Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Look Again At The Phil Kessel Trade

We've already posted quite a bit on the subject of the Phil Kessel trade, which backwards narrators everywhere have come out against. Now that the Leafs have ended up with the #2 overall pick, we hear even more flack.

The detractors' argument reads as follows:

Toronto was not a particularly good team coming into the season, and they could have assured themselves they wouldn't be any good with not very much effort. As a result, they passed on an opportunity to get in on the ground floor and get superstars - as we have seen from Chicago and Pittsburgh's recent success, top picks are an enormous advantage that Toronto is failing to capitalize on.

Let's try to understand what's at stake here. If we may borrow a page out of Brian Burke's book, we've decided to rank players based on a fairly easy system. There may be quibbles here and there about the 'system' we're employing, but it's quick and dirty and is much less labor intensive than anything else, which would be an amalgam of statistics that would merely confound the issue.

The system is as follows, from 1 to 6:

6 - HOF level player
5 - All-Star player (i.e. should make multiple All-Star teams)
4 - Above average player
3 - Average player
2 - Fringe NHL player
1 - NHL Bust

The top of the spreadsheet has the first five picks from the last 7 seasons. You might be thinking, 'But, supercilious 'we' who runs this podunk blog, how can you possibly project players from 2008?' You would be right - that's part of the point. That's, in effect, what drafting is. We keep the uncertainty in here to show how inexact a science drafting can be. Some of these '4's will look ridiculous in several years, in all probability. Right-click on the spreadsheet and view it in a new tab:

The average of the top 5 draft picks over the last 7 years is 4.6 - somewhere between an All-Star and an above average player. The average of picks 6-10 over the last 7 years, excluding 2009, is 3.5. So had Toronto finished within 6-10, the player they pick figures to be merely an above-average player most often. Furthermore, we've only rated one player drafted 6-10 an All-Star, and that is Dion Phaneuf, whose All-Stardom is dubious - he could easily be rated a 4 if he repeats his 2009-10 in Toronto. Meanwhile, we rated 15 players All-Star level who were picked 1-5.

On the right of the spreadsheet, we've examined each team who has picked 3 or more times in the top 10 (excluding 6-10 in 2009), and averaged together the 'rank' of player they've gotten. Obviously, Washington and Pittsburgh's players are exceptionally good, and teams like Columbus's players are not so good.

In our next post, we will look at the NHL lottery system, and year-to-year improvements of chronically terrible teams being aided by top draft picks.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Shootout and Overtime-Adjusted Standings

The NHL playoffs are made even more interesting by the curious notion of deciding regular season games through events that do not happen in the NHL playoffs. The construct of the 4 on 4 overtime and shootout make for more entertaining hockey, but they make a sport with tiny edges even more confounding for prognosticators - we are interested in the betting line on the Phoenix/Detroit series, for instance, as we think Detroit to be a favorite, based on the standings below. We are treating any game that made it to overtime as a tie, with one point for either side.

Adjusted Standings

Eastern Conference

Washington: 43-15-24 - 110 points
New Jersey: 40-27-15 - 95
Buffalo: 35-27-20 - 90
Pittsburgh: 33-28-21 - 87
Ottawa: 34-32-16 - 84
New York Rangers: 34-33-15 - 83
Philadelphia: 35-35-12 - 82
Atlanta: 29-34-19 - 77
Boston: 25-30-27 - 77
Montreal: 24-33-25 - 73

Western Conference

San Jose: 43-20-19 - 105 points
Chicago: 37-22-23 - 97
Vancouver: 41-28-13 - 94
Detroit: 33-24-25 - 91
Phoenix: 31-27-26 - 88
Los Angeles: 32-27-23 - 87
Nashville: 33-29-20 -86
Calgary: 35-32-15 - 85
Colorado: 34-30-18 - 84
St. Louis: 30-32-20 - 80


We note two major criticisms. The first is in lumping both overtime games and shootout results together. We suspect that better teams have larger edges in 4 on 4 overtime, but here they are being penalized for it. We had intended to have teams' overtime records match their records in regulation, but used this method to save time.

The second is that teams' strategies would obviously change drastically were the shootout not so lucrative for certain teams - Phoenix, for example.


The Rangers got screwed, the Wings are probably better than the Coyotes, and the Western Conference is way better than the East.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Power Play Faceoff Percentage and Power Play Percentage

We wondered recently if there was a correlation between power play faceoff winning percentage, and power play percentages in general - in the tiny sample we have, it appears that there is not. The two right-hand columns are the most relevant. We should also note that we were interrupted in the middle of this work, and some of the faceoff numbers are as of Friday night, whereas the power play information is from Saturday.

