PITTSBURGH – The salary cap was a passion project for Mario Lemieux, the owner, when the NHL wrestled with it during the 2004-05 lockout even though he knows it would have been something Mario Lemieux, the player, would have fought to the bitter end.
“We couldn't compete with the (New York) Rangers and LA and the big markets and Chicago and Detroit,” the Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer-turned-chairman recalled.
So Lemieux pushed for the cap during the NHL's lost winter, well aware the ripple effects would include a rise in league parity at the potential expense of the dynasties that have been a part of the league since it started awarding the Stanley Cup nearly a century ago.
The math was easy for Lemieux. Better to have 30ish solvent and competitive clubs than just a handful.
“The salary cap gave us a chance to spend to the cap and be on level playing fields with the other teams,” he said.
The cap has proven to be more of a speed bump than a road block for the Penguins. The proof was all around Lemieux as he spoke on the ice at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday night after the Penguins nudged past the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final to become the first team in 19 years and the first of the salary cap era to win back-to-back titles.
“It's hard to win the Cups as we've found over the last 10-12 years,” Lemieux said.
Just not impossible.
The Penguins flew home to Pittsburgh on Monday with the Cup in their possession for the third time in nine years. A downtown parade is scheduled for Wednesday, a party that's on the verge of becoming a rite of late spring.
Pittsburgh has done it by investing heavily in their core group and finding the right complement of players and staff around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to make it work.
“I always say best organization, amazing team,” Malkin said. “We have great chance to win every year.”
That's not how it's supposed to work nowadays. Championship windows are supposed to be narrower with the cap in place, not wider. Sure, Chicago has won it three times in six seasons in the cap era, but the Blackhawks were forced to blow it up after 2010. The Kings won it all in 2012 and 2014, and are now in the process of starting over.
Not Pittsburgh. The Penguins have more Cup appearances (four), playoff wins (90) and regular-season victories (467) over the last decade than any team in the NHL. And it's not really that close.
“Your goal is to win every year and our team just had a collection of guys that knew how to win, knew how to find ways,” Crosby said.