Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Changing Profile Of 'Physical' Players in the NHL

Noted New York-area weepist and Stanley Cup ceremony re-enactor Mark Messier took to the airwaves today to lament the state of the New York Rangers hockey team.  According to Mollie Walker, Messier said, presumably through tears:  "In my opinion, if you're going to win, you got to be able to win in the street and the alley. I particularly would not have built the team that didn't have answers in this regard." Messier is here referring to two Rangers star forwards being abused by Capitals' bete noire Tom Wilson. He would've built a more physical team that could also dominate in that regard.

The Rangers have been rebuilding for several years now, but they don't have a Tom Wilson sort of player.  But then I got to thinking and I realized that no one else really does either.  Wilson was an oft-derided draft pick by the Capitals who selected him under the auspisces of him being 'the next Milan Lucic', and that derision stopped when he fully broke out in 2018-19, scoring 22 goals in 63 games.  He hasn't quite matched Lucic's boxcars but he's become a solid top 9 forward.  He ranks 72nd in points/60 at ES over the last 3 seasons (min: 1200 minutes).  He also ranks 9th in hits* among forwards over that time.

Yes, hits.  I was thinking of a way to approximate 'alley-winning', and it's difficult to come up with anything other than our old friend, hits.  I do still look at this number from time to time because it can be astounding - Matt Martin's still chugging along hitting everything that moves and Jaromir Jagr's 4 hit 2013-14 season still a thing to behold.  I couldn't help but notice the profile of the top 20 guys in road hits this year (veterans of this blog surely remember that hits are so inconsistently counted around the league that you've got to look at road hits):

Hopefully that looks even halfway decent.  Regardless, it is striking to me how while many of these players are top 9 forwards, most of them don't really score.  You've got the two Tkachuks, Kreider, and Jordan Staal, but other than that it's mostly 3rd and 4th line players.  There's young players on there - the Tkachuks are 23 and 20, Wagner is 23, Bastian is 23, Trenin is 24, but these latter three players really don't profile as future top 9 forwards.  So is this really what you want as Rangers GM, to go out and get one of these guys?  You've already got one in Kreider.  You had one in Brendan Lemieux, a 4th liner, and traded him for a 4th round pick.

The thing is, the list looks a lot different in 2007-08, the first year that the NHL kept track of hits:

The top 7 names all played more than 15 minutes a game.  Knowing what we know now, while Backes was a 2nd year player and Dubinsky and Lucic were rookies, they would go on to have long, productive careers as top 9 forwards - Backes has 2615 hits, Dubinsky 2149, and Lucic is close to 3000.    

Maybe the trends don't fully track, but I just am seeing very few forwards who come into the league who profile as the traditional 'power forward' - they're either missing the hitting part or the scoring part.  I'm real curious to see what this chart looks like in another 5-6 years.  But it seems like, based on the chart from 2020-21, it'd be a real challenge to build a group of alley-beaters through the draft.  Maybe there's a third Tkachuk brother out there.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Expansion Draft Strategies (aka Niccolo Machiavelli's The General Manager)

Now that the trade deadline has passed, we can move on to discussing the next significant event on the NHL calendar - the June 21 Las Vegas expansion draft.  I suppose the Stanley Cup has to be awarded to someone in the meantime, but I'm more interested in this draft.

This is the first expansion draft to be done in the salary cap era, as well as the first to be done by a general manager who appears to be the slightest bit shrewd. While the early 1990s expansion teams have been relatively successful - there's 2 Stanley Cups and 7 Stanley Cup Finals appearances for those franchises in the 25 years of their operation, and all of them have made the Cup Finals at least once - the four teams added in the late 90s/early 00s have been nowhere near as successful.   None of them have made the Stanley Cup Finals.  They've won a combined 7 playoff rounds.   Looking over these expansion drafts, it's amateur hour both in terms of the players selected and the deals made not to select certain players.  I expect Vegas to do a little better, but the problem with expansion teams is that they have two contradictory aims - they want to establish a fan base right away, so they'd like to draft the best team possible.  However, they are starting so far behind every other team not just because they are mostly forced to take dross in the expansion draft, but they also didn't draft anyone in any of the previous entry drafts.  While other teams have a pool of prospects they're selecting from to build their future teams, Vegas has squat.  This tends to make expansion franchises very top-heavy in their early days - they likely drafted a star player or two, but they are always working from behind when it comes to NHL depth because while other teams are filling in their picks from previous years, expansion teams lack that, and they generally aren't given the tools to getting players who are 19-21 years old at the time of the expansion draft.

