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

Friday, January 29, 2010

What Car Company Do You Work For? A Major One.

Subtitle: Placeholder Contracts and Inexact Science

We were again pondering the Oskars Bartulis contract extension recently penned by the Flyers (and meanwhile, not pondering the thought process that led us to ponder Oskars Bartulis's contract perhaps more than he himself has) - we wondered, given Bartulis's unsightly and team-low -12, what if a team intentionally signed a replacement-level or sub-replacement level player as a placeholder, to then bump him out of the playoff rotation each year through trade? Could this be a good move? There's a lot to consider here. First, let's limit the discussion to defensemen, because defensemen play more minutes than forwards, and there's less of them on a team.

Let us assume that our team is in the NHL elite, or near it - that each season, we have an excellent chance of making the playoffs. Let us call that percentage P%. Let us assume that we have signed a defenseman for 3 seasons, at $700,000, in a league where the minimum is $500,000 and the salary cap is at 56.8 million. Let us assume that he is a replacement-level defenseman and has little chance of improvement - we can assume he gives us 0 wins a season, or we can assume he gives us a range of wins from -1 to 1. For the purposes of this exercise, we suspect that just calling him a 0 win defenseman is best.

Let us assume that each season at the trade deadline, we are able to acquire a defenseman who is either a 1 win or 2 win player. Now recall, with the way the NHL salary cap works, cap room gets 'stored' - it is calculated each day, and for each amount that a team does not use on that particular day, some of that amount is 'saved' in proportion with the remaining season. The trade deadline is 40 days before the end of the regular season (which season usually lasts 180 days), therefore when the trade deadline rolls around, teams have stored up 180/40 times the cap room that they 'actually' have.

So let us return to our original defenseman - Replacement-Level Paulie. He plays for the first 60 or so games of the season at a 0 win level at $700,000. The team makes a trade at the deadline, and acquires League-Average Lou for a 2nd round pick, who's worth 1.5 wins over a full season; over the remaining 22 games, he is worth .40 wins. League-Average Lou's salary is $2,000,000 - the team could acquire him with as little as $450,000 in cap room. Replacement-Level Paulie is now a 7th defenseman.

This discussion is getting rather complicated - we know not where to place the variables. Let us try to simplify the discussion this way by asking the question again in a different way - can making a trade at the deadline every season be better than signing a defenseman? We suspect the discussion is growing too lengthy - we hope to examine this question further tomorrow.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Greatest Trade Idea Ever!

We were reading over our blog entry titles here and we realized they were quite milquetoast - they need bombast and verve. Thus our title above, which is sure to be eye-catching.

We read a rumor that purported that Vincent Lecavalier could be headed to the New York Rangers, and we began to turn it over in our mind many times - it makes very much sense. We trust our readership enough to ferret out the reasoning - New York loves big names and is weak down the center and coming out of Tampa Bay have been many rumors of financial hardship. Vincent Lecavalier does have a no-trade clause, but who in the entire NHL lacks the desire to play at the world's most famous arena, for his former coach and with his former linemate?

The impediments to such a deal are New York's staggering lack of assets, and the need for them to clear out the cap room for Vincent Lecavalier's contract, which has 10 years at a $7.5 million dollar cap hit remaining on it. Even if Vincent is unlikely to play the final two years, he likely expects to play the final eight.

We therefore propose this deal:

To New York Rangers

C Vincent Lecavalier (10 yrs/7.5 cap hit)
D Andrej Meszaros (4 yrs/4 cap hit)
LW Stephane Veilleux (0 yrs/ .75 cap hit)
D David Hale (0 yrs/.7 cap hit)

Total Cap Hit: 13.2 M

To Tampa Bay Lightning

D Matt Gilroy (1 yr/1.75 cap hit)
LW Chris Higgins (0 yrs/2.25 cap hit)
RW Ryan Callahan (1 yr/2.3 cap hit)
D Wade Redden (4 yrs/6.5 cap hit)
1st round pick in 2010 or one of Evgeny Grachev/Derek Stepan/Chris Kreider

Total Cap Hit: 12.8 M

What Tampa Gets

Salary Cap Relief, first and foremost. Chris Higgins can be flipped elsewhere - he has been a total bust in New York, but perhaps he lands with a team that can use him (Pittsburgh?). Matt Gilroy and Ryan Callahan are both under team control until July 2012 - Gilroy has excellent physical skills and his underlying numbers suggest that he is a solid defender. Callahan was chosen for Team USA and looks to be a 20 goal RW who can kill penalties and play physically. Wade Redden is another matter - he is not last year's disaster so far, but he's certainly not anything more than average, while he's being paid three times the average. Tampa could buy him out during the off-season, which would cost 2.1 million dollars against the cap for the next 8 years. Bad, yes, but Vincent Lecavalier would have cost 10 million in real dollars (not cap hit) for the next 7. They would also receive a prospect in this deal, something which Tampa seriously struggles to develop - besides star-level players, Tampa has shown no ability to maintain a farm system that can spit out NHL quality players.

Why Should Tampa Move Vincent Lecavalier?

