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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.

Capitals’ Hathaway suspended three games for spitting on Gudbranson

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The NHL announced that Washington Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway has been suspended for three games thanks to his “spitting incident” involving Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

It happened during the end of a pretty wild brawl between the Capitals and Ducks, leading to Hathaway being ejected. For what it’s worth, Hathaway said that he regretted spitting at Gudbranson after the game.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

The Capitals face the Rangers on Wednesday, the Canucks on Saturday, and then the Panthers next Wednesday (Nov. 27) so Hathaway will not be eligible to return until a Nov. 29 home game against the Lightning. Here’s video of the incident:

Gudbranson might feel like the punishment is just.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Do you agree with the three-game suspension? If not, what would be an appropriate punishment? It’s certainly tough to shake the notion that Milan Lucic‘s “sucker-punch” drew less of a suspension (two games) than spitting, especially when other after-the-whistle stuff like licking often goes virtually unpunished … but three games it is for Hathaway.

Being that it’s a shorter suspension, it doesn’t sound like Hathaway has a ton of recourse here, although maybe he can try to get some of the $24,193.53 back if he appealed?

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.

Surging Vrana might be capable of even bigger things for Capitals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

From Alex Ovechkin for Washington to Artemi Panarin for New York, you’ll see plenty of firepower during Wednesday Night Hockey’s bout between the Capitals and Rangers. Even with Nicklas Backstrom sidelined for the game, I’m here to argue that you still might not see enough of one potential rising star: Jakub Vrana.

When you give Vrana’s 2019-20 stats a quick glance, they’re already impressive.

Not only does Vrana already have 10 goals scored in 23 games, but all 10 of them have come at even-strength, tying him for third in the NHL in that category alongside players like Auston Matthews, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vrana’s former Capitals teammate Andre Burakovsky. His eight assists rounds out his numbers to 18 points in 23 games; over an 82-game pace, Vrana would author 37-goal, 66-point season.

While he’s been riding some hot puck luck since 2018-19 with a 15.1 shooting percentage, the overwhelming message one gets from diving deeper into Vrana’s stats is that the Capitals should strongly consider finding more ways to get him on the ice.

[COVERAGE OF RANGERS-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Despite Vrana’s 18 points in 23 games, he’s only averaging 14:15 TOI per game, which is a career-high and slight uptick from last season’s average of 14:02. Beyond getting some bounces, Vrana’s breakthrough in simple counting stats can probably be chalked up to an increasingly itchy trigger finger. After peaking with 1.96 shots on goal per game last season, Vrana’s getting almost one extra puck on net per evening, averaging 2.78 SOG per game (64 SOG in 23 GP).

It’s unclear if you can derive that from playing a more confident game, getting decent reps with a tremendous playmaker like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or if perhaps someone in the Capitals organization gave Vrana a directive to shoot more. Either way, it’s working out quite nicely, as he’s a significant part of the Capitals’ early work as the NHL’s most dangerous offense at even-strength.

Again, though, I must ask for more.

Just about every number seems to point a neon flashing arrow at “More Vrana.” His heat map at Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockey Viz is, well, almost off the charts:

Wow.

Admittedly, it would be tough for Vrana to crack the Capitals’ top power play unit, and he’s getting some reps on the second unit (1:35 per game), but his all-around game makes me wonder if more PK work would be warranted.

It’s not as though Vrana is getting totally buried in the Capitals’ lineup, yet with Washington in a strong position (few teams enjoy the luxury of “Can we win the division again?” being one of their burning questions in November), I’d be tempted to see if Vrana would thrive in an even larger role.

And, hey, if all of that is boring … the skill is pretty obvious, too. Not everyone can pull off a Datsyukian shootout move, right?

Just saying.

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.

My Favorite Goal: Malik’s stunning shootout winner vs. Capitals

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers and personalities remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Scott Charles remembers Marek Malik’s wild shootout-winning deke against the Capitals in 2005.

14 years ago, the shootout was still a new phenomenon in its first year of existence.

The NHL implemented the game-deciding method after a lockout to add a unique level of excitement and create a stand-alone moment within the game for players to showcase their individual skills. Fans have seen plenty of breakaway attempts and penalty shots throughout the years, but the concept of a singular moment with the game on the line created a buzz.

Many NHL stars struggled to adapt to the one-on-one event while several unknown players became heroes overnight.

Marek Malik of the New York Rangers used his opportunity to cement his legacy in the organization’s history.

Rangers coach Tom Renney elected to send Malik over the boards in the 15th round on November 26, 2005 when New York squared off against the Washington Capitals.

Renney had few options at the time because shooters are not allowed to shoot twice unlike international competitions. But when the six-foot six-inch offensively challenged defenseman took the ice, a moment about to be etched into NHL history.

The big fellow skated to the right, majestically slid the puck between his legs and released a wrist shot that sent Madison Square Garden into a frenzy for the second time that day!

“I was expecting to see a shot,” Renney remembered. “I certainly was not expecting, as was no one else in the building expecting to see what he did. It was completely out there and maybe that was the right approach. Maybe Malik was having just enough fun watching all of this as I think we all did. It kind of didn’t matter so go try something. He did and it worked.”

The Rangers and the NBA’s Knicks often play the same day at MSG, but on this Saturday both teams left the venue with thrilling victories. Nate Robinson drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to propel the Knicks to an overtime win against the Philadelphia 76ers prior to Malik’s beauty.

Malik had the chance to become a fan favorite because Jason Strudwick answered the bell in the round prior.

Bryan Muir of the Capitals scored and Renney had to make a very difficult decision; he needed to find someone to respond. The three remaining players who hadn’t shot yet were Strudwick, Darius Kasparaitis and Malik.

“He (Kasparaitis) kept looking at me every time I looked toward that end of the bench,” Renney said. “I was doing everything I could to not make eye contact with him. Kasparaitis was doing everything he could to make eye contact with me and Strudwick was doing everything he could to not make eye contact with me. There was a certain irony in all of that.”

Even though Strudwick lacked confidence Renney selected him anyway.

“I was thinking there was no way I was going to score,” Strudwick said while chuckling. “I remember Tom calling my name I pretended I did not hear him. He looked over and I was like ‘Oh God.’ Over my career I wasn’t really an offensive type guy. Part of me was praying someone would have scored earlier to just end it, but part of me was thinking I actually want a chance at this.”

Malik’s shootout goal encapsulates the spirit of the unlikely hero. A reminder of the underdog moments of triumph hockey can create.

Depth defensemen and bottom-six forwards are often overlooked and viewed as replaceable players, but the ‘Malik Deke’ was another reminder how talented each NHL player is despite their role on any team.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie

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.

Senators’ Bobby Ryan to enter NHL/NHLPA player assistance program

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The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Wednesday morning that Ottawa Senators forward Bobby Ryan will be stepping away from the team indefinitely while he enters the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

The league and union said in a release there “will be no further comment at this time.” The Senators are in Montreal to face the Canadiens Wednesday night.

Ryan did not play Tuesday night in Detroit, one day after he left practice early. Senators head coach D.J. Smith said the forward wasn’t feeling well, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

“Bobby is an important member of the Ottawa Senators family and he has our full support as he tends to this matter,” said Senators GM Pierre Dorion.

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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.