It's said that Machiavelli's The Prince was basically written as a guide to leadership for Lorenzo Di Medici - likewise, I'm going to write a guide to the expansion draft for George McPhee.  The overarching goal for Vegas's first season should be to make an entertaining but bad team.  Select some fancy danglers that other NHL teams have grown weary of, select some brawlers who will goon it up for the cheap seats, and keep your first round draft pick away from the team in Year 1.

Step 1:  Identify the players that other teams want to get rid of.

We cannot overlook how critical time will be for you, George McPhee - you find out teams' protected lists on June 17 and you makes your selections on June 21.  That's not a lot of time to orchestrate all the deals I want you to make.  What you can do in the meantime is find out what non-playoff teams are willing to give for Vegas to take a certain player.  You should be working the phones the day after the season ends to find out.  Let's say Colorado wants to ditch Carl Soderberg or Arizona isn't happy with Connor Murphy - what will these teams give to Vegas in terms of prospects or draft picks for them to select this player?  Now both of these are not great examples, as their contracts run for several more years; chances are that such a deal cannot be worked out.  However, playoff teams will certainly be interested in these sorts of cap-issue mitigating deals, especially for players with one year remaining on their contract.  What will Boston give up for you to select Jimmy Hayes instead of so-and-so?  What about the Rangers and Kevin Klein?  Find out if they will give up anything and try to get it out of them.  Every draft pick matters.   Even if you can wheedle a 6th or 7th round pick out of a team for not taking Chump A over Chump B, it's all necessary.

Step 2:  Identify the players that teams are willing to trade picks/prospects for you to not select

I suspect the exisiting franchises will not let you know who they are going to protect until June 17th, hoping that the confusion can work to their advantage and not Vegas's.  Regardless, once those lists do get released, there will certainly be players exposed who their teams like and would prefer to keep.   Find out who these players are and in effect offer trades for them such that their original team can keep them.  Jonas Brodin's exposed?  Demand a 2nd and 3rd round pick to not select Jonas Brodin.   Jakob Silfverberg?  Same thing.  The goal is not to acquire the best player but rather the most value, and do not forget - by and large, most franchises overvalue the majority of their players.  Make them pay for this mistake.

Step 3:  Try to trade up at this year's draft

If you execute the above strategies well, Mr. McPhee, you should have well above your allotment of 7 draft picks at this year's draft.  You should have at least 10 and I would hope something closer to 20 draft picks from this strategy - although it depends on if you are willing to instead take prospects instead of picks.  Your next mission should be to trade up.  Take 3 low 2nds and offer them for a low 1st.   Take a grip of 3rd rounders and see if you can't get back into the 2nd round.  Certain franchises have dumped a ton of picks from the upcoming entry draft already on other moves - see if you can replenish their stock of picks for a higher selection.

Step 4:  Draft a bunch of overage players with the low picks

Remember that I'm imagining your club having 6 or 7 picks in the final 62 selections - no one is going to care to trade for any of these picks.   Instead, you should be focusing on older players to draft with these, especially older European players.  I know your head scout David Conte is big on interviewing players and making sure they fit in with your philosophy or whatever, but this is not the time for that.  This is the time for looking at numbers and throwing darts.  Remember the other Sebastian Aho?  He's having a good year in the SEL, see how much he likes Henderson, Nevada.  I'm sure there's guys in the KHL who might have some interest in signing an ELC with the right to return to Russia if things don't work out.  Draft them, invite them to a development camp, and if they're not worthy of an entry-level contract, oh well.  You're trying to fill in your team with players in the age cohort that you will not be able to obtain in the expansion draft, and it's likely teams aren't going to trade you anything better than what you can get here.

Step 5:  Hoard as much bad salary/dead money as you can

It's unclear to me at this moment whether Vegas has to be at the cap floor or if there is some allowance for their first season that they do not have to be.  I've heard multiple stories but it doesn't ultimately matter one way or another.  There's all sorts of dead money in the NHL and you should try to trade to get it.  David Clarkson's contract?  Pick that bad boy up on July 2 and see if you can't get a 2018 2nd for the privilege.  Still, there's not a huge amount of dead contracts around the NHL and Arizona will likely be competing with you to pick some of them up.  Regardless, there's plenty of bad contracts of still-active players that teams would love to dump on you.  Take them.

