Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Real Problem With Big Goalie Contracts

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

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

The New Type Of Trade

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

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Corsi Rates and Corsi +/-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 7, 2013

On the Firing of Peter Laviolette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Driving Play's 2013-14 NHL Season Preview Podcast

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

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

Thanks for listening, and enjoy!

Download (Right Click, Save As)

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Paradox Of The Bridge Deal

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

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

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ilya Kovalchuk's Retirement and Its Effect On The Devils

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Risks Of This Year's Free Agent Class

It's mid-June, which means two things:  two teams most of us don't care about are playing for the Stanley Cup, I guess, and free agency is about to get underway.  For the non-game-watchers (who I now dub the Corsiati), free agency is an ever-entertaining-spectacle, as teams foolishly outbid each other for mid-range talent that they then trade to one another halfway through the contract.  It's a game of blind musical chairs where the winner is the person outside the circle laughing at the people playing.

This year is different from all others in the salary cap era in that the cap is actually falling.  While few teams treated the $70.3 million salary cap like a real figure last off-season, it's still going to put a strain on the dollars available this season.  We only need consult capgeek to see how this $64.3M cap will affect clubs - 6 teams are already over $60M, and only 6 are currently below next year's $44M floor.  We know there are compliance buyouts coming, but while those do increase the amount of room available, they also increase the number of free agents in the pool.  In addition, some big spender teams that appear to have a lot of room, like the Rangers, have to re-sign most of their core players this year or next, which will no doubt strain the budget.

The wags have already weighed on the free-agent signings that have taken place so far - Sergei Gonchar at 2 years and $10M and Mark Streit at 4 years and $21M - stating that the 'market has been set' and that prices will explode.  The trouble with these deals is not so much the money as it is the years.  Gonchar is 39, turning 40 at the end of next season, and Streit is 36 in December.  While both played at a high level this season, it's not hard to see Father Time creeping up on them (neither appeared to drive play at ES this year).  First, a dispelling - there's no reason for a player traded to a new team before signing a contract, as Gonchar and Streit were, to give that team a discount.  Gonchar was only dealt for a conditional pick, but Streit was traded for a non-refundable pick (and a non-prospect).  In fact, in Streit's case, it's a reason to drive a harder bargain.  We've seen contracts like this in the past with Ehrhoff, Bryzgalov, and Wideman - they do not seem to be discounts.  They seem to be overpays based on the fact that a team 'had' to have this player. (I know, I know, Ehrhoff was terrific this year, he's still signed for 8 more years).  So let's dispense with the talk that these contracts have somehow 'set the market' - they've done no such thing.  Ian White and Marek Zidlicky will get contracts based on what other teams are willing to pay them, not what they themselves demand to be paid as a result of Gonchar and Streit's deals.  However, there's another way in which these contracts do appear to set a kind of market for the deals to come - the money isn't totally outrageous, but the number of years are.  That's the kind of market it figures to be.

There's not a lot of money available in free agency and it's thought that the salary cap will go up in future seasons.  What can teams offer to outbid one another?  Absent a state or province with no income tax or the chance to play for a contender, there's not much - except years on the contract.  It will not be dollars per year that necessarily determine who goes where, it'll be how many years a team is offering.  And indeed, with a rising salary cap, why not take the risk that Mike Ribeiro will be productive at 36?  Won't his cap hit just be the NHL average by the time the contract ends?  Isn't medical science always advancing?  So on July 5 when your team appears to have landed a 'bargain' compared to years past, make sure to check the number of years on the deal - those July fist-pumps could easily curdle into an endless checking of capgeek's buyout calculator by the time 2015 rolls around.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Shot Differentials Of Non-Playoff Teams 1995-2013

One of the more disappointing aspects of the hockey stat revolution, if it can even be called that, is that time stops in October 2007.  Corsi data goes back no further.  Were we to make a graphical representation of our knowledge, we'd have a section labeled October 2007-April 2013 and outside of that would be tigers, griffins, wyverns, and other mythical creatures marking unknown territory.  It's a bit of a pin in the balloon of the certainty with which we stat types speak that we have to say things like 'Since 2007-2008...' - I mean, it's a year we all remember pretty well.  It's hard to be blown away by anything in that range.

I consider the modern era and thus the Corsi revolution to have begun in around 1995-96.  Standup goalies were on the way out, the neutral zone trap was in vogue, and we no longer see teams who win the Stanley Cup with a negative shot differential anymore (like the 80s Oilers).  Plus we got 4 more expansion teams which significantly altered one's chances of making the playoffs - before the second round of expansion, 61.5% of teams made the playoffs, now we're down to 53.3%.  I just wanted to see how important shots were in a grander scheme than the last six years, so I went all the way back to 1995 and with some hockey-reference finagling, looked at all the non-playoff teams and their shot differentials.

GIANT CAVEAT:  I realize that these are loaded up with score effects - teams with poor goaltending are more likely to have good shot differentials because they trail in games more frequently, and teams who miss the playoffs are also likely to be trailing more often.  Still, taking a wide view of this data, I think we can still learn a lot from it.

