You see, the Bruins went out and spent money - a lot of money - this past off-season, all the way up to the salary cap. Somewhat ironically, the two big-ticket items in Boston's free agent shopping cart were a first-line center and a number one defenseman (which, of course, are currently the Caps' two most glaring needs). The Bruins will spend $12.5 million (nearly 30% of the team's total payroll) on those two players - center Marc Savard and defensemountain Zdeno Chara - over the course of the 2006-07 season. They'll spend another $12.5 million on the two next season. And the season after that. And the season after that.
Chara and Savard have been good this year, without question. The problem? The Bruins haven't. And so Boston comes to town with a payroll that's more than 45% higher than Washington's, but trailing the Caps in the Eastern Conference by a point. Chara, at $7.5 million, makes around $500,000 less than the Caps entire nine-man blueline corps. Savard, at $5 million, makes over $1 million more than the four centers the Caps are likely to ice against him Tuesday night (Dainius Zubrus, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby).
By committing to Chara and Savard, the Bruins have chosen to make them (along with $5 million/year Patrice Bergeron, $4.1 million/year winger Glen Murray and rookie Phil Kessel) their foundational players, and with those four making upwards of $22 million - half of the salary cap maximum - the B's are forced to fill-in around them with spare parts like Petr Tenkrat, Mark Mowers, Jason York and the like and play either a 32-year-old "never was" or a kid with a 4.33 GAA in net. That's the bed they've made, and currently they're lying in it... in 13th place in the Conference... behind the Capitals.
For all that money spent, are the Bruins a better team than the Caps? Right now, they might very well be. But do any Bruins fans want to bet on which team will have the better record over the next, say, three years? No?
Again, that's not to say that the Caps couldn't have used a little help so far this season - on far too many nights, they brought knives to gun fights. And of course, there were (and perhaps still are) less expensive options for the Caps than Chara and Savard that would have (and perhaps still could) help the team, but there are two overarching points here. The first point is that in a salary-capped league, teams have to decide who "their guys" are. If the Caps were to sign guys like Chara and Savard, how would they re-sign guys like Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Mike Green, Eric Fehr and Nick Backstrom (to name just a few) when they become free agents during the duration of the contracts signed by the big-name free agents? Come 2011, would you rather have a $7.5 million, 33-year-old Zdeno Chara or a 26-year-old Mike Green at maybe half of that cost? To continue the architectural metaphor, the Bruins have their cornerstones, but are they going to have enough materials leftover to be able to build any walls in between them? The Caps will because their core is young and, for the moment cheap. Add in a handful of relatively interchangeable role players that you can afford to lose - because you will lose some of them - and a few key free agent signings and you have the recipe for success in a salary-capped league. Just ask Bill Belichick.
The second point is that teams need to maintain a salary structure within the organization. This point isn't as frequently talked about, but is just as important. Take Richard Zednik as an example. Zednik will make just under $2 million this year, and his production (limited by injury and, to a certain extent, opportunity) has been unimpressive. As the team, writers and fans debate whether or not Zed should be brought back next year, the question isn't only "Is Richard Zednik worth $2 million per year?" but also "Can we justify paying $2 million per year for Richard Zednik's 15-20 goals when Chris Clark is making $1.1 million and knocking in 30 a year?" The minute you upset this internal salary structure, you're asking for trouble in the locker room and at the bargaining table (which is why if Dainius Zubrus thinks he's going to make $4.5 million or so on a long-term deal, I can tell you right now, it won't be in Washington).
In sum, while you may get what you pay for on the micro-level - I'm sure the Bruins are fairly happy with the way Chara and Savard have played - on the macro-level, opening up the wallet doesn't necessarily equal success. Success only comes when your foundation is solid, the filler material is strong, and things are structurally sound. Then and only then should you consider adding the flashy, decorative facade.