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Koivu Contract Continues to Confuse

Sigh. Here we are, a few days removed from the contract extension of Mikko Koivu, and it seems that people still don't understand it. Which is fine, as I said in the previous defense of the deal. People who don't get it aren't going to get it, case closed. I'll let them live out their days in relative ignorance. Like the deal, hate it, it's your deal, not mine.

However, when someone from ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Knowing Nothing About Hockey, chimes in, it makes me take notice, and makes me want to read what type of beautiful ignorance they can come up with. Was it analysis from Barry Melrose, John Buccigross, or Pierre LeBrun? No. Why would we want to include the handful of guys at ESPN that have actually watched more than the Stanley Cup Finals?

No, it's stats and analysis man Peter Keating, who also writes their "Ultimate Standings" articles, which Hockey Wilderness has contributed to in the past . To make matters worse? They bury the article behind their "Insider" area to make those who wish to read it pay for a service they'll never use again.

I gained access. Join me, won't you?

First off, let me give you ESPN's bio on Keating:

Keating's blog covers the world of statistics and analytics. He will examine concepts for evaluating athletes and teams across all sports, not just those commonly associated with sabermetrics. He'll introduce researchers who are developing sports analytical tools. And he will present and examine "Next Level" findings from ESPN -- data analysis that goes beyond official statistics to explain strategies and performance.

Got it. Stats guy. Check. Let's look at his hypothesis:

"To define Mikko by his statistics is to miss the point of what he's all about," Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said last Thursday night after inking center Mikko Koivu to the biggest deal in Wild history, a seven-year, $47.25 million contract extension.

If that were true -- that statistics can't capture Koivu's worth -- the right response would be: Dude, get some new statistics! But it's not true. We can estimate Koivu's value to his team on the ice. We can guesstimate his worth in dollars. We can even calculate how much Minnesota is willing to pay for his leadership and loyalty. In fact, the gap between what leading metricians have been able to figure out about player value and what has seeped into mainstream coverage and front offices may be bigger in hockey than in any sport.

Get new statistics? At Statistics R Us, or what? It's not true that there are aspects of the NHL and players that cannot be explained by stats? Man... thanks for saving us from ourselves. Here I thought "Moneyball" was a book about baseball. But hey, let's see what the man has to say, shall we?

However, Koivu is quite some distance away from the best players in the league: He ranked 19th in the league among forwards with 15.3 goals versus threshold (GVT) in 2009-10. GVT, developed by Tom Awad of Puck Prospectus, measures the sum of a player's offensive, defensive and shootout value in goals above replacement.

Let's be clear. GVT is a great stat, sheds some light on how players compare to each other. Not going to knock the stat. And I will stipulate that Mikko ranks 19th in that statistical category. Puck Prospectus does great work. Half the time, I can't figure out what it is they are trying to tell me, but I'm not much of a stats guy.

We'll accept Peter at his word on this section and keep the knowledge in our back pockets, shall we? Next up:

Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 30.1 GVT last year and Sidney Crosby (29.4) was No. 2. Koivu was closer to players like Joe Thornton (16.6), Martin St. Louis (16.4) and Marian Hossa (15.0), which is no insult.

Agreed. That should not even be in an article telling me that Koivu isn't worth his money. Thornton, St. Louis, or Hossa? Sounds good to me, but hey, maybe that's just me.

Koivu hasn't always played for very good teams. The Wild didn't make the playoffs last season and were outscored by 27 goals. Koivu also has a reputation for taking on the opposition's best players. That's something we can actually check: At Behind the Net's Advanced Statistics Page , there's an incredible trove of data, including scoring and plus/minus stats, numbers on individual shooting, penalties and blocked shots and indices measuring the quality of players' teams and competition. It turns out that Koivu played against tough opposing forwards while Jacques Lemaire was coaching Minnesota through 2008-09, though not so much last year. Further, Koivu has started a majority of his possessions in the defensive zone over the past three seasons. He's great on faceoffs, winning more than anyone in the league except Crosby last season. See, while these are things that traditionalists count as "intangibles," there are ways to measure all of them.

No sir, these are not the things that traditionalists call "intangibles." Intangibles are things like leadership, who wins the battles in the corner, the intensity on ice and off, the ability to play in multiple situations and not lose a step. Intangibles are, by definition, things that cannot be measured. Faceoff wins is such a standard statistic, it is included in every fantasy hockey league ever made.

Buried in this paragraph is the line "Further, Koivu has started a majority of his possessions in the defensive zone over the past three seasons." Indeed, he has, but that wouldn't be to prevent the other team from scoring, right? I mean, since you say that Koivu's time as a shut down center is over. It must just be because it was Mikko's turn on the ice, and it's just coincidence that it was in the defensive zone.

But they don't change our overall evaluation of Koivu. Suppose we look at his Relative Corsi, which takes a player's shooting plus/minus -- the number of shots his team takes while he's on the ice minus the number of shots it allows -- and compares it to what happens when he's off the ice. Really, everything a player does should be related to shot creation or prevention. Relative Corsi accounts for the quality of a player's teammates (and, implicitly, that of his opposition) -- Gabriel Desjardins has called it "the best single statistic we have to evaluate a player's performance."

Among forwards in 2009-10, Koivu ranked … 19th in the NHL.

There's that number again. 19th. It was so important that it had to be set off from the rest of the sentence. 19th. Same as his rank for GVT. Interesting. Moving on.

Look at the chart here, where Ryan Popilchak of Sports Opinionated rates the value of the top 25 forwards in the league by comparing their average GVT over the past three seasons to their salary cap charge for 2010-11. In this group of highly-paid, mostly outstanding players, teams are getting an average of 2.33 goals beyond replacement value for every $1 million they spend. While Ovechkin will cost his team more than $9.5 million this season, the most of any forward, he is nevertheless a great deal at 3.25 GVT per million dollars of cap space. Koivu ranks 17th on the list at 1.91. His new deal makes him a better value than Vincent Lecavalier or Thomas Vanek, but nowhere near Henrik Sedin or Pavel Datsyuk -- and Koivu is five years older than some of the other players ahead of him in value, such as Nicklas Backstrom and Jonathan Toews.

Koivu is a top-20 guy, not a top-five or top-10 guy. His real value came in the past few seasons, when he was churning out nearly 3.5 goals beyond replacement for every $1 million his team spent on him. Unfortunately, the Wild could not translate that performance into playoff wins.

He's not a top five-or-ten guy, he's a top 20 guy. So... around, say 19th? Koivu ranks 17th in the GVT per million stat. 17th. 19th. Top 20. Got it. Next?

Minnesota fans are justifiably glad the team didn't let Koivu skate away, as Marian Gaborik did last year. But the numbers say this is a maintenance deal, where the Wild are paying about $1.2 million more per year than Koivu's production justifies to keep their captain, longest-tenured player and heart of their team.

OK. My turn now, good sir. You say that the Wild are paying Koivu $1.2 million more per year than his production justifies. This is where you lose me. Which production are you referring to? Are you going back to goals and points? Could be, but  Mikko ranked 24th in points, and just 78th in goals. So which one is it? Maybe it is the categories in which Mikko finished 19th? Or was it GVT per million dollars, where Mikko finished 17th?

I'm only asking all of these questions because Mikko's new $6.75 million cap hit would rank him 21st in salary cap hit, according to NHLNumbers.

But hey. Paying a guy the 21st highest average salary for ranking 17th in at least one of your quoted stats, and 19th in two others, plus calling him a "top-20 guy" seems to be not worth it. All of the metrics Peter used suggest that Koivu is somewhere between the 17th and 19th best player in the NHL. Well... except for that pesky faceoff stat, where he is second only to Sid the Kid.

This begs the question: If he is somewhere between 17th and 19th, how is paying him the 21st highest average salary not a good deal?