The most interesting fact that came out of this is that faceoff percentages on the power play are generally above 50% - in fact, the Eastern Conference is winning faceoffs at a 54.8% rate. We wish we had the capability for isolating defensive-zone faceoff percentages, as we have noticed that teams will make almost no effort to win faceoffs while on the penalty kill in the other two zones. We do however suspect that the additional man allows teams on the power play to be more aggressive in retrieving the puck and winning the faceoff, and likewise causes the other team to be more concerned with defensive positioning than winning the faceoff. We should therefore be wary of using total faceoff percentage to dictate who is the better faceoff man; even strength faceoff percentage is far more likely to be a better determinant.

We also found that power play rank and faceoff rank have a slight negative correlation (-0.23), but we suspect that is due almost entirely to the Capitals and Panthers, whose power play rank and faceoff rank are inverted. We suspect power play faceoff percentage is meaningful, but that the percentage differences are so small that this sample cannot tell us just how much it matters.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cap Conundrum #1 - The New York Rangers

The New York Rangers are the league's most difficult team to figure out. Composed of up-and-coming rookies, two legitimate superstars, and quite a few players who used to be good but now are not, the team is at a crossroads, looking like a near-certainty to finish out of the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

Glen Sather has developed a rather remarkable ability to make problems disappear - he managed to convince Montreal that Scott Gomez was worth it (he wasn't), fobbed off Ales Kotalik on a desperate Calgary team (2 points in 15 games), and has dug himself halfway out of his cap troubles. Let's get a look at the next two seasons, cap-wise, for the Rangers:

If you recall from last season, green indicates RFA estimates, and red indicates unrestricted free agency.

The two four hundred pound elephants in the room are Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival - Redden is playing 6th defenseman minutes while making 1st defenseman money, and Rozsival is not much better. The biggest question surrounding the Rangers this off-season is: will ownership allow Glen Sather to bury Wade Redden in the minor leagues? We already assume that his contract is entirely untradeable - a middling season in Ottawa and two terrible ones in New York mean that someone has to be seriously stuck in the past to consider Redden anything more than an average defenseman. Burying Redden puts the Rangers at 45 million dollars going into the off-season, which if the cap stays around where it is, gives them the cash to replace Redden's salary as well as add help up front.

We do not think this rule is cited often enough in mainstream publications regarding the salary cap, but it is of great importance to clubs that are thinking of burying a salary somewhere. After July 1, teams are permitted to go over the salary cap, but only by 10%. If the salary cap is at its present amount, teams will be allowed to have up to $62.48 million in player salary on the cap after July 1. This hamstrings the Rangers somewhat, as they still have Patrick Rissmiller on the books at $1 million per, as well as Redden's $6.5 million - unless they are creative with signing RFA players, and subsequently holding them out of training camp (as New Jersey did in September 2006), or sign some UFA free-agent stragglers after they clear Redden off the cap, the Rangers will not be able to spend completely up to the salary cap during the off-season, although they will then have cap room to make deadline additions.

Regardless, if the Rangers can bury Redden, they will still be able to sign $11 million worth of players. This is not exactly Glen Sather's forte - other than Marian Gaborik, who appears to be a massive bargain, Sather has had little but abject failure on his resume in terms of unrestricted free agents since 2006. This year's free agents appear to be a minefield.

Our Plan For The New York Rangers

Rather than speculate about what will happen to earn imaginary plaudits and attaboys from the blogosphere when the Rangers sign Pavel Kubina to a 3 year deal (or something similar), we will instead detail what we would attempt to do if we were in the Rangers' shoes. We will also imagine ourselves to have the same motivations as the Rangers - i.e. massive 'rebuilding' is out of the question. We're trying to put together a playoff squad for next year.

Let's look at those lines:


Del Zotto-Rozsival


First, we call our employer and say whatever he's paying us isn't enough.

Bury Wade Redden - enough said. We definitely have to do this. We cannot possibly have a successful offseason without that contract gone.

Re-sign Vinny Prospal at 2 years/5 million (2.5 per) - Prospal's career has been so strange, what with his pattern of alternating good years with mediocre ones. He has had a career revival in New York, but he is also an over-35 player who is receiving $1 million a season from his former employer - we hope this will keep his price down. We know the price for centers around the NHL is high.

