Cal Clutterbuck

Getty

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

2 Comments

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Berube belief validated; Stars can’t rest on ‘that’s just hockey’

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 7

• ‘That’s just hockey’ won’t cut it for the Dallas Stars in Game 7. (SportsDay)

• Berube’s belief in his team was validated in the Blues’ Game 6 win. (NHL.com)

• Blues regrouped after Game 5 dud. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The man who braved the rain to watch his Dallas Stars outside American Airlines Center was handed tickets to Games 5 and 6. (NHL.com)

• A look at head coaching options for newly-minted Oilers GM Ken Holland. (Oilers Nation)

• It looks like Cal Clutterbuck will go under the knife to fix his back. (IslandersPointBlank)

• Don Cherry just can’t keep the Carolina Hurricanes out of his mouth. (News & Observer)

• A very good deep-dive about Mitch Marner and his next contract. (Faceoff Circle)

• KHL stars set to feature for the Maple Leafs. (TSN)

• Ageless wonder Zdeno Chara is following in the footsteps of another ageless wonder. (Sportsnet)

• Handshake lines, one of the hardest things to do in hockey. (Sin.Bin Vegas)

• Americans take home gold at sled hockey worlds. (NBC Sports Olympics)

• It appears to be the end of the line for Devante Smith-Pelly‘s time in Washington. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Seattle’s new NHL team features an ownership group with some interesting claims to fame. (Seattle Times)

• Did anyone’s draft stock change at the U18s? (EP Rinkside)


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

Injury bug hits Hurricanes again as Mrazek, van Riemsdyk exit Game 2

Getty Images
1 Comment

The Carolina Hurricanes needed another injury like they needed a hole in the head.

Already without the services of important pieces in Andrei Svechnikov, Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook, the Hurricanes added a couple more names to the infirmary on Sunday afternoon.

The puck barely dropped in Game 2 of the Round 2 series between the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders (NBC; Live stream) when the first casualty took place.

A hard, stiff hit by Cal Clutterbuck on Trevor van Riemsdyk forced the Carolina defenseman immediately out of the game just 36 seconds after the puck dropped. Van Riemsdyk was in all sorts of discomfort as he held his arm tenderly as he skated off the ice. By the first intermission, he had been ruled out of the game by the Hurricanes.

It would get worse, too.

The Hurricanes couldn’t convert on a 5-on-3 power play, couldn’t convert with the remainder of the 5-on-4, and then watched the play go in the other direction, forcing a save out of Peter Mrazek that injured him as he slid across his crease (he’d make another save while injured, too).

Mrazek got the attention of his bench and slammed his stick, presumably in anger, before making his way down the tunnel.

Mrazek has been a godsend in the playoffs for the Hurricanes. In his past six games entering Sunday, he had gone 5-1 with a .927 save percentage and two shutouts, one of which occurred in Game 1 of their current best-of-seven series as he blanked the Islanders 31 times in the game en route to an overtime win.

His fate was the same as van Riemsdyk’s — out for the rest of the game, only with a lower-body injury

Curtis McElhinney came in cold to replace Mrazek and was forced into action immediately, making a couple of quality saves. McElhinney had just 82 minutes of playoff action in his career coming into this one. His stats aren’t great, but then again, there’s no adequate sample size to draw from.

McElhinney was solid during the regular season, winning 20 games in 33 starts with a .912 save percentage and two shutouts.

Adversity hits every team in the playoffs, it just doesn’t always decimate a roster.

For the rest of the game, a guy named Todd Scarola will back up McElhinney.


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

Islanders vs. Hurricanes: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff preview

1 Comment

The Carolina Hurricanes ended a marathon of a series to upend the Washington Capitals, the defending champions. Meanwhile, the New York Islanders have been chilling after sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins, aka the team that won the two Stanley Cups before Washington grabbed theirs.

So, yes, you can call this a war of the underdogs, although in the upset-happy 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Islanders – Hurricanes has plenty of competition. (And some would argue the Hurricanes weren’t underdogs, but that’s a whole other thing.)

