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.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The New Type Of Trade

Martin Erat just publicly demanded a trade out of Washington.  Trouble for Martin Erat is that his contract is pretty large and so far his performance rather paltry - he's got a cap hit of $4.5M this season and next season.  While he's owed only $6M in this time, there aren't that many teams who can just stick that salary on their team.  There is, however, a way that Erat can be shipped out of town, the Caps can still be in the same cap trouble (by taking a contract back), and the Caps can pick up an asset along the way:  The dual Retained Salary Transaction.

We've seen the Retained Salary Transaction a few times since the new CBA was signed in January 2013 - Kris Versteeg, Matt Frattin, Jussi Jokinen, Thomas Vanek - all are currently on new teams who are not paying their entire contract.  What we haven't seen is a swap of retained salary transactions, and this disappoints me, because I think this could be quite a boon for a team.  An example - imagine a team with a player like Erat who has too high a cap hit and not enough production.  Let's say for the sake of argument that, unlike Marty Erat, this player lacks a no-trade or no-movement clause.  They find a team who has a similar player on a similar cap hit, let's say both guys are on deals that pay them $4M a season.  They swap players, each picking up half of the other team's contract.  Now not only have they shuffled some deck chairs, both teams have turned what was a potential liability into a potential asset.  They can keep this new player at his $2M salary, or if they don't like him, fob this new player off to someone else on half of his previous cap hit.  The key to this deal is that both teams have picked up potential assets by exchanging their problem with the other team, and in an NHL where few teams have cap room to spare, it opens up more potential for future exchanges.  I'm sure the union was in favor of Retained Salary Transactions - it enables some guys whose contracts would've been near-immobile to be sent elsewhere - but I think there'll be a few guys zipping around the league who aren't fans of having 3 separate teams holding parts of their contract.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Corsi Rates and Corsi +/-

Occasionally I feel the need to look for old data, back when Corsi and Fenwick were new and when was updated at the beginning of every season, without exception.  That brings me to the old version of, which expressed our favorite numbers as a whole number, not as a rate.  Jack Johnson wasn't at 43.9% in 2008-09 according to timeonice, he was at -131 - that was his Corsi +/-.  This quickly became non-standard, and so old timeonice numbers became a pain - you had to do tedious calculations to get at territorial percentage numbers, which is all everyone seems to care about now.  Still, I miss the whole numbers for three reasons:

A:  You can approximate a player's expected +/- based on a 1000 PDO.  I don't have average Fenwick and Corsi shooting percentages handy - I know they're floating around somewhere - but we know that on-ice even strength shooting percentages are around 8%, typically.  So if Jack Johnson is -81 in shots in 2008-09, we know that goals are scored on around one out of every 12.5 even strength shots, so he should be approximately -6 with average goaltending and average shooting.  Henrik Zetterberg was +332 shots in 2007-08, meaning he 'should've been' +26 at 5 on 5 hockey.  With rates, there's no way to estimate this except 'higher = good, lower = bad'.

B:  High-event players get privileged over low-event players, which may be correct - Imagine a thought experiment - one player is on the ice for 90 shots/60 for his team and 60 shots/60 against.  Another is on the ice for 30 shots/60 and 20 shots against.  They have the same shots rate - 60% - but Player A is going to be putting up +30 shots/60 whereas Player B will only be doing +10.  Indeed, we can find real world examples of this - Jonathan Cheechoo and Alexei Ponikarovsky played about the same amount of ice time in 2007-08.  They put up similar shot %s - 57.5% for Ponikarovsky, 56.7% for Cheechoo.  Cheechoo even had a little more ice time than Ponikarovsky.  And yet, Ponikarovsky is +121 in Shots, Cheechoo +104, because Ponikarovsky's lines shot the puck more than Cheechoo's but also gave up more shots.  It's not much, but Ponikarovsky should've had an extra goal (and a half).  When we go by rates, we miss out on the extra value that higher event players may provide*.

C:  It's closer to a WAR-type thing.  Yes, we have to adjust for Zone Start.  Yes, we have to adjust for Quality of Teammates.  We may even have to adjust for Quality of Competition.  But we have a better sense of how many goals this player is adding to or subtracting from their team.  4th line players get dinged for having fewer total events.  Injured players get dinged for having been injured.  One and two game callups no longer look like superstars or complete disasters - they just look like exactly what they are: guys who might've had a good night, bad night, or an inbetween one.

