Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Contract I Actually Like, Part I

For the hockey geek, July 1 is Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick's Day rolled into one. General managers, fat off expiring contracts and a rise in the salary cap, plunge their available cap space into whatever the market offers. No general manager, unless he's Brian Burke, wants to come up empty. Whoever spends the most often gains the least - the Buffalo Sabres are bound to regret the decisions they made earlier this month. I spent most of July 1 snickering at other teams' overspending. However, there were a few transactions I did like, and as we've gotten closer to training camp, I've liked more and more of the moves made. Usually the closer to the season we get, the better a contract is bound to be. There's fewer suitors for the stragglers. The contracts being offered are inevitably shorter, which usually makes them better - the team takes on less risk. So I've decided to start a feature entitled 'A Contract I Actually Like'. We'll see if I follow through on more (or if general managers do).

An incredulous tweet from June 30th whose source I cannot recall (likely @Kent_Wilson) referenced an agent referring to the 'Big 4' of unrestricted free agency as Brad Richards, James Wisniewski, Tomas Kaberle, and Ian White. Now while the other 3 players each got fairly large deals, Ian White took a more curious route. He signed with Detroit for only 2 years and 2.875M per season. Of players who signed in the calendar year 2011, White's contract ranked 38th in cap hit. 13 defensemen signed for more dollars per year, and 16 signed for more years. It's clearly a bargain when you consider that White has played over 20 minutes per game the last 3 seasons, he's a combined +17 playing mostly for mediocre teams, and has averaged .39 points per game over that time (31 points over 82 games).

From Ian White's Side Of Things

Ian White only turned 27 in June, so he's one of the youngest possible unrestricted free agents (aside from players who have accrued 7 seasons). He'll be 29 when this contract ends; plenty of time to get a more generous unrestricted contract. He's going to a team that needs to replace the 20 minutes a game of Brian Rafalski. He's also going to a Detroit team that generates a lot of offense:

Detroit's Offensive Rank in NHL:

2008-09: 1st (of 30)
2009-10: 14th (of 30)
2010-11: 2nd (of 30)

Detroit's Power Play Percentage Rank in NHL:

2008-09: 1st (of 30)
2009-10: 9th (of 30)
2010-11: 5th (of 30)

Detroit generates a lot of goals. That means more points for White. Presumably, it also means a generous contract after this one. I don't think I need to do a study on the correlation between a defensemen's points and his salary, but it's rather high - perhaps not as high as it is with forwards, but defensemen who put up a lot of points tend to be compensated quite well. Look no further than Tomas Kaberle's contract, which pays $4M per season for a player who struggled throughout this year's playoffs. If Ian White is able to score 40 points this season, who knows what kind of deal he gets when his contract expires?

Detroit's Side

Detroit isn't risking very much with this contract. There isn't a no-trade clause, or a no-movement clause involved. We've seen Ian White be traded 3 times over the last 2 seasons; this contract will move if they want it to. The dollars are reasonable and the years are reasonable.

They get a player who's played capably for 20 minutes a game who is capable of playing on the power play. Moreover, what they avoid is the potential overpayment of a point-generating defenseman; teams give too many dollars and years to a player who simply doesn't do much outside of the power play. As a comparison, the Calgary Flames gave Anton Babchuk 2.5M per season for 2 years, plus a no-movement clause - Babchuk has piled up 35 points in each of the last two seasons he's played in North America, but he only averaged around 17 minutes per game, and has mostly played against weak competition at even strength.

Conclusion

Detroit may have erred by giving Jonathan Ericsson a 3 year deal worth nearly 10 million dollars in total, but they certainly made up for that by getting White to sign such a discounted contract. Whoever gets White after the Red Wings, assuming he does go elsewhere, is likely buying high. White took a discount on this contract, but he's almost certain to make that money up on a future contract. Everyone involved gains besides the rest of the league, who once again have to deal with a formidable Detroit team.

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