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Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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The Nashville Predators’ decision to sign Colton Sissons to a seven-year contract earlier this week certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NHL.

As PHT’s James O’Brien argued immediately after the signing, the salary cap hit is pretty reasonable and it might even be a decent value right now.

But it’s the salary cap that puts every contract in the league under a microscope. Teams only have so much money to spend, and every dollar they spend on one player is a dollar they do not have to spend on another player. Every dollar counts, especially if you a contending team that is probably going to be spending close to the cap. Mistakes and misevaluations matter, and if you get caught with too many of them at once it can have a negative impact. Because of that, teams need to make sure they are using their limited amount of money in the most efficient way possible, properly prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t, and the players that are worth committing to.

Traditionally, teams have mostly avoided long-term commitments to players that are not top-line players. This is especially true among teams that win and go deep in the playoffs. I say “mostly avoided” because there have been several instances outside of Nashville where teams have given lengthy term to depth players. The New York Islanders signed forwards Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to five-year deals, and third-pairing defender Scott Mayfield to a seven-year deal. The Detroit Red Wings have Justin Adbelkader and Darren Helm on five-plus year contracts. The Kings gave Kyle Clifford a five-year deal several years back. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Brandon Tanev a six-year contract this summer to play in their bottom-six after giving Jack Johnson a five-year contract one year ago.

Those are just a few examples of players that are currently under contract.

The question, though, is why teams would ever want to do this.

The answer is simple: By giving the player more term and more individual long-term security, it brings the salary cap hit down a little and helps the team in the short-term. But is that extra savings worth the long-term commitment to a player that may not retain their value over the duration of the contract?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

One thing that has stood out about recent Stanley Cup winners and contenders is that pretty much none of them have had long-term commitments (five years or more) to players that played regularly outside of their top-six forwards or top-four defenders. It is practically unheard of. Identifying consistent lines and who is a “depth” player is a mostly inexact science. Coaches change line combinations constantly over the course of a season and a player’s role within a team can be a very fluid situation. For this, I simply tried to use even-strength usage as a way to identify a player’s spot in the lineup.

The table below shows the past six Stanley Cup winners and the players they had signed to contracts of five years or more in the years they won the Stanley Cup. Players highlighted in yellow were signed for six years (or more) at the time of the championship. Take a look at the names and see if you can identify a trend … they are almost all top-line players.

The only players on that table that were not either a starting goalie, a top-six forward, or a top-four defender are Olli Maatta with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 (he was top-four in 2015-16) and Mike Richards with Los Angeles in 2013-14 (he signed that contract in Philadelphia when he was a first-line center, and was a second-line center upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2011-12).

I also looked at every team that made at least the Conference Finals in those seasons and found only five instances where a depth player was signed for more than five years. And even they have some asterisks next to them because they were at least signed with the intention of being more significant parts of their team.

  • Alex Killorn, signed for seven years, was outside of Tampa Bay’s top-six during their 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final run, but was in its top-six during its runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. When he was signed, the Lightning probably figured he was going to be more of a top-line player. He has since been surpassed by a wave of talent that came after him.
  • Ryan Callahan also played third/fourth-line minutes for the Lightning during the 2017-18 playoffs but, like Killorn, played bigger roles in 2014-15 and 2016-17.
  • The Sharks had defensemen Brenden Dillon signed for five years to play third-pairing minutes 2018-19 and 2015-16 during their postseason runs
  • John Moore and David Backes (both signed for five years) were depth players on the 2018-19 Bruins.

Pretty much all of the Conference Finalists, and especially the Stanley Cup Finalists, over the past six full seasons had long-term investments in their stars and filled out their depth with younger, entry-level players and short-term veterans.

They were not giving out term to non-core players.

The problem with giving out term to depth players is that they can tend to be replaceable talents that may not maintain their current value throughout the duration of that term. You run the risk of that player regressing and not having the roster flexibility to bring in a cheaper and/or better player. If a star player ages and declines, they are still probably going to be giving you a solid return on that investment. The depth player may not, if they are even able to justify a roster spot.

Let’s take Sissons as an example. Right now he is a fine NHL player. Solid defensively, can chip in some offense, and plays a tough and often times thankless role within the Predators lineup. At around $3 million per year he is a fine investment … for now. Between the 2000-01 and 2012-13 seasons there were 14 players that were at a similar point in their development: Players that had played at least 140 games during the ages 24 and 25 seasons and averaged between 0.30 and 0.40 points per game, exactly where Sissons is right now.

Only five of those 14 players played an additional seven seasons in the NHL.

In professional sports dollars, an extra million or two over a couple of years is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to teams. But when the teams are limited by their leagues in what they can spend on players, little mistakes can quickly add up to big mistakes. The Penguins, for example, are now on the hook for $7 million over the next four years for the Johnson-Tanev duo, which is an egregious use of salary space for a contender pressed against the cap that is trying to get another Stanley Cup out of its Hall of Fame core over the next few years.