I know that territorial metrics can't come close to approximating a player's actual value, but when we go by rates, we're missing a larger element - ultimately, it's not rates that win games, but shots.  We should be talking about rates for teams and more about whole numbers for individual players.

* - High event players may not be better than low event players because of the NHL's point structure - the OT point implicitly rewards low event teams, as games with fewer events should have fewer goals and games with fewer goals are more likely to be tied at the end of 60 minutes.  Still, were this not the case, high event players with the same shot % would be better than low event players.

Monday, October 7, 2013

On the Firing of Peter Laviolette

When Pete Rose was banned for life from the game of baseball in 1989, the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti described the ordeal as "a sad end to a sorry episode." Though the gambling connotations were absent (unless you booked action on the odds-on favorite most likely coach to lose his job first), Giamatti's infamous quote can also be applied to Philadelphia's firing of Peter Laviolette this morning.

Often the case when a coach of Laviolette's stature is released (see: having won a Stanley Cup), just about everything written about this move will include the footnote that he'll find another job shortly. Many articles today made mention of this, and for good reason; Laviolette is set to serve on Dan Bylsma's staff for Team USA during the upcoming Sochi Olympics. With common sentiment leaning towards Laviolette coaching an NHL team sooner rather than later, it demands further inquiry why a coveted coach found himself on the chopping block just three seasons removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Without using too many brain cells, the answer points in one direction: the Flyers' front office.

Having foreseen the team's current situation far too long ago, this blogger remained skeptical that GM Paul Holmgren's returns in trade for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, along with the subsequent addition of Ilya Bryzgalov, would result in a net positive for Philadelphia. In hindsight, Jakub Voracek has proven to be who we thought he was, Sean Couturier is becoming an elite defensive talent, and Brayden Schenn still projects to be a top-six forward. However, the cap crunch created by the Bryzgalov contract ultimately meant that the team could not re-sign useful players (e.g. Matt Carle), and more importantly, set a dangerous precent of overreacting to poor results in short stretches.

We've seen this time and again with Philadelphia. Specifically, whether it was benching Sergei Bobrovsky after one bad period during the 2011 playoffs, trading him after a poor streak in the second half of 2012, signing James van Riemsdyk to a six-year deal after 11 impressive playoff games, trading him after a mere 43 games of 'underperformance,' extending Scott Hartnell following a career year, or losing out on re-signing Jaromir Jagr to woo Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the message remains clear. If you're not helping the Flyers now, they'll ship you out of town for someone who will. Lost upon Holmgren & Co. has been the fact that adding new players does not guarantee success; it can only improve (or in this case, lessen) one's chances.

We now return to Laviolette. Keeping in mind Holmgren's (and Chairman Ed Snider's) role(s) in this saga, the easy answer to our question looks to be that Lavy could not escape the fate of these players before him. 51 games of underperformance since the beginning of 2013 is simply too long to survive in mediocrity within the crucible that is Flyers hockey. This holds especially true with the aging Al Davis Snider looking for one final championship.

It would, however, be remiss to label Laviolette a mere victim of overreaction and bad luck. His lineup decisions were often suspect (e.g., scratching Erik Gustafsson most of the past two seasons), he mismanaged goaltending (e.g., Bobrovsky/Boucher/Leighton, playing Bryzgalov every back-to-back), and he refused to adapt from his up-tempo style of play when it was clear the team's personnel on defense could not handle the assignment. On the flip side, Laviolette also had his strengths. Looking at Philadelphia's zone start discrepancies and quality of competition, he was a coach that seemed to understand matchups and was not afraid to deploy players he trusted in the roles he trusted them with. Couple this with his style of play, and we see a coach that likes to create more shots on goal, giving his best players the best opportunities to do so.

We can go back and forth on Laviolette's advantages and shortcomings all day; the fact of the matter remains that Holmgren & Co. knew what they were getting from their coach on opening day of the 2013 season. At that point in time, the Flyers were depleted on defense, devoid of scoring depth, and gave the coach no reasonable option to spell their starting goaltender. Though it is unclear whether Laviolette held any say in the moves that sent the Flyers from Stanley Cup contenders to mere playoff hopefuls, at the end of the day, responsibility lies upon the general manager to acquire the best players available for his club. While it remains undeniable that Laviolette's recent poor performance ultimately resulted in his firing, the depreciating talent on the Flyers' roster and the friction between these players and their coach's system cannot be ignored. Ultimately, these trends point not to the Flyers firing their ineffective coach, but instead continuing to employ incompetent general management.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Driving Play's 2013-14 NHL Season Preview Podcast

Good afternoon friends. Before you take this post as a sign of the zombie apocalypse, please be assured that no witchcraft was used in the making and revival of the Driving Play Podcast. Joined once again by our friend Alex Pocrnick, we are grateful for his perspective which uses surprisingly few spreadsheets to analyze and interpret the game of hockey. In this episode, we are excited to preview the 2013-14 NHL season, touching upon topics of realignment, roster change in the offseason, and teams to watch out for.

