The job of a general manager is tough. You have to construct a hockey team through drafting, trading, and signing free agents. Anybody can put together a dream team of players in a vacuum (except the management for the World Cup rendition of Team USA), but where it gets tricky is when you confront the salary cap. Managers can’t just spend unlimited amounts of money and sign whomever they want. They have to balance the on-ice production of players against their cap hit. Ideal contracts would have talented, scoring players on small salaries. Pretty rare to see those in the NHL outside of entry-level contracts for future superstars like Conor McDavid or Patrick Laine. Terrible contracts are just the opposite, lousy producers receiving massive paydays. Think of Dany Heatley’s tenure with the Wild. Most often, general managers have to try and sign contracts that strike a reasonable compromise between the player’s salary and performance.
Even that can be a tall order. Most contracts extend across multiple seasons meaning GMs have to try and predict how a player will perform far into the future. Players and their agents are working to negotiate as much money for themselves as possible (as they should since this is their livelihood). GMs sometimes have to make deals in which they know they’ll almost certainly be overpaying for a player down the road to secure him for the team in the present. Nevertheless, it is important that GMs find a way to avoid black hole contracts that suck in valuable cap space that could have been spent elsewhere.
Let’s take a look at the contracts on the Wild. For starters, this is just a snapshot look. I’m only assessing the contracts for how they are serving the Wild this year. It’s terribly shortsighted and not really fair to Wild GM Chuck Fletcher who does not have the convenient option of disregarding how contracts will affect the future. It does, however, provide insight into how Fletcher’s past decisions are playing out now. For instance, does Koivu’s contract look as rosy now as it may have in the offseason before the 2011-12 season?
Secondly, I only compared the Wild players to each other. On the one hand, this is fair because these players are all playing in the same system. Other teams have strategies that may be better for puck possession or goal scoring than the Wild, skewing the numbers of their players. On the other hand, a player could be a great puck possession player in absolute terms but be relatively bad when compared to his teammates on the Wild.
For my first attempt (oh yeah, there were a few and you could convincingly argue there should have been at least a few more), I looked at the Corsi For % (CF%), Points/60 (P/60), and TOI/game for all players that have played in a single game this year. I picked CF% to represent a player’s puck possession. P/60 is useful to show a player’s point production. I included TOI/game because some of the value of a player comes from his ability to handle more minutes than his teammates (i.e. Ryan Suter). I ranked the players in all three categories, added those rankings up, and then multiplied that number and the player’s cap hit for this season. The ideal value contract would see a player with a low rankings sum number (1st in CF%, 1st in P/60, and 1st in TOI/g) and a low cap hit, meaning the lower the product the better the contract for the team.
The best contract on the team according to this formula was Tyler Graovac. Nothing against Battery, but anyone could tell you that his isn’t the best contract on the team as his production is fairly replaceable. Looking at the rest of my results revealed a problem with this analysis: diminishing marginal returns. GMs pay more and more for players that are decreasingly more productive than their peers. There are too many factors at play for why this is to get into here, but the bottomline is that my approach was skewed because the contracts of players with small salaries were going to come out looking far more valuable than they actually are. Same, but in reverse, for the big contracts on the team.
In my second attempt, I restricted the skaters being considered to those that have played at least 10 games this season. This dropped players like Joel Eriksson Ek and Zac Dalpe from the analysis, i.e. players with small contracts whose production is likely tilted one way or the other due to small sample size. Here are the updated results:
As you can see, the results are still skewed towards players with the smallest contracts. However, it isn’t a fixed line between perceived contract value and size of a player’s cap hit. Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Eric Staal, and Charlie Coyle all outperform players with smaller cap hits than their own. Here are the results in a visual format. The x-axis is the rankings sum, the y-axis is cap hit, and the size of the bubble is the product of salary cap times rankings sum (so smaller is better).
Visually, the dominant trends are pretty clear. Contracts with a smaller cap hit have smaller bubbles. Most of the players rankings ended up somewhere in the range of 26 to 33 (meaning they averaged about 9th or 10th in each category). The three outliers are Staal, Niederreiter, and Coyle. Flawed process aside, it does seem significant that those three are set apart from the rest of the team.
Time for the eye test to help make sense of the numbers and correct for the effect of diminishing marginal returns. So far this season, the team’s best forwards have been the members of the Big Boys Make You Cry Line™ (Staal, Coyle, Niederreiter). The best defensemen have been Jonas Brodin, Suter, and Jared Spurgeon. Looking at that short list and keeping an eye on the salary cap hit of each player, Niederreiter is the best value contract on the team, followed closely by Staal and Coyle. Niederreiter leads the team in CF% and P/60 and is fourth overall in total points. Staal and Coyle are also highly ranked on the team in those categories and do handle greater ice time than Niederreiter, but their cap hits are larger by over $500,000 which is significant on a team as tight against the salary cap as the Wild.
It kills me to write this, but the worst value contract on the Wild this season has to be that of Mikko Koivu. There’s still plenty of season left to play and his performance could improve, but so far Koivu has been a poor possession player at 47.31 CF% and poor point producer at 1.15 P/60. That scoring rate puts him behind Chris Stewart, Haula, and Jason Pominville among several others. With the third-highest cap hit on the team, Koivu represents a massive contract and thus far he has not delivered on the investment.
Who do you think represents the best and worst values for the Wild? Was there a better way to try to evaluate the the contracts (Hint: yes)? Let me know what you think in the comments.