Friday, 1 August 2014

On PK Subban and Bridge Contracts

If you've been on hockey Twitter at all today, you'll know a few things: 1) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens need a new contract, 2) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens went to arbitration to attempt to get a contract done, and 3) PK Subban and the Montreal Canadiens are not happy with one another. This is because PK Subban is asking for what he's worth on the open market, but the Habs are trying to pay him like he's a very-good-but-not-great NHL defenseman, but if you're reading this you know that part already. What's important is that two years ago, the Habs insisted that PK Subban sign a "bridge contract" instead of locking up long-term. Subban took that deal, then became one of the best players in the league. Subban's now looking to get paid and the Habs are kind of getting cold feet. That bridge deal isn't looking so good now, is it?

The benefits of a bridge deal are two-fold: one, it allows a team a little more time to "see what a player's got" before locking in to a long-term commitment, and two, and perhaps more prominently, it allows a team to realize massive value savings while a team still has almost total control of a player's RFA years. Corey Pronman uses something like a 40% discount of UFA value for RFA players to estimate what a "fair" deal is.

To me, this approach is unthinkably stupid. A player is worth what a player is worth. If PK Subban is worth $9+ M/yr on the open market, then he's not worth 60% of that to the Habs because he's an RFA and they hold exclusive negotiating rights. If Montreal loses Subban through one way or another, they still have to replace him with a player or players of his value, which is whatever the greater market determines that value is. $5.5 M/yr is not a fair deal for Subban simply because the NHL has a system in place that attempts to control costs for stars while guys like Leo Komarov, Clayton Stoner, and Deryk Engelland can all make in the neighborhood of $3 M/yr.

The "bridge deal" isn't really a thing in the NHL CBA per se. It's some kind of universally agreed upon construct that teams use to squeeze huge value out of RFA guys - it is, along with capped ELC's, the NHL's version of an unpaid internship. "Put off the pay day as long as you can" is a pretty straightforward time value of money concept. Paying out one dollar today is generally less desirable than agreeing to pay put one dollar two months from now. The major problem with the NHL is that most guys will have to get paid one day, and they will get fair market value eventually. PK Subban is going to get paid; it's just a matter of who's going to pay him.

There is no doubt that Montreal got massive value out of Subban these past two years. He won the Norris trophy in 2012-13, and was easily the best defenseman on a Eastern Conference finalist in 2013-14. So looking at it in that light, it seems that the bridge deal accomplished what it set out to do: squeeze value out of a player while a team has exclusive control over his negotiating rights. The problem is that players and their contracts don't happen in isolation of a given team or of the rest of the league, and that PK Subban didn't merely spend the past two seasons providing a crazy ROI for a hockey team. Subban spent the past two years providing huge excess value for the just okay Montreal Canadiens, and that context is what made the bridge deal a massive mistake from the second it was signed.

Any given NHL team's goal should be to win the Stanley Cup. That's essentially the whole point of professional hockey existing. As such, any given NHL team should aim to be in one of two states: a building state or a competing state. Realistically, there are only 5-6 legitimate competing teams in the NHL at any one given time, and everyone else is either delusional or attempting to accrue enough good assets that will be in the primes of their careers at the same time so that they may compete at some point down the road. If you're in a building state - and let's be completely honest here, the Habs aren't close to being legitimate Stanley Cup threats so they should have been building - saving a few bucks right now isn't that important, especially if it comes at the expense of saving a few bucks at the time when you desperately need to save a few bucks. If you're aiming to win the Stanley Cup, you almost certainly need players providing you with significant excess value while you're in a competing state.

Just look at the previous two (well, four) Stanley Cup champions: the Kings and the Blackhawks. The Kings paid the best possession forward and defenseman in the league a combined $4.65 million last year, and their eventual second line wingers a combined $860,000. No winger on the team carried a cap hit above Marian Gaborik's $3.75M/yr (CBJ retained half his salary in the deal). The Blackhawks paid less than $1M each for Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy, Brian Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, and Andrew Shaw in 2012-13, while Duncan Keith made just over $5M - a huge bargain for a top-2 defenseman and offensive dynamo. Hell, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's $6.3M/yr contracts were fantastic value considering each was likely worth more than $10M/yr.

Because Montreal made PK Subban stomach a bridge contract, they likely lost their opportunity to provide excess player value at the time when they'll need it most. They opted to save a few bucks right now rather than wait for when they really needed to save a few bucks. The teams that are legitimate Cup contenders at any one given time are those that are squeezing a ton of excess value from every position. Their stars are making modest money for star-calibre players, and their supporting casts are being paid pennies. There is no secret formula to winning the Stanley Cup other than "build the best team possible," and to do that, you're going have to cram more talent under the salary cap than other teams, and to do that, some guys will be underpaid while you're in your competing state.

