Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Problem With A Shortened Season

We're hearing a lot of talk that a 48 game season is the lowest the NHL will go - any lower than that and the season should be canceled, according to the NHL, because it will be a hollow contest. Tyler Dellow wrote an interesting post about why this sounds like malarkey, bunkum, or whatever other olde tyme noun you want to apply to the nonsense which Gary Bettman and his cadre of non-fanatics are constantly spewing - in fact, NHL teams sort themselves out quick enough that a 28 game season + playoffs could be pretty representative.

However, what I'm not hearing about is how the money is going to get distributed in such a scenario.  In a normal season before this lockout, players got 57% of hockey related revenue.  After this lockout, presumably NHL players will be getting 50% + some percentage of Make Whole, which percentage they'll calculate by putting 1,000 monkeys in a room with 1,000 abacuses and seeing how the beads fall.  While we don't know the exact dollar amount that will be added to Make Whole in 2013 yet, we can be pretty sure that the players are going to end up with somewhere between 51 and 53% of HRR this year if there is a season.

As I understand it, players are typically paid relative to days on the roster - the NHL season has 186 days (or thereabouts), and a player on a two-way contract gets paid his NHL rate relative to the number of days he spends on the NHL roster.  Presumably, that's how the NHL will function this year.  Let's say in the doomsday scenario, we have a 28 game season - that'll probably be something like 56 to 60 days.  Players would then get around 1/3rd of their salary this season, with adjustments relative to the new revenue split + Make Whole.  Ah, but a 28 game season also includes the playoffs - last season, the regular season was 1230 games and 86 playoff games.  Playoff games are typically higher priced, but even if we assume that they are three times the price of a regular season game, that would still only account for 20% the amount pulled in by the regular season and 17% of overall gate revenues.  (These are giant estimates with huge error ranges, but bear with me).

Right here you might be saying 'Well, who cares?'  The NHL escrow system cares.  In a 28 game season, the NHL would have 420 total games and presumably around 86 playoff games, give or take 5 either way.  That's a much larger percentage of the games being playoff ones.  Now with a system where everything isn't tied together, this wouldn't make a difference, but with the stupidity of the escrow system that I've pointed out in previous posts, what revenues the New York Rangers generate in the playoffs affect how much the New York Islanders ultimately pay out to players.  If playoff revenue constitutes a large portion of hockey-related revenue, that means making the playoffs is more important than ever - if we assume that playoff tickets are twice the cost of regular season ones, playoff revenue would constitute around 29% of total gate revenues.   If we operate under the assumption that the lower revenue teams tend to be less successful than high revenue teams, this would put an undue burden on low revenue clubs - low revenue clubs play 14 home dates, and if they miss the playoffs, that's it for them.  But they'd have to pay out salaries equal to 50% + Make Whole of the total HRR, which might be significantly more than it would be in a normal season because of the disproportion of playoff games.  These teams may well lose less money by not playing at all.

Now maybe with the players voting for the 5% cap inflator this past off-season, the cap (and consequently every player's 'written' salary) is so high relative to what revenues will end up at that it won't matter, but I have to imagine that NHL teams have made this calculation, and I think the longer this goes on, the more the small-market teams will be up for a cancellation of the season and an attempt to break Fehr and the union rather than playing an extremely short season.

Friday, November 30, 2012

It's A Minor Thing People Forget About The NHL - Or Is It?

I'm too lazy to try to sift through Google for articles about the 2004-05 lockout, but one thing I remember which may or may not be true was that the salary cap and floor were touted as a panacea for small-market owners.  I remember quotes from people like Peter Karmanos and Charles Wang.  Maybe those didn't happen - I wasn't following it too closely.  What's interesting is the teams that have changed ownership since the lockout.  These teams are as follows:

St. Louis
Tampa Bay

* Aquilini bought 50% of the team during the lockout, bought the rest afterwards

If I called Anaheim, Dallas, Florida, Nashville, Phoenix, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta small-market teams would anyone get upset?  St. Louis is the only one that's questionable, maybe Anaheim too.  If I called Columbus, Carolina, Colorado, and Long Island small-market teams would anyone get upset?   Again, Colorado's questionable.  So we've got 8 out of 12 small-market teams changing hands between lockouts - why did those owners sell?  Hard to say in each case, but it's hard to imagine these teams have Bettman's ear.  Bettman was established as an NHL commissioner for 10 years before these people got on board as owners, and it's hard to know where they might stand on this prolonged work stoppage.  I don't believe that either party - Bettman or the New Owners - has the other's back.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Escrow Sucks For Owners, Too

The NHL is clearly obsessed with its 'cost-certainty' plan, whereby a rising tide drowns some boats while some never see water at all.  In fact, that appears to be one of the stumbling blocks between an agreement between the NHL and NHLPA - just how certain is cost-certainty going to be in the face of the lockout?

Cost certainty appears to have been a breakwater for the NHL - yes, NHL players had their salaries cut by 24% across the board.  But what if NHL fans didn't come back at all?  What if most NHL arenas resembled the Nassau Coliseum that season?  The NHL was only the second sports league to cancel its championship game, and Major League Baseball faced serious attendance repercussions when that battle was settled.  The NHL was not willing to bet on the fans coming back.  It needed some way to grab back salaries in case the fans were riled up.

The thresholds were:

HRR of 2.2 Bn and below:  54%
2.2 Bn to 2.4 Bn:  between 55-56%
2.4 Bn to 2.7 Bn:  between 56-57%
2.7 Bn+:  57%

The NHL hit 2.1 Bn its first year, something which it's hard to imagine the NHL believed possible.  They must've thrown these revenue thresholds in as a bone for players thinking they'd never have to pay, but here they are.  Not only did they have to pay 57%, they had to do so for several years.

The trouble with tying these things together in such a grand way is that television contracts don't make up a large percentage of hockey-related revenue in the NHL, and they certainly make up a smaller percentage of revenue than in any of the three other North American team sports.  So individual market growth determines how the collective does, but what if one market is failing?  Its failure gets transmitted to the other 29 teams as a bonus (they suppress HRR, thereby suppressing the salary cap and player salaries), meanwhile its 29 partners' relative success gets transmitted to it via the salary floor, making it impossible to run a profitable team.