Step 6:  Above all, do not care about the composition of your initial team

I know you've talked in the press about what an exciting opportunity it is to have an expansion team - a team where you get to decide who is on it and who is not, full stop.  This is an opportunity only expansion draft GMs and GMs who've been somewhere 10 years or more get to experience.  Still, your goal here is not having 23 guys on the opening-night roster who you like more than everyone else - your goal is to look towards the future.  Year 1 only matters insofar as you can get people into the arena to see your team.  By Year 4, almost all those players selected in the expansion draft should be gone.   It would be very easy for the your franchise to ultimately be like one of those incomplete casinos you can sometimes see on the Vegas skyline - a crane perched atop, unmoved and unmovable, losing its owners money with little hope of recovering their investment.  A half-built monument to poor planning.  As you cannot see the stars against the light shone into the Vegas sky, let those motionless cranes be your guiding star - a point away from which to navigate, towards division championships and yes, should you continue on the path I've set out for you here, even against the glimmer of the Strip, you can see in the distance the light reflecting off of hockey's ultimate prize.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Is 'Good In The Room' A Recursive Problem?

Ken Holland has been largely dormant on the trade and free agency front these last few years - the aftershocks of inking Mike Green and Frans Nielsen are nothing compared to the eruptions that were Brett Hull and Marian Hossa - and so he's gone native, making sure to re-up his own players.  This summer he's re-signed Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, and now Luke Glendening to extensions of 7, 5, and 4 years respectively.  

Luke Glendening is a glue guy, a guy you can win with.  Of course his territorial numbers are mediocre at best and his penalty killing skills are marginal at best and he doesn't score, but the Wings are going to pay him $1.8M a season for the next 4 years to play his version of tough hockey.

Googling 'Luke Glendening good in the room' gives me no result, but he has to be 'good in the room' - he's a bottom-liner with limited skills who also plays hard every night and is willing to sacrifice his body.  Why wouldn't he be beloved by his teammates?  

We see this phenomenon leaguewide.  We see it even in front offices who we think are smart, like Chicago.  They re-signed Bryan Bickell and Marcus Kruger to contracts beyond their NHL accomplishments.  Was that to keep a championship team together, or did they truly feel that Kruger is a $3M a year player?  In addition, they recently traded Teuvo Teravainen (with Bickell), claiming that Teravainen's refusal to spend the summer in Chicago is evidence that he's unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to become a better hockey player.

We know that 'good in the room' 'willing to sell out' and phrases like this are waiting at the front of a hockey player or executive's brain to be spouted to a waiting tape recorder or camera.  We know that the concept of team is relentlessly emphasized.  Playing as one.  We've seen boardroom videos of executives talking about 'the way we play' and how certain players fit into that team concept.  This must filter down to the player level, right?  Coaches must emphasize this sort of thing constantly.  It's a limited sample but HBO's 24/7 on the outdoor game appears to confirm this.

What I wonder is:  We assume that executives value grit and toughness and fitting in with the locker room culture over goals and assists when it comes to certain players.  What if, in addition to that valuation, they know the players have been so indoctrinated about the important of grit and glue guys and whatnot that the executive knows it will have a large psychological impact if e.g. 'Bicker' or 'Glenner' were let go?   We sometimes hear GMs speak this way about certain players, that a team was 'never the same' once a certain player left.  And what are GMs but (mostly) former players themselves?

I know this account doesn't exactly adhere to Occam's Razor.  It's much more likely that GMs merely consider the perceived impact on the team and just think these guys are worth keeping around rather than considering that not signing a certain guy will throw their squad into an existential funk.  I just don't see any GMs who don't consider 'team chemistry' at all when making decisions, and so until that happens we'll never see a team decided presumably on merit rather than a Luke Glendening chancing to be the exact size of the perceived missing piece on the team.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Problem with Understanding Hockey Analytics

During last night's telecast of Capitals @ Penguins game 4, everyone's favorite hockey analyst Pierre McGuire couldn't help but make a snarky comment about analytics following Matt Cullen's goal in the 2nd period. For posterity, or until the NHL makes another terrible website design change, the video is embedded below:

"It's the little things that analytics won't tell you, Doc. Winning races, winning battles, getting to loose pucks, all of that stuff happened during that last sequence. What a job by Matt Cullen."
Now, I'm going to tell you something that you didn't expect: Pierre McGuire is right. No metric we have, or most likely are developing (at least until player tracking data becomes available) can measure these things. However, both Pierre, and I suspect, the average hockey fan tend to miss the forest for the trees when it comes to understating what the statistics we do have measure, and how their purpose is applied.

Time and again, we've been over how the best indicator of future success in the standings is some form of Corsi percentage. First it was score-tied, and thanks to a further application of something we knew five years ago, now it's score-adjusted. While Corsi, or anything else we have does not measure Matt Cullen's will to win a race, Tom Wilson's ability to fire up his teammates, or the fact that Ryan Callahan's grandmother is in the stands, it does measure, and until somebody comes up with something better, is the best measure of what Pierre's intangibles hope to achieve.

Put another way, what Pierre and countless others are hoping to do is measure a player's ability to help his team win games. That's the same thing that Corsi does, only Corsi has the advantage of actual, testable events leading to results. At the end of the day, accruing wins and standings points should be the goal of any successful coach, general manager, owner, and franchise. The way that anyone in these positions goes about achieving them often makes or breaks a team's success.

This isn't to say that what Pierre lists as intangibles aren't important, or that a good character guy in the room isn't necessary. The trick is to identify players that possess these traits, and at the same time, drive shot attempts towards the opposing team's net. You can harp on intangibles all you want, but if the result is utilizing a player like Tanner Glass or Zac Rinaldo for an extended period of time, your process is broken, plain and simple.

This brings me to my next point. Many analysts, like Pierre, are often asked to break down matchups on a play-by-play, game-by-game, or night-by-night basis. In a similar respect, the average fan often watches or attends one game at a time, and as a result, both don't stop to see the bigger picture. To me, the fact that we're still dealing with comments like Pierre's on national broadcasts isn't all that surprising. In fact, it's kind of expected, given how he, many of the analysts in his industry, and many fans across the world are viewing hockey under a microscope.

Adding to the problem, hockey may be the hardest sport to predict on a game-by-game basis. Whether you look at basic models or betting markets, one trend is blatantly obvious: in hockey, even controlling for everything we know, a vast majority of the matchups have odds between 55/45 and 65/35 either way. 3:1 favorites in a single game don't happen often, which is why in small samples, we see extreme results.

When you start to ask why, it becomes less and less surprising; hockey is a game of razor thin margins anywhere you look. For example, an above average team is going to control merely 2-4% more shot attempts than a below average one over the course of a season. An above-average goaltender stops one (1) percent more shots than an average one, or one (1) more shot over a sample of 100. If the margins are this thin over 82 games, it's no surprise that they're basically non-existent over one game or one playoff series. Coincidentally, one game or one playoff series are what analysts like Pierre are paid to comment on.

Still, despite the studies identifying score-adjusted metrics as the best predictor of future team success, fans, analysts, and even teams (see: Ducks, Anaheim) still can't rationalize the inherent randomness of losing as a 60% favorite in one game or one series.

To put this in different terms, if you've ever played poker, specifically No Limit Texas Hold 'em, you'll understand this concept. In poker, you might go one day, or even one week having your opponent's King-Queen offsuit beat your Ace-Jack suited whilst all-in during a high leverage tournament hand. However, we know that in the long run you're making the right play, given that you're going to win about 62% of the time. In hockey terms, the 2015-16 Anaheim Ducks were the team holding Ace-Jack. Their season came down to one shuffle of a weighted deck, and they lost. Instead of accepting their fate as a simple mark of bad luck, striving to continue "getting their money in with an edge," they overreacted and fired Bruce Boudreau. As a result, they're almost certain to end up with a less capable bench boss next season.