Montreal wants to enter their competing state very soon, and having PK Subban locked up long term at $5.5M/yr-$6M/yr like they probably could have done two years ago is a lot more conducive to fitting the most talent under the cap than paying him fair market value. All in all, this is a trainwreck that was entirely avoidable if Montreal had planned for five years down the road rather than one or two. PK Subban is going to get the money he deserves based on his talents, it's just a matter of who's going to pay him.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Quick Hits - Thoughts on Pucks In Deep

There was a game last year - granted it was against Buffalo (and goalie Nathan Lieuwen) near the end of the season so it was more of an exhibition - where Zack Kassian had four assists. I remember John Tortorella refusing to give Kassian credit for the offensive outburst, instead focusing on doing the "little things" well. If I recall correctly, Torts singled out Kassian making more effective dump-ins.

I know for a fact that he singled out Brad Richardson helping Kassian "do the little things" because Iain MacIntyre quoted Tortorella saying so in this post-game article. I also know that Brad Richardson was a boat anchor at 5-on-5, and that zone entry guru Corey Sznajder indicates that Richardson was one of the most prolific puck-dumpers on the Canucks. These last two things are likely very closely related.

So why was a professional hockey coach not only blinded to the fact that Brad Richardson turned everything he touched at 5-on-5 into a steaming pile of doo-doo, but went completely the other way and determined that Richardson was having a positive effect? Because Brad Richardson likely did everything his coach told him to do with more frequency than other guys.

This is the most critical area where an unchecked eye test will fail you, and I think it's the reason why defensive defensemen like Brooks Orpik and Brad Stuart keep getting acquired: the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a blocked shot is a good thing, the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that a hit is a good thing, and the mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey dictates that getting the puck out of your zone and in to the opponent's end of the ice is a good thing.

Analytics don't really disagree with the basic mantra of Good Ol' Canadian Hockey. Certainly, shot blocking is good. Hitting is good. And getting the puck into the offensive end of the rink is good. But by taking a step back and asking, "okay, what's really providing us value and helping us win," we've found that lots of blocked shots and lots of hits are actually symptomatic of larger, more important issues. It is kinda counter-intuitive on the surface. I mean, it's saying that adding lots of good little things together don't equate to a bigger good thing. One plus one plus one plus one doesn't equal four, it actually equals negative two and everything you learned in kindergarten is a lie.

So what the hell does this have to do with Brad Richardson? Richardson is 5'11 and didn't really hit guys. He had good defensive zone value, especially on the penalty kill, but didn't really get noticed as a shot blocker. What he did do was dump the puck in.

Good Ol' Canadian Hockey does call for offensive zone play, but this call has been bastardized and butchered into a shortened chant we've all heard a billion and one times: pucks in deep. "What do we have to do to turn this game around? Pucks in deep." "Gotta generate some scoring chances? Pucks in deep." "They're giving us trouble in transition? We just gotta get pucks in deep." The problem is that "pucks in deep" has been treated as an end unto itself, when what really matters isn't whether or not the puck gets in deep, but whether the puck gets to the goal.

The easiest and most direct way to get a puck in deep is to dump it in. It accomplishes the task you set out to do, and there's no risk of the puck not getting in deep. So, in line with the straightforward "pucks in offensive zone = good thing, and dump ins = pucks in offensive zone, then lots of dump ins = lots of good things," coaches are likely going to encourage what they think are good things, look for players that do what they perceive are good things, and praise players for these perceived good things.

Brad Richardson is likely a good listener. He's likely good at taking what coaches tell him to do and incorporating these things into his game. John Tortorella likely doesn't know that the good little things he'd been asking his players to do are actively detrimental to a given team's ability to win hockey games. John Tortorella likely doesn't know his instruction may have been ruining Brad Richardson and, by extension, everyone that Richardson played with. We can't know for sure, but this is the story that all available evidence (including numbers, quotes from Torts, and watching the games) seems to tell us.

The big underlying problem isn't Brad Richardson being a poor hockey player, nor is it even John Tortorella being a poor coach - it may very well be true that neither of these things is the case. The major glaring problem is that a certain way of thinking has permeated hockey to the point where it's treated as an absolute and unassailable truth. "Pucks in deep" is beyond a cliche in this day and age, it's a dangerous way of thinking, and it seems to have become an end unto itself. Tyler Dellow thinks that Randy Carlyle running dump-in plays hurt the Leafs this past season, and I can't help but think that this may have hurt some of Vancouver's depth players this season too.