But it goes deeper than this - let's take a team like the Islanders that had several players on their team who could have been due bonus money last season, names like John Tavares, Nino Niederreiter, and Jay Pandolfo.  The only players eligible for bonuses in the NHL are old players, young players, or players who've been injured, and the bonus thresholds are set in the CBA - teams can't give out a bonus for scoring 1 goal, for instance.  These bonuses function as dead cap space, mostly - it is often very difficult to reach these incentives, and it's almost a guarantee that Pandolfo and Niederreiter reached none of their objectives.  Each could've been due as much as $2.2 million in bonuses.  Assuming the Islanders were exactly at the cap floor (which they weren't, but let's assume that they were), that was $2.2 million that the Islanders did not have to pay in salary.  Aha - but here's why escrow is stupid - owners have to pay out 57% of hockey-related revenue in a given year.  So if e.g. every team is at the salary floor for some reason, escrow makes up for that shortfall by forcing owners to pay more to each player out of their own pocket until 57% of HRR is reached.  So let's go back to that 2.2 million - the Islanders didn't pay it out.  You know who did?  Every other team in the NHL.  Well, the Islanders too, but they and the 29 other teams effectively split that 2.2 million.  Some years they may not have to pay out any extra money, depending on how the other chips fall, and some years they might've had to pay out the entire 2.2 million, but that's how the system is set up.  And it's profoundly dumb that the other owners pay for the Islanders' loophole manipulation, just as it's stupid that as a result of escrow the players all pay for the top players to have huge front-loaded contracts.  The system is broken - I just can't see the NHL bothering to fix it.  For some reason this is what they think is best for the league, even though the Islanders' manipulation is a symptom that the salary floor is in desperate need of repair.

The league thinks the best fix is to not allow bonuses to count against the cap for teams presently below the salary floor.  Happy lockout, everyone.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Players' Tack After NHL Offer - 10/17

I was going to tweet all of this, but it will come out looking like garbage and fill up everyone's timeline with nonsense.  I remembered I had a blog I used to post at, so here goes -

The owners have made an attempt to save the entire season with their latest offer.  This is not something they've seemed remotely interested in doing in recent weeks, and while this offer is somewhat onerous, it is not the absurd 'You'll get nothing and like it' CBA offer they presented in July.  This is why the players hired Fehr - to turn up the heat at a moment like this.  It may seem ridiculous, but Fehr should say - Look, the union will vote on whatever we get to at the end of this negotiating session in order to save an enormous chunk of the season, but if that does not pass, we will not be giving or receiving offers until April 1, 2013.  This is akin to when George Costanza preemptively broke up with a woman and then said '[Are you] shocked?'   The owners have been the ones not afraid to cancel games in an attempt to steamroll the union, but here is a little shaft of light at the bottom of the well.  If the owners are actually concerned about the season, they'll respond by negotiating in good faith.  If they say take or leave it to this offer they've presented, they will demonstrate that they were never serious.

The players' counter offer should include mandatory rises in HRR % over certain revenue thresholds.  It should include less of an initial giveback.  It should include a final year, which, if no CBA can be agreed to before that, the players' share of HRR% jumps significantly.  This offers lockout protection for players and owners.  The rest of the offer can be whatever, those things can all be hashed out.  Still, the union's goal remains getting the most they possibly can, and their only opportunity to do so is right now.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why It's Inevitable That Your Favorite Player Ends Up An Islander, Coyote, Or Panther

I've held off on writing about the ongoing CBA negotiations, largely because all we have are first offers.  Yes, the owners' offer is ridiculous.  Yes, the players' offer gives a framework to help alleviate the issues that exist between rich and poor NHL teams by offering significant revenue sharing.  No, the owners probably won't like those aspects of it, since the salary cap exists largely as a profit generator for big-market teams rather than the cost control for mid-market teams that it was promised to be.

The question I've had throughout is how can the smaller market owners go with the same system we've got? I recognize that the NHL's first offer is a first offer, and so they asked basically to roll back salaries by a large percentage, as well as roll back time to around 1972.  These rollbacks would no doubt help out small market teams even if their paltry revenues aren't augmented in any way.  But shave back the revenue percentage and change nothing else significantly about the NHL's salary cap or revenue structure, and it seems like we're right back here in seven years, with big market teams still raking in profits while the mid-market teams break even (hopefully) and the smaller markets do everything in their power to avoid paying the full amount mandated by the salary floor.  How do small markets typically avoid paying the full amount of the salary floor?

A:  Contracts with lots of bonuses

I'm curious to see whether performance bonuses remain in the CBA for players 35+ - I imagine they will.  The Islanders gave Jay Pandolfo $800,000 worth of performance bonuses - he promptly scored 1 goal in 62 games, so I can't imagine he managed to hit them.

This also applies to young players on entry-level contracts - the Islanders also left Nino Niederreiter and his $1.925M in unreachable performance bonuses on the roster while he scored 1 goal in 55 games.  Still, it's tough to find players who are eligible for bonuses - only players on ELCs, 35+ players, or players who've missed an entire season to injury can get them.

B:  Contracts whose cap hits are greater than their salaries

Here's the real payoff for a small market team.  Let's assume that the owners to a large degree win this round of negotiations: the salary cap comes down, the salary floor stays in place, the players' cut of the revenue is heavily axed, and maximum contract limits are established.  This means an end to deals where a player gets way less than his actual market value as a tradeoff for a long contract that's significantly front-loaded.  We'll begin seeing contracts that are closer to the NHL maximum as teams are now unable to throw a bunch of cheap years on the back end to lower the cap.  This means that the salary cap will become a going concern for half the league again, like it was back in 2010 - teams will actually have to consider not keeping all the players they want to keep.  What players will be the first ones to go if teams do have a cap crunch several years down the road?  Why, the very players who were signed to very long deals for 'cheap' cap hits.  These players will be near the ends of their careers and likely won't be worth their cap hits any longer.  Plus, if the salary floor doesn't move or go away, we'll still see teams trying their hardest to hit it as inexpensively as possible.  So, if this is such a great solution to the cap floor problem, when will we start to see these players move?