It is not just good teams, either. The Vancouver Canucks have spent the past two offseasons throwing big-money at the bottom of their roster and will enter this season with $12 million in salary cap space going to Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for multiple years. The result of that is a bad team that only has $5 million in salary cap space and still needs to sign restricted free agent Brock Boeser. They are now in a position where they have to play hardball with their second-best player to get him signed, or have to make a desperation trade to clear salary cap space. It’s a headache that would have been easily avoidable had they not overspent on the bottom of their lineup.

As much as teams want cost certainty with their players and trying to secure their long-term salary cap outlook, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to commit so many years to a player that isn’t going to be an impact player or a part of your core. The value probably will not remain, and it is going to limit what you are able to do in the future. There is not a third-or fourth-line player in the league right now that is so good at what they do that it is worth committing to it for five, six, or seven years. Age will eventually catch up to those players, and when they decline it is going to hit them even harder than the decline of a star.

Commit to your stars long-term because they can not easily be replaced.

The players around them usually can be.

More NHL Free Agency:
Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year contract
Predators being bold with term, but is it smart?
NHL Free Agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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.

Necas rewarding Hurricanes’ patience

Carolina Hurricanes forward Martin Necas
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Highly touted prospects are consistently called on to produce shortly after their draft year, sometimes hindering their growth as players.

Whether the club is competing for the Stanley Cup, looking to become a contender or facing a salary cap dilemma, young players on entry-level contracts have become a staple in the NHL.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the patience they showed during Martin Necas’ development process has proven to be beneficial.

Necas has recorded 13 points through 19 games, including an assist on Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. The 20-year-old forward darted into the offensive zone and could not complete a breakaway opportunity midway through overtime. However, instead of losing his composure, Necas stayed with the play, retrieved the puck and set up Hamilton to help Carolina secure a 5-4 victory.

Carolina selected Necas with the 12th pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft. Necas played one game in the NHL that season before returning to the Czech Republic. Last year, Necas had a seven-game stint with the Hurricanes, but the organization felt he needed more fine-tuning in the American Hockey League, where he helped the Charlotte Checkers capture the Calder Cup.

The pressure surrounding a first-round pick is omnipresent during the development process and only heightens when the prospect needs additional time outside the NHL. The situation is even more magnified when the big club is contending for a championship and contemplating a major trade deadline acquisition or a promotion from within.

But Carolina’s front office resisted the urge to disrupt Necas’ development and is reaping the rewards from that tough decision this season.

If Necas continues to produce, he will be in contention for a different Calder Trophy this season. While an individual award is an accomplishment, Carolina is hoping its patience will be rewarded as the team looks to build on its Eastern Conference Finals appearance last season.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Maple Leafs GM gives interesting take on ‘polarizing’ players

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are mired in a three-game losing streak, and generally speaking, have seemed a bit underwhelming so far in starting 2019-20 with a 9-7-4 record (22 points, currently in second wild card).

Through 20 games, you’ll see players talk about getting “swagger” back, and you probably won’t be able to scroll Hockey Twitter without stumbling upon at least a few debates about the job Mike Babcock is doing.

With as passionate a fan base as the Maple Leafs have, you’ll see people really drilling down to parse even the depth aspects of the team. Maybe that explains why we got an interesting take from GM Kyle Dubas, who almost seemed to break “the fourth wall” when he acknowledged the many takes that defensemen Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie inspire.

Buffet of opinions

Dubas’ comments about Ceci are especially fascinating, as you can see from TSN’s Karen Shilton.

“Cody is an interesting one. I think it goes back to the war between data and subjective scouting [in that] he seems to be a very polarizing player,” Dubas said. “Even when everything underlying about him has been relatively solid, especially when you consider his usage [as a top-pairing defenceman who averages 22:19 of ice time per game], it seems to be every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum on whether he’s good or not, which is mind-boggling to me. Every defenceman that plays that much and plays in that role is going to [make] mistakes. I think he’s been a good addition for us and has played above expectations from when we acquired him and we’re very happy with him.”

In particular, Dubas captures the tenure of some Hockey Twitter debates when he says “it seems like every tiny thing that he does becomes a referendum.”

But it’s not that hard to see where many of Ceci’s critics are coming from.

When the Maple Leafs acquired Ceci, and it became clear that he’d actually stick around for at least a while, the hope (for many) was that he wouldn’t have the same role as he did in Ottawa, where some believe the Senators promoted him to a level of incompetence. What if Ceci was in an easier role, with fewer minutes and lesser opponents? Instead, his ice time has been virtually unchanged from last season, and defensive measures like his Hockey Viz heat maps (via Micah Blake McCurdy) look as bad as ever:

But, truly, Dubas isn’t totally off base when he says that there are certain underlying numbers where Ceci comes across at least a bit more respectably.