Of the 231 teams to miss the playoffs in the years between 1995 and 2013, 55 had 50% of the shots or better.  I didn't run a similar study on the playoff teams to see how many of them had positive shot differentials, but it's pretty clear it's a substantial number.  Of those teams who had 50% or better shot percentages and missed the playoffs, 27 of them had made the playoffs the year previous, with an average shot differential of 50.4%, and won an average of nearly 3 playoff games (this counts all teams, whether they made or missed the playoffs, so an average of 3 is pretty good).  The 1996 and 2013 Devils, 2003 and 2007 Carolina Hurricanes, 2004 Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and the 1999 Washington Capitals are six teams who missed the playoffs after having reached the Cup Final the year before, all of whom had shot differentials over 50% the next season.  They are also 6 out of the 7 teams who've missed the playoffs after making the Cup Finals the year previous - the other one, the 2006 Oilers, had a positive shot differential the year before their Cup season.

Two teams continually missed the playoffs with a 50+% shot differential - the late 90s Calgary Flames and the late 00s Toronto Maple Leafs.  The obvious culprits are terrible goaltending and mediocre shooting - we all know the late 00s Leafs had wretched goaltending in the form of Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala, and the Flames fared no better with a murderer's row of Trevor Kidd, Rick Tabaracci, and Fred Braithwaite.

So how did teams do the season after missing the playoffs with a 50+% shot differential?  Not as well as they had done the season before missing the playoffs.  Their shot differential is about the same, but only 21 of 52 teams made the playoffs, and all teams only averaged 2.13 playoff wins.  However, only 29 teams maintained the 50+% shot differential, and 18 of those made the playoffs.  This means that only 3 of the remaining 23 teams who shot worse than 50% made the playoffs the next season.  Since poor goaltending is a likely culprit in most of these teams missing the postseason to begin with, it's not that surprising that they couldn't be saved once they fell under the 50% threshold.

I wanted to look at teams with sub 50% shot differentials to see how they do the year after, but I think that is unfortunately mucked up by the fact that this era has a bunch of expansion teams who were pretty likely to struggle for several years.  I think we can get by with just Fenwick/Corsi numbers to examine that phenomenon.  Regardless, if you have a 50% shot differential or better, you're likely to make the playoffs, and if you didn't make the playoffs with that shot differential, you're likely to make it the next year if you can maintain that level.  There's anomalies for sure - the late 90s Flames, the late 00s Leafs, and the 03 and 04 Hurricanes who were particularly ghastly for a team that managed a positive shot differential - but shots are good.  Outshooting the other team is good.  You tend to make the playoffs if you do it and you tend to miss the playoffs if you don't.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Note About Alex Ovechkin's "Resurgence"

Thus far, one of the most talked about stories of the shortened NHL season has been the resurgence of one Alex Ovechkin. Currently on pace to rival some of his gaudy goal totals from 2005-2010, the Great Eight has found twine 28 times in 44 games, good for a 52 goal pace in a normal 82 game season. During this, his age 27 season, Ovechkin is again producing like his 24 year old self.

Since we know that players generally peak around age 25, the inner skeptic fueled me to take a deeper look into just where Ovechkin's sudden spike in production is coming from. Following the lead of the fine folks at Russian Machine Never Breaks, below is a breakdown of Ovechkin's 5v5 and 5v4 numbers in 2013 compared with his 5-year averages from 2007-12 (numbers via

Ovechkin 5v5
2007-12 (Avg)25.825.6254.412.5610.1014

Ovechkin 5v4
2007-12 (Avg)13.815105.218.040.1312

There are two points to take home: first, Ovechkin's goals are coming less from even strength play, as his shot rates have slightly improved from last season but still fall below his insane 5-year average. While it's true that even a slightly mortal Alex Ovechkin still shoots with the league's best, Ovie's declining 5v5 totals just aren't in line with what we'd expect from 50-goal Alex Ovechkin.

Second, Ovechkin is shooting a hot 23% on the power play this season. Compare that with his 5-year average of 13.12%, a number closer in line with the league average 5v4 scoring rate, and we better understand why 50-goal Alex Ovechkin again walks the earth. Chris Gordon's observation that
The goals must come from somewhere else, and they do. The Caps feed him the puck so he can launch a quick shot from the circles, usually on the power play.
is spot-on, but comes with a "yeah, but..." attached if we're to look toward the future.

It's very possible that Alex Ovechkin is an above-average power play shooter, but approaching 10% better than league-average is far less likely. 50-goal Alex Ovechkin may have returned in 2013, but when it's entirely on the heels of something as volatile as PP SH%, next season's narratives almost write themselves. If Ovechkin can sustain the increase in PP shots he's getting in Oates's system, 40-goal Ovechkin may have a victory lap or two before Father Time reigns him in. However, projecting a player like Ovechkin to sustain this scoring rate becomes far less certain when he's depending on more goals to come from the inherent volatility involved with scoring on the PP.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Special Teams Shot Differential

Mike 'Doc' Emrick purports to hate numbers and mentions how bad he is with them, but one of the numbers he liked and mentioned often during his regular broadcasting days was something called Special Teams Index - it was quite basic, you summed a team's power play percentage and a penalty kill percentage, and voila - there was your Special Teams Index. 100 is average, anything 5-10+ points above is real good, anything 5-10+ points below is real bad. Easy stuff, right?

These days, we know a bit better - we know that penalty killing and power play success is driven by the number of shots a team is able to both get and prevent and that teams don't have a huge amount of control over either shooting percentage or goaltending. Furthermore, power play and penalty killing percentage don't take into account how many short handed goals a team either allows or scores, much less shots. So knowing that shots tend to be more meaningful than goals when we think about what's going to happen in the future, I whipped all these new items into something I call Special Teams Shot Differential - It's the sum of a team's power play shot differential (Shots For per 60 minutes - Shots Allowed per 60 minutes) and penalty killing shot differential. Here's a table of the whole league, with their 5v4 and 4v5 goal differentials on beside it (numbers courtesy of, which is updating wonkily and thus these numbers may be slightly incorrect).