To answer that question, I decided to look at all the players who have very long contracts (7+ years), the point at which their salary becomes less than their cap hit, and the clauses they have in their contract. I excluded players such as Miikka Kiprusoff and Patrik Elias who are still providing solid value for their teams even as their salaries have dipped below what I've termed the inflection point - the point at which these players' salaries dip below their cap hit. I've also noted if they have a No Trade or No Movement Clause in their contract. All numbers and clauses courtesy of

PlayerInflection YearYrs LeftContract Clauses
Scott Gomez2012-132Limited NTC
Ryan Malone2012-133NMC/Limited NTC
Daniel Briere2013-142NMC
Zdeno Chara2016-171*NMC
Mike Richards2016-174N/A
Johan Franzen2016-174N/A
Ilya Bryzgalov2016-174NMC
Marian Hossa2016-175N/A
Niklas Kronwall2017-182Limited NTC
Vincent Lecavalier2017-183NMC
Brad Richards2017-183NMC
Christian Ehrhoff2017-184NMC
Duncan Keith2017-186NMC
Henrik Zetterberg2018-193N/A
Roberto Luongo2018-194Limited NTC
Jeff Carter2018-194N/A
Shea Weber2018-198N/A
Ilya Kovalchuk2019-206NTC
Jonathan Quick2020-213N/A
Zach Parise2021-224NMC
Ryan Suter2021-224NMC
Sidney Crosby2022-233NMC

* - Zdeno Chara was signed under the new rules, the final year of his contract is equal to its cap hit because it occurs after he is 40.

Not all of these players are going to play all of these years. In fact, I expect several of them to not play any years once their salary has dipped below the cap hit. Still, in the summer of 2016, we're looking at Hossa and Franzen each dipping below the inflection point, each without any sort of no-trade or no-movement clause, and Franzen will be 36, Hossa 37. If either guy has fallen well below their performance now, I expect their clubs will look at dealing them, and I have to imagine teams near the salary floor will be eager to buy.  What low-budget team wouldn't want a formerly great player on a cheap contract with a high cap hit and no no-trade clause to deal with?  And yeah, nearly half of these players have NMCs, but all NMCs really prevent are a player being placed on waivers.  It's difficult for a player to keep his team from trading him if he knows that they really want him out.

Are these contracts a panacea for what ills the NHL have-nots? No, not by a long shot.  It's unclear just how many of these players will actually finish out their contracts, or will even finish out the beginning of their salary declines.  Furthermore, the cap savings in some of these deals varies greatly - for some it's only a few hundred thousand dollars in the first few years.  Regardless of how this CBA turns out, I expect we'll see a fair number of great players ending their careers wearing a funny-looking uniform, a Band-Aid on a long-term problem.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Have Plenty Of Canned Food and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Videos: Lockout Watch, Part 1

This begins my series on the impending lockout - I wrote two articles on the CBA earlier in the year, but realized that the last thing anyone wanted to hear about during the season is collective bargaining disputes.  Now that it's July, I can either write an article about how undervalued Alex Semin is, or this.  

According to Ren Lavoie of RDS and Larry Brooks of the New York Post, the owners have made a proposal to the players which consists of the following:

1.  The players would get 46% of league revenues, instead of the current 57%.  Furthermore, the cap would decrease further - it would be only $4 million over the midpoint rather than the current $8 million.

2.  A player would become an unrestricted free agent after 10 years NHL service, as opposed to at 27 or with 7 years of NHL service.

3.  The maximum length of an NHL contract would be 5 years.  Signing bonuses would be eliminated, as would the ability to pay players differing amounts in different years of a contract.

4.  Salary arbitration would be eliminated.

5.  Entry-level contracts would be 5 years instead of the current 3.

Larry Brooks is also reporting that the way in which hockey-related revenue is tabulated would be significantly altered, leading to a further diminishing of NHL revenue that would go to the players.  

Now obviously, this proposal is largely a sham, and there's little doubt in my mind that it was the Players' Association who must've leaked this information to journalists.  The NHL cannot expect to get any of these things, but this is just the beginning of negotiations.  It is interesting, therefore, to see what the NHL considers important:

- The 'Second Contract':  Brian Burke has lamented the disappearance of the so-called 'second contract', and no doubt Lou Lamoriello is right behind him.  The second contract is the deal a player signs after his ELC expires.  Under the current rules, a player is eligible for UFA after 7 seasons in the league and eligible for arbitration after 4.  The current ELC lasts 3 years.  While there are a few NHLers who've received a relative pittance in their second contract - Karl Alzner, for one - for the most part, teams with excellent players are signing them to long-term deals that would take them until they would be unrestricted free agents.  These players are still underpaid relative to what they would receive as UFAs, but they are still earning very significant money.  We just saw two such players be exchanged in the Luke Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk swap - each team signed their guy to a long-term deal figuring that the player would still provide massive cap savings, but both players had disappointing years and the teams soured on their long-term potential.  Under a scenario where arbitration either disappears or is pushed back, teams would once again have the right to hold players' feet to the fire after their ELCs expire - take this contract or else. 

- The Entry-Level Contract:  Entry-level contracts are typically the first thing that owners can limit or reduce in negotiations, because there's no player in the union who has yet to sign one.  Therefore, there's little incentive within the current union membership, other than 'solidarity' or the like, to hold on the present structure of entry-level deals.  In fact, there may be incentive among the union to push for cheaper and longer ELCs - cash saved from longer entry-level contracts will go into the pockets of veteran players.

- Arbitration:  Almost no one actually goes to arbitration anymore, but the NHL still is considering eliminating it.  I could actually see arbitration disappearing if the league kept the UFA age where it is now, but with the NHL pushing the majority of players back into being restricted free agents, it will have to stay.  

