashion. The NBA has never been better.
With Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty hitting free agency in 2019 and John Tavares heading there after this season, the time has never been better for an NHL team to go the way of the Warriors and build a team that would make the regular season worth caring about. A super team would create the type of must-watch television the NHL has lacked for decades.
This would require sacrifice, trust, and a willingness from Tavares to go at it alone for one year, but if these three stars decide they want to create a super team in two seasons, they could do it.
The Salary Cap
This is clearly the biggest difference between the NBA and NHL, as the former's ceiling this season is $113 million if you feel like paying a luxury tax ($99 million if you do not) while the latter's cap is $75 million. It's easier in the NBA when you have to pay fewer players and there's so much room to maneuver, even if the idea that players will earn a percentage of the cap commensurate to their abilities exists in both leagues.
With the NHL utilizing about twice as many players, you’re never getting a super team like you would in the NBA, but you can create the NHL's version of it. You won't have Connor McDavid centering a fourth line but you can still have something wildly better than anything you've seen in the cap era.
What will the NHL's salary cap be in 2019-20? Who knows! If there's a lockout, it will be $0 and this will be even more pointless than it already is. There are reports it could be $77.5 million next season, so let's say it will be $80 million in 2019-20 and the season won't be canceled. You can decide which of those is the bigger fantasy.
You've probably been screaming, "Karlsson said he wants to make the most money possible so there's no way this can work, you idiot!" Fair enough, but how do we know he's sincere? What if he's only saying that because he wants to get out of Ottawa? Wouldn't you say whatever you had to in order to break free from the Senators?
Then you have Doughty, who is already eyeing the Leafs like Homer Simpson eyes a donut. My guess with Doughty is he cares more about playing for a winner than in Ontario, so this idea could appeal to him.
Tavares is a free agent July 1 so he will have to play the role of brave explorer, setting out ahead of Karlsson and Doughty to claim the new world in the name of the super team. That will require some trust between the trio, something they can build this weekend after they all read this and fall in love with the idea.
It will take more than just Tavares, Karlsson, and Doughty to win a Cup, but you won't get a better core in free agency, and they will join an established team that already has talent. Free agents secretly coordinating plans isn't a new idea, but doing it over two years will be the real challenge.
You'd think our fictional $80 million cap and looking two years into the future would mean every team has space to do this, but you'd be wrong.
Some teams have space to sign twice as many studs (Vegas, Arizona, Colorado) but don't have the established foundation to help with the super team concept; some teams have space but have too many important RFAs to sign (Toronto, Tampa) and others just don't have the space or are just bad.
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In my estimation, that leaves three franchises that fit the bill for this team that would surely rain destruction and doom upon all who confronted it while attracting new fans and delighting the current ones.
1) Winnipeg Jets — As of now, they have a mere $33.4 million committed to the 2019-20 season with only Patrik Laine requiring a large raise over his entry-level deal. But the problems with a team that looks to be on the rise this season is they only have four other forwards, two defensemen, and zero goaltenders signed as of now. Plus, you know, Winnipeg. This is my dream so I'd like my dream to play on NBCSN and NBC a lot and Winnipeg could have 12 cloned prime Wayne Gretzkys and it would still get bumped for Sabres-Flyers. Plus, Karlsson, Doughty, and Tavares aren't spending 2-3 seasons in Winnipeg. Sorry.
2) Dallas Stars — At $32.8 million, they have more room than the Jets but will have Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov, John Klingberg, and Ben Bishop signed through 2021-22. They have some RFAs to sign but they shouldn't be too expensive. If you add the trio of glory to this group, the Stars would have something cooking. Any team with Klingberg as its third-best defenseman would be a Stanley Cup favorite. The issue, however, is the forward depth isn't as great as it could be, and there's really only one team that has the puzzle pieces in place to form a Voltron of hockey wonderment and keep it together for a few years.
3) The Nashville Predators, Super Team For The Ages
Again, assuming an $80 million cap, here is the unstoppable machine the Predators could ice in 2019-20:
Filip Forsberg-John Tavares-Craig Smith
Kevin Fiala-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson
Frederick Gaudreau-Kyle Turris-Calle Jarnkrok
TBD-Nick Bonino-Austin Watson
Erik Karlsson-Drew Doughty
Roman Josi-PK Subban
These forwards and defensemen would constitute $70.6 million without a sixth defenseman and 12th forward, which could be a veteran player that wants to play for the super team on a bargain deal or someone on an entry-level contract. Fiala is the only current Predator in the group that would need a new contract for 2019-20, as everyone else is signed through that year. I'm giving Fiala four years and $10 million after the 2018-19 season. He's an RFA so I control his life, so he has to take it (and when the deal ends he can be a free and clear UFA).
Now for the biggest roadblock in my plan to turn Nashville into the greatest hockey team in history... the $5 million contracts for Tavares, Karlsson, and Doughty.
For this to work, Tavares needs to sign a three-year, $15 million deal this summer; Karlsson and Doughty would need to take two years and $10 million next summer.
Those are obviously salaries way below market value. But you know who else took salaries below market value to create a championship-winning super team? Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, that's who. There are role players that did the same, but in terms of star players, the Warriors have three guys that left millions on the table to dominate the NBA for a bunch of years. For you people that mock the NBA, isn't taking less money to win a title the ultimate sacrifice for a team goal, the thing NHL people get orgasmic over?
If you're worried about leaving money on the table, yeah, each of these guys are worth at least double $5 million, but Tavares, Karlsson, and Doughty will all be 30 years old after the 2020-21 season and can then sign massive long-term contracts with a new team after the super team dynasty is over. Another financial benefit of signing a short-term contract now is if the cap is stagnant or barely climbing, you can wait 2-3 years to see if it goes up to avoid trapping yourself in a long-term contract now when you could get more money later.
Ideally, this would create an arms race with a team in the East—hello, Toronto and Tampa—creating the NHL's own Warriors-Cavs situation.
There would be some tinkering needed with depth players for the 2020-21 season but that's a bridge to cross when the Predators get to it. And the attraction of going to Nashville on a one-year deal to play with this group and win a Cup will lure better players for their roles.
Oh, a goaltender? Yeah, that's something we should address. Pekka Rinne is signed through 2018-19, when he will be 36 years old, which means he'd be 38 years old if the Predators wanted him to be part of this hockey dynamo. Unfortunately, the final piece of this mega-team involves allowing Rinne to walk after next season and signing Sergei Bobrovsky to another two-year, $10 million deal starting in 2019-20.
Bobrovsky would be 33 years old when his Predators deal ended, which gives him less time to earn back money. But at $5 million, he's leaving less on the table than everyone else, so his sacrifice wouldn't be as big. Plus, imagine his value in 2021-22 coming off two Vezina Trophy seasons and two Cups in Nashville. He'd earn back anything he lost during these two years.
That leaves $4.4 million in cap space to fill out the roster. That's plenty.
How is anyone stopping this team?
If Tavares sends some back channel messages to Karlsson, Doughty, and Bobrovsky—"Meet me in Nashville in 2019"—he could theoretically win a Cup with the Predators next year before the rest of The Avengers arrive to devour the league the following year. Think of it like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter coordinating their effort to sign with the Wild, only it's with much better players on a much better team for fewer short-term dollars.
Every Predators game suddenly becomes must-watch TV (even though NBCSN would still show 31 Blackhawks games instead probably) and other teams would have to build in a similar fashion, creating other super teams. It wouldn't last forever, but it would be the best 2-3 years in the NHL in a long time.