There are some other fun storylines, too. This could be the quintessential rest vs. rust test case, as the Hurricanes were pushed to the limit on Wednesday, while the Islanders haven’t played since April 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In true Carolina fashion, there’s another analytics experiment going on. The Islanders have defied the odds and possession metrics to keep winning games, while the Hurricanes finally seem to be benefiting from hogging the puck for years now. Winning this series won’t end the (often obnoxious) debates one way or another, yet you can bet that someone will claim as much on Twitter once the dust settles.

And, if you were tired of the same old teams in Round 2, you won’t get a much fresher matchup than Hurricanes vs. Islanders.

Schedule

Surging players

Islanders: With goalies getting their own section, there’s no reason to hesitate to mention Jordan Eberle first. He scored four goals in as many games against the Penguins, finishing that sweep with six points and a +6 rating, riding a red-hot 26.7 shooting percentage. Mathew Barzal was right there with him, generating five assists.

Brock Nelson scored three goals with a 25 shooting percentage, with two of his tallies being game-winners. Josh Bailey‘s three goals and one assist impress, and his luck was strong too (33.3 shooting percentage). Valtteri Filppula carried over his surprising work from the regular season, generating four assists. Anders Lee weighed in, too, with three points.

Hurricanes: Jaccob Slavin‘s gaining much-deserved mainstream attention, tying Erik Karlsson for the playoff lead in points for defensemen with nine (both with nine assists). Overtime work inflates things, but Slavin’s 26:59 TOI average remains robust.

Jordan Staal finished the series on a roll, scoring the goal that sent Game 7 to OT, while nabbing the game-winner in Game 6. Warren Foegele‘s four goals (along with two assists) came on just 12 SOG (33.3 shooting percentage), while Dougie Hamilton‘s six points flew under the radar because of that overblown talk about allegedly wincing at contact with Alex Ovechkin on a memorable goal. Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen don’t tower over others production-wise, but they really took over during key parts of the series, and remain the Hurricanes’ two aces.

Oh yeah, and Justin Williams continues to be Mr. Game 7, whether he likes it or not.

Struggling players

Islanders: Not many, what with this team riding a hot streak and managing a sweep.

After scoring easily a career-high with 20 goals (on an 18 shooting percentage) during the regular season, Casey Cizikas didn’t generate a point during that sweep. Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin didn’t score any, either, and Martin only averaged 12:42 TOI. Nothing too troubling, as the Isles generally count on those guys as physical presences, with any goals being a bonus. You can apply similar logic to modest-scoring defensemen, as they were pretty happy to limit the Penguins’ big guns in Round 1.

Hurricanes: Nino Niederreiter only managed an assist during that seven-game series against the Capitals, and it’s possible he might be banged-up (although that assist was gorgeous). Trevor van Riemsdyk didn’t generate a point during that series, and found himself planted on the bench a bit in key moments … which isn’t as big of an insult as it might seem, since Carolina has such outstanding defensemen to lean on when they want to shorten their bench. It’s tough to tell how much injuries factor into struggles of players like Micheal Ferland, who failed to score while being limited to three games.

Goaltending

Islanders: After a tremendous, redemptive regular season where he generated a fantastic .930 save percentage, Robin Lehner … somehow played even better? For all the hand-wringing about the Penguins, a near-impenetrable brick wall in net can really magnify your warts, and Lehner did that, producing an even-better .956 save percentage during that sweep. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument regarding how much Lehner’s numbers boil down to his own great play versus Barry Trotz’s defensive structure, but the results are so great, the debate feels moot (at least until it comes time for Lehner to get paid, as he’s in a contract year). Thomas Greiss‘ regular season numbers were nearly identical to Lehner’s, so few teams have a better option in case something happens with their starter.

(Unless Greiss reverted back to his 2017-18 form, in which case it would be a double-whammy.)

Hurricanes: Petr Mrazek‘s full season stats were just solid (.914 save percentage), but he really went on a tear down the stretch, generating a .938 save percentage in 17 games following the All-Star break. Mrazek’s .899 save percentage against the Capitals wasn’t so great, but Alex Ovechkin & Co. tend to generate high-danger chances, so he graded out reasonably well overall — just not dominant, like Lehner. Mrazek got bumped a bit late in that series, including a hard collision with teammate Justin Williams. He seems OK, yet it could be something to monitor. Like with Lehner and Greiss, Mrazek has a backup who produced similar results in the regular season in veteran Curtis McElhinney.

