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Paying for intangibles usually backfires

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In an ideal world the thought of a “bad contract” in sports wouldn’t really exist (in my world, anyway). Professional sports are a multi-billion dollar a year industry and a player’s value should be what the market (in this case, a bunch of billionaire owners — or even one billionaire owner) feels that player should be worth.

The players are the ones putting in the work, making the effort, and drawing fans to the stadium or arena. They absolutely deserve a significant cut of the pie, and if they aren’t getting it, an even richer person ends up keeping it for themselves. So, pay the players.

That said, the world is not always perfect. Especially in sports.

When you are dealing with a sport that has a salary cap (and in the case of the NHL, a hard salary cap) you have to look at contracts a little more critically than just saying, “well, that is what they are worth that and that is the end of it.” A hard salary cap makes the business side of sports even more cutthroat and emotionless than it already is. Teams only have a set amount of money to spend, and paying the wrong player the wrong salary for the wrong reason can make it difficult to keep better players or build a winning team.

That brings us to one of the more eye-opening contracts signed this offseason when the Washington Capitals signed restricted free agent Tom Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract extension over the weekend.

[Related: Tom Wilson cashes in with $31 million extension]

Reactions to that signing have been … mixed.

On one hand, that is a ton of money to invest in a player that has scored more than seven goals and 23 points in a single season once in five years, a fact that has made it a highly scrutinized deal from an analytical perspective.

On the other hand, there is this the intangible side of the argument that has come out of Washington, where the things Wilson does well don’t always show up on a stat sheet and that he was a part of a Stanley Cup winning team this past season.

Or that he might inflict a lot of pain on you…

Honestly, I would not want to go into the corner against any player in the NHL, but that fact alone does not mean it is smart to pay every player more than $5 million per season over the next six years in a hard-capped league, especially when my team already has several big-money players on the roster.

This is part of the “intangible” argument that gets thrown around in contracts like this. We have seen it and heard it a hundred times.

There used to be literal shouting matches over players like Dave Bolland when he played in Toronto, and then collective confusion (and even more yelling) when he signed for $27 million over five years in Florida. Eventually, his contract became one of the many to buried in Arizona when it did not work out.

When Edmonton spent big money on players like Milan Lucic and Kris Russell in recent years the defense of those contracts wasn’t about the offense they could provide or the tangible production they would give the Oilers, but more about intangible things like protecting Connor McDavid or being gritty and tough to play against. Just a couple of years into those contracts they already look like bad investments for an Oilers team that is pressed against the cap ceiling without any consistent success on the ice to show for it.

The thing about players like Bolland and Lucic is that at one point in their careers they were players that did provide tangible results. Their contracts backfiring had more to do with paying too much for players at the wrong point in their careers and for the wrong reasons.

All of this brings us back to Wilson’s contract. I get the argument that he is still reasonably young, and that maybe the Capitals are finally figuring out how to use him by giving him a real role with good players instead of burying him on the fourth line and sending him out to rattle cages for 10 minutes a night. As I wrote on Friday when Wilson signed his contract, maybe his game continues to evolve and he produces more. Fact is, though, there really isn’t a player in the NHL right now that has signed a contract like this with the sort of production he has put on paper.

That makes it a contract worth evaluating a little more critically, especially when much of the argument for it is based on things we can not easily see.

Taking a deeper dive into this, I went back over the past 10 years and looked at forwards that signed larger, big-money contracts that did not necessarily match their level of production. Specifically, I looked at players that had played at least 300 games in the NHL and averaged less than 0.45 points per game (less than a 35-point pace over 82 games) at the time of their contract signing.

It is a group that includes Wilson’s new deal.

Here are the biggest contracts in that group (at least four years in length, worth at least $3.5 million per season), ranked by largest salary cap hit.

Look at that list, and then ask yourself this question: How many of them would you say have worked out favorably for the team that signed them?