Since, again, I think the players leaked this, there's no talk of revenue sharing and the like, but that and the revenue split are to me the central issues.  Some of these items may end up altered - UFA age may rise, arbitration age may rise, entry-level contracts may get longer, but the central issues are still about how the smaller-market teams can survive in the system as is and what portion of the dollars are due the players.  Everything else right now is merely distraction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Welease Woger! And Why The Trade Market May Not Be As Robust As It Appears

In scouring the very helpful team salary breakdowns, and cursory knowledge of teams' prospect bases, it sure looks like there are a lot of trades ready to go down in the NHL.  There's not many free agents available, and there's holes on rosters that don't seem like they can or should be filled by a club's prospect.  Still, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if the trade market totally dries up in the summer heat, and here's why:

A.  Labor uncertainty.  Scuttlebutt is that the NHL wants to cut back on the players' share of revenues which would in turn decrease the salary cap.  The cap right now is based on a 57/43 player/owner revenue split; rumors have placed the owners' initial offer of a revenue split below 50% for the players, which if accepted would drop the salary cap by over 10%.  Teams might not want to make trade offers based on the uncertainty of the cap and thus the uncertainty of certain players' value - if the cap decreases significantly, young (and thus cheap) players' values rise and older players' value falls.  Right now under a 70M cap, many veterans who signed UFA deals under the 59M cap of 2 years ago are a significant bargain.  That could change in the coming months.

B.  Amnesty buyouts.  If the cap does decrease significantly, it's hard to imagine that it would happen without the possibility of amnesty buyouts, where a team is released from its contract obligations with a player for an amount of money that won't appear on their salary cap ledger.  Imagine a second Free Agent Frenzy after the dust settles from the upcoming labor dispute; guys like Scott Gomez, Daniel Briere, Mike Komisarek, Wade Redden, Ryan Malone, Keith Ballard and so forth could become free agents, with plenty of cash in their pocket from their buyout.  Sure, none of these guys are likely to propel a team from a fringe playoff team to a championship contender, but they could help shore up holes on team's rosters, and they won't cost anything besides money.

It'll be a hard summer for fans who know their team should, by all means, make a trade to improve their circumstances, but depending on how the new CBA shakes out, the wait could be very well worth it.

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.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Could Luongo Stay?

Outside of Niklas Lidstrom’s playing status next year, no story will dominate the hockey world quite like the fast-growing goalie controversy in Vancouver. The Canucks certainly have an awkward situation on their hands – on one hand they have an elite goalie who has fallen out of favor with the majority of the fanbase, (unfairly) becoming the scapegoat for a team that has come up short on their expectations. On the other hand, they have a younger, cheaper goalie that has shown great promise, winning over the Vancouver fanbase in the process. I make two assumptions here, one is Vancouver will not keep both, the other is that other teams will make offers for Schneider. I do believe Luongo will be the odd man out, but I certainly do not believe that as strongly as others, and I will explain this below.

Ostensibly, Vancouver will begin the process by comparing the value of Luongo’s contract to a range of contracts that they theoretically see themselves giving to Schneider. But there is more – and at this point is where I believe many stop the analysis. The very factors that make Schneider more valuable than Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks also make him more valuable to every other team.

As outsiders, there is no way we can accurately speculate on just how much more valuable they see Schneider. It’s easier (but still more difficult, and still beyond the scope of this article) to identify each player’s relative trade value. What we can do, though, is talk about how the trade value of one impacts the necessary value of the other, and from there, how that relationship impacts Vancouver’s ultimate decision.

We begin with obvious – there is a whole lot of uncertainty in the market for Roberto Luongo. On production alone he is a hot commodity, but his contract precludes many teams (and possibly teams that have been speculated as trade partners) from acquiring him. There are other teams that both need goaltending and can handle the financial burden (Chicago and Edmonton), but it is not clear that Vancouver is willing to trade an elite player to one of their biggest rivals. I believe the decisions of these smaller market teams (Columbus, Florida, Tampa Bay) on whether or not they are willing to take on the burden to be one of the biggest factors in Vancouver’s ultimate decision, because if the market for Luongo becomes liquid, then we can almost guarantee that he’s gone. But if Vancouver finds the offers to be lacking, then the possibility of an offer for Schneider that closes the gap between the value I mentioned earlier becomes more and more likely.

In other words, there is an inflection point in this scenario – some point where Schneider’s advantage over Luongo is mitigated by the value Vancouver could acquire by trading Schneider. What that exact point is can only be known by Vancouver, but assuming that Luongo has played his last game as a Canuck neglects a very important part of this calculus.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Devils - Flyers Podcast Preview

In this two-part preview, Chase, Corey from Shutdownline and I were joined by friend of the blog Geoff Detweiler from Broad Street Hockey to talk about the gong show that was the Pens - Flyers series and the Flyers' second-round matchup against the Devils. Chronology be damned, we also talked about the Devils side with our own Triumph less than an hour after their game-seven win over Florida.

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Capitals - Rangers Podcast Preview

Chase, Matt, Corey from Shutdownline and I were joined by Neil Greenberg from the Washington Post and ESPN Insider. Listen in for a breakdown of the Caps upset win over Boston and preview of the Capitals - Rangers series. Plenty of #fancystats to go around and even a couple stray observations from watching games.