On paper, judging by this season alone, the advantage is the Islanders’, but we’ll see how it actually plays out.

Special teams

Islanders: The Islanders scored two power-play goals on 13 opportunities (15.4 percent), with both goals scored at home. Such a small sample size only tells you so much, so consider that, during the regular season, the Isles only converted on 14.5 percent of their chances, the third-worst total in the NHL. They were middle-of-the-pack on the PK in the regular season (79.9 percent), but only allowed the powerful Penguins’ power play a single PPG during that sweep. On paper, special teams is either neutral or a weakness for this team.

Hurricanes: The Hurricanes only killed 75 percent of their penalties against the Capitals, but is that really so bad against a singular man advantage menace like Alex Ovechkin, who scored three power-play goals during that series? Carolina ranked eighth in PK efficiency during the regular season, which isn’t shocking considering their strong defensive personnel. Carolina’s power play has been middling at best, and they will forever befuddle me by not putting Dougie Hamilton on their top unit. Hamilton scored two PPG against the Capitals despite that questionable deployment, so maybe the Hurricanes will finally change that up and reap some rewards?

As it stands, these two teams generally grade out as pretty strong on the PK, and mediocre on the PP. This seems to be a push overall, although maybe strong coaching/video work might swing this area during the actual series?

X-Factor for Islanders

Normally, in hockey, home-ice advantage is overblown.

The Islanders are an especially interesting case study, though. This is anecdotal, of course, but it’s really hard to believe that the Isles didn’t at least get a slight boost from an absolutely raucous crowd at Nassau Coliseum for Round 1. Now, with the scene changing to the less-fan-and-hockey-friendly Barclays for Round 2, will things be more tepid? A more muted crowd may only play into the “rust” factor, as maybe Nassau’s sheer volume might have been like a bucket of ice water to the head.

X-Factor for Hurricanes

Are the Hurricanes anywhere near 100 percent?

As much as rest is a worry (they just finished a double-OT game and multiple series/in-game comebacks that finished on Wednesday), my biggest concern is injuries. Andrei Svechnikov is still feeling the effects of losing that fight to Alex Ovechkin. Ferland’s hurt, and Jordan Martinook‘s injuries seem to be piling up. And that says nothing about players who are fighting through unreported ailments, stuff that piles up when you play three more games than your opponents, and get basically the bare minimum of rest.

(Again, I wonder at least a bit about Mrazek.)

I’m sure the Islanders have their own bumps and bruises, but they likely pale in comparison to the Hurricanes, who probably lived in ice baths for the last week.

Prediction

Islanders in 6. If everything was equal – rest, injuries, etc. – I’d probably go with the Hurricanes. Even if players like Svechnikov suit up in Round 2, I’m not so sure they’ll be full effective. It wouldn’t be surprising if Trotz gets at least a minor edge on Rod Brind’Amour, what with Trotz being one of the most experienced defensive-minded coaches in the game, and Brind’Amour being in his rookie coaching season. It’s a tough call, and I’d wager that the Islanders will start to see their luck cool off, but here’s saying the Isles’ unlikely run extends to at least Round 3.

(But, yeah, the Hurricanes have a lot going for them.)

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info
Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Blues – Stars
Bruins – Blue Jackets
Sharks – Avalanche

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.

Rested Islanders ready to go against Hurricanes in second round

2 Comments

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Islanders are rested and ready to go. The Carolina Hurricanes haven’t had a chance to relax after outlasting the defending champions in a marathon seven-game series.

More than a week after finishing off a sweep in the first round, Mathew Barzal and the defense-first Islanders get set to open the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against the upstart Hurricanes.

”It was a long wait,” Barzal said. ”We’ve been practicing hard, practicing some scrimmage stuff. … We’re just anxious to get it going again.”

New York has not played since dispatching Pittsburgh on April 16, while the Hurricanes took Washington to the limit with the deciding game lasting into a second overtime Wednesday night. Now, less than 48 hours later, the teams will meet in the postseason for the first time.

Islanders coach Barry Trotz didn’t mind the layoff because it allowed some banged-up players like Cal Clutterbuck and Scott Mayfield a chance to heal. Defenseman Johnny Boychuk, however, remains sidelined for several weeks.

