Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On The Goalie Market And Why It's So Strange

NHL stat junkies love talking about goalies.  Who wouldn't?  Goaltending is an enigma wrapped in a riddle nestled in a mystery.  Every year it seems like some goaltender comes out of nowhere to put up a fantastic season.  The next year, it feels like more often than not, that same goaltender reverts to being human.  Still, there's a lot that stat guys don't know about goaltenders, and that ignorance is precisely where NHL GMs often get themselves into a lot of trouble.

The goalie market this offseason already took a strange turn when Tomas Vokoun was traded to Pittsburgh and signed there.  Most people anticipated he'd want to try his hand at being a starter again, with Toronto and Tampa Bay bandied as likely destinations.  Instead he went to back up Pittsburgh #1 and noted Swiss cheese lookalike Marc-Andre Fleury.  Josh Harding was also thought to have starter potential this off-season, but he re-signed with Minnesota.  This left many teams groping about for options - Tampa dealt for Nashville backup Anders Lindback, and Columbus traded for Philadelphia's young #2 Sergei Bobrovsky.  Both moves were roundly criticized by stat mavens - neither player has particularly distinguished themselves in their short time in the NHL.  Why would you trade three draft picks for this sort of goalie - can't he be found anywhere?  That's the usual claim among the Corsi-and-charts crowd.

Then came the Ondrej Pavelec signing - bloggers' chortles over the goalie trades shifted to gales of laughter at this goalie signing, as a below-average 'tender was locked up for 5 years and nearly $4M per year.  There were rumors that Pavelec would go to the KHL, and Jets' GM Kevin Chevaldayoff seemed to have little choice - either sign Pavelec to a huge amount or perhaps go wanting.  Still, 'going wanting' can be disastrous, especially in a weird market like the one for goalies. Here's why the goalie market is so weird now:

A:  Goaltending is the most important 'easily' controllable portion of building a team

The St. Louis Blues allowed 2190 shots last season and the Carolina Hurricanes allowed 2653, representing the least and most shots allowed, respectively.  If we assume that each team had a .910 save percentage, the Hurricanes would've allowed 42 more goals than the Blues.  However, remember that shots against involves an entire team's worth of play.  Carolina may need to change over several players to get to league average in shots allowed.  Let's look at goaltending - the range of team save percentages last year was .932 (Blues) to .893 (Lightning). If we give two teams a .932 SV% and an .893 SV% and the NHL median in shots allowed, the difference is 96 goals.  The league average goals allowed was 224 - Tampa Bay would've had to have the lowest shots allowed just to have an average goals allowed at an .893 save percentage.  In other words, goaltending is an enormous factor in determining who the good and bad teams are - with well-below-average goaltending, your chances at the playoffs are based on shooting luck and OT/shootout luck.  It's not possible to be 'good' enough in today's NHL to overcome horrendous goaltending.

B:  Goaltending is really difficult to evaluate year to year

However, that's the problem - while goaltending is vital to a team's success, it's also largely unpredictable.  Take Dwayne Roloson, the goalie for the Lightning - he managed a .914 save percentage in the regular season in 2010-11, right around the average.  In 2011-12, he had an .886 save percentage, worst in the league among goaltenders with more than 20 games.  On the flip side, Brian Elliott had the 8th worst save percentage in 2010-11, then rebounded with the best in the league this season.  These are anecdotal, but still - it's as if Brian Elliott went from being one of the worst players in the league to one of the best.  That simply doesn't happen with forwards or defensemen.  We've seen the ups and downs of goalies like M.A. Fleury, Cam Ward, and Ryan Miller as well.  Who's betting on Jonathan Quick repeating his brilliant 11-12 this coming season?  I'm not.  It's still quite possible that he's an average to above-average goalie.

C:  Every team needs a backup goalie

The Colts of the NFL could've gotten by with me as their backup quarterback for years - Peyton Manning played every game, and played every important snap.  In the NHL, however, teams need a guy who can play at least 20% of the games, and one who can play them capably to boot.  Not only that, they'd like to have a backup to the backup - someone in the minor leagues who they think is capable of playing in the NHL if one of their guys gets hurt.  Let's say another team thinks this third guy is capable of playing in the NHL and wants to make a trade - what's the incentive?  Again, look at item A - having bad goaltending can completely sink a team.  Teams would want to avoid that at any cost.  Then look at B - it's really hard to identify who the good goalies are.  That makes coming up with a fair trading price for a backup goalie difficult.  Hence the prices for Bobrovsky and Lindback - the price was, essentially, 'Hey, you can probably play in the NHL, or maybe not'.  Still, even with people claiming Tampa and Columbus paid too high a price, it takes confidence on the part of Nashville and Philadelphia to find a replacement backup to make that kind of a deal.  Furthermore, these kinds of deals are difficult to make in season - teams usually stick with what they've got in net once the puck drops.  It doesn't make much sense to deal a guy for draft picks when he's not costing a team significant money and he could play a potentially vital role.