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Friday, April 27, 2012

WC Second Round Preview Podcast

Chase, Triumph and I were joined by podcast regular Corey (@ShutdownLine) from Shut Down Line for a breakdown of the Western Conference first-round series and previews of Nashville - Phoenix and Los Angeles - St. Louis.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

How Often Were Suspendable Plays In The Regular Given Penalties On The Ice? (And Some Ideas On How To Change This)

The world seems to have moved on from suspension talk - the playoffs are back to being the focus of the NHL bloggers and media. Still, I find it interesting how within the debates about the length of suspensions and size of fines, how little talk there is about the NHL's responsibility to the team against whom a suspendable foul was committed. NHL suspensions, after all, are served during a random set of games during the regular season - a player commits a suspendable foul, his foul and history are spun around on the NHL's Wheel of Justice, and he gets suspended for a length of time. But what about the team against whom his foul is committed? Odds are, the suspended player won't miss a game against the team whose player was fouled. The NHL's system is a deterrent towards committing suspendable acts, yes, but the team whose player may have incurred an injury as a result of a suspendable hit finds little or no redress. One of the only ways it might find redress is if the referees have determined that the suspendable incident is worthy of a penalty when it occurred on the ice - whether it merits a penalty, and what length of penalty. I recognize that officiating an NHL game is difficult, and it's precisely those sorts of suspendable plays that referees tend to miss because they are behind the play, away from the puck, and so forth. Still, let's look at the numbers from this year in the regular season:

No Penalty10
Minor Penalty10
Major Penalty14

I think the no penalty number is mildly acceptable. Part of the reason for suspensions is the fact that referees are going to miss incidents behind the play and/or away from the puck, and that linesmen are not often authorized to call penalties. I think what's more egregious are the number of minor penalties - penalties where the referees, in real time, couldn't determine that the play was dangerous enough to merit a major penalty (and I assume that all suspendable hits are eo ipso major penalties). Still, between the no calls and the minor penalty calls, of the 34 incidents the NHL deemed suspendable plays, only 41% resulted in a major penalty power play for the opposing team. I find that's far too low, especially since that's often the only real benefit a team might get for a dangerous/suspendable play. Here are a few ideas that are aimed at either trying to change this practice:

A. If the suspension is minor, suspend players only for games against the team they committed the foul against: I've heard this proposed elsewhere and I kind of like the idea. It's not really fair if, say, you're locked in a playoff race with team B, and yet one of team C's best players commits a foul against your team, that player gets suspended, then team C plays team B next game. I recognize this is a rare scenario, but the point is that suspending a player for only games against the team against which he committed the foul makes it fairer. Perhaps the aggrieved team could pick which games the suspended player is set to miss, for instance.

B. Allow linesmen more latitude to call penalties. I'm not sure how I feel about this, because the linesmen have their own job to do, but I feel that those two sets of eyes aren't used often enough by the other referees.

C. Change the penalty structure. Doogie2k suggested this on mc79hockey - the OHL makes head hits a mandatory 2 minute minor, plus a 10 minute misconduct. I'd apply this rule to illegal head hits, boarding, elbowing, and checking from behind. It seems ridiculous to me that often a little tug on a player's jersey with a stick and a violent, illegal hit into the boards usually draw the same penalty. Furthermore, I wonder if a 5 minute major is really the best way to penalize a team whose player commits an egregious foul. Perhaps the penalty should instead be an automatic 2 minute 5 on 3 power play where a goal scored does not change the manpower situation. Of course, one is faced with the problem that referees hate impacting games even when they should, and therefore we might see even fewer major penalties called.

These are all just ideas - I think we can recognize that the NHL is trying, at least a little bit, to alter the culture. I'm just not sure that outside-the-box ideas will be broached or considered, when perhaps that's precisely what's needed to alter the culture.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Driving Play Podcast - Now Available on iTunes!

Just as a quick note, we've finally added our podcasts to iTunes. Special glove-tap to 2+2 poster sylar for pointing out how easy it was.

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Odds And Ends On First Round Series

I had this long article planned about how the head to head matchup went in the regular season isn't correlated with the first round playoff record. That's true - it isn't. However, it sure does look like it matters, to some degree, since no one cares whether their team went 4 or 7 games if they ended up losing - a series loss is a series loss.

I sorted the 96 post-lockout playoff teams into first-round series winners and losers. I don't think it's particularly significant, but the first-round series winners had a .583 regular season winning percentage (OT/Shootout results removed and called 'ties') against first-round losers. They had a .569 winning percentage against everyone else. The team with the better head to head record in the regular season was 23-10 in first round playoff series.

Goal differential appears to be huge - the team with the better OT/shootout removed goal differential is 35-13 in first-round playoff series post-lockout.

Meanwhile, better Fenwick Tied doesn't appear to be an enormous advantage, as the better Fenwick Tied team is only 18-13.

Let's put all of this into a helpful table:

Criteria1st R W1st R L
Better H2H Record2310
Better Goal Differential3513
Better Fenwick Tied 1814

None of this is predictive - we don't know that GD is more predictive than Fenwick Tied from these results - but it will be interesting to see how things shake out this year.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Playoff Previews: New Jersey Vs. Florida

Our first-round previews conclude with a discussion of the series between the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. Our own Triumph covered the Devils while podcast regular Corey (@ShutdownLine) from Shut Down Line gave us the scoop on Florida. We also had comments from Chase and I hosted.

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Playoff Preview Podcasts: Blues - Sharks

The latest and classiest edition of the Driving Play Playoff Podcast features a discussion of the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks series out West. This installment features commentary from Jared (@jaredlunsford), Corey (@ShutdownLine), Triumph (@Triumph44) and myself (@chasew12).


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Playoff Preview Podcast: Chicago - Phoenix

To cover the Hawks - Yotes series, we got the Chicago side from our own Matt M. Friend of the blog and podcast regular Corey (@shutdownline) from Shut Down Line, with help from Chase and Triumph, gave us the Phoenix side.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Playoff Preview Podcasts: Bruins - Capitals

Our latest installment is a preview of the Bruins/Capitals series with special guest Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) from the Washington Post and ESPN. Even if you're not a fan of either team, be sure to give this a listen for some excellent content and analysis.


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Playoff Preview Podcasts: Rangers - Senators

The next edition of the Driving Play Podcast features our regular crew with guest George Ays (@RangerSmurf) from Blueshirt Banter and Tracking the NY Rangers discussing an intriguing first-round matchup between New York and Ottawa.


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Playoff Preview Podcast: Penguins - Flyers

This time Triumph lead the surprisingly civil discussion of the Pittsburgh - Philadelphia series. We were joined by gentleman, scholar and Flyers blogger Eric T. (@BSH_EricT) from Broad Street Hockey.

