In the NHL, a hard salary cap prevents teams from spending beyond a specific upper limit on their rosters each year. For the Blackhawks, working under that constraint while paying Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane the highest salaries in the league has been an ongoing challenge.
So it's interesting to see that Chicago had 25 scouts during the 2015-16 season, more than any other team. In a league where finding competitive advantages under a hard cap isn't easy, it seems like the Hawks decided at some point that establishing the biggest scouting operation in the league would be one option.
There's no cap on budgeting for scouts, so it's one key area where the Hawks' financial advantages can be leveraged. And because these people don't make tons of money like the players, it could be seen as an incredibly smart investment by the franchise.
Chicago has no shortage of money to spend as one of the league's most successful teams, but the salary cap is designed to cut into that advantage. Just because teams like the Hawks, Rangers and Maple Leafs can afford to spend more than everyone doesn't mean they're allowed to. The league implemented the salary cap after a lockout to help keep big-market teams in check and foster parity.
And generally speaking, that's worked for the NHL. The Hawks probably would still have a juggernaut of a roster if they weren't forced to move the likes of Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen, Johnny Oduya, Andrew Shaw and others to clear cap space.
But spending on scouts is one small way to beat the system. Consider what it costs for the Hawks to field the biggest scouting operation in the NHL. If these scouts made an average of $100,000 annually, which is probably on the high end, then the total budget of the entire scouting staff would still be just $2.5 million. That's less than the Hawks' cap overage for the 2016-17 season. And most likely, the total payout is much less than that. In the grand scheme of what it takes to operate this team, the cost of loading up on scouts like this is minimal.
However, it's important to note that more scouts isn't necessarily better. Many of the teams right below the Hawks on the list of most scouts (Winnipeg, Columbus, Vancouver, Montreal) aren't very good. Just because you have 25 scouts doesn't mean they're good at their jobs.
Still, I think there's an important point to be made here: The Hawks NEED exceptional scouting because of their position as a regular contender. Lots of other teams get to pick high up in the draft and don't spend all of their time trying to uncover diamonds in the rough. But with the Hawks, digging into lower draft picks and undrafted free agents is pretty much how the team adds young players. They haven't had a first-round pick in two years, or a pick in the top-15 since 2008.
So while the Hawks cannot spend more on their NHL roster, they've recognized that one of the best ways of propping up that top-heavy group with reinforcements is by doubling down on scouting as a means of finding cheap players. From Artemi Panarin to Trevor van Riemsdyk to Erik Gustafsson to Michal Kempny, Chicago has gone this route with relatively impressive success. And it's probably not a coincidence that happens with such a big scouting team.