TeamShot DifferentialGoal Differential
CGY -3.94

Now I haven't included power play differential in this at all, so some things will be skewed - some teams who are close to 0 in shot differential may be generating more shots than they allow by virtue of drawing more penalties and vice versa. Still, we see the teams who have a bad shot differential tend to give up goals on special teams, and teams who have good shot differentials score them. Most surprising on this list to me was Anaheim, who've led a charmed existence at even strength but are really quite good on special teams and are not fully seeing the benefits of that (Their -26 PP/PK differential is the culprit here - ditto Boston, who's having a remarkable year on the PK). Still, though, we see just how little 5v4 and 4v5 power plays and penalty kills matter in the big picture - few teams have a differential plus or minus 10, those that do are largely driven by luck, and we're nearly halfway done with a regular season.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The NHL Trade Deadline Doesn't Owe You Anything

It's become fashionable in NHL blogger circles to lament the death of trade deadline excitement.  Every year, we hear the same thing:  TSN's Trade Deadline Show is so boring!  Where's the action?  Where's the surprise?  It's just six guys in a studio, one of whom can't stop raving about big body presence.  People take the day off work in Canada to watch the events as they unfold, enduring the same ten second highlight package of Florida's best 2nd line forward twenty times to hear James Duthie announce that someone you've never heard of has been dealt for a 6th round pick.  If you're reading this and were planning to take off work, don't - it's likely that nothing much happens.

I get excited for Deadline Day too, but I get excited when my team signs undrafted free agents that no one's ever heard of.  Trades fire my inner gambler - I get to ruminate on whether a team gave up too much and what they can hope for out of this player.  It's obviously more exciting when my team makes a move, as I immediately begin to think about how this player slots into the lineup and where he presumably stands on the depth chart.  So I'm not saying Deadline Day is inherently boring, just that the NHL has changed a great deal since it was established as a national holiday north of the border.  Let's go down the reasons:

1:  The NHL used to be separated into two categories:  teams that could afford to sign their free agents and those that couldn't.

When the UFA age was 31 and there was no salary cap, there were usually only a few teams interested in players in July.  Everyone else sat by and let their franchises get picked clean.  Rather than sit idly, teams out of the playoff race would deal their UFAs at the trade deadline, and thus was deadline fever born.  This year, people thought Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry would be deadline bait, but both were signed to 8 year contracts instead; I'm pretty sure the motivation for signing was to ruin all our deadline speculations and fun.  Last year, we saw Ales Hemsky stay in Edmonton rather than find his way to a Cup contender like we'd all thought.  With the salary floor, it's hard to point to many franchises who straight up cannot afford a certain player.

2:  Teams didn't know about or did not care about the value of prospects like they do now

I say this glibly, but some of those deadline deals in the 90s and early 2000s cost teams substantial young players.  We seldom see this anymore - most players moved at the deadline go for a draft pick.  I've written elsewhere about the difference between a prospect and a draft pick, but prospects are usually worth more because they are closer to being NHLers.  This is why the Brenden Morrow trade is such a surprise - Joe Morrow seems like a darn good prospect, and they don't go in these sorts of deals.  Teams now hang on to their prospects because the salary cap makes them some of the most valuable commodities.

3:  If you want to make a big deal, you want to do it with as much time left in the season as possible

There are still some big names moved before the deadline - trouble for the TSN crew, they move days before.  If you are going to give up something significant for a player, you want more games with him to acclimate to your team. If Jarome Iginla is traded, I expect for it to happen well before the deadline - there's no reason to drag it out, his price probably isn't moving much, nor are his suitors getting more desperate.

4:  The NHL has more parity than ever

It's hard for teams to pack it in when they're a few points out of a playoff spot, and right now almost the entire NHL is 'a few points out of a playoff spot' if they're not already in one.  There are only 4 teams that currently sit more than 5 points out of a playoff berth.  With the loser point firmly in place, it makes it much more difficult for teams in 13th place to clamber over all the other clubs to earn a playoff spot, but the standings are deceivingly close.  It's a rare franchise that can pass on the chance at postseason play.

2008 seems to have been the acme of Trade Deadline fever - Marian Hossa, Sergei Fedorov, Brad Richards, Brian Campbell, Cristobal Huet, Bryce Salvador, Brad Stuart, and Adam Foote were all traded on Deadline Day.  It's time for TSN and the NHL chattering class to scale back the expectations - with fewer teams playing free agency chicken with their big-name players, a greater ability for teams to afford their stars (with 8 year deals instead of 7), and teams realizing that dealing for excellent players at the deadline is not always a panacea, deadline fever will be a thing of the past.  Sad for us, but good for the NHL:  It's an unhealthy league where excellent players are often on the move for future considerations.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On Why Signing P.K. Subban To A Two-Year Deal Is Not As Stupid As People Think

Howls and scorn and hue and cry greeted Montreal GM Marc Bergevin when his beloved Habs opened the season without their best defenseman, P.K. Subban.  The fancystatsosphere was chuckling at Bergevin's stubbornness - why would he hold the line like this on his best young player?  Who was going to sign Subban to an offer sheet to relieve the Habs of their terrible burden?  Finally, PK and Montreal agreed to a 2 year deal that's incredibly cheap, and somehow stat geeks still yelled - Bergevin was alienating his best player, he had no reason to give out such an inexpensive contract, etc. etc.