The end game in hockey is and will always be "pucks in net more often than your opponent," and just firing the puck in for the purpose of getting it deep doesn't help in that regard. There's no magic that happens immediately proceeding "pucks in deep" that translates to scoring more goals. The continued insistence on getting pucks in deep for the purpose of getting pucks in deep is little more than groupthink at this point. Fortunately if you're a fan of more exciting hockey, and unfortunately if you're a team that's looking for small advantages in the next few years, the hiring of guys like carry-in proponent Kyle Dubas may signal that this unassailable truth is finally being assailed.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Quick Hits: Mason Raymond Appreciation Post

Extraskater made player stats for the 2010-2011 NHL regular season available this morning. I can't think of anything else catchy to say about 2011 because seriously, screw the 2011 Boston Bruins. Game 7 and the aftermath is pretty much the absolute worst thing a hockey fan can go through and I imagine that year is going to still sting for a while longer.

Still, the 2010-2011 Vancouver Canucks, despite all recent dialogue about doing the contrary (#bostonmodel), is the team that the current management group should strive to build. They were a fantastic team that year, and one that was an absolute joy to watch as well. Daniel Sedin led the NHL in scoring with 104 points, with a league-leading 57 of those coming at even strength. Henrik's 75 assists alone would have placed him 15th in the league in scoring, and Ryan Kesler scored 41 goals in a campaign in which he won the Selke trophy.

And yet, because we're idiots that can't appreciate what we have in this city until it's gone, that team still came under fire for some ridiculous things. Most notably in my memory, the play of Mason Raymond. Raymond was coming off a breakout 25-goal, 28 assist season and was expected to build off of this performance. In retrospect, it was an insane thing to expect. Raymond would never get 1st-line TOI or 1st-line PP time with Daniel Sedin on the team, and saying "60 points is reasonable second line production" is batshit crazy in this day and age. 1st liners score ~55 points per 82 games. 2nd liners score ~30 points per 82 games. 3rd liners score ~20 points per 82. That's the reality of today's NHL.

And yet Mason Raymond did improve on his pretty spectacular 2009-2010 season in 2010-2011, but he did it in ways that weren't immediately jump-out-and-punch-you-in-the-face visible. He became an elite puck possession player, an elite penalty drawer, and a 1st-line calibre rate scorer. Raymond increased his individual shot rate by almost 2 shots per 60 minutes between 09-10 and 10-11, and saw his 5v5 points per 60 increase from 1.75 to 1.95 - a rate comparable to Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, John Tavares, Patrik Elias, Mikko Koivu, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, and Jakub Voracek. He also jumped to a 56% Corsi player away from Ryan Kesler compared to a still very good 51.2% Corsi player the season prior.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Raymond's 2010-11 season is that he managed to increase his 5v5 scoring rate while his on-ice shooting percentage actually fell by almost 10% (6.9% in 10-11 vs. 7.53% in 09-10) and his individual shooting percentage fell by almost 40% (6.1 % in 10-11 vs. 9.88% in 09-10). That's pretty phenomenal.

What really killed Raymond's boxcars was his great PP luck running out. He not only spent significantly less time on the PP in 10-11, but his individual 5v4 shooting percentage regressed in a big way. He scored on nearly 1 out of every 4 shots at 5v4 in 09-10, but that number fell to a much more reasonable 1 out of ever 9 shots in 10-11. His on-ice PP Sh% also fell by nearly 27%. Combining these factors meant Raymond's powerplay production in 2010-11 was just 1/3rd or what it was in 2009-10, and there's really not much that Raymond could have been reasonably expected to do about this.

All of this is to say that in 2010-2011, Mason Raymond was an elite 2nd line/fringe 1st line left winger, not the disappointing player that the Vancouver MSM and fanbase characterized him as. And for his $2.5 M/yr cap hit, Raymond was a massive bargain and no small part of the best offense that Vancouver has ever seen.


An aside to the Raymond appreciation: it's a damn shame that his back was broken by Johnny Boychuk and Raymond has never quite been the same player since, but I think it's a bigger shame that he was run out of town amid criticisms that he was too soft, played on the perimeter, and "his hands never caught up to his feet," which is just a bullshit way of saying "you skate as fast as Pavel Bure so I don't understand why you aren't Pavel Bure."