We are always inclined to think that wide variations in shooting percentage, year to year, are fluky and often without identifable cause. Vincent Lecavalier's shooting percentage currently sits at 6.7%, a Jason Blake-like number. However, his Shots On Goal Per Game have fallen in each of the last four seasons, and 112 points in his last 122 games suggest that while Lecavalier is still an excellent player, he may no longer be a superstar. Tampa Bay, if they are in financial difficulties, can not wait around until Lecavalier has exhausted all of his trade value - he will have done so if he has another season where he scores less than a point a game.

What The Rangers Get

Lecavalier, if paired with Marian Gaborik, may rediscover the spark that led him to 52 goals three seasons ago. While the Rangers' depth is skewered somewhat by this deal, that has never stopped them in the past. Meszaros is still rather young and could also improve into his contract on the Rangers' backline. The Rangers do give up some of their precious 'secondary scoring' in this deal, they get back a proven goal man - one whose paltry 11 goals would still rank 3rd on the Rangers right now.

Tampa Bay's New Lineup

Malone-Stamkos-St. Louis


New York Rangers' New Lineup


Del Zotto-Meszaros

We are not entirely sure this works - Tampa Bay receiving no centers for one of the top centers in the game may be an impediment, and Brandon Dubinsky may be a better addition to the deal. However, it is certainly something that both sides should consider - it is a trade absolutely made for the New NHL, where player value is secondary to cap flexibility.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A link worth checking out

Vic Ferrari does some terrific work mathematically, and he runs the impeccable website. His work is always a little dense and takes patience to sort through, but we think this article excellently sums up sabermetric thought in general:

Likelihood and the Way Humans Think

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why Haven't The Devils Had Playoff Success Post-Lockout? Part 2

Astute commenter Sunny Mehta had this to say regarding New Jersey:

"In the regular season, the Devils gain a lot of marginal goal differential through special teams. You look at their shot attempts at even strength this season - their ratio is basically league average. But their ratio on special teams (i.e. PP shot attempts/PK shot attempts allowed) is amazingly good. That's mostly because they perennially take so few penalties, and partly because their PK is good. Either way, if you buy into the idea that the impact of special teams is lessened in the playoffs, and the impact of even strength is heightened, well that downgrades the Devils from a very good team to a slightly above average team."

We had not researched this in depth, but it strikes us as true. When we went to examine the 2006-07 New Jersey Devils, the number that jumped out at us was the Devils' extreme discipline - the Devils took 271 minor penalties that season, compared to 398 as league average. They drew 367, a difference of 96 power plays. This sounds all well and good, but let us look at the penalty differentials of the other playoff teams in the Eastern Conference versus non-playoff teams:

Playoff Teams: +12
Non-Playoff Teams: -27.4

If we leave out the anomalous Islanders, who were -85 but dragged themselves into the playoffs, the non-Devils playoff teams were +28 in penalty kill and power play differential.

We are going to try something unconventional here, using Bill James' log5 method to estimate one-game winning percentages in baseball. We are going to translate this into power plays drawn/penalties taken. The Devils, for instance, had a 57% 'winning' percentage if we look at (Power Plays/Total Special Teams Situations). So if they played the rotten Florida Panthers, who were -106 and had a percentage of 43%, we would expect the Devils to have a 64% Power Play/Total Special Teams percentage. However, playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had a 55% PP/TST, would reduce the Devils' power play expectation to 52% of all special teams situations. These are small potatoes - although it is interesting that New Jersey's playoff power plays for/against was 52%, when its expected value was around 54%.

Digression: We expected that the playoffs would feature better penalty-killing teams, so we used the lazy man's way of adding percentages to come up with these 'averages' of penalty kills:

Playoff Teams: 81.67%
Non-Playoff Teams: 82.2%

Strange. We suspect had we not been lazy that the percentages would be around equal.

Even Strength

Would that we could locate the 2006-07 even strength numbers - we cannot seem to locate the numbers we need to do this properly, with shots on goal (which ferret out a lot of variance). We can, however, express New Jersey's even strength goals for/against as a percentage at even strength:

New Jersey: 50%
Ottawa: 56%

None of these numbers are really getting at why New Jersey may have gotten thrashed, until again we return to the backup goalie question. Let us now consider the question in reverse: if Scott Clemmensen, the Devils' backup in 06-07, played as much as the average Eastern Conference playoff team backup, how many more goals would the Devils have let in? Let us assume that his numbers are as expected, despite the tiny sample size.

Clemmensen would start 22 games and give up 69 goals with his .889 - Brodeur would start 60 games and give up 141. This gives us 210 goals against for New Jersey instead of 187, scuttling their already miniscule goal differential into a negative. The only edge they would have in this instance is their defense and ability to avoid penalty trouble.


The Devils' insistence on playing Brodeur a great deal in 2006-07 masked their deficiencies at even strength, where even despite him they were a breakeven team. In the playoffs they get a reduced advantage from their ability to draw penalties and avoid power plays against because most teams that take a great deal of penalties are out of the playoffs.