P.K. Subban's contract ends when he is 25 years old, with 2 years of RFA eligibility left.  He's having yet another great season - not just by microstats either.  He's at nearly a point per game, and up above 3 shots per game.  Skeptics will once again argue that the Habs are letting Subban drive his price up substantially for his next contract - perhaps they are right.

Yet one thing the 8 year Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf contracts drive home - it is damned expensive to let players get close to unrestricted free agency.  Perry and Getzlaf are both 28 years old - their contracts will end when they are 36.  We know forwards peak at around age 25 (there's a better link for that for sure, but rest assured it's true), so those contracts are likely to go real sour when Perry and Getzlaf are reaching their mid-30s. Now that teams can't reduce cap hit via long-tail contracts, they are going to have to choose when to offer their young franchise players an 8 year contract.  If Subban gets an 8 year offer at the conclusion of this contract - and unless he gets injured or somehow regresses seriously, I don't see how he doesn't - that deal would bring him to age 33, with two years worth of RFA eligibility in the deal.  PK couldn't use the threat of the market to drive up his price (unless he courted offer sheets) so the Habs could likely get a fairer price than if they had signed him to a 4 or 5 year deal this past off-season, then tried to re-sign him when he was approaching UFA.  In that scenario, he would've been able to use the market's price against Montreal, and his contract would've lasted until he was at least 35. Now this claims that Norris-nominated defensemen last a real long time, but even so I think Montreal will have a better sense of where PK is at when he's 33, and it will be easier to make a decision about whether to let him go or to re-sign him without him having had his value destroyed in the meantime.

I think it's going to be fascinating to see how teams use the possibility of the 8 year contract.  We've seen 3 players approaching UFA get one - what about players who aren't?

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Driving Play Podcast Returns!

Good evening friends; below is another edition of our long, lost Driving Play Podcast. In this edition, we were lucky to be joined by our good friend Alex Pocrnick, who we are delighted to say adds an interesting perspective to the program in that he WATCHES, yes, WATCHES the games. Once we got past that bit of oddity, we were able to record a great show with discussion about the Ryan O'Reilly offer sheet, the state of the Flames in general, and some bonus chatter about the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs.

I'll work on getting the iTunes links revived shortly, but for now here is a link to our RSS feed, with options to stream or download the podcast below.

One minor edit: when we recorded the show, the O' Reilly to waivers story hadn't broke yet, so that would obviously change our opinions on Feaster a bit.

Thanks for listening, and enjoy!

Download (Right Click, Save As)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Deeper Look at the Tim Thomas Trade

Greetings fellow hockey fans, and welcome back to another of of Chase's patented commentaries on NHL happenings after they've become old news. Regardless of age, however, today we're afforded a rather interesting and enlightening topic: Tim Thomas and the trade that sent his $5 million cap hit to the New York Islanders. If you'll allow a quick refresher on this deal and its surrounding circumstances, I'm prepared to argue that this is a great move for New York, stemming from reasons outside mere compliance with the salary cap's Lower Limit requirement. Brent noted a few weeks ago how the new CBA is causing teams like the Isles to make smarter roster decisions, and believe it or not, this trade serves as another example of excellent asset management.

Looking back to the afternoon of February 7th, Isles GM Garth Snow gave the mainstream media and twitterverse something to talk about following the acquisition of the two-time Vezina Trophy winner from Boston. Per Bob McKenzie, only a conditional second-round draft pick would be headed the other way, compensating the Bruins only if Thomas reports to Long Island (or another club should New York trade his rights elsewhere) under his current contract.

At first glance, many assumed the trade would purely serve the purpose of helping the Islanders, a team that frequently used performance bonuses to reach the Lower Limit under the 2005 CBA, continue to find roundabout ways to pay less than what equates to (a prorated) $44 million this season. Such a view would be supported on its face, considering bonuses have been removed from the floor equation in the new agreement (a change likely tailored specifically as the 'New York Islanders Rule'). What is more, Thomas signed his current contract after his 35th birthday, meaning the cap hit shall remain on any team's books for the duration of the deal if he retires before its expiration. With all of this in mind, it becomes easy to see why such a justification from the Isles' perspective would make a good bit of sense.

To borrow a catchphrase from Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friends."

Partly a reason for taking so long to write this article, conducting a bit of research on how the salary cap's Lower Limit is calculated revealed quite the interesting realization. Similar to how teams can add cap hits seemingly larger than their available cap space at the trade deadline, teams can similarly "bank" floor space throughout the year, trading players at the deadline that would appear to put them below that season's floor requirement.

Allow me to illustrate using language from the '05 CBA, translating a bit of lawyer-speak to English. In Article 50, Section 50.5(c)(i) at page 200, the accounting practices for the Lower and Upper Limit are set forth:
Lower Limit. No Club shall, after commencement of the regular season, be permitted to have an Averaged Club Salary that falls below the Lower Limit for that League Year.
Noting the presence of the term "League Year," i.e. that the floor must be met over the course of the year as opposed to each individual day, the only definition left for us to understand is that of "Averaged Club Salary." Removing language about performance bonuses since they cannot be factored into the equation under the new agreement, Averaged Club Salary is defined as:
[T]he entire aggregate amount committed by each Club in a League Year, calculated daily, as Player Salaries . . . in that League Year . . . .
in 50.5 (d)(i) at page 201. The definition also goes on to indicate:
Averaged Club Salary . . . is utilized to determine a Club's Payroll Room.
Keeping in mind that Payroll Room is merely the difference between the Upper Limit and a team's Averaged Club Salary, i.e. how far below the salary cap a team currently is for the season, we're left with the rather ambiguous task of figuring out what this means when inverted and applied to the salary floor.