Raymond's perception in this market is a real sore spot for me. It really is. He was one of my favourite players because I thought he was tremendously effective at generating offensive chances (it turns out he really was - I didn't follow fancystats at all until midway through the next season but as you can see, his fancystats were fantastic), so all the "lol raymond fell down again" and the "soft perimeter player" stuff really, really aggravated me. The point of hockey is to score more goals than your opponents, and it was blindingly obvious that Mason Raymond helped the Canucks do just that. If someone couldn't see that from just the eye test, I don't know what sport they were watching.

The whole Raymond situation was also one of the things that convinced me that Vancouver mainstream media does not have a clue how hockey works, and also can't do basic second grade math. Around the 60th game of the season or so (Raymond's 50th game since he'd missed 10 due to injury), the TEAM 1040 was doing their usual "Mason Raymond is soft" routine so I sent this email:

It's not even that difficult an argument. There's no Corsi or Fenwick or unfavourable percentages (mostly because I didn't know those were really things yet), it's just points. I was, uh, "fortunate" enough to get both an on-air response and an email response from Barry MacDonald. I don't have the audio, but his on-air response was something snarky and condescending. He claimed that Raymond was on pace for 40-ish points that season and chastised me for my math skills, adding something along the lines of "if this is the type of student our education system is producing, we're in real trouble!"

It doesn't take a freaking math genius to go "0.62 points per game times 82 games = 50.8 points per 82 games!" and I'm fairly sure that most first graders can understand "82 game season." And the "our future is in danger" crack is just a ridiculous thing to say. I got this email response:

That would be a great mic drop had he not been completely wrong about Raymond's scoring rate.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Quick Hits: Don't Play Zack Kassian With The Sedins

Well, at least don't have Kassian penciled in as the #1 RW on the Canucks now and in the future. Lines are fluid and guys move around all the time, and I do think that Kassian was deserving with more than the paltry 46:31 he spent at 5v5 with Henrik Sedin last year, so I'm not saying don't ever play him with the Sedins. Although I acknowledge that that's essentially what I wrote here:
But, as always, arguments about anything involve more nuance than bullshit stuff I blurt out over Twitter, so that's why I have a blog. Here, I can qualify the dumb stuff I say with significantly less dumb stuff and overall have not-dumb opinions on things. Well, that's how it's supposed to work anyways.

I digress. This is an article about Zack Kassian.

I admit, the "Zack Kassian is a playmaker" argument is very much one born from *gasp* watching the games. I see Kassian play, and I just see a guy who's more Joe Thornton than Cam Neely. That is to say he's nowhere close to either and never will be, but he just looks more comfortable as a guy with the puck on his stick looking to create offense rather than a guy with the puck off his stick looking to create mayhem and drive to "scoring areas."

I googled Zack Kassian images. It was a fantastic decision.
He'll just be playing the game, then get the puck on his stick, hang on for what feels like a second too long, then find an open passing lane (he likes hitting the weak side D pinching into the slot with a pass from the corner it seems), and you're like "shit where'd that come from?" It just looks like his particular offensive toolkit lends itself better to protecting the puck along the boards and down low and using his hands and plus-level vision to find shooting options other than himself, than it does to barging to the front of the net and hoping to jam in a rebound. I mean, his struggles away from the puck are the part of the game that have so far been maligned by his coaches, so why does it make sense to play away from the puck more often?

Kassian is not known for his shrewd decision making without the puck.
It's also worth noting that Kassian and Henrik Sedin were unusually poor together on the ice last year, posting just a 48.1% Corsi. Barring injuries, the Sedins are still elite possession players and still among the most effective 5v5 players in the NHL, so I doubt that number would remain that low over a larger sample. Still, Henrik has traditionally been better off without Kassian on his RW than with him.

"Oh god Henrik I am so sorry."
It also shouldn't really come as a surprise that Kassian probably found his best success as a Canuck when paired with David Booth. Stylistically, Booth and Kassian couldn't really be more different - Booth is a serious shoot-first play-driving winger who I suspect is dynamite through the neutral zone. Booth is good at freeing up pucks, and he is good at going into high-traffic areas without the puck in hope of hacking and whacking away. Essentially, he's everything that every coach who's ever had Zack Kassian wants Kassian to play like. Chip and chase, go to the net, compete, etc. etc.

