hanifin2015draft

Not-So-Free Agency and Other Small Tidbits from Draft Weekend

Another exciting weekend comes and goes for the NHL. Draft day is always one of the most surprising and intriguing days on the calendar, and once again we are blessed with a bevy of good decisions, a couple of poor ones, shrieks of joy from some families, and utter disappointment for more than one young player.

Players ranked in the first round dropped to the second, and some even further than that. One fanbase is already looking towards next summer, while the other 29 are all gearing up for a hopefully improved season from their team.

We saw a Chinese-born hockey player get drafted. I know I didn’t see that coming. If you had told me that out of the 3 or 4 major Eastern Asian regions that mainland China would be the first to have a player drafted in the post-cap era, I would have laughed. Yet here we are.

I’m skeptical of the move, but Charles Wang has done a lot for hockey in his homeland. So kudos to them, and to Andong Song. It’s not easy to sacrifice everything for the sake of a sporting career (yet we see it all the time, huh) but Mr. Misha Song moved to Oakville at 10 so that he could play a higher caliber of hockey.

Plenty of unheralded players were drafted, which means that more heralded names tumbled down the list and even went unselected. The reality is that out of thousands of players every year, only around 210 are picked. A common theme I’ve heard around the NHL is that it’s not the end of the world. Drafted or undrafted, the only thing that matters is what happens from here on out. It’s guaranteed that some undrafted players will make a name for themselves, the question is who they are and who will take a chance on them.

The deals of the day also highlight one important fact; the real world is not run the same way as in simulations. It’s like playing GM Connected on NHL 14; with 30 different teams with 30 different opinions on players, not everyone values every player the same. Individuals have favorite trade partners, people they dislike, and in general different opinions means that every now and again, a shocker is thrown in. Just because two players look the same doesn’t mean they will be treated as such on the trade market.

I don’t agree with making decisions based on emotion, so I have to give teams that refuse to trade based on the person across the table a failing grade, but you have to respect the fact that they stick to their guns. It won’t help them if they land on the hot seat, but hey, what do I know? I’m just a blogger in my underwear with no audience.

And finally, July 1st. Someone is going to get a huge deal that many feel are undeserved, that is supposedly justified by showing that the GM is willing to spend in order to build a top team.

It’s mostly a load of bull. Witness team spending in the 5 years prior to the 2014-15 season:

2009-10

Team Cap Efficiencies 09-10

 

2010-11

Team Cap Efficiencies 10-11

2011-12

Team Cap Efficiencies 11-12

2012-13 (projected over full season)

Team Cap Efficiencies 12-13

2013-14

Team Cap Efficiencies 13-14

5 Year Spread for all 30 Teams

Team Cap Efficiencies

(all numbers taken from CapGeek.com, circa December 2014)

There’s a few patterns that stand out. If you’re in the top 5 in the league in spending, you’re pretty likely to make the playoffs. The worst that has happened is that only 3 out of the 5 miss, still a 60% success rate. If you’re in the bottom 5 in terms of spending, the reverse applies. You still have a chance, but even in the best of circumstances only 2 out of the bottom 5 teams make it to the dance. The middle 20 seems to be a mishmash, some years having most of the big spenders achieving postseason play, some years having more of an equitable spread between big spenders and smaller spenders. This all falls in line with the consensus opinion; teams that spend more money tend to be the teams that are stronger on paper, and thus more likely to make the playoffs.

But if you look closely at WHO were the highest spenders, a lot of the teams that were successful while spending big money had two things in common; they had star players on cost-friendly contracts, and a ton of cheap depth. Chicago was the king at this; while star players like Toews, Kane, and Keith were earning around $6 million, guys like Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, and Brandon Saad all played above their pay grade. Pittsburgh, too, got the advantage through some decent contracts and entry-level players. Detroit has always been a fiscally responsible team, and besides Stephen Weiss have been very solidly in the “no terribad contracts” group.

Teams that tend to go on the cheap are really no less likely to make the playoffs than teams who are middle of the pack in terms of spending. A lot of it is based upon the parity of talent across the league; all it takes is for one team to try harder or get a little more lucky and they make the playoffs. And then there are the teams that hit the jackpot and have most of their players playing above their paygrade, the Colorados, Anaheims, and Nashvilles of the world. There are a lot of players who’ve been through their organizations, but not many are extreme overpayments, if any. Despite lower spending, the money they do have on the table is put into players on fair value contracts, players who are outplaying their contracts, and entry-level deals. So while they might not spend like the Rangers or the Maple Leafs, you could argue that they get just as much, if not more, out of players like Andrew Cogliano than other teams get out of names like Daniel Briere, despite the gap in salary.

On the other hand, teams that DO have a tendency to use and abuse free agency are a lot more volatile in terms of where they place. Because free agents are so pricey, signing too many big names means that somewhere else on their roster needs to be done on the cheap. Teams like Montreal, Philadelphia, Calgary, and Edmonton have gone through plenty of pain through acquiring longterm, big money contracts via trade or free agency, and while entry-level players with talent can alleviate the short-term pressure, the long-term ramifications means that these teams remain in cap purgatory as they struggle to decide whether to pay to keep the young players or the proven veterans.

So while a team like Chicago gets a ton of flack for their poor cap situation, the reality is they actually do a tremendous job of building a group of players with enough balance to remain competitive in spite of themselves. Their best players are (were?) affordable, they have a strong group of entry-level contracts that help lower the overall hit, and the supporting players tend to be paid within reasonable numbers. The rare times they dip into free agency is to pluck a player for market value or lower, rather than paying extra money to ensure the best players come to Illinois (a byproduct of having a strong team with an established core group). And when the situation gets too hot, they’re not averse to shipping out some of their pricier players in order to keep the cost-effective ones. We’ll see how it goes with an added $8 million on the cap for Kane and Toews, but to this point they’ve been arguably the best team in the league at managing a highly competitive squad.

So while spending money is good, the caveat is that the spending must be balanced in order to field a strong team. For example, Philadelphia was a flawed team in part because Bryzgalov’s contract took away from their ability to acquire talent elsewhere, and they remain a flawed team in part they keep spending extra money acquiring players who don’t deserve it. Players deserve to be paid for their efforts, but the reality of the NHL is that open market value is far beyond what most players are actually worth, and in a competitive market like free agency the odds of a value contract occurring with a top player is slim to none, simply because there is always going to be someone more desperate for talent and thus more willing to open their wallet.

So this Wednesday, when you see a team pay $5 million annually for a 2nd line forward or $6 million for a 2nd pairing defenseman, feel free to point and laugh at said team. This isn’t a criticism of the player; this is a criticism of the hypocritical managers who repeatedly talk about free agency not being the solution, before turning around and signing good players to bad contracts.

NHL GMs, you have been warned.

-Evan

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