Just as a programming note, Brent (Triumph) is your host and Chase is chiming in with comments about both the Flyers and the Penguins. His official prediction stands at Flyers in four.

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The Driving Play Podcast Playoff Previews - Predators v. Red Wings

While others were spending a nice holiday weekend with their families, we were busy recording previews for each playoff series. We'll be rolling them out over the next couple days, starting the series with Wednesday games.

First up is the Detroit - Nashville series. We were joined by JJfromKansas (@jjfromkansas) from Winging It In Motown for his Red Wings expertise and Dirk Hoag (@forechecker) from On the Forecheck bringing the high level of insight on the Predators that we have come to expect and appreciate.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Playoff Preview Podcasts: Canucks - Kings

This edition follows a little different format due to timing issues. Cam Charron (@CamCharron) of The Province and Canucks Army, to whom I apologize for my Cherryesque pronunciation of his name, was kind enough to take time away from visiting his family on the holiday weekend to talk Canucks. We wrapped things up by bringing on our own Chase to give his perspective on the Kings.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Power Plays In The First Round Of The Playoffs

In 2009-2010, the Devils were fourth from last in the NHL in power play opportunities, receiving 3.32 power plays per game. However, in the playoffs, the Devils drew 6.4 power plays in their 5 games. As a Devils fan I should have been over the moon, right? What a turnaround! Except, of course, their opponent the Flyers also drew 5.6 penalties per game in those 5 contests and scored 4 more power play goals than New Jersey, drumming them out of the playoffs. I wondered - if power plays go up in the playoffs, are officials more apt to call penalties with more eyes on them, knowing that being a 'good' referee will get them promoted to the next round? Are players being more reckless with more at stake?

It turns out, they do go up - every year post-lockout, there are more power plays per game per team in the first round than in the regular season:

YearPP/G RegPP/G PlyffDifference

The difference hasn't been enormous, but it's there. I suspect it's a combination of the factors I mentioned above - players going at full speed every play, every board battle becoming incredibly important, and referees feeling the pressure of more eyes on them. One hopes that the referees do not decide to call the interference penalties they've been not calling for months now - not that I enjoy the slower game, but I don't like it when players don't seem to have any idea what is or is not a penalty.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

How Much Do the Kings Miss Jack Johnson?

If you would only listen, you might just realize what you're missing. You're missing me.
- Jack Johnson, Bubble Toes

February 23rd, the L.A. Kings traded Jack Johnson and what turned out to be their 2012 first-round pick for Jeff Carter. While most of us in the analytical community thought it was a steal, some thought Johnson would be a lot to lose. Let's take a look at how things have changed since he left.

Defensemen WOWY

Johnson split his time pretty evenly between Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell. Here are the on-ice Corsi rates and percentages for each of these defensemen with and without Johnson:

Corsi RateWith JJWithout JJ

Corsi %With JJWithout JJ

I was expecting an increase, but wow(ee)! Johnson's time being split evenly between those three guys makes this even more damning. The strong pattern with all three defensemen effectively eliminates other explanations like zone starts, playing with better forwards or his partner switching to Doughty. Jack Johnson was dragging his teammates down, pure and simple.


Let's now look at how the centers and defensemen he didn't play as much with have fared before and after the trade.

Corsi RateBefore TradeAfter Trade
None of Above7.5398.077

Some of these numbers, especially Richards's, have a lot to do with Jeff Carter's play and how he has impacted the team indirectly - by taking tougher minutes and just shifting around the forward slots. No matter what, it's pretty clear that the Kings are doing quite well without Jack Johnson, thank you very much.


Since the deadline, the Kings have been one of the best teams in the NHL. Some of the improvement is what Carter has brought to the table and part of it is everything clicking and everyone playing well. A big reason, perhaps the most important, for their success since the deadline is no longer icing Jack Johnson 23 minutes a game. The Kings miss Jack Johnson as a teenager misses his virginity.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Darren Dreger Would Be Squandering His Vezina Vote

Last night, TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger sent out a tweet that has rightfully raised eyebrows within the analytical hockey community. The message reads:

When questioned on the matter, Dreger responded with the following:

Speaking to his first remark about consistency, Dreger does have a bit of a point here; Fleury has consistently been a below average goaltender this season. For the 2011-2012 campaign, Fleury's even-strength save percentage is .914, markedly below the league-average number George E. Ays shows us here:

Though Broad Street Hockey's Eric T. points out that overall save percentage may be a better predictor of a goalie's future success in the short run, i.e. over one season, he also shows that ESSV% is the better predictor over large samples. Lucky for us, we have even-strength data going back to 2003-2004 pour la fleur. The results are as follows:

YearES SavesES Shots AgainstESSV%

Even if we throw the best indicator for Fleury's future success out the window, his overall save percentage this season is 0.913 which still falls below league average. Without digging up the precise numbers, this tweet from draglikepull sums up the point perfectly:

Unfortunately, Mr. Dreger seems to have fallen for the same illusion that so many in the mainstream media have before him. Marc-Andre Fleury has no business in a discussion for the Vezina trophy this season, last season, or likely in any season going forward. Good coaching, strong possession metrics and the ability to keep the play as far away from The Flower as possible are what have kept the Penguins afloat amidst their run of injuries.

In sum,

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Much Are The Teams With The Largest Salary Commitments Actually Spending? (Or State Of Contracts In The NHL, Part 2B)

Fancy stats guru Eric T. tweeted to DrivingPlay after my State Of NHL Contracts Part 2 was posted, asking thus:

"So it matters whether you look at % of spend or % of cap, then, I guess? You'll find same % of spend, but lower % of cap?"