At the end of the day, the fact that mainstream hockey circles can't comprehend that 35-45% underdogs can win games and series, but don't over the long run, doesn't prove the metrics we have are broken. Instead, it proves that their understanding, and by association the overall understanding of the game, is broken.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On The Difficulty Of Starting From Scratch

The Devils yesterday hired Ray Shero to be their general manager, ending Lou Lamoriello's 28 year reign as GM.  There's some parallelism here - Lou, at least according to Wikipedia, named himself GM back in 1987, and has now fired himself.  Would that we all had a career like this.  Regardless, Shero is a curious choice - sure, he's one of the few available GMs with a Stanley Cup ring who is not eligible for Social Security, but given his policies with the Penguins, it's hard to see how he's the right guy to fix a Devils' ship that's run aground in a rapidly shrinking sea.  The Devils need to rebuild a forward corps badly damaged by poor drafting and the ravages of old age - Shero is famous for his trading of young players and draft picks.  He's also (in)famous for inheriting Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when he took over for Craig Patrick in 2006.  However, let's look closer at the Penguins of that era, because I feel like people miss something when they talk about Shero's good fortune.

The 2003-04 Penguins were truly one of the NHL's worst non-expansion teams.  They finished with a goal differential of -113.  The interesting thing about this club is that they were relatively young - their 9 leading scorers were under 30 - but they were also horrendous.  Of the players that played on that team, three would end up winning a Stanley Cup with the Penguins five years later - Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, and Marc-Andre Fleury.  The Penguins also had several players in their organization at this point who would go on to serve vital roles - they had drafted Colby Armstrong, Ryan Whitney, Erik Christensen, Ryan Malone, and Maxime Talbot.  They would add Alex Goligoski, Malkin, and Tyler Kennedy in 2004.

Here's what needs pointing out though - the Penguins got basically nothing of value for anyone on the 2003-04 roster.  Everyone on this roster either left via free agency or was traded for a pittance.  When Ray Shero took over in 2006, most of this roster was already gone - of the top 9 scorers on the 2003-04 team, only one repeated in 2005-06, Ryan Malone.  Let's detail what happened to those other guys in a list:

Dick Tarnstrom:  Traded in 2006 for Cory Cross and Jani Rita, Cross dealt in 2006 for 4th round pick in 2007, Rita returned to Finland in 2006

Aleksey Morozov:  Returned to Russian League for good in 2004, retired in 2014

Ryan Malone:  Left via free agency in 2008, scored 65 goals in his 3 future seasons with the Penguins

Milan Kraft:  Returned to Czech League for good in 2004, retired in 2013

Rico Fata:  Waived

Konstantin Koltsov:  Returned to Russian League for good in 2006, still active

Richard Jackman:  Traded for Petr Taticek in 2006 - Taticek never played for PIT

Tomas Surovy:  Returned to Europe in 2006, still active

Tom Kostopoulos:  Left via free agency in 2005

There you have it - the Penguins' top 9 scorers from that year turned into a 4th round pick.  And that's often the true price of 'tanking'.  There were assets in the Penguins' system at the time, but this is an entire team that apart from Malone, Orpik, Scuderi, and Fleury (none of these anyone's idea of a franchise player) may as well have never existed.  Shero made some very bold moves as Penguins' GM - the boldest being the add of Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis at the expense of Armstrong, Christensen, a former 1st round pick, and their 1st round pick in 2008 - but he was always hamstrung by the fact that he inherited a team with few assets besides the obvious two.  He needed all his young talent to fill out the garbage roster + Crosby + Malkin (coming soon) that he'd been handed, but he needed to augment that roster with players to compete for a Stanley Cup.  It's no wonder that the Penguins now are struggling to find young forwards - that was certainly not ordained, but it is not surprising when you consider the Penguins of 2003-04 and where they wanted to be in the late 2000s.  The legacy of an empty team lasts for quite a long time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Whither (or Wither) Defensive Defensemen? On The Disappearence Of Your Least Favorite Player

Hockey is won in the trenches, everyone knows that.  The 'trenches' in hockey are the tough areas - at the blueline, along the boards, right out in front of the net.  You want a guy - forget that, you want a MAN - who can protect these areas and makes sure that any opposing forward who arrives in them pays a price.  So you get a defensive defenseman, a man who makes life hard on the other team for 19 or 20 minutes a night, a man who'll stop pucks with his face and handles the puck like he's handling it with his face.  Off the glass and out.  Along the way he'll take some penalties, and along the way he'll score a goal or two a season, maybe four or five if it's a lucky year, and his teammates will mob him with joyous and somewhat dubious smiles.

