Talent spread across teams like never before

Imagine telling someone back in September that the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings would miss the playoffs.

Then imagine telling that person defending Presidents' Trophy winners the Boston Bruins would need a win and some help on the final day of the season to get in.

You would also tell this person that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be on the ropes, too, in the final 48 hours of the regular season and might sneak in just by a hair.

Finally, you would also say that perennial contenders the San Jose Sharks -- who have been to the playoffs in 10 straight seasons -- would be out, and it wasn't that close, either.

That person might say you were on something. But should we really be all that shocked?

As much as one can paint it all as the fall of the titans, the more accurate diagnosis is that what the NHL set out to accomplish 10 years ago has finally hit home with 100 percent voracity.

The salary cap has fully spread its wings.

"The parity in this league in unbelievable," Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com Friday, a day after his team got into the playoffs [for the 24th straight season] in its second-to-last game of the regular season.

"In the 10 years I've been in Detroit, the league has gone from where we used to throw our sticks on the ice and win, to now where we barely make the playoffs," added Babcock, who has coached the only team to make to postseason every season since the lockout.

"The teams that looked like they might be the best in the league at the start of the year, like a Pittsburgh or the New York Islanders, they barely make the playoffs. It's freaking amazing."

We were naïve, maybe, in thinking back in 2005 that parity would be an overnight thing, after a season scrapped during the NHL's darkest labor hour produced the mechanism that limits team spending. The immediate spin was that it would bring teams closer together in terms of competitive balance.

The reality is that the cap system took several years to fully affect the league and distribute talent more evenly among the 30 teams.

"We're in the full effects now of a cap system, where teams in the past which would have always kept players just can't keep them all anymore," general manager Doug Armstrong of the Central Division-champion St. Louis Blues told ESPN.com Friday.

Powerhouse clubs who had built up deep, talented squads were forced to make tough decisions and shed good players to remain in line with the cap, and there's no better illustration than the Chicago Blackhawks after their 2010 Stanley Cup victory.

The Winnipeg Jets' playoff berth five years later can be directly linked to the former Atlanta Thrashers benefiting from getting Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd from the cash-strapped Blackhawks that summer. That, and a lot of good, high draft picks materializing for the Jets under sound management.

Peter Chiarelli built a heck of team for the Boston Bruins over the past nine years, a Stanley Cup triumph in 2011 the lasting evidence of that, but the cap forced him to say goodbye to Jarome Iginla last summer and trade away Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the season.

The playoff-bound Islanders, once the laughingstock of the league, added a key piece with their acquisition of Boychuk. Again, an example of the talent being spread around the league by the cap system.

It's also why Hawks general manager Stan Bowman never gets anywhere near the credit he deserves for how he has managed to put together two Cup teams (2010, '13) while having to navigate the troubled salary-cap waters. Heck, just look at the fact that Bowman's is, as far as I can tell, the only NHL team that has three players -- David Rundblad, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Desjardins -- who have 50 percent of their salaries paid by other clubs.

Every single dime is accounted for year after year under the cap, and there the Hawks are in the playoff mix again this season.

Big mistakes can kill you. Kings GM Dean Lombardi would be the first to admit, I'm sure, that he should have bought Mike Richards out last summer when the window was still open to do so without cap charges.

That contract tied the Kings' hands this season, especially after the Slava Voynov suspension. Voynov's situation wasn't their fault, but being hamstrung by the Richards contract in their response was certainly part of their downfall.

Then again, if anyone wants to go after Lombardi now that his team out, he can shine his two Cup rings in their face.

But the margin of error, whether for Chiarelli in Boston or Lombardi in L.A., is awfully small. That's what the cap system brings.

And what if the Penguins either miss the playoffs or are first-round fodder? People will then question more than ever the model of having a lot of cap space tied up in three or four top players.

"I think now, with the upper players grabbing a bigger portion of the (payroll) pie, and there seems to be more than one upper player per team, now you're seeing teams, maybe because of where they drafted a decade ago, have a couple of guys making that kind of money and that bleeds into your group," Armstrong said of teams in general, and not Pittsburgh in particular.

It certainly applies to the Pens, though.

What does the system leave us? A league full of good teams, but without any great ones. You won't hear the NHL spin it that way, but it's the truth. The dynasty days are a thing of the past.

What it's also brought is a 2015 postseason that has the potential to be like none other in the history of the league. The parity means the eight teams on each conference are separated by inches in terms of talent.

I'm not saying it will happen, but would anyone really be that shocked if top-ranked teams such as the Montreal Canadiens or the Anaheim Ducks lose in the first round?

I mean, as it stood Friday morning, first-place Anaheim was lined up with wild-card Winnipeg in the opening round in the Western Conference. That's an incredibly tough out for the Ducks, no doubt.

The sizzling Ottawa Senators, 20-3-3 in their last 26 games, would play Atlantic Division-leading Montreal in the first round in the East as of Friday morning.

In each case, there would be a sizable chunk of people picking the so-called "upset" in both of those series. But is there really such thing as an upset anymore?

"I'll speak more for the West because that's what I know, there's really no first-round upset," Armstrong said. "Obviously, you think experienced teams that have done it before have an edge because they've done it before, it's not their first time through this path, but at the end of the day, you see what Winnipeg is doing now, their goaltending is at the top of his game. Inexperience doesn't matter if your goalie doesn't let in a goal ...

"There is competitive balance now," Armstrong added. "No question."

For years, coaches and players and management types have said "just get in and you have a chance." That, my friends, has never, ever been more true than it is today.

Happy 10-year anniversary, Mr. Salary Cap. For better or for worse, your legacy is cemented.