With all language pertaining to the accounting of the Upper and Lower Limits being Article 50 components, the following example from Bill Daly on page 451 serves to outline the basic idea behind how all of this is calculated:
The Upper Limit is $40 million. A Club has an Averaged Club Salary of $38 million. With $2 million in Payroll Room at the halfway point of the season, the Club may sign or acquire a Player with a one-year SPC that has a $4 million face value. In this circumstance, even though the Upper Limit has not changed, and the face value of the contract would appear to put the Club above the Upper Limit, the passage of time from the start of the season to the midpoint of the season has created Payroll Room for the Club such as to allow the acquisition of a $4 million face value SPC.
In other words, because Averaged Club Salary is an aggregate sum of the amount paid to each player on the team's roster up to the current season day, a team below the Upper Limit by $2 million for half the season has saved $2 million against the cap, and can add that to the $2 million they are on pace to save for the second half to acquire said player with a $4 million cap hit.

With no language indicating that "floor room," if you will, would be calculated any differently, I was left to assume that teams could similarly build an Averaged Club Salary to a certain point, allowing them to remove players from their roster so long as they reached $44 million in salary paid by the end of the season.

Put another way in the context of Daly's example, say that this year's Islanders have an Averaged Club Salary of $46 million with $2 million in "floor room," or the difference between Averaged Club Salary and the Lower Limit. At the halfway point of the season, the club may trade or remove a player from their roster with a $4 million face value. In that scenario, the Islanders would pay less than the per-day requirement to meet the Lower Limit for the second half of the season (only paying $21M in total instead of $22M), but still reach the minimum of $44 million paid.

Through correspondence with the NHLPA and the League themselves, I was able to confirm that teams may not owe salary commitments that wouldn't reach that season's floor number, and could indeed dip below (what this year equates to $444,444) the prorated salary floor requirement for each season day.

Shifting to how all of this relates to Thomas and the Islanders, my aforementioned assumption on how the Lower Limit was calculated prompted the sending of this tweet on the night of the trade:

A little while after, McKenzie divulged the following:

Further expanding on just how compliant the Islanders were, James Mirtle's aforementioned article reveals that the range between the Upper and Lower Limits is ~$10 million larger than we saw last season. Another source of possible confusion, this year's $44M number is lower than both last season's $48.3M floor, and what would have been a $54.2M Lower Limit had the old CBA run through 2013.

After a short break for a deep breath, we may now gaze upon New York's roster. This year, the NHL season began on January 19 and is set to end on April 27, making it possible for a player to spend a maximum of 99 days on a team's active roster. Before adding Thomas, his contract was on Boston's books for 19 days for a total of $959,596 spent against the Bruin cap*.

Below is recreation of capgeek's daily tracker, as it stood on the night of the trade. One notable distinction about McKenzie's tweet, however, the assumption that players on suspension do not count toward a team's Lower Limit. Reading:
For Players that are suspended, either by a Club or by the League, the Player Salary . . . that [is] not paid to such Players shall not count against a Club's Upper Limit or against the Players' Share for the duration of the suspension, but the Club must have Payroll Room for such Player's Player Salary and Bonuses in order for such Player to be able to return to Play for the Club.
Article 50, Section 50.10 (c) at page 226, there is no language about a suspended player being counted "against," i.e. not being added to, a Club's Lower Limit number. It only speaks to the Upper Limit implications and the accounting that must be done upon a player's return, thus I have included Visnovsky's 19 suspension days toward the Islanders' Lower Limit charts.

PlayerPosFullLTIR35+BuriedRetainedSOIRCap Cost ($)
Active Roster
Tavares, JohnF99000005,500,000
Visnovsky, LubomirD80000004,525,253
Streit, MarkD99000004,100,000
Thomas, TimG80000004,040,404
Moulson, MattF99000003,133,333
Grabner, MichaelF99000003,000,000
Okposo, KyleF99000002,800,000
Nabokov, EvgeniG99000002,750,000
Nielsen, FransF99000002,750,000
Carkner, MattD99000001,500,000
Reasoner, MartyF99000001,350,000
Bailey, JoshF99000001,050,000
Boyes, BradF99000001,000,000
Martin, MattF99000001,000,000
Hamonic, TravisD9900000875,000
Cizikas, CaseyF9900000790,000
Ullstrom, DavidF9900000704,166
McDonald, ColinF9900000700,000
Hickey, ThomasD9900000700,000
Aucoin, KeithF9900000650,000
Strait, BrianD9900000605,000
Martinek, RadekD9900000600,000
Joensuu, JesseF9900000600,000
MacDonald, AndrewD9900000550,000
Boulton, EricF9900000540,000
Finley, JoeD9900000525,000
DiPietro, RickG99000004,500,000
Yashin, AlexeiF99000002,204,000
Visnovsky, LubomirD19000001,074,747


Should the Islanders keep his salary until the end of the season, a maximum 80 days, Thomas will have an effective $4,040,404 price tacked on to New York's Averaged Club Salary. On pace to spend $54,116,903 for the year before burying Rick DiPietro and recalling Kevin Poulin, that number stood at $50,076,499 without Thomas and $45,551,246 without the remaining 80 days and $4,525,253 of Visnovsky's contract.