The stats community has come to the conclusion that this sort of defenseman, besides when he is exceptional, usually doesn't help a team.  In fact, if your team has one of these guys and you are reading this blog, he is probably the guy you can't stand.  His errors lead to goals, and his positive contributions are impossible to measure.  His Corsi is usually bad, perhaps the worst on the team, and you think to yourself, 'If we could only get rid of this guy, we'd have a better squad'.  Well, have no fear.  My contention is that the game is aging these sorts of players out.  It's happening slowly.  General managers still love them and sign them for way too many years, but that's going to have to come to an end soon, I think, because I'm not sure where these guys are going to come from in the future.  There's a lot of guys wandering around 3rd pairings with these sorts of skill sets, but I don't see how many of them make the jump.

To test this contention, I used hockey-reference's amazing Season Finder feature to look up these players' careers.  Now, I think it's quite difficult to pinpoint what these players are - it's sort of what Potter Stewart said about pornography, you know it when you see it.  I used 4 criteria for my initial set of players:

A:  More than 500 NHL games played
B:  No greater than .25 points per game for his career
C:  Penalty Minutes .75 per game or above for his career
D:  Must've been a top 4 defenseman for multiple seasons (roughly 19-20 minutes per game)

Through an exhaustive search, I found these defensemen who fit those criteria above:

Bryan Allen, Mike Komisarek, Andrew Ference, Robyn Regehr, Willie Mitchell, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Hal Gill, Brooks Orpik, Barret Jackman, Cory Sarich, Ladislav Smid, Tim Gleason, Rostislav Klesla

These players collectively average .19 points per game (so approximately 16 points per 82 games) and .98 PIMs per season, or 80 penalty minutes.

I generated a second set of players for whom these things are mostly true and added a new criterion that could also be fuzzy, namely E:  Usually loathed by his Corsiati fanbase and generated these players who also fit the profile, although most of them either were too good early on or were always back-pairing D:

Chris Phillips, Doug Murray, Nicklas Grossmann, Matt Greene, Mark Stuart, Scott Hannan, Jan Hejda, Eric Brewer, John Erskine, Andrew Alberts, Brad Stuart

One thing the above list reveals is a staggering number of 1st round picks.  Allen, Komisarek, Regehr, Volchenkov, Orpik, Jackman, Gleason, and Klesla were all taken in the first round.  From our second list, Hannan, Brewer, Stuart, and Phillips were also first round selections.  Was this still the Lindros bogeyman hovering over the league?  If you recall, when Eric Lindros showed up in the league, every team was terrified of him and needed to get enormous defensemen who could handle defense against him and the huge forwards that would surely come after.  And indeed, most of these guys were drafted in the days when obstruction was still a perfectly cromulent form of defense, and cross-checking at the front of the net was expected.   Has that alteration in junior hockey changed the way some of these players might've developed?

I feel that these players fall into three categories - Degraded 'Two-Way' Defensemen, Eternal Defensive D, and The Rest.

First Category:  Degraded 'Two-Way' Defenseman

A player like Brad Stuart started out his career with offense.  He was supposed to be the next Scott Stevens when he was drafted.  He came into the league and put up 36 points in his first season.  He had .55 points per game in the 2005-06 season.  But if you look at Stuart's last five seasons, he's fallen under the .25 points per game threshold.  We see this with Eric Brewer and Chris Phillips too - they were once over the .25 points per game threshold but fell below it in recent seasons.  Paul Mara is another example of a guy whose offense simply died in his late 20s and he became a third pairing physical guy.  I lack the ability to sift through career arcs, but my suspicion would be that a lot of these guys had really good shots and weren't horrible with the puck in the offensive zone and so received PP time early in their careers, but that once their puck skills diminished or it was revealed they were no good at offense, they were taken out of any offensive role.

Players that fit in this category now:  Braydon Coburn, Kyle Quincey, with Dmitri Kulikov and Zach Bogosian being longshots.

Second Category:  Born Defensive D

These are players who were drafted high because they were supposed to be good on defense.  Their offense didn't develop yet.  Maybe it never will.

Players that fit this category now:  Erik Gudbranson, Luke Schenn, Jared Cowen, perhaps Dylan McIlrath, perhaps Griffin Reinhart, perhaps Matthew Dumba.