  • Clarkson, Bickell, and Beleskey have already traded or dumped by the teams that originally signed them.
  • Sutter and Abdelkader have no-trade clauses as part of their deals. Given Detroit’s salary cap situation Abdelkader’s deal looks especially problematic. He is 31 years old, still has five years remaining, and over the past two years has scored a grand total of 20 goals in 140 games.
  • Shaw and Clutterbuck have no such clauses in their deals, and would it really be a surprise to see one (or both) be traded before their deals expire? Especially Clutterbuck as the Islanders have assembled a collection of fourth-line players just like him (on equally bizarre long-term contracts).
  • Upshall is the only player on that list that, as of now, played out the entire contract with the team that signed him.

Aside from the group shown above, there were another 22 players with similar stat lines that signed contracts of at least four years in length (Paul Gaustad shows up twice on this list because he actually signed two such contracts, one in Buffalo and one in Nashville).

How did that group turn out?

  • Two of those contracts (the Jay Beagle/Antoine Roussel duo in Vancouver) are starting this season.
  • Four players (Zack Smith, Casey Cizikas, Derek Dorsett, and Dale Weise) are still with the team that signed them … for now.
  • Five players played out the entire contract with the team that signed them.
  • Ten players either had their contracts bought out or traded before the end of them. In many cases within the first two years of signing the contract.

The point here isn’t to downplay defensive play, or penalty killing, or any number of intangible things that go into a player or a team, because there is value to them. But the thing that stands out about a lot of these players that were given contracts based largely on those things we can’t see is that in many cases those teams quickly realized they maybe weren’t worth the big dollar numbers and either traded them or moved them out, either to dump salary or give that salary to players that, quite simply, produced more.

Perhaps the simplest way to put all of this: Pay big money for what you can see. Not what you can not.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins built Stanley Cup contender by doing everything well

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

If there’s a central theme to how both the Bruins and Blues build themselves into 2019 Stanley Cup Finalists, it’s that you don’t need to tank to build a great team. That’s the comforting part for the NHL’s other 29 teams, not to mention the one soon to sprout up in Seattle.

The less-comforting news is that the process can be best labeled “Easier said than done.”

Both the Bruins and Blues have made shrewd free agent decisions, found stars outside of the “no-brainer” picks in drafts, and swindled other teams with fantastic trades. Neither team has been perfect, but they’ve piled up enough smart decisions to build regular contenders … and now here they are.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This two-part series looks at the key moves for both teams, from lopsided trades to finding gems in the draft, not to mention making crucial decisions in free agency.

Drafting

The Bruins have been a competitive team for a long time, which means they’re not often getting lottery picks in the draft, and they’re often trading away first-rounders or high-round picks to improve at the trade deadline. They didn’t have their first-rounder in 2018 or 2013, as the two latest examples.

With their most recent high picks traded away over the years (Dougie Hamilton [9th in 2011], Tyler Seguin [2nd in 2010], and Phil Kessel [5th in 2006]), it’s remarkable how much of their core comes from the mid-first round and later.

  • Patrice Bergeron was a second-rounder (45th overall) in 2003.
  • David Krejci was a second-rounder one year later (63rd in 2004).
  • The Bruins selected Brad Marchand in the third round (71st overall) during the same 2006 draft where they also snared Kessel and Milan Lucic.
  • The 2014 NHL Draft ended the Chiarelli era in style, most notably with Boston landing star David Pastrnak all the way at the 25th pick. Sorry Robby Fabbri, but the Blues would love a do-over at pick 21. That draft also included Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.
  • The 2015 NHL Draft is infamous in that new GM Don Sweeney didn’t just pass on Mathew Barzal; he passed on Barzal three times from picks 13-15. While Jake DeBrusk has become a gem worthy of the 14th pick, Bruins fans can drive themselves up the wall imagining this already-strong Bruins core with one or more of Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), Thomas Chabot (18th), and Brock Boeser (23rd). That said, the Bruins did find solid defenseman Brandon Carlo in the second round (37th overall) so that 2015 crop still harvested talent.
  • And Sweeney’s group really redeemed themselves a year later, snatching fantastic blueliner Charlie McAvoy with the 14th pick.

It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing to consider all of the talent the Bruins found over the years, particularly in the non-obvious spots, and particularly since they traded away the few non-obvious stars they did land on.