In Layman's terms, the Islanders were on pace to comply with this year's cap requirement by $1,551,246, or 3.53%, before Visnovsky was activated. After, the team was on pace to beat $44,000,000 by a more comfortable $6,076,499, or 13.8%.

Fast-forward to this year's trade deadline, which falls on April 3rd at 3 PM EDT. Salaries are added to a team's Averaged Club Salary each day at 5 PM New York time, meaning that any player traded on deadline day will count against his new team's cap for 25 days. Consistent with the Islanders roster on February 7 (sans Thomas), it would follow that removing both Streit and Visnovsky on deadline day would result with the following:

PlayerPosFullLTIR35+BuriedRetainedSOIRCap Cost ($)
Active Roster
Tavares, JohnF99000005,500,000
Visnovsky, LubomirD55000003,111,111
Streit, MarkD74000003,064,646
Moulson, MattF99000003,133,333
Grabner, MichaelF99000003,000,000
Okposo, KyleF99000002,800,000
Nabokov, EvgeniG99000002,750,000
Nielsen, FransF99000002,750,000
Carkner, MattD99000001,500,000
Reasoner, MartyF99000001,350,000
Bailey, JoshF99000001,050,000
Boyes, BradF99000001,000,000
Martin, MattF99000001,000,000
Hamonic, TravisD9900000875,000
Cizikas, CaseyF9900000790,000
Ullstrom, DavidF9900000704,166
McDonald, ColinF9900000700,000
Hickey, ThomasD9900000700,000
Aucoin, KeithF9900000650,000
Strait, BrianD9900000605,000
Martinek, RadekD9900000600,000
Joensuu, JesseF9900000600,000
MacDonald, AndrewD9900000550,000
Boulton, EricF9900000540,000
Finley, JoeD9900000525,000
DiPietro, RickG99000004,500,000
Yashin, AlexeiF99000002,204,000
Visnovsky, LubomirD19000001,074,747


This demands the further inquiry: if Garth Snow's intended goal was to circumvent the cap, allowing him to get assets in return for Streit or Visnovsky, why was trading for Thomas a critical component of allowing them to do so? The math simply does not shake out, further muddling why the hell the Islanders made this move.

Thinking through the situation a little deeper, consider this: Thomas's actual salary is set to be $3 million for the final season of his current deal. Were he to hit the free agent market, what would he fetch? Martin Brodeur just got $9 million over 2 years at age 40. Though he's two years older than Thomas, the latter has been the best goalie of similar age since 2007-08. It shouldn't be unreasonable to think Thomas could get a similar deal in a heartbeat, and would assuredly want a contract paying more than the $3M he'll be owed if he decides to return.

All things considered, it seems that Thomas would have incentive to play for the Islanders, possibly even this year, a concept many have dismissed altogether. If Thomas wanted to maximize his financial gain, he'd probably report before the the end of the season, meaning New York couldn't toll the contract and keep it on their books for next year. The odds seem stacked against this happening, but it's still hard to ignore the money Thomas is giving up by hiding in his bunker.

Furthermore, regardless of whether he plays this season, if Thomas decided to return to the league next year, it stands to reason that the Islanders immediately control a player of at least equal value to the second-round pick they forfeit. Even if Thomas doesn't want to play for New York, the team could easily package him in a trade for another player that could step in right away, adding to an ever-improving young squad. Also, at the beginning of the Evgeni Nabokov saga, it was less than certain he'd ever suit up for the Islanders either. However, when push comes to shove, if Thomas wants to come back to the league and have a shot to make Brodeur money on his next contract, he's going to have to honor the final season of this one.

If New York truly intends to keep him, the team holds all leverage in such a situation. If Thomas does indeed don an Islanders uniform, he'll again be worth his price tag, even if it's only for one season. What is more, it is important to note that Nabokov has been lackluster in 2013, and an elite goaltender like Thomas would immediately solidify what's been a position of concern for some time now.

While it would be rather ignorant to argue that Tim Thomas doesn't provide Lower Limit benefits for a team like the Islanders, the numbers and mere logic behind his value as an asset show that he's also much more than simply an avenue to circumvent the salary cap.

*Note: I refer to salaries on a larger scale for ease of understanding. The proportion of salary spent against the cap remains the same.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

On the Justification of Matt Cooke Escaping Supplemental Discipline

When Brendan Shanahan succeeded Colin Campbell as the NHL's chief disciplinarian in June of 2011, the change was fueled by widespread criticism of the latter's tenure, culminating with the leak of certain emails he composed in 2006 and 2007. Already under fire for his inconsistency when handing down suspensions, Campbell's emails worked as additional evidence of biases preventing the proper function of the position to be achieved.

Shortly after Campbell stepped down, Shanahan acknowledged that the goal behind supplemental discipline is "player safety," and has since followed through on his pledge for decision-making to be done in a more uniform and transparent manner. More or less, Shahahan wanted to shift away from Campbell's general ambiguity regarding whether or not a play would receive attention from the league, instead making it widely known why or why not certain conduct would be considered and/or deemed suspendable. In the brief period we've known the "Shanaban" to be in existence, whether or not we agree with the final ruling, Shanahan's videos explaining the reasoning behind every decision have certainly worked to create a more uniform understanding of what the league is looking at in each case.

Enter: Matthew David Cooke.

By now, we've all formed an opinion on the controversial play that occurred during the second period of Wednesday night's game between Ottawa and Pittsburgh. Whether or not one believes that Matt Cooke acted with the intent to injure Erik Karlsson, those charged with deciding whether supplemental discipline was warranted ultimately concluded intent to injure was absent in this case.

