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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.

The Buzzer: Pageau, Panarin stay hot; Blues sign Brouwer

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Three Stars

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. The Rangers may not be where they want in the standings right now, but Panarin has been everything they could have possibly expected him to be and more. He extended his point streak to 12 games on Wednesday night with a two-goal effort in the Ranges’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Panarin has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 19 games this season and has at least two points in seven games during his current streak, including three in a row. Read all about the Rangers’ big win right here.

2. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Ottawa Senators. Don’t look now but the Senators are just a single point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings and have played in one less game. The biggest reason for the Senators’ recent surge has been a goal-scoring binge from Pageau that has seen him score 10 goals in the month of November, tops in the league. His goal on Wednesday to open the scoring in the Senators’ 2-1 overtime win against Montreal was his 13th of the season and 10th of the month. He is on track for a career year offensively. The timing could not be better for him personally as he is in the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. It will also increase his trade value for the Senators if they look to continue their rebuild by dealing him before the trade deadline.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Goaltending (mostly from Anders Nilsson) is the other big reason for the Senators’ recent improvement, and on Wednesday it was Anderson doing his best to steal two points by stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced against the Canadiens. It was probably Anderson’s best performance of the season.

Blues add some forward depth

The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues made a roster move on Wednesday by signing veteran forward Troy Brouwer to a one-year contract. He spent the 2018-19 season playing for the Florida Panthers, scoring 12 goals and adding nine assists in 75 games. That move comes on the same day the team announced that forward Sammy Blais will be sidelined for 10 weeks after he was injured in the Blues’ win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. The Blues are already playing without Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, and recently traded Robby Fabbri to the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlight of the Night

Brady Tkachuk was the overtime hero for the Senators, finishing a great breakaway and taking advantage of a miscommunication by the Canadiens.

Factoids

  • Henrik Lundqvist earned his 454th career win, moving him into a tie with Curtis Joseph for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time list. [NHL PR]
  • Panarin’s 12-game point streak is the Rangers’ longest since Scott Gomez during the 2007-08 season. [Rangers Stats & Info]
  • Pageau just needs more three more goals in November to tie the Senators’ franchise record for most goals in a month. Ottawa has five more games this month.  [NHL PR]
  • John Carlson added another assist to his total for the season, giving him 36 points on the season. Entering play on Wednesday he and Bobby Orr were the only defensemen in NHL history that needed only 23 games to hit the 35-point mark. [NHL PR]
  • Nick Suzuki scored the only goal for Montreal, giving him six on the season. That is second among the NHL’s rookies this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 2, Montreal Canadiens 1 (OT)
New York Rangers 4, Washington Capitals 1

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.

Panarin, Lundqvist help Rangers take down Capitals

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If the Rangers are going to contend for a postseason position, their top players have to perform.

On Wednesday Night Hockey, Artemi Panarin and Henrik Lundqvist led the Rangers to a surprising 4-1 victory against the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.

Panarin extended his individual point streak to 12 games and is living up to the high-priced contract he signed this past summer. The Russian winger has 11 goals and 14 assists through 19 games in his first season on Broadway.

Lundqvist picked up his first win since a vintage performance against the Carolina Hurricanes in early November when he made 47 saves.

Rangers power play has the right ingredients

Any time you add a deadly scorer via free agency, your power play unit should improve. The Rangers have multiple weapons and a player to fill each critical role. For years they were missing a puck-moving defenseman, a net front presence and a big shot from the outside, but Jeff Gorton and his staff have assembled a roster that should excel when skating up a man.

Panarin notched two power-play goals on Wednesday from the left circle but is not the only threat when the Rangers are on the man-advantage. Chris Kreider is a quick power forward that can create havoc in front of the goaltender and Adam Fox has been able to quarterback the play from the point. Mika Zibanejad has been sidelined a few weeks with an upper-body injury, but also boasts a big right-handed shot when in the lineup.

Offseason changes looming in Washington?

The Capitals have been one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference for quite some time, but this might be their final hoorah with the band together.

Forward Nicklas Backstrom — who missed his first game of the season with an upper-body injury – and goaltender Braden Holtby are unrestricted free agents this upcoming summer and have been key pieces in recent years.

Backstrom has long been Alex Ovechkin’s underappreciated sidekick and Holtby is constantly having to prove himself with Ilya Samsonov waiting for his chance to become a starting goalie.

Washington is off to a tremendous start and a November slip up against the Rangers is not going to damage their postseason plans. But, this could be the final season the Capitals get another crack at the Stanley Cup with their core from the past decade intact.

