Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How much will Mason Raymond get for arbitration?

News broke today that the Canucks have taken Mason Raymond to 'cut-down' arbitration this year; this is a bit of a misnomer. The term is new because it's something the team was able to do in place of giving Raymond a qualifying offer; it doesn't mean that they will automatically get or even argue that he deserves a contract under last year's $2.6m.

Article 12.3(a) of the CBA reads:
(a) Club-Elected Salary Arbitration For Players With Paragraph 1 NHL Salaries plus Signing, Roster, and Reporting Bonuses Greater Than $1,500,000 In The Prior League Year.

(i) If a Player who is otherwise eligible to receive a Qualifying Offer and become a Group 2 Restricted Free Agent had a Paragraph 1 NHL Salary plus Signing, Roster and Reporting Bonuses in excess of $1,500,000 in the aggregate in the final League Year of his most recent SPC, a Club may elect to file for salary arbitration to
determine the Player's Paragraph 1 Salary for the upcoming League Year in lieu of making a Qualifying Offer to such Player.
(ii) In any salary arbitration that takes place pursuant to this Section 12.3(a), the Salary Arbitrator may not award the Player a Paragraph 1 Salary that is less than eighty-five (85) percent of the aggregate sum of Player's Paragraph 1 Salary plus Signing, Reporting and Roster Bonuses in the final League Year of his most
recent SPC.
So, all this does is move the range of possible contract awards Raymond could get. How much will he earn?

NHL salary arbitration decisions are very focused on finding 'comparable players' to the player in question. Arbitrators give the greatest weight to players with similar stats (especially points per game) and attributes to the player being evaluated; they will only consider players who also signed their contracts with RFA rights (so entry-level or UFA players are irrelevant). There has been some mention of the recent new deals for Chris Kelly and David Jones; though those are similar players in some ways, their contracts are irrelevant to the arbitrator. Whenever possible, the arbitrator will prefer to compare against contracts signed this same off-season.

So, who are the RFA-eligible players this year? Capgeek has a handy list here. Some standout names that will be comparables for Raymond:

Nik Kulemin: $2.2m last year. 0.40 PPG last year, 0.50 career. Perhaps Raymond's best comp in many dimensions.

(for reference, Raymond had 0.36 PPG last year and 0.48 career)

Chris Stewart: $3.25m last year. 0.38 PPG last year, 0.61 career. Like Raymond and Kulemin, had a down year after being more productive previously.

A lot will depend on how contracts shake out for those guys. The list also includes some well-paid guys including Blake Comeau and Sergei Kostitsyn, two more former standouts who have fallen on hard times. Certainly, I think Kulemin and Stewart are a little better than Raymond; Comeau and Kostitsyn might be a little worse. An early guess, I'd say, is that he'll end up with a small raise on $2.6m, but I'm not totally sure. I'll cover this in more depth in the coming days - the picture would change if one of these players also has their club file for 'cutdown' arbitration. More to come.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What's going on behind the scenes on Luongo, Schneider trade rumours?

The rumour mill is going wild trying to process the Roberto Luongo situation. With so little coming out of the Canucks' official outlets, the leading source of news seems to be a high school student's twitter account (!/samjam99). Leaving aside the question of how someone that age has so much inside information, let's examine why Canucks management has been so guarded about it, and how information might be getting out.

1. The Canucks have probably been listening to offers on both Luongo and Schneider
It's pretty clear that trading Luongo makes more sense for the team - his relationship with the team has probably been weakened by their choice to switch to Schneider mid-way through the first round of the playoffs.

Many keepers play just fine through their mid-30s and later (look at Thomas, Brodeur, Nabokov, Hasek, among others). In fact, recent history has shown that elite goalies have been able to sustain their skills into their late 30s more often than not. Aside from Marty Turco, there haven't been many sudden collapses for aging keepers recently. You could point to the fact that elite goalies have to be extremely flexible and fit to be elite; these guys will be less susceptible to injury and take better care of themselves. They don't suffer the same physical toll that skaters do; they don't take bodychecks or get into bare-knuckle fights. They're really playing a different sport than skaters and shouldn't be expected to follow the same aging pattern. I'd compare them to NFL kickers in a lot of ways: the position is less about power and speed than about technique and confidence. Experience can add value as strength and agility fade. Look at, say, Adam Vinatieri, who is still one of the NFL's better kickers at age 39.

For that reason, the Canucks probably realize that Luongo, even at age 33, has a lot of life in him - possibly another 3-5 seasons as an above-average NHL starter. They should be willing to hold on to him if the offers for Schneider are significantly better.

If the team has been weighing offers for both players, they'll be reluctant to let any of that get out and risk unsettling the guy that stays.

2. We all know about Luongo's contract situation; Schneider's is a big mystery
We have heard rumblings that Schneider and his agent are waiting to discuss contract at least until a trade is made. If Luongo is traded, the Canucks will have committed to Schneider and will have no choice but to pay up on a multi-year contract. It's not clear whether Schneider would draw an offer sheet, but even if he doesn't, the Canucks are looking at a 1-year arbitration award of, say, $4 million, followed by UFA status for Schneider, who could then demand a big contract or decide to pack up and move home to Boston. He has all the leverage, and could easily demand a 5-year (or longer contract) at $5-6 million per year. At that price, he doesn't provide any cap savings over Luongo, and lacks the track record. While his numbers so far have been elite, it's a small sample size and it's hard to know whether Schneider will be an elite 0.925 save % goalie or a more pedestrian 0.910-0915 one.

Schneider's contract situation may also make him harder to trade. Teams such as the Blue Jackets would probably only be willing to deal for him if they could have a chance to talk contract with him first to make sure they could lock him up; if his demands are high, his trade value collapses.

3. It's not clear who the potential trading partners are
While we know several teams could use a goaltending upgrade, it's always hard to tell which teams are really in the market. Toronto is presumed to be one, despite Burke's occasional rumblings that he'd be comfortable with his current group. Tampa Bay has to be looking for someone, and Columbus needs help too. Then there are Edmonton, Chicago, New Jersey and others who might be in the market. Also unsure is who might want an elite guy and who would be satisfied to roll the dice on a Johan Hedberg or Chris Mason.

This week's news that Tim Thomas is taking a year off and that Tomas Vokoun has signed with Pittsburgh is excellent news for the Canucks as it takes two key goalies off the market without taking any buyers with them. Now, the Canucks are dealing from a position of strength, and the phone has probably been ringing in Gillis' office. While it was previously suggested that Luongo might get flipped for another big contract on an aging star (recall the Lecavalier rumour), that's not likely in the cards anymore. Schneider's new contract would eat up a lot of Luongo's cap hit, and the team likely wants to upgrade other parts of the lineup. At this point, Gillis should be looking for big prospects, picks, or young stars with affordable contracts.

4. It's possible there's other dominoes set to fall
What if Toronto acquires Luongo? Burke may be trying to acquire another asset for Reimer. What if, for example, we saw something like:

To Toronto:

To Vancouver:
Brett Connolly + 19th overall pick (DET via TB)

To Tampa Bay:
Reimer + Luke Schenn

Obviously, that's just a hypothetical, but it may be that the team that most wants Luongo or Schneider doesn't have the asset(s) the Canucks want. But for all that to happen, a lot more conversations have to occur, and you can bet Burke would want to make sure everything is kept quiet while it happens. Both Burke and Gillis are known to be secretive on these sorts of dealings, and it may be that silence on the Luongo/Schneider rumours is the best indication that something is in the works.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kreider, Hagelin & Stepan make Rangers a capologist's dream team

While the New York Rangers are probably focused on this year's Conference Final, I can't help but look ahead and see that they've got a very rosy cap situation for next year (assuming a new CBA is signed that doesn't shake things up too drastically). They have a number of key players who will still on entry-level deals:
  • Carl Hagelin: 1 more year at $875,000
  • Derek Stepan: 1 more year at $875,000
  • Chris Kreider: 2 more years at $1,325,000
  • Ryan McDonagh: 1 more year at $1,300,000

Having these guys locked in means you've got more jam to fill out the rest of your roster. Richards, Gaborik, Callahan and Dubinsky are an expensive group of forwards (those four have an average cap hit of $5.66m next year); Lundqvist will have a $6.875m cap hit.