"David's gone...? Is he ever coming back?"
The two most important points to make about Zack Kassian last year though are as follows:

  • He was deployed in a very unfavourable role in terms of offensive production. Between Brad Richardson and a 43.3% ZoneStart rate, Kassian's deployment was primarily defensive for some reason, which seems like an odd use of assets to say the least if you're concerned about his D. One would think that Torts would use him like Bruce Boudreau used Pat Maroon if there was a legitimate concern about Kassian's defensive game. Here's Kassian's PUC from last year:
Since Kassian is capable of offence relatively on his own, it may not be the best idea to play him with the Sedins at even strength. There's not really a stylistic fit there as they're all pass-first guys, and Vancouver is kinda shallow in terms of offensive punch up front. I would prefer to see Kassian on a second line with a play-driver like Alex Burrows and hope that Nick Bonino is legit and not a PDO mirage and try someone like Linden Vey at 1RW to try and spread the wealth around a bit.

*goes to proofread post*
*about to hit "Publish"*

Well now, this whole argument is kinda moot. Vrbata is a bona-fide top-line RW who's a shoot-first guy. Since 2011, his Goals/60 is good for 45th in the NHL, nearly identical to Alex Burrows. He wasn't as good this past season, but, much like Burrows, that's largely percentage-related as he shot just 5.11% at ES. His Shots/60 was fairly constant with his career norms this past year, while his individual shot attempts actually saw a jump.

Vrbata's also an elite shot producer and a better PP scorer than Ryan Kesler traditionally has been. This acquisition should insulate Kassian a bit at RW, and provide a better fit for Daniel and Henrik than Kassian would. At the end of the day though, Kassian is likely a legitimate top-6 forward, and deserving of better deployments, more talented linemates, and hopefully, hopefully, some PP time as well.


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Vancouver Canucks 2014 UFA Wishlist

Unrestricted free agency opens in a matter of hours, so I figured I might as well outline the players I'd target if I were Jim Benning and what I'd want the Canucks' lineup to look like going into next year. I touched on this on Twitter earlier. After playing with Capgeek's Armchair GM function. Here's what I came up with:

Keep in mind that lines are pretty fluid. Nick Bonino is the 13th F here, but that's more because I see him playing all over the lineup as needed rather than in a rigid role, filling in for inevitable injuries as well as regularly playing up and down the lineup. Jeff Sullivan, an excellent Seattle Mariners writer, once pointed out that while you have a 5-man starting pitching rotation planned in the offseason, you really need to plan to have 7 or more starters because someone is going to get injured at some point. In hockey, this is even more true. Even if a guy is projected to be your rarely-used 13th forward, he's still likely going to play the vast majority of your games.

I've also tried to avoid veteran guys who may be over the hill. Specifically, I've targeted guys in their mid-20's who still have prime years of hockey ahead of them. If unrestricted free agency is about paying players for what they've accomplished so far in their careers, then I want guys who haven't accomplished much yet but look like they will in the next 3-4 seasons.

The $3.833M also leaves some wiggle room if you have to pay more for some guys, and not all the names on this list look familiar ("Brett Bellemore?? Why'd you want him?") so I'll go over my reasons for each guy below.

Mathieu Perreault: He's on the young end of the UFA spectrum at 26 (the same age as Nick Bonino), and is basically the player that Jim Benning and the Canucks hope that Bonino is. He's traditionally an effective puck possession player, and a super efficient scorer. Since 2011, his Pts/60 rate is nearly identical to that of Patrick Kane, Max Pacioretty, Patrick Sharp, and James Neal. Here's how he's compared to Nick Bonino over the course of their respective careers:
With Zack Kassian and a strong possession player like Alex Burrows, Perreault could centre a very, very effective "soft minutes" scoring line.

Mikhail Grabovski: Run out of town after being a good depth player in Toronto, Grabovski still brings a strong two-way game at 30 years old. He's the oldest UFA I've looked at, but he's still well suited to a middle-6 C role where he can handle tough minutes and drive possession in the right way while posting some pretty solid boxcars. I don't think that any line with Grabbo on it would be a "3rd line," so I prefer to look at it as a second 2nd line with Chris Higgins and Jannik Hansen.

Grabovski's player usage charts are pretty hilarious from the last few years too, as he's been a lone blue dot in a sea of suck like this past year with Washington:
Paul Stastny is probably the ideal UFA option here, but I'd be exceedingly nervous about locking into Stastny for the cap hit and term he's surely going to command on the open market. Grabbo would give the Canucks a massive upgrade in middle-6 C depth, and may be the best #3 centre that Vancouver would ever have.

Michael Del Zotto: Once a promising young player, MDZ's reputation has taken a beating over the past couple of years due to some iffy defensive zone play. While it's true that his Corsi numbers aren't great given his deployment, he still seems to bring solid, second pairing powerplay upside.