Climbing up the record books

Lundqvist earned his 454th NHL victory and tied Curtis Joseph for 5th place on the NHL all-time wins list. He also surpassed Grant Fuhr to take sole possession of 10th place on the NHL’s all-time appearance list.

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

After year away, soldier surprises son during Rangers-Capitals

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It is often forgotten that sporting events serve as a form of entertainment. But on Wednesday Night Hockey, the Madison Square Garden crowd was reminded that life exists outside of the hockey bubble.

During the Rangers-Capitals game, a Staff Sergeant returned in surprising fashion. He had been deployed overseas for the past year and his son thought he was participating in a contest in which he won a Blueshirts jersey.

Instead of the sweater, Luke got to see his father and the emotional embrace delighted the crowd.

Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

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It was probably overdue.

It probably should have happened over the summer in the wake of another postseason disappointment, and before the 2019-20 season was allowed to turn into the bitter disappointment it has been.

But when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, replacing him with Sheldon Keefe, they finally made the biggest change they needed to allow the organization to take the next step in its development the city — and NHL as a whole — has been waiting for it to take.

[Related: Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe head coach]

This isn’t to say that Babcock is a bad coach (he is probably not), or that he will not find a new team in the coming months or years and find success (he might).

But it was becoming increasingly clear that he was the wrong coach for this particular team and roster, and that it was never going to get where it should be without some kind of a drastic change.

When Babcock joined the Maple Leafs for the start of the 2015-16 season it was at a time when they were at one of their lowest points in franchise history. There had been just one playoff appearance in 10 years, the NHL roster was completely devoid of talent, and they didn’t yet know who their long-term impact players would be. Babcock’s hiring was one of the cornerstones of the rebuild, and by signing him to a massive 8-year, $50 million contract it was a clear sign the Maple Leafs were willing to flex their financial muscle and spare no expense in the areas where the league could not limit their spending.

It was also at a time when Babcock’s reputation as a coach still placed him not only among the league’s elite, but probably at the very top of the mountain.

It seemed to be the right move at the right time.

But a lot has changed in the years since.

For one, Babcock’s reputation isn’t as pristine as it once was. It has been 10 years since he has finished higher than third place in his division (2010-11 season). It has been eight years since he has advanced beyond Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (2012-13). In that time there have been 28 different coaches that have won a playoff series in the league, including two (Mike Yeo and Barry Trotz) that have won playoff series’ with multiple teams.

If you wanted, you could try and find reasons for that lack of success. His team’s in Detroit at the end were getting older and losing their core players to an inevitable decline and retirement. His first years in Toronto were taking over the aforementioned mess left behind by the previous regime, and if anything those early Maple Leafs teams may have even overachieved.

All of that is true. It is also true to say that almost any other coach with that recent resume of third-place finishes and first round exits probably wouldn’t have had the leash that Babcock had. They would have been fired two years ago.

As the talent level dramatically increased in Toronto, the expectations should have changed as well. This is no longer a young team going through a rebuild where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. This is a team of established NHL Players — All-Star level players — that should be capable of more than what they have accomplished. Not only has that not happened, but all indications were that the team was going in the wrong direction.

Last year’s Maple Leafs team won fewer games and collected fewer points than the previous year’s team despite gaining John Tavares and Jake Muzzin and getting a breakout year from Mitch Marner.

This year’s Maple Leafs team has one of the worst records in the league at the one quarter mark and has seen the once dynamic offense turn ordinary, relying on harmless point shots from defensemen.

And that doesn’t even get into the biggest issue, which was the apparent disconnect between his style and the style of the front office and roster. The Maple Leafs are built for offense, and speed, and skill, and defending by attacking and playing with the puck. Everything that came out of Babcock was always about grinding down, and defending, and you can’t score your way to a championship.

There is not any one way to win in the NHL. Some teams win with speed and skill, others win with defense. The most important thing is to play to your strength and do what you do well. The Maple Leafs are not doing that. Talk about the makeup of their defense or the way they defend all you want, but it still comes down to whether they are playing to their strengths. You can’t take a team built around John Tavares, Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander and ask it to win 2-1 every night. You are wasting them by doing that and you will fail. You have to turn them loose and let them do what they do best. Babcock never seemed able or willing to trust them to do that.

Whether or not this sparks the Maple Leafs to turn their season around and go on a championship run like Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016, or Los Angeles in 2012, or St. Louis in 2019 remains to be seen. But Keefe has coached many of the players in Toronto before, he has coached them to play a certain way, and he has won with them.

Now he gets a chance to do it on the biggest stage.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. But the worst thing that happens is they fall short and underachieve, something they were already doing anyway. At least now they get to go down taking their best swings.

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.