For many, this was a suitable end to what was commonly deemed a "hockey play." However, a rather curious word appearing in the reasoning from the NHL and others alike is that of "intent." Granted, it is admittedly difficult to establish intent on a play like this because of the general speed of hockey and how fast things happen at ice-level. Nonetheless, is Cooke's intent something we should be worried about here? The following video points out the validity of such a question:

Using the standard format adopted since becoming the Director of NHL Player Safety, Shanahan goes through an analysis of an illegal check by Colin McDonald on Ben Lovejoy. After determining that McDonald was guilty of boarding, Shanahan candidly admits that he accepts McDonald's assertion of no malicious intent. What is more, Shanahan explains that McDonald's intent is immaterial because it is a "reckless and dangerous play." Running through the other factors commonly considered, he notes that there was no apparently injury and that McDonald has no prior history of discipline.

Moving back to the standard of culpability, if intent was immaterial when suspending McDonald because his conduct was "reckless," why is it suddenly required to discipline Cooke? Moreover, if the league is implying that intent, rather than recklessness, must be the standard for a play to be adjudged illegal after the fact (which doesn't seem to be the case), the league's justification for Cooke escaping supplemental discipline is yet another chapter in a library of inconsistent rulings. We can infer that the Department of Player Safety doesn't believe Cooke to be guilty of their first element, e.g. a rules infraction, but the absence of a clear articulation of such a position is rather illogical.

In other words, why speak to Cooke's intent when it should be immaterial? Though intent to injure is difficult to prove here, can the same be said for recklessness? The league must have felt so, noting that the decision for Cooke to escape supplemental discipline also included the absence of a hearing.

In a video that’s gained praise for establishing how common these sorts of plays are, TSN's Aaron Ward cites two examples from the first period of Wednesday's Dallas at Calgary game, where players go for what he calls a "hit and pin," similar to Cooke's check on Karlsson.

However, after watching the video, there was a noticeable difference between Cooke's attempt and the others that were examined. Rather than establish an absence of blame for Cooke's conduct, Ward's examples actually helped explain just how dangerous the check actually was.

Consider the following images:

When contact is initiated between Cooke and Karlsson, both players are heading toward the boards as they try to retrieve a loose puck. Karlsson's position includes the gap between his legs necessary to pin a player, seemingly Cooke's intention bearing in mind the position of his left leg.

Before the players make contact with the wall, Cooke's right skate is positioned at the same angle of the first image above, while the gap between Karlsson's legs has narrowed, a result of their battle for position. However, Cooke's left skate has risen from the ice, and his skate blade is noticeably at a much wider angle than before, almost parallel to the boards. A bit of a peculiar line to take rather than establishing a pin by pointing his foot at a 90 degree angle to the boards, situated to the left of Karlsson's right leg. Even so, should the two contact the wall in this position, all of this is likely of little concern.

However, the moment Karlsson reaches the wall is where the issue develops. Cooke's skate still remains at a wide open angle rather than pointed at the "GH" in "Highmark" along the boards, and has actually reached its highest point above ice level. Karlsson's legs have slowly closed prior to impact, the gap required for a pin now removed. Whether it was Cooke's decision or natural reaction to channel his inner Captain Morgan, his skate being parallel to the boards instead of pointed toward them has put Karlsson in a vulnerable position should it contact the unprotected back of his legs.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Unfortunately, that's exactly what happens. There remains a wide disparity between the angles of Cooke's left and right skates, and Cooke's failure to place his left skate between either of Karlsson's results in his blade contacting the back of Karlsson's left Achilles. An unfortunate result to an unfortunate play, but just how common is something like this?

Let us move to Aaron Ward’s breakdown below:

Right away, we see that Ward's first example of a "hit and pin" involving Dillon and Stempniak is markedly dissimilar to when the contact initiated between Cooke and Karlsson. Rather than having both players engaged with one another and gliding into the boards together, Stempniak is already close to the wall as Dillon approaches from a distance. Stempniak also has neither his back turned, nor the unprotected back section of his legs vulnerable to a skate blade.

Stepmniak then plays the puck around the end-wall, while Dillon goes for the "pin," which seems to resemble more of a standard body check. Regardless, notice where Dillon's skates are compared to Cooke's just before impact.

The noted whirling dervish that he is, Stempniak jumps out of the way of the check. It is only after Dillon contacts the wall that his skate rises above the yellow.

Example number two involved Dennis Wideman making a pin attempt as he skates in, also from a distance:

The difference between this hit and Ward's first example is that the Dallas player gets the puck tangled between his legs, meaning the disc wasn't moving prior to contact as with Dillon's missed check.

Once he receives the puck, the gap between his legs necessary for a pin is exhibited.

Again, just prior to contact, both of Wideman's skates remain on the ice. Wideman then moves into position to establish the pin.

It is only once contact is made and the puck battle is established that Wideman's right skate comes above ice level, again nowhere near as high as the skate that injured Karlsson. What is more, his blade is at a 90 degree angle to the wall, ensuring the Dallas player is in no danger of unnecessary injury.

Though it is inarguable that pinning a player along the wall happens during every NHL game, it does not follow that Ward's examples absolve Cooke of wrongdoing. Whether or not Cooke intended to hurt Karlsson, there is an argument to be made that Cooke's reckless positioning of his left leg and skate blade worked to put Karlsson in a vulnerable situation, as opposed to the examples of Dillon or Wideman. Perhaps conduct similar to Cooke's is more common than Ward's illustrations seem to suggest, but players have engaged one another heading into the boards with few similar resulting injuries to-date.