Two years ago, the Blackhawks had to strip the depth out of their roster because they had too many guys coming up for new contracts right after they won the cup. If the Rangers win it all, they won't have the same fate. True, they might have to pay out some playoff bonuses and ship out one or two players, but by and large, their excellent core group will all be back for next year.

While I'm on the Rangers, I love their decision to sign Kreider for this year's run. Saying that they've 'burned a year' on his contract is nonsense. Having him for the playoffs means they have him for the most important part of the season. The team finished in first place - he couldn't have made them any better in the regular season. Now, he might be the little push to get them over the top, scoring vital points to help the Rangers win the first game of both the second and third rounds.

Yes, the Rangers could have gotten an extra year out of Kreider if they had signed him after the playoffs. While he hasn't shot the lights out, he's an improvement over alternatives like Zuccarello, Scott or others in the lineup. With the injury to Dubinsky, he's filled in admirably. Instead of giving more offensive minutes to a guy like Fedotenko, they haven't been caught short. For that reason, I believe they have more depth than the Kings, should they meet them in the finals. That small edge would make it all worth it.

Friday, April 27, 2012

First round post-mortem: There is no secret formula

"I once asked Al [Arbour], what's the secret to building a team? He said no secret, it's not complicated, get good players."

- Darcy Regier
It's been a strange first round this year in the playoffs: several recent superpowers - Vancouver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago - have gone down in the first round to the surprise of fans and pundits alike.

At the end of every Stanley Cup, it seems, we close with a new conclusion on what it takes to win in today's NHL. Without fail, that conclusion is based entirely on the makeup of the team that wins the cup.

Eleven years ago, after the Avalanche won, it was all about having 'two star centres'; other years, apparently, the key is an unbeatable top D pairing. Some years, you'll never win unless you've got a superstar goalie; other years, Chris Osgood will do just fine. Pile up the offence like the Lightning? Or get a lot of good checking forwards? When the Hurricanes won in 2006, it was thanks to all those veterans; when the Blackhawks won in 2010, they were carried by their young legs. Last year, we were told the Bruins won because they had so much toughness.

None of these formulas is the single answer to playoff success. Arbour had it right: just get good players. Pile up as many of them as you can. Your first line can't play every shift; you can't play your first D pairing 40 minutes a night.

GMs must avoid falling into the trap of trying to mold their teams after what's fashionable. They'll pay more in the FA market for that marginal tough guy or 'veteran presence'; they'll turn down great trade offers for the ones they have.

There are, of course, some differences in the playoffs. Perhaps most notably, the teams are better. You can't just have one shutdown line and D-pair; every player on your team needs to be able to match up against top players on the opposing team, because otherwise good coaches can exploit them. That sort of depth is important; your third-pairing D-men, for example, will be playing 15 minutes a night. Obviously that's not as much as the 24-25 the top pair gets, but your third pairing will now be playing against quality guys on the other team. If they're going to get 60% of the ice time the top pair gets, you had better make sure you get someone good in there. Sending out some bum who'll go -4 in a series reverses all the good your top players have done.

The other point I'll make is that teams need to rest their players more in the regular season. What's the point of having Ryan Kesler play 77 games in the regular season if he's injured in the playoffs? Kesler played every game down the stretch, often playing over 20 minutes a night. Even if he doesn't tell the coaching staff that he's injured, why keep playing him so much? Once a playoff spot is clinched, teams need to rotate the healthy scratches in to get the starters some nights off. Key players can thus be fresher for the late rounds of the playoffs - let alone the first round. Nagging injuries can be given time to heal and you give your depth players a chance to play - and at least show you whether they have anything to offer come playoff time. MLB and NFL teams rest starters late in the regular season; why can't NHL teams?

