In the NHL's salary cap system, teams don't always get what they pay for.
Six of the league's biggest spenders found themselves out of the playoff picture on Wednesday morning, which is why this week's news that the salary cap is expected to jump again doesn't necessarily signal the NHL has become a league of "haves" and "have nots."
New Jersey, Calgary, Ottawa, San Jose, Minnesota and Toronto are all in the top half of the league in spending, according to capgeek.com, and are among those currently chasing a playoff spot. Meanwhile, a number of other teams are thriving despite spending well below the $59.4-million salary cap.
"You don't necessarily have to be there (to be competitive)," said Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman.
When Yzerman was hired by Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at the end of May, he was given a tight budget. The team is currently carrying a roster that is more than $10-million below the salary cap, but finds itself inside the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
There's no guarantee Yzerman will ever be given the green light to be as free-spending as his colleagues.
"In due time, if we can be successful in our plans, we feel we'll be able to compete and potentially our budget will change," said Yzerman. "For the time being, I'm very comfortable with the budget that we have. (I think) that we can compete. Obviously, we'd all love to have the same resources as other teams but that's not the reality.
"It will never be that way no matter what system (we have)."
No one is currently getting better bang for their buck than the Thrashers, who have the league's lowest payroll according to capgeek.com. Despite that, they sit alongside the Lightning with a matching 15-10-3 record.
Atlanta president Don Waddell, who relinquished the GM duties to Rick Dudley earlier this year, says he isn't concerned that the NHL is projecting the salary cap to rise above $62-million for the 2011-12 season. If that happens, the salary floor would climb over $46-million and teams like the Thrashers would have to increase their payroll to be compliant.
"Right now we're trying to manage our expenses," said Waddell. "If the cap goes up, it's something that we'll face as we get into next year. Those are not big numbers - those are easy manageable numbers."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to note that the poorer teams still see a benefit when the salary cap jumps because more money is handed out in revenue sharing. Roughly 10 teams qualify for revenue sharing payments each season.
"If the salary cap goes up, it means revenues are going up," said Bettman. "It means revenue sharing goes up. You've got to look at the system in its totality. It's a little premature for us to be worrying about (teams having trouble spending to the salary floor)."
One notable exception is the New York Islanders, who are only above the floor this season because they're getting hit for more than $6-million from the buyouts given to Alexei Yashin and Brendan Witt.
Owner Charles Wang stands to see his costs increase for next season if the league's projections are accurate. However, he doesn't qualify for revenue sharing because the Islanders play in a metropolitan market with more than 2.5 million people.
At the other end of the scale, life isn't necessarily easier.
New Jersey and Calgary are in the top five in spending and find themselves near the bottom of their respective conferences. Even though the Chicago Blackhawks are doing much better than that, they'd probably be having a better season if GM Stan Bowman didn't have to dismantle his championship roster to get under the salary cap.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are carrying a lower payroll than those three teams, but they're also paying defenceman Jeff Finger $3.5-million to play in the American Hockey League. GM Brian Burke declined to reveal if he sees a rising salary cap as a competitive advantage in his rebuild, but he did make it clear that he intends to take advantage of it.
"Whatever they give us to spend, that's what we're going to spend," said Burke.