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Winning On The Cheap - It Can Be Done

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Earlier this week, there were reports out of 1400 Edwards Mill Road that Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos wanted to cut his team's expenses from last year by about $15 million.  Last season, the team's payroll bumped against the salary cap ceiling at times and once they were even forced to put Cam Ward on the long term injured list so that they could free up cap space to make room for a recalled player.

That will not be a problem this coming season. 

Historically, the Canes have been more of a "budget team" than a "cap team", but this year things might be even tighter than usual.  With Karmanos attempting to sell a large portion of the franchise, it's likely that more emphasis will be placed upon the club to be a self sufficient entity, if not profitable. 

The team operated at a loss last season and there are two primary ways to fix that, increase revenue or cut costs.  The player's salaries are the biggest expense for any team, so that reduction is obviously targeted first.

After hearing that the team will be cutting payroll, the natural reaction for many fans is gloom and doom. They might be wondering how the team can compete or succeed without spending money for the top players? But having deep pockets does not guarantee deep runs in the playoffs.  Just ask fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

While several small market teams with tiny budgets fail to make the playoffs year after year, the same can be said for some large market teams who spend to the cap limit most seasons.  It would seem that proper scouting, drafting, coaching, and management would trump the effect of simply spending more money.  And the proof is in the results.

Pittsburgh did not buy their way to prominence, they drafted their way to the top.  Now they are paying to the Cap limit in order to keep their top players.  The same can be said about Washington and Chicago.  These teams did not simply rely on free agent acquisitions to make it to the playoffs, even though they spend a lot of money right now.

And every season there are examples of how teams have succeeded without spending close to the cap.  Buffalo, Nashville, and Phoenix all did it this year.   

The Canes have done it before and have even succeeded at the highest possible level without spending near the cap.  There is no reason they can not do it again. 

In the summer of 2005, Paul Kariya was one of the top free agents available on the market.  The Canes were in the running for his services but eventually were out-bid by Nashville.  Several in the local mainstream media blasted Carolina management for not stepping up to the plate to get Kariya.   

But instead, Jim Rutherford signed Ray Whitney, (1.5) and Cory Stillman, (1.75), two players who were not highly sought after at the time.  Earlier, they brought aboard Martin Gerber and Matt Cullen, two more players who were making less than $1 million each. 

Those four players were instrumental in helping Carolina to a franchise record regular season, as well as a Stanley Cup Championship.  Kariya had a great year but earned $4.5 million that season.  The Canes were able to sign four valuable players for less than that price. 

Even after the Hurricanes acquired high priced rentals, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, they still were only ranked 16th in the NHL in spending that season with a payroll of $35 million. 

Can the Canes succeed again in the future, even if they don't spend to the Cap limit?  Of course they can.  But not only will the focus be on management to bring in the right players at the right price, the focus will also be on the coaching staff.  It will be more important than ever for Paul Maurice, Ron Francis, Tom Barrasso, and Tom Rowe to get the most they can out of their players and to develop them properly. 

The Hurricanes have an advantage right now because they can save money by utilizing several talented young players who have the possibility of being stars in the NHL.  Is Carolina another Chicago in the making?  We will find out in a couple of years.