It is true that we don't know whether Matt Cooke intended to hurt Erik Karlsson. However, it is rather evident that the way he approached his check doesn't seem to do Karlsson many favors, while the league's sudden fixture with Cooke's intent ignores a play with the signs of reckless conduct. If the Department of Player Safety doesn't want to suspend Cooke, that's ultimately their call. However, relying on his failure to meet a level of culpability that until now hasn't been required, all the while refusing to grant a hearing when signs of recklessness could be established, Karlsson suffered an injury on the play, and Cooke has a lengthy prior history, is unjustifiable.

Brendan Shanahan was supposed to help rid ambiguity from the NHL's administering of supplemental discipline. However, if the standard of review is constantly in flux, the NHL's "wheel of justice" shall live long and prosper.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

On Using A Non-Sliding ELC To Your Advantage

I don't blame NHL fans, even very passionate and well-informed ones, for getting the off-ice rules wrong from time to time.  I do blame them for not knowing that a two-way contract has nothing to do with waivers, but that is here nor there.  Still, the rules that guide NHL general managers in their dealings are more complicated than ever, and the document which guides these complications is stunningly opaque.  GMs constantly get the fine points wrong, so why should I expect more out of fans?

The Devils recently used 2012 draft pick Stefan Matteau in his 6th game of the season, meaning that his contract stops sliding - he'll now be a restricted free agent in July 2015.  Matteau was drafted 29th overall, which is about where he was expected to go.  He put up unremarkable numbers in the QMJHL during the lockout.  In the NHL, he's been getting about ten minutes a game, almost all of it at even strength, and has recorded zero points.  In short, it seems very stupid to start an ELC for a player like this - Matteau's not that good now, he'll now be restricted in 2015, and he's going to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019, two years earlier than his age suggests.  Or is he?

Unrestricted free agency is governed by two things.  First, a player's age - if he's 27 or older when his contract expires, he's an unrestricted free agent.  The other thing is accrued seasons - if a player has 7 or more accrued seasons, at the conclusion of his contract, he is an unrestricted free agent.  The key here is the words 'accrued season', which means something very specific - an accrued season happens when a player is on the roster for 40 or more NHL games in a season.  He doesn't have to play those games, just be on the roster.  I don't know what counts as an 'accrued season' in a 48 game schedule, but I'm guessing it's in the same proportion as X is to 48 as 40 is 82  (which is around 23).  Now the Devils can still send Matteau back to junior even though his ELC has begun - it's just that teams don't frequently do this because ELCs on 18 year olds capable of playing in the NHL usually represent tremendous value - that player is likely a future star.  It doesn't make sense to use a year off that contract unless you're going to use the entire year.  However, Matteau is not a likely star, and his contract this year is for $925,000, and the Devils are not close to being a cap team, either now or in the future.  If that's the case, while Matteau's second contract will probably be for something between $1 million and $1.5 million per season, his making a few extra hundred thousand dollars on his second contract is largely immaterial.  Furthermore, Matteau having not played in junior hockey in 2011-12, is eligible for the AHL next year - the Devils could keep him there and use him in the NHL as an injury replacement, making sure that he only goes over the 40 game limit in an emergency (or if he gets injured).  Conceivably, the Devils could get 57 games out of Matteau before his free agency clock starts ticking, giving him NHL experience while not sabotaging the far future.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Ottawa Senators Deserve Your Respect

Through the course of two twitter conversations today, I have again noticed a sentiment that seems to underrate the Ottawa Senators:

This could merely be my own confirmation bias at play, but I get the feeling that the majority of NHL fans that watch the games, let alone those of us refusing to leave our mother's basement, would say that the Senators have no place near the top of the standings and are playing above their heads. Cue the reason that you've been linked to this post: the numbers.

Lest we forget, Ottawa made a trade last December, sending Derek Rundblad and a 2nd round draft pick to Phoenix in exchange for the services of Kyle Turris. Turris was dubbed 'selfish,' a 'flake,' or [insert non-Good Ol' Canadian Boy stereotype here] as a result of his contract holdout at the start of the season, seemingly the prime candidate for the old 'a change of scenery could be what he needs' narrative after a mediocre boxcar-stats start to his career.

At the time of the trade, Ottawa was just a .491 Fenwick team with the score tied, and a .498 team with the score close. Over the next 49 games with Turris in the lineup, the team improved to .502 and .512, respectively. They would finish 13th and 12th overall, but their latter score would have ranked them 9th (behind Vancouver) had they maintained such a level for the entire season. In a 49 game sample, I'm inclined to give greater weight to the category that provides us with about 60% more data to work with on average.

What is more, post trade deadline, the Senators were ranked 6th in the league in Score-Adjusted Fenwick, and promptly beat the Rangers both territorially and in scoring chances. Since then, the team traded Nick Foligno to the Blue Jackets for Mark Methot, signed Guillaume Latendresse, and began to utilize a slew of young talent in their system growing closer to NHL contribution every day. After seven games this season, Ottawa has picked up right where they left off and currently sit third in both FenTied and FenClose with a 5-1-1 record.

It remains to be seen whether natural progression leaps from heavily relied on players such as Turris and Karlsson will be enough to sustain company among the league's elite, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that Ottawa is performing this well; the writing has been on the wall for some time now.

Kudos to the New York Rangers for catching on before the rest of us; had I realized how good Ottawa was at the time, I too would have showered fans with confetti after squeaking by the conference's 8th seed.