To their credit, the Canucks did play Andrew Ebbett for the last 4 games of the season, though largely as a fill-in for Daniel Sedin. There's no excuse, though, for scratching Kassian, Weise, Tanev, Alberts or Gragnani anytime in March or April. Those players should be shouldering the load while the front-line players get some rest.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Pittsburgh Model, My Ass"

Those were Burkie's words this morning when asked by a reporter whether the Leafs should try to follow the 'Pittsburgh Model'. Presumably this would mean to tear down and try to get lottery picks - ideally first-overall picks - and rebuild around core players.

Pittsburgh did do this, but it was kind of by accident. Jaromir Jagr was traded in 2001 for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk. All three had been drafted in the top 34 in 1999; all three bombed as prospects. Only Beech saw much NHL time, but he was a major disappointment. Combined with a poor drafting record in the late 90s and a tight budget, the Penguins were regular cellar-dwellers in the early 2000s. The team was terrible and losing money.

From 2003-2006, though, the team had two #1 and two #2 picks, drafting Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Staal. The team eventually improved, posting a winning record in 2006-07. It was a long, hard stretch and a tough price to pay. What's more, it doesn't automatically work.

Burke pointed out that Crosby was won in the 05-06 lottery, where the Penguins were up against the whole league. What's more, though they've had lottery picks, the Penguins were fortunate to have them all turn out; top-5 picks don't all turn out and many are merely average players. There's no guarantee that the Leafs would have such luck, or that they'd be getting a top-2 pick each year given the number of terrible teams in the league at the moment.

What's more, a couple top players doesn't make a team. Look at, say, Tampa Bay. They feature two #1 overall picks - Lecavalier and Stamkos - and #2 overall man Victor Hedman. They're not anybody's idea of a powerhouse team. They lack depth at all positions and don't have any goaltending.

The Penguins have filled out their roster through smart management and a bit of luck. Neal, Dupuis, Sullivan, Kunitz and others were added through trade or free agency; Kris Letang was drafted in the third round.

Other powerhouse teams have built themselves without the benefit of star draft picks. Look at, say, the Boston Bruins. Only Nathan Horton was drafted with a lottery pick won by a losing season for Boston; Tyler Seguin's pick was acquired via trade. The rest of the team was acquired by smart management. Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic and Marchand were all second- and third-round picks; Chara was brought in as a free agent; Thomas bounced around before finding himself in the Bruins' minor league system.

Burke is right that tanking is not a magic bullet to icing a competitive team. A lot of luck and hard work is required to make it work: look at, for example, the Oilers, who now have a high-scoring first line but still lose because the rest of their team stinks. If it goes wrong, teams can get stuck in a downward spiral where fans stop showing up and players take on a losing attitude.

Burke has stated that the team needs a #1 centre and a goalie; he has enough of a team to fill in the rest, which is probably true (though I would suggest they could also use another 1st-pairing defenceman, or better yet, trade Dion Phaneuf and picks for Shea Weber). Those players don't grow on trees, but this summer, there will be goalies available. The centre will be a tougher find.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What's wrong with the Toronto Maple Leafs?

No playoffs in 8 years. That pretty much sums it up. The Leafs have been in a bad way for some time, and no end of band-aid solutions has managed to get them back on track. The team has added talented players - Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and Joffrey Lupul.

So why can't they put it together? As the media has recently pointed out, they need a #1 centre and a goaltender. Easy enough to say, but those assets don't exactly grow on trees.

The Leafs meant to satisfy the first requirement by acquiring Tim Connolly, but it shouldn't come as any surprise that he turned out to be inadequate to the task. In the NHL, one team's trash is going to turn out as trash for everyone else as well. Brian Burke has repeatedly touted James Reimer as the solution in goal - but we've heard that story before. Reimer, like all others, has turned out to be pretty mediocre.

The team is missing a lot of parts; they have a wealth of second-line forwards, a couple good defencemen, but little else. They have two options:

1. Keep trying to paper over the holes. Leafs fans are hard to please, and declaring 'rebuild' has two problems. Firstly, the fans will bemoan the loss of a season or more; second, they will start calling for the team to 'go for it' at the first sign of progress.

2. Tear down and start over. If Burke truly could have added the 'four first-round picks' he spoke of at the trade deadline, he should've perhaps done it. This year's draft class is said to be weak, but many of the Leafs' assets are very replaceable players.