Decoding this question out of Twitter pidgin, he essentially asked - are teams spending as much money (proportionally) as they did in my comparison year (08-09)? And the answer is: Yes. They're actually spending more, at least the top teams are. Sussing out this sort of information is time-consuming, so rather than looking at the entire NHL, I took the top 12 teams in terms of cap hits (according to from this year and from 2008-09. I then looked at the total salary they paid out, counting all one-way contracts¹, and counting all call-ups proportionally to the time they were called up. Most of these were estimates based on me wanting to get through this data collection as fast as possible, so these numbers could be off by a tiny amount.

I'll spare you the individual details, but it suffices to say that the top teams are spending more, proportionally to the cap, than they did in 2008-09, while their cap spending has gone down (relative to the cap). Here's an average of the top 12 teams' actual spending as well as their total cap hits.

YearTotal Paid Salary% Of CapTotal Cap Hits% Of Cap

It's clear, then, that among top teams, salaries have continued to rise even faster than the cap. We can see that cap hits and cap payments used to be pretty much equal, but now one has far outstripped the other. Part of that is a function of the fact that these severely front-loaded contracts are new to the NHL; I imagine there will be some settling. On the flip side, one also imagines that salaries among bottom teams would show a similar fall - as teams like the Islanders struggle to make a profit even with their team parked right at the salary floor, they are using players with significant bonuses and backloading contracts to get around paying the full $49M that is this year's salary floor.

It's also clear that something in this system has to change if the NHL wants to maintain that the salary cap increases parity, because as it is now, the top teams are all spending well over the cap in total salaries each year, and I don't see why this would change in the future.

¹ Data on one-way contracts was incomplete from 2008-09

The Driving Play Podcast - 2012 Playoff Race Edition

Good evening, friends. We're back again with another edition of the Driving Play Podcast, this time discussing the tight playoff races in the Eastern and Western Conferences. We are happy to be joined by Corey Sznajder of the Carolina Hurricanes blog Shutdown Line. Just as a production note, we recorded this podcast yesterday before Buffalo's win over Washington, the Pens losing to the Islanders and the Rangers beating the Wild. Small sample sizes and having confidence in Dale Hunter can be cruel mistresses.


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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The State Of Contracts In The NHL Today, Part 2

In Part 1, I examined how the top contracts in the league have essentially stagnated in the last 4 years, which means that relative to the salary cap, they've gone down. We know that entry level contracts have a cap on them which essentially limits how much they can pay out, and cursory examination of will show that the NHL essentially has a slotting system for entry-level deals.

However, one place that contracts could be exploding is for RFA forwards. Perhaps teams, wary of other teams offer sheeting their own players, or fearful of being taken to arbitration, are being more generous with their RFA players. A closer study shows that this isn't the case - once again, RFA salaries have stagnated despite the expanding cap.

To study this properly, I first sorted for RFA-age forwards who played more than 40 games with at least .4 Points Per Game (numbers courtesy of I then looked at all the eligible forwards who signed new contracts in the summer of 2008 versus the summer of 2011. However, one cannot just sort contracts willy-nilly - I examined whether or not an RFA player was eligible for arbitration, how many years of UFA eligibility the contract he signed gave up, and how long his contract was signed for. This didn't leave me with too many contracts to directly compare, but I think it makes my point just as well. If one looks at the entire list of contracts signed, they would see that there is simply not much difference between then and now despite the nearly 15% increase in the salary cap between the two summers.

Without further ado, here's our first table; we're comparing forwards who signed 2 year contracts, who were not arbitration eligible, and who gave up none of their UFA years:

YearsTotal ContractsPPG AverageAvg. ContractAvg. % Of Cap

(Salary numbers courtesy of and

If we remember that 2008 was a higher scoring year than 2011, we can basically call the points per game even, and yet the players are making less money, and far less money against the cap. Perhaps that's a fluke - we are after all only looking at 8 contracts, and points per game isn't a scientific way to examine a contract's value.

Here's players who sign 5 year contracts with 1 year of UFA included who aren't eligible for arbitration:

YearsTotal ContractsPPG AverageAvg. ContractAvg. % Of Cap

Again, we find a similar pattern. If we look at the percentage of the cap these contracts take up, it's higher in 2008.

Here we're looking at contracts that go for 2 years, don't have any UFA years, and are for players who are arbitration-eligible:

YearsTotal ContractsPPG AverageAvg. ContractAvg. % Of Cap

Once again, players who signed in 2011 got less money than players who signed in 2008. It's hard to imagine that agents aren't aware of these sorts of numbers - teams must be able to sell the fact that they don't have the same kind of money to sign these players.

In Part 3, I'll be examining possible reasons why contract amounts are stagnating and contracts are going down relative to the salary cap.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The State Of Contracts In The NHL Today, Part 1

It's been ripping good fun watching teams ink their best players for periods of time that I hadn't even considered possible. By the time Ilya Kovalchuk's contract ends, people will be riding on Hoverboards, but not for leisure, as they will be using them in the fight against the deadly invasion of space aliens. Remember that you read this on Driving Play first; perhaps that will be your last thought as you enter the terrible tentacled maw of an interstellar conqueror.

I seem to have gotten off track here, but it's going to be fascinating watching teams maneuver with these contracts on board over the next 5-8 years. Some of them are time bombs, waiting to explode in a team's face. We can't say which. Others will provide the foundation for a Stanley Cup championship. And while I expect this trend to be reversed under the next CBA - even as many teams have one of these contracts on their books, they no doubt realize the enormous advantage conveyed upon teams that have multiple ultra-long-term contracts, and are going to work to remove the possibility of such a contract under the next CBA - the cat is out of the bag. Let's look at when these big contracts end.

2018: 9
2019: 4
2020: 6
2021: 5
2022: 2
2023: 1
2024: 0
2025: 1

That's a total of 28 contracts that end more than 6 years from now, and that number will no doubt increase when Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Shea Weber are re-signed this offseason, among others. 17 NHL teams have a contract that ends in 2018 or later.

Most of these contracts are at 'discount prices.' For instance, Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk are signed to deals that have a 5.2M and 6.6M cap hit, respectively, and that end roughly when your life's course will be fully determined and there's no extricating yourself from your fate. Their cap hits on contracts both signed after the end of the lockout, when the salary cap was 39M? 6M and 6.3M, respectively. Their cap hits have barely moved even as the salary cap itself has nearly doubled, and this was for players who were RFA when they signed their post-lockout deals, and UFA when they signed their lifetime contracts.