Here is a link to our podcast RSS feed, with options to stream or download the podcast below.

Thanks for listening, and enjoy!

Download (Right Click, Save As)

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Paradox Of The Bridge Deal

Adam Henrique signed a $24 million, 6 year deal today with New Jersey.  This deal piqued my interest because it involved my favorite team and not one of your dumb teams that you somehow follow.  It's also interesting because it reveals one of the stranger parts of the way NHL teams operate these days with their RFAs coming off entry-level contracts.

We're seeing more and more of these sorts of contracts for players coming off ELCs - indeed, it's getting rarer for top players not to get one.  Evander Kane, Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Jamie Benn, the list goes on - teams are betting on their young stars.  They are no longer trying to squeeze every dime out of them before they become UFA age.  The list of 'star' players coming off ELCs who haven't gotten long contracts includes PK Subban, and will likely include Derek Stepan and Nazem Kadri.  Indeed, most of these 'bridge' deals are signed by teams who stay at or near the salary cap.  The paradox of the bridge deal is this:  a cap team figures to be very good, and a very good team tends to lift all boats.  This makes the player on the bridge deal more expensive in the future, exacerbating that team's cap situation.  Likewise, a team in the Devils' situation able to sign Henrique long-term like this without any pending cap issues may not be a very good team, making his deal look worse than it otherwise might be on a cap team.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ilya Kovalchuk's Retirement and Its Effect On The Devils

Twitter is an endlessly clucking echo chamber where good sense is discarded in favor of snark, so I figured I'd throw up something here about Ilya Kovalchuk's sudden retirement.  I don't really know where to begin (even though I was planning on writing an article like this anyway), so let's start with his performance:

Last season was a struggle for Ilya both at even strength and 5 on 4 - He scored 7 goals in 37 games in those situations.  Indeed, his Corsi ON was particularly awful, barely positive despite cherry zone starts and weak competition.  His On-Ice shooting percentage, once the engine which drove his performance, had also cratered as a Devil - it's hard to see where the superstar player was 5 on 5 as a New Jersey Devil if we look at his rates.  He was 134th out of 360 forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes 5 on 5 since signing his new contract after having been 3rd in that mark the previous 3 years.  Particularly galling was his on-ice shot rate - it stayed flat, and his shooting percentage had died too.  The Devils actually generated more shots while Kovalchuk was off the ice than on, not exactly a great endorsement for a player who is supposed to bring tons of offense.

However, he was a dominant short-handed player in the times he was put there, leading the league in Goals/60 by a wide margin over his 160 minutes played 4 on 5 over the last 3 seasons.

Kovalchuk also led the league in power play ice time - predictably, his power play scoring rates were not high.  Kovalchuk ranked 135th out of 173 qualified forwards players in Goals/60 at 5 on 4.  Granted, he did play the point and many of these players did not, but he had also led the league in power play goals from that spot back in 2005-06.  And indeed, he was only 86th in this mark out of 211 players between 2007-08 and 2009-10.   His power play efficacy, like anyone else's, is quite difficult to ascertain, but I imagine he is above average at this.  How many wins a year that's worth is anyone's guess.

The question is, can the Devils sign someone on the free agent market or acquire someone cheaply in trade who matches these kinds of numbers?  The answer seems to be no, of course not.  However, with payments due to Kovalchuk equal to $11.2M per season over the next 5 years, I find it hard to believe the Devils can't do better than this in free agency or via a salary dump.  They will be affected in 2013-14, but Kovalchuk's talent for shooting well above average had disappeared as a Devil, whether by a focus on defense, a move to right wing, chance, or some other reason, and so too had any reason to think he is an exceptional player.  An above-average one, sure, but exceptional?  No.  I see no reason to think that the Devils aren't a playoff team next year without Kovalchuk, provided they do at least get one player to replace some of his ice time.