Brenden Dillon

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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.

Sharks set to sweat salary cap after Karlsson extension

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For the San Jose Sharks, priority No. 1 has been checked off their offseason to-do list.

That bit came on Monday morning when the Sharks re-signed defenseman Erik Karlsson to an eight-year deal worth what reports suggest will be $92 million once the team makes it official.

That’s a hefty chunk of change for one of the game’s premier rearguards, and rightly so. A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Karlsson has game-breaking capabilities from the back end. It’s not surprising that he’s one of the highest paid players in the NHL.

But behind the elation general manager Doug Wilson is feeling at the moment, there also has to be a bit of trepidation.

With Karlsson’s contract expected to be in the $11.5 million AAV region, that leaves the Sharks with roughly $13 million in cap space remaining and only 16 players signed, including 11 forwards.

It’s safe to assume that the end of an era is coming for someone in the Bay Area.

Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are both unrestricted free agents come July 1. Thornton has signed one-year deals with the club for several years now. Pavelski enters the free agent arena for the first time in five seasons after completing the final year of a five-year, $30 million deal.

[MORE: Sharks give Karlsson eight-year extension]

Both are integral parts of the Sharks. And the Sharks may have to let them walk this time.

At 39, Thornton’s on-ice play isn’t worth the $5 million he made last season. He’s the de facto leader of the team, but the Sharks simply can’t afford him at that price point again. If they want him back, a low-salary, bonus-laden contract could be an option.

Losing Pavelski, their captain, would also be a blow.

Despite being 34 (35 next season), Pavelski had 38 goals and 64 points in 75 games last season. Not bad for $6 million, and perhaps he goes the Thornton route for a few years and signs one-year deals that allow the Sharks some breathing room.

Does Pavelski deserve a longer-term commitment? Sure. But the Sharks are once again going all-in with the Karlsson signing and this might be Pavelski’s best shot at a Stanley Cup ring as a captain of the team.

Aside from the two superstars, the Sharks need to make sure they lock down some of their younger talent.

Joonas Donskoi is set to become a UFA, as is Gustav Nyquist — a trade deadline pick up who meshed well with the team.

Nyquist is likely the odd-man out here. Going by Evolving Wild’s free agent model projection, Nyquist, 29, could earn a six-year deal in the $5.7 million range. That’s too rich if you’re planning on keeping Thornton and Pavelski around.

Donskoi, 27, is projected to get a three-year deal in the $3 million average annual value region.

And then there’s the restricted free agent crop.

Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc have become great pieces for the Sharks and both now need raises.

Evolving Wild has Meier taking a six-year deal with a cap hit close to $6 million while Labanc is more affordable at three years and around $3.5 million.

Remember, the Sharks have $13 million to play with following the Karlsson extension.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Pavelski gets $7 million and Thornton gets $5 million. That’s $12 million and roughly $1 million left on the cap.

See the problem? And how many extensions do the Sharks want to give older players? Logan Couture‘s six-year, $8 million AAV deal kicks in next season. He’s 30. Brent Burns, 34, has six more years left on a deal that’s paying him the same amount as Couture per season.

The Sharks only need to look further down on a California state map to see Los Angeles and the devastating effects handing big contracts to old players can have.

Still, banners fly forever and the Kings have two of them and the Sharks have zero.

The Sharks could sell off some assets, too, including a Justin Braun ($3.8 million, one year left) or a Brenden Dillon ($3.2 million, one year left) on the back end for some cap relief.

And the point of this exercise is that someone has to go.

The question now is, who?

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

Blues’ Dunn remains ‘close’ to return after facial injury

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(UPDATE: Dunn will be in the Blues’ Game 4 lineup.)

ST. LOUIS — Vince Dunn is close. That’s the description St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube has used the last few days to describe the 22-year-old defenseman.

Dunn took a Brenden Dillon wrist shot to the mouth in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final and has been out of the lineup since, missing the Blues’ last six games. He’s been out with an “upper-body injury,” and it’s clear there was plenty concern about whether he’d be back on the ice.