In Kessel, Phaneuf and Lupul, the Leafs have some real assets; are they players to build around? I hardly think so. If the Leafs could get star prospects for them, they should make a move. We've heard that the Leafs brass has been scouting Nail Yakupov; if they can swing a deal with whoever draws the #1 pick, they should go for it. From a PR standpoint, it would work; the team would finally have something to sell. They would finally have a legitimate star in the making, and could use him, rather than the losing, to justify the rebuild - call it the 'Sale for Nail'. Veterans could be sold off for picks and prospects, under the guise of providing a group that could grow together. Leafs fans, already tired of having no real success, would be able to cheer for the team in a different way. The team could sign some veterans to tutor the kids, and start the year with a 'we're not expecting to win; we're expecting to develop' mantra.

Because if the Leafs keep it up with the Band-Aid solutions, where does that get them? A first-round playoff exit? Sustained team success requires real assets - young players who will be with the team long-term. Leafs fans may be fickle and harsh, but they're not stupid; I suspect a lot of them see what's going on in Edmonton and are envious. The Leafs are kidding themselves if they think they can compete with the core they have.

I once had the chance to see Brian Burke speak to a small gathering and he was asked about his philosophy on team-building. I expected he'd repeat his preference to build from the net out, which we've heard in a few places. Instead, he said this:

"First you have to crawl before you can walk. Then you run, and then you sprint."

Pushed by their fans, the Leafs are trying to sprint, but they're forgetting that they haven't got the legs for this race. I wonder if Burke is feeling so much pressure from the Toronto setting that it's overheating his good judgment.

Monday, April 2, 2012

What's wrong with the New York Islanders?

Puck Daddy's Harrison Mooney posted a critical analysis the Islanders' rough finish to the season, calling for a management or coaching change. He singled out coach Jack Capuano, who tried to shake things up by icing 5 d-men for a shift after a lackluster first period.

Mooney argues that Capuano no longer has the ability to motivate the team - but who would? The team has been out of a playoff position for some time now, sitting 14th in the East.

But Capuano isn't the team's problem: it's their budget. The Islanders are the NHL's lowest-spending team, with a $49m payroll, over 15 million dollars short of the cap. With that paltry sum, they were able to roster a squad that is currently tied in the standings with Toronto and Anaheim, two teams that were supposed to be in the playoff mix and spend over $10m more apiece. The Islanders have done this in the NHL's toughest division, where the Rangers, Penguins, Flyers and Devils are all in the East's top 5 in points.

Going forward, the Islanders shouldn't toss out the management or tear up the roster. They have one of the game's best young talents in John Tavares, who's signed for another 6 years at a bargain $5.5m per. He's a player you can build a playoff team around, and with several Eastern teams (particularly Toronto and Montreal) sputtering, they should make their move this off-season.

They have a pretty good forward unit; Matt Moulson has put up three straight 30-goal campaigns - I didn't realize he had been doing this for so long! I suppose life's good when there's not much competition for a first-line job. Re-signing PA Parenteau should be a priority, but it's also a reasonable possibility that Kyle Okposo might be ready to take over the #1 RW job. Is Parenteau really a 65 point player, or is he just riding Tavares' wake?

Beyond that, they've got some good talent. Josh Bailey has been emerging as a real player in the last month or so; Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome might take another year, but both are talented prospects. Frans Nielsen has a lot of versatility.

The team needs to shell out for some veteran checkers - maybe bringing Rolston back, or splurging for UFA Chris Kelly, and needs some better veteran defencemen to replace Staios and Eaton, guys who are well past their prime. Streit and MacDonald are good players, and Hamonic has had two nice seasons to start his career. Calvin de Haan might need more time. They could use some more size, maybe someone like Pavel Kubina or Filip Kuba.

It all comes down to whether they're able to up the budget next year. The team is in rough shape financially, needing a new building and lacking the capital to make it happen. With another $5-10 million for payroll, this could be a good team. Even if they keep payroll flat, Tavares will only get better (he's only 21, and 7th in NHL scoring). They've got a real shot to be in the playoffs next year and could surprise people.