If there’s one thing the NHL league office is obsessed with, it’s competitive balance. Parity rules in hockey, and the league often emphasizes that it treats its 32 teams equally. That’s fostered by a hard salary cap. There’s a fixed amount teams can spend on players — and as the league recovers from revenues lost in the pandemic, that salary cap remains largely stagnant, jumping to $82.5 million this season after three straight seasons of $81.5 million.
However there’s an unspoken secret in the NHL: There’s no salary cap on hockey operations. And behind the scenes, there’s an arms race between teams, navigating where to spend extra cash — and how much of it needs to be spent — to find a competitive advantage.
“Nobody will say it out loud,” one NHL assistant general manager said. “But the divide between the haves and the have nots in the league is quite big. Not everyone is playing with the same deck of cards. If you think teams like
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The Philadelphia Flyers‘ new hire, John Tortorella, is tied for having the largest coaching staff (eight). Some teams are figuring out how to surround their players with even more resources. The Flyers are one of four teams in the league to have their skills coach travel on the road, along with the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.
But when it comes to the number of people employed in hockey ops, everyone surveyed for this story pointed to one team spending far more than the rest: the Maple Leafs.
“If the salary cap was $140 million, Toronto would have a $140 million payroll,” one agent said. “They are the Yankees or the Dodgers of our league. [GM] Kyle [Dubas] seemingly gets a blank check from ownership.” Toronto players sometimes joke that they could spend each day introducing themself to a different team staffer. Rival front office members joke that Dubas has more assistant general managers than they have ties; the Leafs technically have five AGMs, plus eight people in hockey ops with a director title.
On the low end of the spectrum is Carolina, which has the leanest front office in the league. GM Don Waddell has a small circle around him, and they are all tasked with doing multiple jobs. Waddell also holds the title of team president. Multitasking runs throughout the organization; in the playoffs, public relations manager Mike Brown was assisting on video goal reviews.
Canes owner Tom Dundon said his philosophy is to spend on players — find the best players, and pay and treat them well. But on hockey ops, he has less people with a bigger voice. “I like to run it lean, and hungry,” Dundon said. “There’s a limit to how many people you need, in my opinion. I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing. But I know that when you have too many people around, not just for hockey but in general, it creates layers and people don’t know whose job is what. I want to make it clear: If someone is there, they matter.”
Compensation for staff
Compensation varies across the league. Depends on the team and market — and how much an owner is willing to spend. General manager’s salaries have slowly risen over the past several years. Coaches’ salaries are all over the map. Assistant coaches in the NHL make between $200,000 and $750,000 — largely dependent on experience level. Head coaches are paid between $1 million and $5.5 million — more contingent on market dynamics.
Not everyone is on the same page with treatment. “We all talk, and we know what goes on in other organizations,” one assistant coach said. “The teams with the best culture value their employees.”
Some teams happily cover costs for coaches’ families to visit if they relocate for the job. Teams cited as having a good staff culture do things like pick up the tab on postgame meals and cover for things like cars, parking, work visas. The high-end teams fly their top scouts in business class; but for most teams, even the director of amateur scouting is relying on their airline status to get bumped up.
The low-end teams try to save costs on things like health benefits, offering younger coaches and staff members the same plan as part-time employees. “And that’s despite coaches working 100-plus hours a week and spending weeks on end without their families,” one executive remarked.
The fastest growing area in NHL front offices is analytics. It’s tough to track as many teams employ consultants or have staffers with split roles. The Flyers and the Maple Leafs are routinely cited as having the largest analytics departments in the NHL. The Seattle Kraken, already with a strong analytics staff, are expected to make even more hires this season.
“When I started [in the NHL in 2015], it was, ‘Oh, if they have one person in analytics, they’re so innovative.'” Kraken assistant general manager Alexandra Mandrycky said. “Now if you don’t have more than one person, you’re behind.”
Consider: When Pat Verbeek was named GM of the Anaheim Ducks last season, he took stock of the staff he inherited and realized it needed to be restructured to align more with his previous stops, in Detroit and Tampa Bay. The Ducks had just one full-time analytics staffer last season. This offseason, Verbeek quadrupled the department.
Scouting staffs across the league fluctuate in size and assignments. Prior to COVID, some teams were already shifting to a more video-scouting focused strategy. That saves costs as they’re not flying scouts around the country. However, most of the best scouts still believe scouting live from arenas is optimal. You can notice things that don’t appear on video, like a players’ body language between shifts. Plus, video feeds for junior leagues can be wildly inconsistent in quality.
“For years, the two teams that would save the most money on scouting was Buffalo and Ottawa,” one director of amateur scouting said. “They’d have small staffs and really believed in video scouting. That was a few GM’s ago. They’re now more on par with everyone else. Toronto spends stupid money. A team like Arizona, you’d think they wouldn’t because of their reputation but they actually have a good department. It’s a priority for them right now, in a rebuild.”
Teams prioritize where they want to look for talent, and how much money they’re willing to spend looking for it. The teams with the biggest presences in Europe are the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Rangers and Detroit Red Wings.
“I think that’s the one area where you need to cover your areas but you don’t necessarily need the most people, you just need the best people,” one GM said. “To me, that’s where Tampa is top of class. [Assistant GM and director of amateur scouting] Al Murray runs a great program; just look at their track record.”