There’s no clarity yet on if Dunn will play during the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins. Even he isn’t sure.

“It’s hard to say right now,” Dunn said. “It’s obviously a whole other level right now in the Finals and when I come back I want to make sure I was the player that I was when I came out.”

While he’s still part of the team on a daily basis as he recovers, being unable to take part in the games has been difficult for Dunn, who recorded seven points in 16 playoff games prior to the injury.

“There’s nothing you can say or hear right now that’s going to make you feel better,” Dunn said. “At the end of the day, you’re not in the lineup and that really sucks. It’s the Stanley Cup Final and that’s something you dream about when you’re a kid. To not be able to play for something like this is very frustrating for me.”

Dunn said the puck to the mouth didn’t cause him to lose any teeth “yet,” but he has a mouth full of wires at the moment and it’s “going to be a long process.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“There’s a lot of things going on with my face right now,” he added. “It’s just not a pretty scene in there.”

The young defenseman is in his second NHL season and averaged 17:32 of ice time during the regular season. He’s good puck moving blue liner, something the Blues have missed through three games against the Boston Bruins.

Dunn tried sporting a face shield during practices but quickly gave up that idea.

“It’s not easy to see with that thing on,” said Dunn, who couldn’t reveal if he had been medically cleared to play. “I just kind of came to the conclusion that if I can just take that thing off, if a puck’s going to hit me, it’s going to hurt. I’d rather just sacrifice my face for better vision out there. … As easy as I can to make it on myself, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

There have been plenty of supportive messages for Dunn from family, friends and fans as he recovers. He gets the questions about his health every day and while it’s difficult to not reply back saying that he’ll be back to playing in the next game, he’s appreciative of the support.

“At the end of the day, it’s nice that a lot of people are worrying and care about you,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of Tweets and messages, some letters. Just to know that the city’s really worried about you … there’s no shortage of help right now for me.”

Game 4 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs on NBC at 8 p.m. ET on Monday (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 3:
Bruins blast Blues, take 2-1 lead in Stanley Cup Final
Blues special teams continue to be sour note 
Berube keeping the faith in Binnington after rough Game 3

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

The Playoff Buzzer: Another shutout for Mrazek; Burns dominates for Sharks

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  • Jordan Staal scores another huge goal for the Carolina Hurricanes as they continue their playoff run.
  • Kevin Labanc scored a beauty of a goal for the Sharks.
  • Brent Burns dominated and made a little bit of history for the Sharks.

Carolina Hurricanes 1, New York Islanders 0 [OT] (CAR leads series 1-0)

If you like defense and goaltending, this might be the series for you. It took a little more than 64 minutes for someone to find the back of the net in this one, but Carolina’s Jordan Staal finally did it for the Hurricanes in their 1-0 win over the Islanders. Petr Mrazek was also outstanding in net by turning aside all 31 shots he faced for the Hurricanes as they continue their magical run.

San Jose Sharks 5, Colorado Avalanche 2 (SJS leads series 1-0)

Even without Joe Pavelski in their lineup the Sharks still have enough depth to beat just about any team on any given night, and they showed that in their 5-2 Game 1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night. The Sharks’ third line of Joe Thornton, Marcus Sorensen, and Kevin Labanc combined to score three consecutive goals in the win, while defender Brent Burns had a huge four-point night. While the offense was a huge part of the win, the Sharks’ penalty kill also came through in the second period as they successfully killed off a four-minute high-sticking penalty on Brenden Dillon to help swing the momentum in their favor. They responded by scoring three consecutive goals over the next eight minutes to take the lead.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks. It was the Brent Burns show for the Sharks on Friday night as he tallied four points in their 5-2 win over the Avalanche. Along with the offense, he also made a couple of great defensive plays, including an outstanding play to break up a 2-on-1 odd-man rush involving Nathan MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie in the third period. It is games like this that made him a Norris Trophy finalist for the third time in the past four years. He is just the seventh defender since 2010 to record at least four points in a postseason game.

2. Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes. Here is a quick look at how Staal’s week has been for the Hurricanes. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals to send the game to a decisive Game 7. In that Game 7 he scored the game-tying goal in the third period to help send the game to overtime where they would eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions. Then on Friday night he scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 series lead. He has always been an outstanding defensive center and strong two-way player, and he is having an incredible postseason for the Hurricanes.

3. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes. While Staal provided the only offense for the night, Mrazek did his part to keep the Islanders off the board with a 31-save shutout. It is already Mrazek’s second shutout of the postseason and the fifth shutout of his postseason career. That is an impressive number when you remember he has only appeared in 19 NHL postseason games and only has nine career postseason wins.

Highlights Of The Night

This was probably Mrazek’s best save of the night as he shut down New York’s Josh Bailey in the first period with this awesome glove save.

San Jose’s Kevin Labanc got the better of Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen on this play with an incredible move to set up the go-ahead goal for the Sharks.

Robin Lehner was not the problem for the New York Islanders on Friday as he matched Mrazek save-for-save during regulation. This second period stop on Gregg McKegg was his best of the night.

 

Factoids Of The Night

  • Jordan Staal’s overtime goal for the Hurricanes came 13 years to the day of his older brother, Eric Staal, scoring an overtime playoff game-winner during the 2006 playoffs. That was a pretty good postseason for the Hurricanes as they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • This was the seventh consecutive day of playoff hockey that at least one game went to overtime. The longest such streak is nine consecutive days during the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [NHL PR]
  • Burns set a new Sharks franchise record for most career postseason points by a defender. [NHL PR]
  • Big night for Joe Thornton as he became just the 24th player, and only third active player, to record at least 100 postseason assists. [NHL PR]
  • Mrazek became the third goalie in Hurricanes history to record multiple shutouts in a single postseason. [NHL PR]

Saturday’s Games

Game 2: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues, 3 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)
Game 2: Columbus Blue Jackets at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET, NBC (Live Stream)

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.

Sharks’ PK, third line shine in Game 1 win over Avalanche

When we last checked in with the San Jose Sharks it was their power play taking over and scoring four consecutive goals during a five-minute major in their historic Game 7 comeback to send them to a Round 2 matchup with the Colorado Avalanche.

In their 5-2 Game 1 win on Friday night, it was the other side of their special teams unit — their penalty kill — that helped swing the momentum in their favor.

With the Sharks trailing by a goal early in the second period, defender Brenden Dillon was given a double-minor for high-sticking that gave the Avalanche a four-minute power play that could have padded their lead.

Instead, the Sharks’ PK completely slammed the door shut and killed off the entire penalty, setting the stage for an offensive outburst later in the period that would prove to be the difference in the game.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It also gave the Sharks one more opportunity to remind everyone about what happened in their Game 7 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Ouch, Vegas.

Less than two minutes after that penalty expired, the Sharks’ offense erupted, with all of it coming from their third line of Joe Thornton, Marcus Sorensen, and Kevin Labanc.

It began with Thornton finishing off a 2-on-1 rush to tie the game with his second goal of the postseason.

Six minutes after that, Labanc gave the Sharks their first lead of the night with a highlight reel goal that saw him dangle around Mikko Rantanen at the blue line and then beat Philipp Grubauer with this perfectly placed shot. This goal goes in the books as the game-winner on Friday.

Not even three minutes later, that line struck again when Brent Burns tallied his third point of the night when he scored his second goal of the playoffs on a shot that banked in off of Avalanche rookie defender Cale Makar. He added a fourth point later in the game when he assisted on Timo Meier‘s empty-net goal.

Sorensen and Thornton each picked up an assist on Burns’ goal, giving each of them two points on the night.

Game 2 of Avalanche-Sharks is on Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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.