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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.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

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.

Laila Anderson meets bone marrow donor

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Laila Anderson has made us shed a tear or two (or several) over the last year, and she was involved in another touching moment on Thursday night.

It was special to witness the 11-year-old’s journey. We got to see her ups with the St. Louis Blues and we also got to see the emotion behind her battle with a rare auto-immune disease, HLH. Last night, Anderson got to meet the person who helped her get better, as she got to interact with Kenton Felmlee, who ended up being her bone marrow donor.

“I felt a bond with her before we ever met. I think the second I look at her on the stage and saw her face,” Felmlee, who is a sophomore at the University of Kansas, said, per Fox 2 Now St. Louis. “Every emotion that I was feeling all exploded into so much more.”

As you can tell from the above video, their first interaction was incredibly emotional.

“I don’t care if we go to dinner or if we go to Disney World. I don’t care what we do, I just want to spend time with you,” Laila told her new friend on Thursday night.

And, of course, Anderson and Felmlee will be attending Saturday’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Calgary Flames sign deal for new downtown arena

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) — The Calgary Flames have a deal for a new downtown arena, a 35-year agreement that keeps the NHL club in the city for that time.

The team, the city and the Calgary Stampede rodeo signed an agreement Thursday to replace the 36-year-old Scotiabank Saddledome.

The 19,000-seat arena is to cost more than $417 million. Construction is expected to begin in 2021, just north of the Saddledome. The arena will be demolished between 2024 and 2025.

The project is part of a downtown revitalization. The building will become the home of the Flames and part of a planned entertainment district bordering the Stampede grounds.

The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, and the city will split the costs. The Stampede is a not-for-profit community group.