The biggest reason to take a home-run swing on an MDZ reclamation is that he's only 24 years old. He still has ample time to find and refine his two-way game, and taking short-term home-run swings on young skill guys is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. Christian Ehrhoff, Anton Stralman, and Tom Gilbert are all legitimately better players right now, but you endanger yourself of locking into a known guy for too much money over too long a term in the UFA period. Going the MDZ route still gives you upside, but also ample flexibility going forward, assuming you're not giving the guy 3 or more years of term.

Del Zotto could become a good 3rd paring guy in the right situation, and he's still young enough that it's possible he has untapped potential. After all, Oilers people love to talk about how much potential Justin Schultz has despite being a train wreck of a defender. MDZ is just 12 days older than young Schultz.

Brett Bellemore: At first glance, Bellemore seems like a standard plodding pylon of a defenseman that was carried by Ron Hainsey in Carolina. At 6'4, 225 lbs he certainly has plenty of meat and potatoes, but his WOWYs are fairly uninspiring. Digging a little deeper though paints a picture of a very effective and nondescript prototypical shutdown defender.

First of all, one explanation for Bellemore's iffy WOWYs is that he played with noted anchors like Jay Harrison when away from Hainsey, while Hainsey was allowed to work with young and dynamic Ryan Murray and a strong possession player in Justin Faulk while not with Bellemore.

Bellemore also had by far and away the lowest ZoneStart% of any regular Hurricanes D while facing slightly above average competition. A 48.4% Corsi isn't fantastic, but it's more than acceptable for a right-handed depth D making less than $1M/yr. Corey Sznajder of the Zone Entry Project fame was very complimentary of Bellemore too, describing him as the "perfect third pairing defenseman [that] isn't over his head in the top-4 with a good partner" and pointing out that Bellemore was among the Hurricanes best defenders at stopping opposing zone entries:
Bellemore is also a really, really good penalty killer, and at a young 26 years of age and presumably pretty inexpensive, the type of meat-and-potatoes I really wouldn't mind the Canucks take a swing at for bottom pair/second unit PK duty.

Zach Redmond: A little-used Jets cast-off, Redmond has seen limited NHL time over the last few years. He's been very effective in this tiny sample however, carrying a career 55.1% Fenwick. Most of the intrigue surrounding Redmond stems from his AHL play though. According to our friend Garret Hohl, Redmond generates a boatload of shots at the AHL level, which bodes well for a possible #6 option with powerplay upside at the NHL level. He's also been a 0.55 Pts/GP D at the AHL level over the past two seasons, and was a huge part of St. John's Calder Cup run this past year, posting 14 points in 21 games - good for 3rd on the Ice Caps in playoff scoring.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding Redmond, I'd probably pencil Brett Bellemore in ahead of him on the depth chart, but he's the type of gamble you'd be smart to make for short term and low dollars, especially since he's just 26 years old. If he works out, you have yourself a cheap 6'2, 205 lbs right-handed defenseman with modest offensive upside. If not, you have an elite AHL defender for Utica to help Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk play in the offensive zone more often.

Justin Peters: As we've learned more and more about goaltending, we've actually learned more than anything that we don't know anything about goaltending. Single season performances are wildly variable, and guys can come out of nowhere to lead their team to the Cup finals (Leighton and Niemi in 2010 anyone?). Even Jonathan Quick wasn't Jonathan Quick when LA won their first cup - and in this past run, he was kinda awful for rounds 1-3.

Locking long-term into goalies for big money seems like a terrible idea then, especially if the guy you're looking at is going to be 34 years old this next season. Instead, and especially since Eddie Lack seems like the real deal to be an above average goaltender (which is really all you need), Vancouver would be better off hedging their bets with Markstrom and bringing in a Thomas Greiss/Chad Johnson/Peters type. I lean towards Justin Peters of those three because he's the youngest, and because Kevin Woodley singles him out in this great discussion on Canucks Army. Really though, any under-30 backup with a track record of strong play is preferable.

In a perfect world, the Canucks can pry young RFA Michael Hutchinson out of Winnipeg, but that's unlikely to happen.


This Canucks lineup is far from perfect (Linden Vey on the 1st line is definitely a huge question mark, but he can be replaced by some younger farm hands or Bonino or Burrows as needed), but it solves a lot of their middle-6 depth issues, and I think it would be competitive within the brutal Pacific division - barring any huge improvement to Anaheim's D, they could probably take the Ducks in a playoff series.