D:  Lots of goalies peak late

Looking around the NHL free agent market illustrates this point nicely - Ty Conklin, Chris Mason, Johan Hedberg, Scott Clemmensen, and Dwayne Roloson are all available as unrestricted free agents.  Conklin didn't establish himself as an NHL backup until he was 27, Mason was also 27, ditto Hedberg, Clemmensen was 31, and Roloson played his first NHL game at the age of 27.  This means that there are lots of goalies kicking around in the AHL who will become NHL regulars - it's just that they and NHL teams really have no clue who they are.  We've seen players like Niklas Backstrom and Tim Thomas come from overseas and establish themselves as starters as older players.  This causes even more difficulty for teams trying to obtain goalies as the bulk of available goaltenders are over 30 and it's unclear for how long they can maintain their current level of play, which is itself difficult to evaluate anyway because of the uncertainty inherent in evaluating goaltenders.

E:  The free agent market this year is barren

Most years there is a player kicking around who hasn't gotten a fair shot in the NHL who has been a capable NHL backup - Craig Anderson before he came to the Avalanche is a good example.  Josh Harding would've been a good example, had he not re-signed with Minnesota.   This year, there are literally no 'proven' starting goaltenders on the free agent market, unless we count Martin Brodeur, which I don't.  It's all career backups or present backups.

All of these things combine to why the Jets decided to break the bank for a heretofore below-average goalie - they are deluded that he is an average goalie and that he's capable of being better than average.  Thing is, with the sheer unpredictability of goaltending, they could turn out to be right.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Night Links (6/24)

Welcome to the first installment of Sunday Night Links, a new feature here where we list a few articles we find noteworthy from the previous week.  Discussion is obviously encouraged, and if there's something you want to add, feel free to drop us a line either here or on Twitter.

Without further ado:

What has been most interesting to me is the next chapter in the ongoing Rick Nash saga, and how Ray Shero's handling of Jordan Staal is an example of a general manager who understands asset management and how to maximize value in an awkward situation.  Howson's intransigence has cost his team a substantial amount of value, and his decision to pass on moving him at the deadline has just been matched in stupidity by the decision to wait until July. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Implications Of A $70M Cap

The winter of 2008 was a heady time - flagpole sitting was once again in vogue.  People were experimenting a lot with irony.  In the Northlands near the Wall, the Calgary Flames decided to make their superstar defenseman a very highly paid man, indeed.  Dion Phaneuf was signed to a 6 year, $39 million extension that would make him one of the highest paid defenders in the league.  I feel like a broken record, but does anyone know what that contract would look like if it were signed today, relative to the cap?  Dion signed that deal before the 2008-09 cap came out, but the salary cap was set at 56.8M in June of that year.  It means for Year 1, Phaneuf was taking up 11% of Calgary's available cap space.  Had he signed the same deal percentage-wise today, it would have been a 6 year, $48 million deal.  

I've written in this space about how cap hits of top players have come down in recent years.  Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards, two of the most marquee free agents in the cap era, signed deals with LOWER cap hits than their expiring contracts.   Kovalchuk's deal with Atlanta was signed in the summer of 2005 - had he signed the same deal today, relative to the cap, it would be a 5 year, $60.1M contract.  Brad Richards famously signed a maximum contract with the Lightning - a max contract now would be $14M per season.  No one is signing a deal even close to that - I'll be surprised if Crosby or Malkin breaks the $10M barrier, even after the NHL forbids front-loading contracts in the way that teams have done for Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, Kovalchuk, etc.  

The current salary cap of $70.3M is supported by a disproportionate amount of revenue from large-market teams.  Therefore, these large-market teams can afford to spend up to the cap every year, but middle-market teams whose revenues are not steadily climbing will stop spending to the cap. They will begin setting an internal salary cap that is well below the actual figure.  So it's not entirely correct to judge every deal relative to the salary cap alone, as fewer and fewer teams will spend up to it.  Still, has anyone noticed that we almost never talk about a team with intractable cap issues?  Every big-market team's fanbase thinks they have a shot to land Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, something that's been unthinkable in the salary cap era.  The teams with limited cap maneuverability right now can certainly make room - they have decent contracts that can be fobbed off on other teams.  There is currently no team sitting in salary cap jail, not even the Philadelphia Flyers, who had previously built a jail in their arena for Paul Holmgren to reside in during the summer.  