Try like mad to convince Edmonton that a prospect + Michal Rozsival is a good deal for Sheldon Souray - Souray and Rozsival's contracts are of similar length and similar cap hit, but Souray is making $9 million combined for the next two seasons, while Rozsival is making $7 million. Souray has also struggled with injuries while Rozsival's allergy to body contact keeps him in the lineup every night. We cannot say how great the need for teams to save money is - Rozsival's $3 million disparity between cap hit and salary spread over two seasons could save a team that amount of cash. If we can clear Rozsival out, things are looking peachy - we can go hog-wild on the free agent market, as well as go after some of the leftovers coming out of Chicago and other places. Let's assume that we've gotten Souray for Rozsival and a 2nd.

Trade Dan Girardi - Girardi has plateaued in New York, he is no longer used on the power play (with good reason), and we think Matt Gilroy can adequately replace his minutes next season. We hope to get some forward help here - we're not sure who wants Girardi, but probably a team that got shut out of free agency.

Let's get a look at that team now:


Del Zotto-?


We've got 12 million with which to paint on this canvas. For the third line, we'd look to acquire Dustin Byfuglien, who despite being overpaid is a big, physical winger of the sort the Rangers need. From free agency, we might look into Alexei Ponikarovsky, whom we expect to be paid between 3 and 3.5 million, or Colby Armstrong, who we expect to be paid around 2 to 2.5 million. Were we feeling truly daffy, we might even make an offer towards Ilya Kovalchuk, to give ourselves two very strong lines. An offer to Kovalchuk would put us in serious cap trouble, however, and is rather unlikely.

On defense, we would look toward younger defensemen who are not as likely to decline. Paul Martin would make an ideal pairing with Marc Staal, and he can likely be had for $5 million per. Dan Hamhuis, Anton Volchenkov, Shaone Morrisonn, and Willie Mitchell are cheaper, defense-first D men that we would be interested in. Our ideal Rangers team looks something like this:


Del Zotto-6th D at 1.3 million


The total cost of these 20 players is $54 million.


We don't expect the Rangers to be able to accomplish even half of this, but if they accomplish even half of it, they should be right in the playoff mix next season. The Rangers do have gobs of young players who may be able to contribute in following years - it would be a colossal waste if Sather once again signed aged and past-their-prime skaters who would squander cap room on an otherwise talented squad.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Promise About Upcoming Posts

We always start off each post now self-deprecating and apologetic, which disappoints us. See? Anyway, we had a sudden inspiration for posts - Cap Conundra For 2010-11 - at least 5 posts about teams in the most cap 'trouble' - 'trouble' defined as the ability to keep the team of the same quality on the ice. We haven't decided if we will revisit Chicago, but we probably will.

When free agency rolls around, we hope to be doing brief thumbs-up and thumbs-down judgments of the various moves. This blog was started with high-minded ambitions, but we are neither Icarus nor Daedalus - our high-minded ambitions are now limited to literary references.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Trade Deadline Primer

We've wanted to post on here for the last two weeks, but posting about salary caps and waivers during that time would feel rather like using one's cell phone to buy stocks while at church. It's just a tad on the crass side of things. Olympic hockey was quite wonderful, but for NHL GMs it is back to the dirty business of scheming up a trade to fleece one of the other 29 general managers.

Let us take an overview of the NHL starting with Capgeek's daily salary cap tracker, which may be the best contrivance ever for hockey nerds. It informs us that 3 teams in the playoff race currently have no cap space with which to add players: Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit. We suspect these three will have great difficulty adding talent.

Furthermore, we are unsure which teams will be sellers. Only Toronto, Carolina, Edmonton, and Columbus are truly eliminated from playoff contention. Florida has declared that they are in sell mode. There's a question about teams like St. Louis and Minnesota, who currently sit 4 and 5 points out of the Western Conference race; they may delude themselves into thinking they have a legitimate chance. Still, both are short on talent and have to hop over much more robust squads to make it in. They should both be sellers.

There are some curious factors at play that we think will make for less trading than usual, and not just because many of the typical 'trade deadline' deals already happened in early February.

First, the salary cap is probably staying where it is for the second consecutive year. We've posted about this extensively, and this will mean that young, inexpensive players are worth their weight in ... well, not gold, but some precious metal. Teams jammed up at the salary cap now are probably offered little or no relief for the coming season, plus there's that Chicago bottleneck. This speaks in favor of prices for trade deadline talent falling, because young talent is at a premium. So let's put a check mark in the falling column.