More importantly, these moves don't handcuff the team going forward. They won't be put in an impossible cap situation next year thanks to massive bonus overages owed to veteran players ("Thanks Jarome!" - Boston), they won't be locked in long-term to a once great playmaking C that has lost it by the 3rd year of his contract, and they won't be paying an aging goalie a dangerous amount of money over his declining years, especially since that worked so well last time

True contenders are built through the draft and through shrewd trading anyways, so perhaps the best thing that Jim Benning can do on his inaugural UFA day is nothing at all.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Quick Hits: What Jim Benning Said

The Canucks' Twitter account tweeted a thing earlier tonight. This was the thing they tweeted:
This prompted @BlueAidanGreen to ask me this question, seeing as I'm usually pretty volatile towards nonsense like this:
I was ready to fire back the usual #fakeoutrage, fire-and-brimstone, those-idiots-don't-know-what-they're-doing type of response, but then I stopped to think. I don't know why, I'm usually bad at not running my mouth on these types of things, but something struck me about the nature of the Canucks' tweet and the purpose of their Twitter account itself, and I think it's worth saying that we probably kinda need to take a step back here and not read too much into what Jim Benning said.

The Vancouver Canucks don't have a Twitter account just because they want to talk hockey with fans. To them, it's strictly a marketing tool. It's purpose is not to provide news or analysis, it is first and foremost a way to "engage the consumer base" and "grow the brand" with a strong "social media presence." Sports Twitter despises Darren Rovell for being a soulless husk of a human being who bows down in worship of The Brand, but he's not exactly an inaccurate representation of what a professional sports marketing department probably thinks and talks like. Their job is to turn fan interest into actual dollars spent, and that only happens when fans make an emotional investment on some level. Participating in the discussion and engaging them on the social media medium that they like to talk hockey on is an easy way to do this.

This brings me to the actual content of what the Canucks' account tweets. You can be assured that Derek Jory or whoever is taking their turn behind the keyboard is under strict guidelines from the marketing department about what they share with their five-hundred and twenty-three thousand followers. Everything that's tweeted or distributed is carefully planned and designed as a part of a larger, overarching strategy to create a solid and trustworthy brand image - to make sure that the guys in charge look like they know what they're doing. If fans trust the Canucks, fans are more likely to spend money on the Canucks.

So when Jim Benning says something that's quoted by Twitter, you can bet it's been pre-screened and approved first. And even before that, he's almost assuredly met with some of the marketing guys to prep him for interviews and the like. As such, I don't think we can put a lot of stock into Benning saying he's looking for "character" in prospects, especially since "character" is such a nebulous thing.

We also have to remember that the vast majority of the Canucks' paying customers still revere the gritty heart leadershippyness of the 1994 team. "Character" means something to them. The broader fanbase wants character players - seemingly good guys who they can get behind and buy jerseys and merchandise to support - because that's what the broader fanbase thinks wins Stanley Cups. We have to remember that we as an analytic-focused community are still very much a niche in their market. We may very well have it right, but it's not in Vancouver's best interest to tip their hand in our favour since that's not what their paying fans want to hear. If they want Trevor to save the day again, then god dammit they'll make it look like they're hunting for Trevor 2.0, even if they really aren't.

Furthermore, no matter who Vancouver drafts, it's easy to say "we like this kid's character." The beauty of publicly valuing intangibles is that they can't be falsified on a player-by-player basis. We can't know if a guy has good character because, as fans, we have no inside knowledge. Jim Benning may very well draft Michael Dal Colle 6th overall, and Michael Dal Colle may very well be a total asshole. Will we be told about that? Of course not. Benning will lie if he has to. Bad character is bad for the brand.

And there you have it. A whole bunch of words to basically say the same thing as what you were taught in gradeschool: don't believe everything you see on T.V. read on the internet.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Quick Hits: On Trades and Finding Talent

So I was talking Kesler trade with Thomas Drance today. He brought up a point that I don't totally agree with:
You do need a lot of good players to build a serious contender, and Vancouver doesn't have enough good players. Therefore, Vancouver needs more good players. It's a pretty simple formula. The trick, of course, is getting enough good players.

As this relates to Ryan Kesler, I'd rather move him for fewer, high-quality parts than a greater volume of lower-quality ones. For example, I'd take Hampus Lindholm from Anaheim over Emerson Etem and the 10th overall pick. Whether or not Anaheim would go for this is another matter entirely, but Lindholm + any additional BS throw-ins you can negotiate would be my preferred ask from Jim Benning's point of view.