I don't expect the salary cap to remain at $70M after the NHL and NHLPA agree to a new CBA this coming autumn or winter.  Perhaps it will remain there - the NBA is reducing the players' share of revenue over the course of multiple seasons, likely keeping the salary cap around where it is, and this would be a good compromise for the NHL.  Still, I feel that fans' and even experts' perceptions of what a fair deal is lags behind the market's understanding that cap room tends to burn a hole in even the best GM's pocket.  Erik Karlsson signed a 7 year, 6.5M per deal yesterday, but would any of us really batted an eye had he signed that deal in 2008?    I find it unlikely that the Senators will ultimately regret this deal - they could've maybe gotten more value, but there's also some value in keeping a potential franchise player happy.  And if the salary cap continues to rise and Karlsson's play doesn't regress, it figures to be a great value 5 or 6 years down the road.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tim Thomas - Boston Lead or Floor Team Gold?

By now, everyone not under a rock with regard to hockey news knows that Tim Thomas has decided to take a year off from hockey.  Some have speculated that this is merely an opening salvo in some sort of trade ploy, but right now it doesn't appear that way.  Peter Chiarelli and the Boston Bruins have to prepare as if Tim Thomas will not be on the team next year.

Normally this wouldn't be an issue - Thomas and the Bruins could go their separate ways, and the Bruins would probably let Thomas's contract expire. However, Tim Thomas signed his most recent contract past the age of 35, which invokes the onerous 35+ rule:  For any multi-year contract that begins after a player's 35th birthday, each year past the first counts on the salary cap regardless of whether or not the player is playing.  The only way a 35+ player won't count on the cap is if he is placed on Injured Reserve, and the league has previously sent doctors to confirm that a player is in fact injured.  So, the Bruins now have $5M in dead weight on their salary cap next year.  For a team that considers themselves a Cup contender, that's a  challenging millstone for Boston to maneuver around.

There is one way out:  the trade.  Tim Thomas can still be traded, and after July 1, he no longer has a no-trade clause, so he can be dealt anywhere.  This gets into some interesting territory, as there is some precedent, back in the autumn of 2006 when a player posting about his sabbatical on Facebook was only a far-off dream.  Vladimir Malakhov did not report to Devils' training camp despite being under contract, and was therefore suspended by the team.  He was also a 35+ contract, so the Devils were pretty sure they would be on the hook for it.  They ended up making a deal with the Sharks:  they traded Malakhov and a 1st round pick for the rights to Shark winger Alex Korolyuk and defenseman Jim Fahey.  Devils' GM Lou Lamoriello insisted at the time that this was a 'hockey trade', and said of Korolyuk: We're getting an exceptional hockey player who could play for us next year."  That never happened, and Fahey got into 13 games as a Devil before being demoted to the AHL.  However, he did at least try to make this look like a hockey trade - the Devils received two players, and gave up one of their own and a draft pick.

The salary cap landscape is much different now than it was in 2006 - back then, when the cap was at $47 million, there weren't very many teams at the cap floor.  The Devils had to trade a 1st round pick for table scraps just for someone to take on the Malakhov deal.  However, things may be different this time around - we see teams like the Islanders signing veteran players to small deals with large bonuses to hit the salary floor.  Floor teams would love to have a contract like Thomas's on their books - it counts $5M on the cap, and costs $0 in actual money.  It would be an enormous boost to their bottom lines, especially as the salary floor threatens to be around $55M this season.  There should be multiple teams waiting in line to get a chance at that Thomas contract.  There's only one potential roadblock:  the NHL front office. 

While it's hard to imagine the NHL front office jumping for joy at the way Lamoriello squirmed out of Malakhov's 35+ cap hit, one thing that's notable about the Malakhov trade is that while Malakhov neglected to show up for Devils' training camp, neither he nor his agent said anything at all about his playing status.  He never signed retirement papers, nor did he find a college student with Internet access to post a statement on The Facebook.  The Devils had suspended him about halfway through the previous season and he disappeared.  Therefore, the league couldn't really nix the Malakhov trade on those grounds - the Sharks could claim that they felt Malakhov would show up to their training camp and would play for them.  Furthermore, the Sharks put enough other detritus into the trade to make it appear like it wasn't just Malakhov and a 1st round pick for nothing.  Lastly, since we saw what a cap circumvention penalty might look like after the Kovalchuk debacle last summer, the Devils didn't get out of it for free - they still surrendered a first-round pick.  League officials might've recognized that since the Devils extracted their own pound of flesh, there wasn't much call for them to step in to get another piece.

Given the league's tightening the screws about the whole lifetime contract thing, and a CBA fight about to happen this summer and likely on into the autumn, it's difficult to imagine they won't have anything to say if Thomas ends up pawned off to a team with two signed goalies for a draft pick in July or August.  He's already said he isn't playing, so why would a team trade for him?  Can Facebook posts by a player be reason enough to nix a trade, or to accuse a team of cap circumvention?  It doesn't sound all that exciting, but since we may not have NHL hockey to watch for a while, these sorts of fights are the next best thing.