”We just want to play,” Trotz said. ”There might be some rust and you can’t duplicate some stuff (in practice), but I know we’re toeing to get stronger and stronger and stronger.”

The Islanders will be back at Barclays Center in Game 1 for the first time in more than two months. They split regular-season games between the Brooklyn arena, where they have played since 2015, and the Nassau Coliseum, their home the previous 43 years. The Islanders last played at Barclays on Feb. 16. Their home games in the first round were in Uniondale, but any subsequent games they host this postseason will be in Brooklyn.

Both teans are here after surprising seasons and stunning victories in the opening round. In the first year under Trotz, the Islanders used a strong defensive system, timely scoring and some stellar goaltending to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence and following the departure of former captain John Tavares in free agency last summer. New York held off Pittsburgh down the stretch to finish second in the Metropolitan Division and then quickly disposed of the Penguins.

Carolina, which missed the playoffs for nine straight years, was 15-17-5 on Dec. 30 and one point out of last place in the East before going 31-12-2 the rest of the way. The Hurricanes then won a grueling series against the Capitals, marking the first time in NHL history all four division winners were eliminated in the first round.

”The biggest challenge is going to be switching gears,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. ”We’ve been going real hard here for a couple weeks. Obviously all that emotion. To throw that away and focus on a whole new opponent, different style, that’ll be the biggest challenge.”

The teams both use a tenacious defense to try and smother opponents’ chances and generate scoring opportunities for themselves. The Islanders allowed a league-low 2.33 goals per game during the season, while the Hurricanes were tied for seventh at 2.70.

Jordan Eberle led the Islanders in the first round with four goals and two assists, giving him nine goals and three assists in his last 11 games dating back to the regular season. Brock Nelson, who had 25 goals and 28 assists during the season, scored three against the Penguins. Anders Lee (28 goals, 23 assists), Josh Bailey (16 goals, 40 assists) and Barzal (18 goals, 44 assists) also had 50-point seasons.

”They’re patient,” Brind’Amour said. ”(They) play that defensive game and when you crack is when they go.”

Warren Foegele had a team-high four goals in the first round and was tied with Dougie Hamilton and Jordan Staal – who each had three goals and three assists. Teuvo Terraivanen also scored three goals, and Jaccob Flavin had nine assists to lead the team in points.

Some things to know as the teams open the conference semifinals Friday night:

HELLO, AGAIN: Carolina’s Justin Williams and Calvin de Haan will be seeing some familiar faces in this series. The 37-year-old Williams spent two seasons under Trotz with the Capitals before returning for a second stint with Carolina in 2017. Williams had an assist on Brock McGinn‘s series-winning goal against Washington, giving him an NHL-record 15 points in Game 7s of the playoffs.

”A great leader,” Trotz said. ”And he doesn’t get small in the big moments.”

De Haan was selected by the Islanders in the first round of the 2009 draft – the same year Tavares was taken No. 1 overall – and spent the previous five-plus seasons with New York before he signed with the Hurricanes last summer.

GOALIES: Robin Lehner has taken the reins as the lead goalie for the Islanders after splitting time with Thomas Greiss during the season when the duo paired to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner – a finalist for the Vezina Trophy after going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average and six shutouts – played every minute of New York’s sweep of Pittsburgh in the first round. He limited the Penguins to just six goals on 156 shots.

Carolina’s Petr Mrazek had an uneven first round, He struggled on the road, giving up 13 goals on 78 shots in Hurricanes losses in Games 1, 2 and 5, but was stellar at home while limiting the Capitals to only three goals on 74 shots in wins in Games 3, 4 and 6. In Game 7 back in Washington, he gave up three goals on 18 shots before stopping the last 19 to allow the Hurricanes to rally from two goals down.

SECOND-ROUND STRANGERS: After missing the playoffs in eight of the last 11 years, the Islanders are coming off their second postseason series win since 1993. This is Carolina’s second time in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. The Hurricanes reached the Eastern Conference finals in their last time in the postseason three years later.

SEASON SERIES: The Islanders won three of four meetings, including both visits to Carolina in October. New York also won 4-1 at Barclays Center on Nov. 24, before Carolina took the last meeting 4-3 at the Nassau Coliseum on Jan. 8.

Freelance writer Denis P. Gorman contributed to this report.

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports