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How the salary cap backfired and helped deliver the Golden Knights’ their top line

The salary cap was supposed to protect cash-strapped teams, but three salary dumps by two organizations looking to shed contracts resulted in the Vegas Golden Knights landing one of the league’s best trios.

The NHL’s salary cap that has been in existence since the 2004-05 lockout has been an unmitigated disaster almost since its birth. Basically all it has done is save the big markets in the NHL from themselves, and hundreds of millions of dollars in salaries in the process. It has done nothing for the small-market teams aside from forcing them to spend to a salary cap floor that exceeds their actual budget to spend on players. And not a single star player has moved from a have team to a have-not franchise because of the cap. Not one.

The failure of the salary cap is no more prominent than it is in how the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that is so rich that it could afford the largest expansion fee in NHL history, has turned out. The first thing we’ve learned from this team, which advanced to the Western Conference final Sunday night, is that far too much was made of the possibility of losing a player in the expansion draft. So you can bet the Original 31 won’t make that mistake again when Seattle has its pick of the expansion litter.

But what we’ve also learned from the Golden Knights’ success is that the salary cap has failed the small markets spectacularly. Just look at their top line of Reilly Smith between Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. All three of them came from financially oppressed teams that needed to dump salary. Think about it, if the salary cap actually worked, would Florida not have been able to afford to keep Rielly Smith? You know, the way the NHL told us these teams would be able to keep their good young players?

First, let’s rewind to the expansion process. The Panthers went with protecting eight skaters as opposed to seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie because they wanted to keep their defense corps intact. That’s a good enough reason to be sure. But you’ll note they traded Smith to the Golden Knights in exchange for a fourth-round pick and the promise they would take Marchessault. This was clearly a salary dump from the start. Teams do not trade NHL-caliber players, particularly ones with a couple of 20-goal seasons on their resumes, for fourth-round picks. That is unless, of course, they’re trying to dump a long-term $5 million cap hit.

The Panthers had signed Smith to a five-year, $25 million extension that kicked in prior to the 2016-17 season. He went on to have a subpar season in ’16-17 and the Panthers could not afford to have a $5 million second-line center producing only 37 points. So instead of staying patient, they peddled him off to Vegas and then arranged for the Golden Knights to take Marchessault, who was on a team-friendly deal, but would have fallen out of the Panthers’ salary structure given his production.

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It should be noted that the Panthers got Smith in exchange for Jimmy Hayes and signed Marchessault to a steal of a contract, both brilliant moves that had to be undone because they couldn’t afford to keep them. And because of that, the Golden Knights got two-thirds of their top line and their top three scorers through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The other third is William Karlsson, the nine-goal-turned-43-goal-scorer who came from the Columbus Blue Jackets. All the Blue Jackets did was hand a first-rounder in 2017 and a second-rounder in 2019 (good grief) in exchange for taking on David Clarkson’s contract and future considerations. Those future considerations turned out to be an agreement to take Karlsson. And all the Golden Knights did was put Clarkson on the long-term injured list and turn Karlsson into one of the most startling revelations in NHL history.

So there you have it. The Golden Knights got their entire first line from cash-strapped teams the salary cap was supposed to protect who could not keep their players.

Of course, they weren’t the only ones to do that. The New York Islanders also traded a first-rounder in 2017 and a second in 2019 to get the Golden Knights to take a $5 million Mikhail Grabovski. And the Tampa Bay Lightning were in such a salary cap squeeze that they gave up one of the best players outside the NHL (Nikita Gusev) to get the Golden Knights to take Jason Garrison, a player the Knights were able to bury in the minors.

It turns out a lot of teams would probably do things a lot differently if they had a chance. The Minnesota Wild would. The Anaheim Ducks would and who knows, perhaps even the Pittsburgh Penguins would prefer a mulligan on giving the Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Yes, it will be different for Seattle. Next time around, teams will be more likely to lose a player off their roster rather than manipulate the process by outsmarting themselves. But the Golden Knights got 92 goals this season and one of the best lines in hockey because teams the collective bargaining agreement was supposed to protect could not afford to keep their players.

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