Boston also landed Torey Krug as an undrafted player, so they’ve found ways to add serious pieces with apt scouting.

(Hockey db’s draft history listing is a great resource if you want even more, but be warned: you might fall down a rabbit hole or two.)

Trades

Yes, Peter Chiarelli deserves some ridicule for trading away Tyler Seguin in what ended up being a huge boon for the Dallas Stars. Blake Wheeler‘s one of the Bruins other “What if?” players, as he put up solid numbers from 2008-09 to 2010-11 before becoming a star for the Thrashers-Jets.

Overall, the Bruins’ best work hasn’t necessarily come in trades, but there have been some wins.

The biggest one came long ago, as the Bruins landed Tuukka Rask in a trade for … Andrew Raycroft back in 2006. (That groan you heard came from Toronto.)

Via the Bruins website, enjoy this amusing explanation from interim Bruins GM (and current Rangers GM) Jeff Gorton.

“We had an opportunity, with three good, solid goaltenders who are all number one goalies in the NHL, and they couldn’t all play for us,” Gorton said. “Andrew had some value and we were able to move him for a player we really like, who is along the lines of Hannu Toivonen.”

Heh.

More recently, the Bruins traded for Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, two deadline acquisitions who’ve scored some big goals during this playoff run after beginning their Boston run a little cold (and/or injured).

Mostly paying the right price in free agency

No doubt about it, landing Zdeno Chara as a free agent in 2006 was absolutely pivotal, and soothed some of the wounds from the Joe Thornton trade from 2005. Signing Chara ranks right up there with the most important moves of the last decade-plus.

As far as Sweeney’s run goes, things started off a lot like they did with the draft: a little bumpy.

The David Backes signing didn’t seem ideal when it happened in 2016, and that $6M price tag becomes a bigger drag with each passing season. That was an example of the Blues pulling off addition by subtraction.

Luckily, the Bruins have mostly avoided such setbacks. They wisely parted ways with Milan Lucic rather than signing him to a deal that’s become a nightmare for the Oilers. The addition of Jaroslav Halak was also very helpful when Tuukka Rask was struggling a bit earlier in 2018-19.

Really, the Bruins have done their best free agent work in locking up core players to team-friendly deals.

The biggest bargains come with the big three. Bergeron’s cap hit of $6.875M is almost insulting to the two-way star, and while he’s 33, the aging curve doesn’t seem too threatening with the deal running out after 2021-22. (Even if he hits a wall, the Bruins have been making out like bandits for long enough for it to be beyond worth it.)

Brad Marchand must regret licking the envelope* when he signed the deal that locked him to a ridiculous $6.125M cap hit through 2024-25. At 31, Marchand might eventually decline enough for that to be a problem, but he’s delivering at such a rate that most of the NHL should really envy the Bruins’ bargain.

* – Sorry.

The best deal might actually be for David Pastrnak, whose satanic $6.66M cap hit sure feels like a deal with the non-New Jersey devil. Pastrnak’s more or less a $10M forward making that discount rate, and the 23-year-old won’t need a new deal until after the 2022-23 season.

Getting the best line in hockey for less than $20M per year is honestly kind of absurd, and other contracts (beyond Backes) don’t really drag the team down, either. Trade rumors have swirled around Krejci and Rask for years, yet both are fairly paid, and their deals don’t really look like problems at all.

There’s probably a mixture of luck and timing to explain some of these bargains, but the bottom line is that the Bruins have been able to keep their core pieces together without breaking that bank. Doing so allows them to supplement those top players with the Charlie Coyle and Jaroslav Halak-type electrons who really boost this impressive nucleus.

If there’s any lesson to other teams, it’s to try to be proactive whenever possible when it comes to locking down your best players. Again, “Easier said than done.”

(As always, Cap Friendly served as a key resource for salary structure and contract information.)

Coach Cassidy

There was at least a slight fear that, when Claude Julien left the Bruins, it felt like an end of an era. Would the Bruins take a step back?