Third category:  The Rest

Here are the defensemen 28 or under who fit the criteria this year:  Brenden Dillon, Clayton Stoner, Mark Fraser, Robert Bortuzzo, Mike Weber, Roman Polak, Dmitri Kulikov, Eric Gryba, Nate Prosser, Zach Bogosian, Brett Bellemore, Dalton Prout.  Which of these players will become top 4 D?  Kulikov and Bogosian have had better offensive seasons, but they may become Degraded Two-Way guys.  Stoner, Bortuzzo, Fraser, Weber, Gryba, Prosser, Bellemore, and Prout are all 3rd pairing guys or 7th D at the moment, and it's hard to see any of them graduating to top 4 duty (although Buffalo is so atrocious that Weber could).  That leaves Polak, Dillon, and the aformentioned Ladislav Smid to carry the torch.  Maybe Gudbranson and Schenn will move into someone's top 4 - certainly Schenn's been there in years past, though it doesn't appear that he is improving at hockey.  It sure feels like teams just cannot find these players anymore, and that much like the enforcer who can play a regular shift in the late 90s, this player is slowly disappearing from the NHL - it's just difficult to find a player who is big, skates well, hits well, and is good enough at defensive coverage to play 20 minutes a night (and who doesn't provide offense).  His replacement is the Anton Stralman, Mark Fayne sort of player who doesn't hit and doesn't put up much offense but who can defend 1 on 1 without taking penalties and moves the puck adequately out of his own zone.  Regardless, just consider this when free agency rolls around the next few years and some of the guys on the first two lists are still being given chances and the non-hitter signs for well below what you'd expect - most of the general managers in the game developed their hockey intellects when obstruction and cross-checking was still du jour, and it's hard for them to wrap their minds around the notion that it's gone.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Real Problem With Big Goalie Contracts

Twitter - that bottomless reservoir of smug - always gets in a particularly joyous uproar when a team signs a goalie long-term.  Today's casualty was Henrik Lundqvist, who signed a 7 year extension for nearly $60M, a deal that will finish a few months after his 39th birthday.  Others have no doubt broken down what happens to goalies in their late 30s, even elite goalies, and most of them don't fare particularly well.  The problem, however, is not just their faring not well - it's their faring at all.  Allow me to explain.

Lundqvist's cap hit of $8.5M won't be eclipsed by another goalie anytime soon - indeed, there's a dearth of elite goalies with long track records coming to market.  Still, with the salary cap going up, someone will break it, and it will continue to be broken as Lundqvist ages.  I could see a world where he's the 10th highest paid goalie in 2018.  Whatever the case, his cap hit isn't onerous if the salary cap rises as much as experts think it will.  What is onerous is the meaning of that cap hit - it means that Lundqvist is the de-facto starter for the next 7 years.  Is he playing poorly at some point, say in 2017?  Well, what about the ten years of experience he has previous to this where he played well?  The problem isn't just with potentially getting poor value out of the contract by Lundqvist failing to be merely elite over the course of this thing - teams make it worse when they are unable to cut bait with formerly successful players.  This isn't as large an issue with elite forwards and defensemen - we've seen guys like Mike Modano, Bryan Trottier, Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts, Chris Chelios, etc. who have ended their careers as role players.  Were they likely entrusted with too much responsibility because of their history?  Yeah, probably, but it's an issue of 15 minutes versus 11 minutes per game.  Chicken feed type stuff - one win at the most.  You can always give a skater less ice time and less responsibility, but the picture is murkier for netminders.  This is an issue of starting a goalie 60 games versus starting 20 games - issues that are enormous.  We should all know the numbers - the difference between a .920 goalie and a .905 goalie, assuming 30 shots on goal per game, is 25 goals.  That's roughly 5 wins, which could easily turn what should be a division leader into a fringe playoff team, or a fringe playoff team into finishing well out of the playoffs.  It's especially difficult to give a guy getting starter money backup minutes if he's not playing well, and just as hard to split his ice time.

I'm not saying Lundqvist will break down like this - he's clearly one of the game's best goalies and the elite have fared better later in their careers.  What I am saying is that if he does start to fade significantly, it will probably take the Rangers a year or two to figure it out, possibly more, during which time he will actively be hurting the team.  Normally I'd say this is an outlandish prediction, but there's nothing more certain in sports than management hoping the past can once again be the present - the longer the legacy, the more inescapable the vortex.