The Lightning would not have had their recent success if not uncovering draft gems like Nikita Kucherov (second round pick), Brayden Point (third round), Anthony Cirelli (third round) or recent cap casualty Ondrej Palat (seventh round).
All teams have the ability to draft highly touted prospects every year. But once they are in their system, the approach varies greatly. “The Kings are great at being super involved with their prospects,” one agent said. “While some teams still aren’t quite there. I don’t want to name the team, but I have one player who was a second-round pick in 2020. He went the entire summer without hearing from his team once. Not even a text to check in.”
The Kings, Rangers and Maple Leafs were all consistently mentioned for putting the most resources into player development, with the Montreal Canadiens and Red Wings cited as teams “trending up” in that area.
Los Angeles GM Rob Blake said he inherited a large player development staff from his predecessor, Dean Lombardi, who was inspired by models in MLB. Today, the Kings have a seven-person player development staff, and over the season they are dispatched across the world to check in on prospects.
“We’re very structured in our visits and communication with prospects,” Blake said. “Our player development staff is never teaching them any structure or system — we leave that to the coaching staff. It’s all about cultivating the relationship and building trust, with the No. 1 goal of making them a better hockey player.”
A few teams are trying to find an edge with goaltending. “I’m honestly surprised more teams aren’t focusing on that area considering the outsized importance a goaltender can have on a teams’ success,” one NHL team analytics staffer said. According to several people interviewed, goalie coaches around the league are consistently underpaid compared to their peers — and many goalie coaches are tasked with overseeing the NHL and AHL staffs.
A few teams have honed in here. The Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames and Vegas Golden Knights have established “goaltending departments” while the Rangers, New York Islanders and Kings have unofficial goaltending departments, as they also pour a lot of resources into the position.
Panthers GM Bill Zito said the formation of their “goaltending excellence department” was “serendipitous,” by having Roberto Luongo and his brother, Leo, in the organization to support goaltending coach Robb Talas, then finding out longtime goaltending coach Francois Allaire was living nearby in Florida. But with a $10 million cap hit goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky and a 21-year-old in Spencer Knight, the organization views as a future No. 1, Zito said the holistic approach for individualized attention on and off the ice has been “fantastic” and helps get the most out of the position.
‘The extra amenities’
And then there are budgets for the “extra amenities” that create positive environments — and are used as part of college free agent and veteran free agent pitches. “I’m not sure if that’s ever the sole reason someone is going to sign, there’s so many factors that go into guys’ decisions,” a veteran player said. “But it might be what puts a team over the edge. And in general, guys talk around the league.”
A few years ago, players complained that the towels weren’t big enough in Carolina and Arizona locker rooms, and some amenities weren’t up to snuff. Those issues have been amended, and largely the standards are solid across the league.
Some teams go above and beyond. It’s not stipulated in the CBA that teams must offer breakfast, but the high-end teams have omelet and smoothie stations as soon as players arrive. The Rangers have always taken pride in how they treat players. For example, New York organized a bonding retreat for players in Rhode Island during training camp; at events like the All-Star weekend, where the league has a bus for all players and their plus-ones, the Rangers have arranged separate accommodations for their players. Toronto hires a babysitter for its family room, so wives and girlfriends can watch games from the stands.
Said a veteran player who has played for multiple teams, including the Maple Leafs: “Everything Toronto does is class. Sure, there’s a lot more pressure to win there, but you hear stories of the way guys are treated there and the resources they have there — then you get there, and it’s unreal. Even better than they say.”
Perhaps the biggest arms race is just beginning now. Teams who have built new arenas or training facilities over the past decade have begun offering players amenities like underwater treadmills and cryogenic chambers. And with access to the facility year-round, teams can sell players on the convenience of sticking around in the offseason. While they’re not allowed to be coached, players can have access to the team trainers and equipment staffs, and can organize informal group skates.
“It’s been ever evolving to watch, and it’s not cheap, with the good [practice facilities] costing close to $100 million,” said Tim Leiweke, the longtime NHL executive and current CEO of Oak View Group. “But economically it’s a great investment. Almost everyone has one now, with the Golden Knights and the Kraken taking it to the next level.”
Leiweke has been heavily involved in the Kraken’s AHL affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, who he believes will be revolutionary for the sport.
Between buying an expansion team, building the arena, the training center and infrastructure (parking and road and utilities), the pre-operating cost of the Firebirds is just short of $500 million.
“They have their own permanent training center, a locker room they get to themselves, equipment and physical therapy resources – you’re spending money to create your culture and create the right environment for players,” Leiweke said. “This will change the way NHL GM’s and coaches and team presidents look at developing their talent, and reimagine how to not just get value out of their assets, but take that value to the next level. This is the next arms race, the resources put into AHL franchises. Two or three years from now, I think everyone will be saying the Firebirds reinvented the business.”
Everyone’s chasing the same goal — the Stanley Cup. There’s no magic formula to tell teams how to get there, but teams will always try to look for an edge. The irony is not lost on anyone that the team that routinely tops the board in terms of spending is the Maple Leafs — the team that can’t get out of the first round of the playoffs.
“People will make fun of how much Toronto spends,” one front office executive said. “But that’s just because they’re jealous. Too often in this league we cater to the lowest common denominator. Sure it hasn’t led to playoff success for them yet, but it will — because they’ve created a forward-thinking culture. We should be celebrating that, and hope they’re raising the bar for the rest of the league to follow.”