Nope. Instead, Bruce Cassidy’s been a breath of fresh of air for Boston. The Bruins remain a stout defensive team, and have been able to integrate young players into their system in fairly seamless ways. That’s a testament to Cassidy, who seems willing to innovate, as you can see from this piece from The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa (sub required).

As bright as Julien can be, it sure seems like Cassidy’s taken the Bruins to another level, or maybe a crucially different level. Either way, he’s been a stunning success so far.

***

To circle back, it hasn’t been one move, or even one type of moves that’s powered the Bruins’ success.

Instead, it’s about getting a lot of things right, from crucial decisions to smaller tweaks. It’s also important not to attribute the success to Don Sweeney alone, or even his staff, as key pieces were also put in place by Chiarelli and even Gorton.

It’s all easier said than done, but the Bruins have been doing a lot right, and for a long time. We’ll see if that hard work pays off in a second Stanley Cup for the core they’ve built during the past decade-and-a-half.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Home sweet home: NHL execs flock back to familiar franchises

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NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Brodeur has been back with the New Jersey Devils for eight months and only walked by his statue once. It’s harder to avoid his banner hanging from the arena rafters.

Brodeur returning to the place he spent the majority of his career sparked a recent run of executives going home to work for organizations they’re synonymous with. Steve Yzerman last month went back to Detroit as Red Wings general manager. In the past week, John Davidson became New York Rangers president and Mike Modano went back to his Minnesota playing roots as Wild adviser.

Yzerman, Davidson and Modano don’t have to avoid statues but do have to balance being beloved by their respective fan bases with the new pressure of succeeding in the front office. There are plenty of recent examples of fan favorite homecomings that didn’t work out: Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo, Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Patrick Roy in Colorado are among them.

Still, the lure of going home is always strong.

”All the things with my banner in the rafters and my statue, this is what I did as a hockey player, but now I’m trying to leave my mark in a different way,” Brodeur said. ”I came back because I care about the success and the fans and the area. Regardless, you still feel the pressure because you want to do well. I’m a proud guy. I’m investing my time in this organization and I want to see them do well.”

While Brodeur and Modano are business-focused now, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Yzerman and Hall-honored broadcaster Davidson are right in the fire of trying to rebuild proud franchises into championship contenders.

Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times as Red Wings captain and is back in Hockeytown after eight years as Tampa Bay Lightning GM and another as an adviser. His family still lives in Michigan, he was tired of commuting and he considers the link to his playing days ”irrelevant” in undertaking this challenge .

”What I did as a player is done,” said Yzerman, who will work in the shadow of his No. 19 banner. ”I can’t do any more, good or bad. It really has no bearing on whether I’m a good general manager or not. I have a job to do.”

Davidson understands he has a tough job ahead to try to deliver the Rangers’ first title since 1994. After 13 seasons in St. Louis and Columbus gave him executive experience, parts of eight seasons as a Rangers goaltender and two more decades as team broadcaster before all that drew him back.

”I was here 28 years in a lot of different areas and that makes it a whole lot easier,” Davidson said after his introductory news conference Wednesday. ”I wouldn’t have left Columbus had I not been here originally and had a sense of home, a sense of people welcoming myself and our family back. …. It’s just this is a unique opportunity at a very unique time.”

When Davidson and wife Diana walked the streets of New York on Tuesday night, she turned to him and said, ”Doesn’t this just feel like we didn’t leave?” Thirteen years after leaving the broadcast booth to embark on a journey that has made him one of hockey’s most respected executives, he felt the same way.

Davidson was welcomed home like a conquering hero.

”There’s a lot of good feeling because John is a beloved person here in New York,” longtime broadcast partner Sam Rosen said. ”He was loved when he was a player, he was loved as a broadcaster and people now respect that he’s been a lead executive in the National Hockey League for more than a decade.”

Minnesota is in Modano’s blood after he was the North Stars’ first overall pick in 1988 and played there until the team moved to Dallas in 1993. Post-retirement, Modano spent three seasons as a Dallas Stars adviser, and while this isn’t the same franchise he played for, he’s excited to get back to where his NHL career started.