I decided to look at the top 20 largest cap hits in the league in 2008-09 and the biggest cap hits in the league in 2011-12. The summer of 2008 was when teams seemingly decided that the cap would never go anything but outrageously upwards - the economy was robust, NHL fans had forgotten about the lockout, and Glen Sather knew that the surge of Wade Redden jersey purchases would pay for that contract by themselves.

YearTotal Top 20 SalarySalary Cap% Of Total Cap Space

The 'Total Top 20 Salary' column refers to the summed amount of the top 20 biggest cap hits in the league. As we can see, it's barely moved despite the fact that the cap has grown by more than $7M. The '% Of Total Cap Space' refers to the top 20 salaries' total being divided by the salary cap amount times 30, for the 30 teams in the NHL. We can see that the percentage has gone down by nearly a full percent. That doesn't sound like very much, but we're talking about nearly 1% of 1.7 billion dollars. That means that cap-hit wise, the top 20 contracts are down by nearly an average of $766K relative to the cap. In total dollars, as we can see, things have remained relatively stagnant.

The deals that are super-long term don't really fit into this mold either, as only 5 contracts in the current top 20 biggest cap hits end in 2018 or after. That means these players whose big contracts end earlier will almost certainly face pressure to sign for a lower cap hit - odds are they will be out of their prime when their current deal ends.

In Part 2, I will examine RFA forwards to see if this trend also holds true among lower paid players, and in Part 3, I will give some reasons why the NHL is evolving in this way.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Has Ilya Kovalchuk Changed For The Better?

It's a thing that gets repeated in the media all the time - Ilya Kovalchuk's making a Commitment to Defense. He Wants To Win and is now Listening To The Coaches. See here as Bobby Holik holds him up as a paragon for Alex Ovechkin to emulate. See here as Pierre Lebrun calls him a Hart Trophy candidate. One thing that's not getting talked about is how Kovalchuk's shooting percentage has gone to seed as a New Jersey Devil. Kovalchuk, as of March 8th, is shooting 11.1% as a Devil, scoring on exactly 1 out of every 9 shots. As an Atlanta Thrasher, he shot 14.95% - the difference may not sound like much, but that's scoring on more than one out of every 7 shots. For a player who shoots upwards of 3.5 times a game, it's a significant difference - assuming Kovalchuk's career shot rate and an 80 game season, it's a difference of 11 goals a year. That's going to be difficult to make up in other ways - the question is, can we account for this difference?

First, we must point out that shooting percentage for everyone should be down - league-wide goaltending has gotten slightly better over the course of Kovalchuk's career. According to, the average save percentage was .908 in Kovalchuk's first season, it is now .914. In addition, there were many more power plays league-wide early in Kovalchuk's career - power plays are at a 30 year low again this season. Kovalchuk had 27 power play goals in 2005-06, the leader this year is not even on pace for 20. So we should expect some sort of drop in total shooting percentage, but his percentages have dropped both at even strength and at 5 on 4.

Here's Kovalchuk's shooting percentages since 2007-08, split into 5v5 and 5v4 (EN goals not removed, source

YearGoals5v5Shots5v5S%Goals 5v4Shots 5v4S%

We don't have enough information to say that's a trend, but it doesn't look good. Still, a smart fan who's good at the eye test will tell me this: 'Sure, Kovalchuk's shooting percentage is down at even strength - it's because he's not cheating for breakaways like he used to. He's gotten better defensively.' And sure enough, an examination of save percentages yield some hope. I compared Kovalchuk's save percentage while on the ice 5 on 5 to when he was off (source:

Again, it's difficult to ascribe this to anything besides randomness, but at the very least, what appears to have been a trend is reversing. It's difficult to tell though, as Kovalchuk's teams have largely gotten below-average goaltending. However, at least this season, it's difficult to ascribe that to him or players playing like him on his line.

Here's a look at Goals For per 60 minutes at even strength and Goals Against per 60 minutes (source:


Again, what seems to have been a high goal player on both ends has become a player much closer to the NHL average in terms of goals for and against. So let's go to the real stats, the Corsi and so forth (source: and

YearCorsi RelCorsi ONZone StartES +/-
The Corsi Rel is slightly improving but it's difficult to say that's that great given the zone starts - New Jersey is slightly above 50% in total zone starts. Plus, Kovalchuk plays with Zach Parise, one of the game's best play drivers before this year. It's hard to find much of an indication here that Kovalchuk is becoming a substantially better player - we can't know for sure if his defense was responsible for his goalie's decreased save percentage, nor can we necessarily call his upswing in that department this year a 'trend', as last year he was substantially below par.
The one place where we can say for sure that Kovalchuk has 'improved' is a place where he's rarely played - the penalty kill. While Kovalchuk is getting better zone starts than just about anyone on the PK, his Corsi Rel ranks 2nd in the league among PKers with more than 1 minute per game of short-handed ice time, and he has 3 short handed goals and 2 assists. Kovalchuk has been on the ice for 5 goals for and 2 goals against while shorthanded 4 on 5, a remarkable feat in 70 minutes of PK time. As far as I can remember, New Jersey has not been shorthanded at the end of a game in which they trailed by 1 or 2, which might warp the Corsi results, as the Devils would try to pull their goalie and attempt lots of shots on the opposition's net. Kovalchuk has been a top penalty killer, and that's certainly a skill most wouldn't've thought he was capable of before this season.
In summary, while Kovalchuk's shooting percentage numbers have declined, his Corsi Rel has slightly improved. We also can't forget that Kovalchuk has moved to right wing for most of this season - perhaps that's part of why his shooting percentage has declined. Still, even though Kovalchuk has earned many plaudits for this season, Devils fans have to be concerned that the guy they got is not entirely the guy they paid for, and it remains to be seen whether that will turn out to be a positive development.