However, with these salary cap jam-ups comes the realization that for some teams, this may be their best year to go for it. New Jersey and Philadelphia are the first two clubs that come to mind. This speaks in favor of prices for deadline talent rising - a check mark in the rising column.

On the other hand - and we'll be using several hands here - the lack of sellers is a mark in the rising price column as well. We have already seen Matt Cullen, a rather average-ish center who can fill a lot of roles, move for both a 2nd round pick AND a decent depth defenseman with some ability to run a power play. Perhaps this is not outrageous compared to last season, when both Ales Kotalik and Dominic Moore moved for a 2nd round pick. Teams need that extra talent to put them over the hump.

In the prices falling column, however, is the issue that some teams simply don't have room to add another player. We saw Calgary attempt to continue adding players at last year's deadline by going with a 20 man roster down the stretch, and it backfired spectacularly, as some nights Calgary was dressing 16 players - we don't expect any team to try this maneuver again. Capgeek lists 9 teams with less than $3.4 million in cap space; these teams may have some difficulty accommodating the higher-priced talent that may be available.

And yet - with attendance generally down around the NHL and revenues falling, a team like St. Louis is not going to want to eat the $1 million + still left on Paul Kariya's contract - they should be desperate to sell this. That's also in the prices falling column.

To recap, here is why prices for trade deadline talent will rise:

Lack of sellers
Panic among Cup contenders

Here is why it will fall:

Need for young talent, league-wide
Lack of able buyers
Teams desperate to unload unsightly contracts

As we wrote this, Jordan Leopold was traded from Florida to Pittsburgh for a 2nd round pick, so the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Phaneuf Trade And The Stagnant Salary Cap

We all know that Dion Phaneuf was traded today. Rather than julienne the trade such that we cannot even recognize the pieces, we think it notable that Dion Phaneuf got traded at all. We also think it notable that Phil Kessel got traded. We think it exceptionally notable that both players got traded for absolutely no corporeal hockey players who are actually well-above-average and signed beyond this season. In other words, the Leafs turned nothing into 'something'.

It is a product of the times that we see a player like Phaneuf, once thought totally untouchable and a future Hall of Fame defenseman, traded for 3 around-average players. Phaneuf's value has obviously fallen a great deal - it's not just his 6.5 million dollar salary and his diminishing interest in the defensive zone. There is a specter looming over the NHL, and it's the specter of the possibly falling salary cap. We think it's why Brian Burke has been so aggressive in pursuing both free agents and trades for unwanted commodities instead of just gently failing.

Surely in a rising salary cap era, Phil Kessel, if he demands a trade out of Boston, gets moved for players. Surely in a rising salary cap era, Phaneuf's contract is still somewhat valuable because he's locked up for a long time - when salary caps and salaries rise, the value of long term contracts increase even if the player's on-ice performance does not. Likewise, when salary caps fall, long-term contracts values do too. Phaneuf's play appears to have stagnated - had Calgary waited until next season to try to move Phaneuf, he may have lost all value entirely.

Even with the two deals they've managed today, the Maple Leafs will still have plenty of salary cap room for next season - our estimates give the Leafs 9 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goalies, at a total of $40.85 million. If the salary cap stays where it is, that's a comfortable $15.65 million with which to sign 4 forwards and a defenseman. Burke can still forage for goodies in the Chicago implosion. He can still try to profit off of Edmonton's collapse (we know not how, but he can do it). Toronto can still be a dumping ground for bad contracts next season if teams are struggling financially; they could even sign Ilya Kovalchuk were they so inclined.

The larger question is about Brian Burke's rebuilding strategy - as we have seen throughout NHL history, teams who do poorly for long stretches of time tend to improve. The Quebec Nordiques of the late 80s and early 90s, the Ottawa Senators of the early 90s, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks of this decade - all of these teams were terrible for a good long while, and certainly Brian Burke could have gone that route. We think he chose not to for the reasons above - that impending salary cap problems are making teams antsy about keeping players on long-term contracts, and that Burke can profit from this enough to build a Stanley Cup contender without having to go through a prolonged period of losing. He's not going to get star-level players without giving up a large bounty - certainly this Kessel gambit appears like it may backfire - but with Burke's ability to seemingly have star-level players gifted to him, the Leafs may yet defy accepted NHL wisdom.

Upcoming posts:

Continuation of the previous discussion on placeholder defensemen (got way more intense than we thought it could)

Rookie playoff scoring since the lockout