”It’s always been obviously a real sentimental thing for me, an emotional thing for me to start my career in Minneapolis and St. Paul back in the North Star era,” Modano said Thursday. ”I have a lot of fond memories with fans and friends and everybody involved in the hockey community there.”

Modano will work with owner Craig Leipold, who heralded the Hall of Fame center as ”an important part of our hockey culture in this state.”

The same is true of Brodeur in New Jersey after he backstopped the Devils to the Stanley Cup three times. His job as executive vice president of business operations is about as far away from the pressure cooker of tending goal as Brodeur can get, and it follows three hands-on seasons as Blues assistant GM.

”I went from my playing career right into hockey operations as an assistant GM, so the pressure and the day to day operations was always big,” said Brodeur, who sold his old house to Devils coach John Hynes and rents while traveling back and forth to St. Louis. ”You figure from the first day I walk into the NHL to last year, for me, every game, you get the mood swings, you got everything. I was kind of looking forward to kind of sit back and just kind of look at the big picture instead of the daily grind. It’s been a great change for me and for me family to be able to handle that.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who won the Cup with the 1994 Rangers and returned as an adviser, isn’t worried about the heavy expectations on Davidson or Yzerman to make the most of a second act.

”Steve Yzerman, John Davidson – any of these people that are in these positions that are successful, they put the pressure on themselves to be successful and to have a positive impact,” Leetch said. ”As much as there is outside pressure from media and the big city and fans, it’s really internal.”

AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ veteran quintet could be key in latest Cup bid

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BOSTON (AP) — When the Boston Bruins take the ice against the St. Louis Blues, they will do it with a core group of veterans who know what it’s like to hoist the Stanley Cup – and have it slip from their fingers.

Patrice Bergeron can still remember the instant euphoria and accompanying adoration from across New England that came after the Bruins outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the Cup in 2011.

He just as easily recalls the emptiness in 2013 when the Bruins lost the final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

”I think it makes you appreciate and makes you understand how hard it is to get to this point,” Bergeron said.

He is one of five current Bruins that were on both of those teams, along with Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara. Apart from Chara, who was 33 in 2011, Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask were all in their 20s during both runs. Defenseman Torey Krug was as a member of the ’13 team that came up short, arriving the season after Boston won it in 2011.

Nine years later Chara is now 42 and the 20-somethings are now grizzled NHL veterans as they prepare to take on the Blues.

It’s cast them all in the leadership role for another youthful and hungry Bruins team, built with many players about to experience this stage for the first time with Game 1 coming up Monday night.

It’s a position they have all willingly accepted.

Chara said this season has been a great teaching tool for them.

”It takes a lot to just get into the playoffs,” Chara said. ”We saw a lot of our games went to Game 7. First round. Second round. You have to realize how special it is to be in the final and what it takes. At the same time, you haven’t accomplished anything. You haven’t won anything.”

St. Louis coach Craig Berube knows the Bruins are deep and the veteran players are a key part of the team.

”Chara is still a good player, he’s a force out there, a big guy and he’s difficult to play against,” Berube said. ”Overall, their team’s a skilled and fast team and their goalie has played extremely well so far in the playoffs.”

Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who is in his second season leading the B’s. He struggled in his first go-around as a head coach in Washington, going 47-47-9 over two seasons from 2002 to 2004.

The past two seasons in Boston, Cassidy said, he has gone from being apprehensive about speaking up around his best players to setting an agenda and then leaning on his veterans in the locker room to help implement it.

”I think this leadership group is second to none,” Cassidy said. ”I don’t know if I’ll ever have – wherever this career takes me – a group like this to work with. I said that since probably the second week of our job here. These guys are fantastic, and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

Though he has a reputation of letting his anger get the best of him at times, Marchand said he’s going into his third Cup final with Boston as even-keeled as ever.

”I think when you’re part of a team like that you expect it to last a long time,” he said. ”You don’t realize how one change in a team can really drastically affect how things play out. One player change. One injury. One call. You don’t realize what it takes to get back to the finals and how fortunate you are to get there.

”And so this time around I think I’m more appreciative of being here and at the same time more calm, I guess, in a way.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.