There’s the argument, advanced by people like Jonas Siegel of The Athletic (sub required), that it’s too early to judge Ceci.

Maybe it’s too late; perhaps there’s an “eye test vs. analytics” divide that won’t be broken easily. It could be that the biggest uproar would come if the Maple Leafs brought back Ceci after his expiring deal melts away.

(Opinion: they absolutely should not bring Ceci back.)

Tyson not knocking it out of the park

In the grand scheme of things, the Ceci situation is basically going as prescribed.

The bigger disappointment might be Tyson Barrie, even if you ignore Nazem Kadri‘s promising early results in Colorado. The book on Barrie is that he can be an explosive offensive performer, although there were red flags about him negating much of that prowess with shaky defense.

Those red flags carry over to those Hockey Viz charts, as there’s a lot of the bad sort of red when you consider Barrie’s defensive impact (and arguably not enough of the good red on offense to justify that bleeding).

Keeping it as simple as it gets, Barrie barely has more points (zero goals, five assists, thus five points) than Ceci (one goal, three assists for four points). Those numbers are underwhelming even if you viewed Barrie as something of a paper tiger with superficial scoring stats coming in.

Maybe it’s telling that Dubas’ comments are more milquetoast about Barrie, stating that “we just want him to continue to work and get comfortable here.”

***

Barrie, Ceci, and the Maple Leafs face a familiar foe on Friday in the Boston Bruins. In the Bruins’ own way, they want to get back on track too, as they’ve lost four in a row.

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.

Flames’ Brodie hospitalized after suffering seizure during practice

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In what sounds like a scary scene from Calgary Flames practice on Thursday, defenseman T.J. Brodie fell to the ice and appeared to experience a seizure, according to multiple reporters on hand.

Brodie, 29, was hospitalized afterward, but the good news is that Flames GM Brad Treliving described Brodie as “alert and responsive.”

Treliving didn’t officially announce that Brodie had a seizure, instead referring to it as an “episode.”

The Flames postponed practice after Brodie was taken off the ice on a stretcher. Their next game is on Saturday, when they face the Arizona Coyotes on the road.

UPDATE: The Flames announced in an update that Brodie has been discharged and is doing well in recovery at home with his family.

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.

Islanders place Andrew Ladd on waivers

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New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello announced that the team put forward Andrew Ladd on waivers on Thursday, and from the sound of things, it’s unclear if we’ll see Ladd in the NHL again.

That said, Ladd’s $5.5 million AAV doesn’t expire until after 2022-23(!) so it’s possible that this saga may not be over.

For now, the Islanders are putting Ladd on waivers with the plan of assigning him to the AHL. Ladd had been on a conditioning stint while on LTIR as he tries to recover from a torn ACL suffered in March, and Lamoriello said that the Islanders hadn’t seen enough from that conditioning stint to have him resume playing. Setting such a standard would always make sense, really, but especially so with the Islanders humming along with an impressive 13-3-1 record so far in 2019-20.

Ladd’s longer-term future is fuzzy, and Lamoriello didn’t want to speculate about his chances (or lack thereof?) to play in the NHL again.

Newsday’s Andrew Gross clarifies that Ladd won’t need to be taken off LTIR to make this happen, which is relevant considering the whole $5.5M thing.

Ladd’s signing ranks as one of the many cursed 2016 free agent contracts, joined by Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo (the player he essentially replaced for the Islanders), David Backes, Loui Eriksson and more.

To be fair, Ladd had some utility if you looked beyond disappointing numbers for the money at times with the Islanders, but again, it’s hard to get too thrilled about such positives when the price tag was so steep. Still, he had some aptitude, particularly defensively, during his first two seasons for the Islanders, as illustrated by this Hockey Viz heat map:

Looking at Ladd’s contract structure at Cap Friendly, there’s the remote chance that the Islanders might be able to move that $5.5M cap hit (LTIR-bound or not) as the deal goes along. Ladd’s actual salary slips to $4M from 2020-21 through 2022-23, and it’s split up by a $3M signing bonus and $1M base salary each year. Maybe a team hoping to hit the cap floor might be willing to eat that cap hit to inflate their numbers for assets after the signing bonus is already paid, even if that would most realistically be able to happen heading into 2022-23? Perhaps the Islanders could bribe the Seattle expansion franchise to eat that deal, much like Vegas ended up doing with David Clarkson‘s contract?

Ultimately, those details are mostly the concerns of whoever is handling the Islanders’ cap situation in the future, and perhaps other teams hoping to squeeze every ounce of value out of an offseason.

Unfortunately, whether Ladd ever plays for the Islanders (or any other NHL team) again, it’s clear that the Islanders didn’t get much value from signing the former Winnipeg Jets captain.

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.