The problem here is Vancouver still needs player volume to fill out a deep roster and build a contender, and trading your big ticket item for one guy doesn't help you with depth. It's likely a lateral move in terms of quality (hopefully), and roster spots filled. So at the end of the day, you're left essentially where you started, except you've moved towards the right side of the window of contention being open again. So if you're making a lateral move by trading for quality, why not address an immediate need and get a bunch of guys?

The answers are "scarcity" and "replacement cost" of top-end players relative to good depth guys, but instead of providing a lecture on economic theory and what the hell these mean, I'll go through the moves Dean Lombardi made to build a two-time Stanley Cup champion in Los Angeles, since I think the L.A. "model" is a good illustration in how to build a deep, effective, and sustainably successful NHL team. Lombardi took over the Kings in April of 2006. Here's how he acquired his forward group:

Anze Kopitar: Inherited from previous regime.
Justin Williams: Inherited Pavol Demitra. Traded Demitra to the Minnesota Wild for Patrick O'Sullivan and a 1st round pick in 2006 (Trevor Lewis). Dealt O'Sullivan and a 2nd round pick to Carolina for Justin Williams.
Marian Gaborik: Drafted Jonathan Bernier in the 1st round of 2006. Traded Bernier to Toronto for Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, and a 2nd round pick. Traded Ben Scrivens to Edmonton for a 3rd round pick. Traded Matt Frattin, a 2nd round pick, and a conditional 2nd/3rd round pick to Columbus for Marian Gaborik.
Jeff Carter: Inherited Eric Belanger and Tim Gleason. Traded Belanger and Gleason to Carolina in exchange for Jack Johnson and Oleg Tverdovsky. Traded Jack Johnson and a 1st round pick to Columbus for Jeff Carter.
Tyler Toffoli: Traded 2nd round pick and 4th round pick in 2010 to Colorado in exchange for 2nd round pick in 2010 (Tyler Toffoli).
Mike Richards: Inherited Brent Sopel. Traded Sopel to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2nd round pick in 2007 (Wayne Simmonds) and a 4th round pick in 2008. Drafted Brayden Schenn in the 1st round of 2009. Traded Simmonds, Schenn, and a 2nd round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers for Mike Richards.
Dustin Brown: Inherited from previous regime.
Jarrett Stoll: Inherited Lubomir Visnovsky. Traded Visnovsky to the Edmonton Oilers for Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene.
Tanner Pearson: Drafted in the 1st round of the 2012 draft.
Kyle Clifford: Drafted in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft.
Dwight King: Inherited Craig Conroy. Traded Conroy to the Calgary Flames for Jamie Lundmark, a 2nd round pick in 2008, and a 4th round pick in 2007 (Dwight King).
Jordan Nolan: Drafted in the 7th round of the 2009 draft.

As for Los Angeles' D, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Alec Martinez were all drafted by the Kings, while Willie Mitchell and Jake Muzzin were UFA signings (Muzzin was drafted but never signed by Pittsburgh, so he became a free agent). Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene were both acquired via trade.

At the end of the day, we appear to be left with this formula:

  • Build the bare-bones skeleton of your team through the early picks of the draft (Kopitar, Doughty)
  • Trade multiple assets to acquire premium quality depth (Williams, Carter, Gaborik, Richards) 
  • Fill in the bottom-end holes in your roster from within by developing your own talent
  • Stay away from unrestricted free agency, except for unsigned prospects
Not since 2007 has Dean Lombardi traded down to stock the cupboards with quantity of players in lieu of quality. In fact, Lombardi has done the opposite most of the time by packaging up players and picks to take a home-run swing on the trade market. As a smart GM, he realizes that top-end talent, like Jeff Carter and Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik, is harder to come by than bundles of assets involving lesser players and draft picks. Hell, NHL teams are given seven free draft picks every year, but you have to work hard to find a Jeff Carter.

Of course, Lombardi's wheeling and dealing wouldn't be possible without a strong scouting department that's been among the league's best since he took over. If his scouts had not found Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, or Jonathan Bernier, it's unlikely he has enough assets to build a team as strong as the Kings are. And as an added bonus, his amateur scouting department has also landed the Kings Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan in recent years to fill out the roster and ultimately save money on pricier veteran UFA replacements. Amateur scouting really matters.

Coming full circle to Vancouver, yes the Canucks absolutely need to "re-stock" the cupboard. But, as the Kings have shown, there are other ways to find quantity of talent than trading your best trade chip for a bunch of assets that can be found through other processes. Land the single best asset you can for Ryan Kesler. Focus on the other stuff later.