What recent Stanley Cup champions can teach NHL teams about roster construction

There's no one way to build a successful NHL team, but a look at the last 10 title-winning clubs offers some insight over how top-heavy you can be.

Every team has the same budget constraints in the NHL's salary cap era, but they all have different ways of working within those limitations.

There is no one way to build a winner, and executives around the league have varying philosophies about how to allocate their resources. Some team builders are more comfortable heavily investing in the top of their roster and hoping to find bargains elsewhere, while others prioritize depth.

Perhaps the most famous example of an outlier is the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a league-high 50.3% of their cap tied up in four players — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly. Toronto's top-heavy roster construction has yet to lead to playoff success, but it's also a touch deceptive.

The Maple Leafs invested in their top forwards Matthews, Tavares, Marner and William Nylander during a period when the cap was consistently growing, and they reasonably anticipated the pattern would continue.

If the cap growth had continued at the average since the last labor stoppage in 2012 (4.49%) from 2019-20 on, their top four most expensive players would cost a less extreme 45.8% of the cap. Even so, that's a big chunk to give to your stars, and more than some GMs would be comfortable with.

The teams remaining in the playoffs are a mixed bag when it comes to cap allocation. The Florida Panthers have three players with contracts $9.5 million or richer and 44.8% of their budget tied up in their four biggest cap hits.

On the other hand, their Eastern Conference final opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, don't have a single player who costs more than $8.5 million while their top-four deals cost 35.4% of the cap.

In the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars look a bit more like Florida with their top four eating 43.1% of the cap — and when Roope Hintz's well-deserved extension kicks in next year they'll have five players making $7.75 million or more.

The Golden Knights, on the other hand, come in at a more modest 41.5% with only three players making more than $6 million.

There's no definitive lessons to take from this year's playoffs, but perhaps a look back at recent Stanley Cup winners will be a little more instructive. Here are the last 10 champions and where they stand on spreading the wealth versus paying up for blue-chip talent:

2021-22 Colorado Avalanche

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The Colorado Avalanche built an elite team with an inexpensive core in the 2021-22 NHL season. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Cap ceiling: $81.5M

Cost of top 4: $31.55M

% of cap for top 4: 38.7%

Mitigating factors: Although the Avalanche were not top-heavy from a spending standpoint that isn't an indication they lacked star power as Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are both top-five skaters in the NHL.

Colorado benefitted from two vastly under-market deals as MacKinnon made just $6.3 million from a contract he signed in 2016. Nazem Kadri was pulling in just $4.5 million and those top-two centers combined for 175 points in the regular season and 34 in the playoffs.

Having two centers of that calibre making approximately the same salary as Marner ($10.9 million) is rare. The Avalanche capitalized on that situation.

2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning

Cap ceiling: $81.5M

Cost of top 4: $35.375M

% of cap for top 4: 43.4%

Mitigating factors: Having Nikita Kucherov sit out the season and make his first appearance during the playoffs certainly helps you build a team despite heavy investment in your core.

This is one of the few champions carrying around a pricey goaltender, but it's hard to argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy isn't worth the price of admission ($9.5 million).

2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning

Cap ceiling: $81.5M

Cost of top 4: $32.63M

% of cap for top 4: 40%

Mitigating factors: This is more or less the same situation as 2020-21, though it's worth noting that having top-four defenceman Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak still on their entry-level contracts and Vasilevskiy pulling $3.5 million in the final year of his deal made this roster easier to construct.

2018-19 St. Louis Blues

Cap ceiling: $79.5M

Cost of top 4: $27.25M

% of cap for top 4: 34.3%

Mitigating factors: This ragtag bunch is dissimilar to most recent champions when it comes to star power, and arguably talent on the most basic level. The Blues didn't have expensive blue-chip players and they didn't invest much in net, allowing them to build a balanced roster.

2017-18 Washington Capitals

Cap ceiling: $75M

Cost of top 4: $30.14M

% of cap for top 4: 40.2%

Mitigating factors: Washington didn't have a cheap goalie, notable players on entry-level contracts or anyone who was vastly overpaid. When you look at their cap sheet you see a team that paid a premium for Alex Ovechkin ($9.5 million) and its top two centers ($14.5 million), but got good value.

No forward in the team's bottom six made more than $2 million, which helped fund the rest of the roster.

2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins

Cap ceiling: $73M

Cost of top 4: $32.25M

% of cap for top 4: 44.2%

Mitigating factors: Pittsburgh got a few notable contributions from guys on ELCs like Connor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin, but really this team had an elite core and it rode that group to its second straight Cup win.

Sidney Crosby's ability to play at an incredibly high level with just about anyone on his flanks prevented the team's relative lack of elite wing talent from making a negative impact.

2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins

Cap ceiling: $71.4M

Cost of top 4: $32.25M

% of cap for top 4: 45.2%

Mitigating factors: Not much is different about this team than the one that came after it.

The addition of Phil Kessel proved critical to this run of Penguins success, and it's notable that Pittsburgh had the Maple Leafs retain salary in the deal to help accommodate its costly stars.

2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks

Cap ceiling: $69M

Cost of top 4: $24.50M

% of cap for top 4: 35.5%

Mitigating factors: The Blackhawks teams that won the Stanley Cup didn't have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews drawing the kind of salaries they'd make later on, but the pair was still an expensive tandem worth investing in, making $12.6 million. This was also the year Corey Crawford's $6 million AAV extension kicked in.

On the ELC side, Brandon Saad made a big difference for less than $800K, but he was the only significant contributor who cost virtually nothing.

2013-14 Los Angeles Kings

Cap ceiling: $64.3M

Cost of top 4: $25.35M

% of cap for top 4: 39.0%

Mitigating factors: The Kings' big three of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick weren't on discounted deals for the time, but they didn't have a fourth player who rose to their level in terms of salary or stature.

Tyler Toffoli was the most notable ELC guy, but he wasn't the needle mover he is today. This is another team that generally spread the wealth effectively while taking care of its top guys.

2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks

Cap ceiling: $60M

Cost of top 4: $24.30M

% of cap for top 4: 40.5%

Mitigating factors: This was a similar group to the one that won two years later although Crawford cost less than twice as much.

It's also worth noting here that Marian Hossa was an incredibly important player for both teams and his cap hit ($5.275M) was well below his market value because he was on the kind of 12-year contract that wouldn't be possible today.

Is there a singular lesson to be learned here?

Nothing you can write in stone. If you have an elite core, like the Penguins did, for instance, investing heavily in them is not a crime. Getting close to 50% of your cap hit sunk into four players is probably too much, though. If for example you compare Toronto and Florida, the two teams that spent the highest percent of its cap on its top-four players this season, the Panthers had $4 million more in cap space, which can buy you a quality piece.

It's noteworthy that two of the least top-heavy teams here — the 2019 Blues and 2014 Kings — were also squads that failed to impress during the regular season but got hot at the right time. To build a more reliable winner, you might need to pony up into the 40-45% range for your top players.

Team building in the NHL is complex enough that you're likely to do yourself a disservice by having concrete rules.

Entering this offseason, principles that apply to the Blackhawks — a team getting a generational talent on an ELC with a blank slate to work with — are going to be different than they are for a team full of established stars like the Lightning.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, although recent history at the very least tells us that the Maple Leafs' infamous stars-and-scrubs roster construction is probably less than ideal.