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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.

Ken Holland handed keys to Oilers rebuild

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From Ken Holland’s perspective, you could see why he’d up and leave from Detroit to take on the roles of president of hockey operations and general manager with the Edmonton Oilers. 

The 63-year-old, who recently switched from his decades-long role as Detroit Red Wings GM to a senior vice president position with the franchise after Steve Yzerman returned, is taking a reported five-year, $25 million dollar deal to try and turn around the Oilers with Connor McDavid as the centerpiece. Enticing for any one, clearly, especially when given, per the official release, “full autonomy.”

But if you’re Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson and your goal is to make a rebuild into a quick transition back into a playoff team, is Holland the right choice? He has four Stanley Cups on his resume while running the Red Wings, sure. But once the franchise’s golden generation reached their golden years in the NHL, that success came to an end, and there were no younger reinforcements coming through the Red Wings’ system to sustain those years of winning, at least not immediately.

One of the things Holland was known for during his time in Detroit was allowing prospects to develop properly in the AHL, even if some thought those players were well-beyond ready for the NHL. 

Three of the Red Wings’ top five scorers this past season probably could have been up earlier in the NHL considering the franchise was and remains in a transition phase after the end of their 25-season playoff streak. Andreas Athanasiou spent parts of three seasons in the AHL before becoming a full-time NHLer. Anthony Mantha needed extra time to find the scoring touch that served him well in junior and has posted back-to-back 20-goal seasons. Tyler Bertuzzi broke out this past season with 21 goals after finding his way through 137 games in Grand Rapids. 

Jesse Puljujarvi had a roller coaster of a 2018-19 season. Kailer Yamamoto got in 17 games with the Oilers. Caleb Jones and Cooper Marody have accumulated good experience with the Bakersfield Condors. Evan Bouchard is coming soon. Those are the prospects the Oilers need to get right if they’re going to have any impact at the NHL level. Letting them overripe in the AHL would serve them well as opposed to yo-yo’ing them between levels, messing with their development.

But while prospect development could be looked at as a positive, some of the contracts Holland has handed out has ended up handcuffing him while attempting to maintain their status as a playoff team. Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen, Darren Helm, Trevor Daley, and Jonathan Ericcson are some of the term-heavy, cap-eating deals that have helped put the Red Wings in the position they currently reside.

That track record can be improved if Holland surrounds himself with smart people. Pat Verbeek, who was a pro scout with the Red Wings under Holland, is leaving his role as assistant GM in Tampa to return to Detroit in the same position under Yzerman. But will the same be said for Tyler Wright, who currently works as the Red Wings’ director of amateur scouting?

The staff will need to be a strong and creative one considering the Oilers’ current position under the salary cap and some of the roadblocks that remain in place as they try to build a team around McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Then you have the question of the head coach now that Ken Hitchcock will not be back and possibly moving into an advisor role. Dave Tippett seems itching to return behind a bench and doesn’t want to wait for Seattle’s NHL entry. Dan Bylsma was an assistant in Detroit this past season. Jay Woodcroft has done a great job in his first season with the Oilers’ AHL affiliate in Bakersfield.

There will be plenty of options available to replace Hitchcock.

Nicholson and Oilers owner Daryl Katz feel Holland is ready for a successful second act as an NHL GM. They are, of course, also desperate to ensure time isn’t wasted while McDavid is still posting 100-point seasons. There’s plenty of work ahead for Holland to make that a reality, and this move cannot fail and set the franchise back any longer.

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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.

Red Wings give Blashill two-year extension to continue developing youth

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Another playoff-less spring means the Detroit Red Wings have already begun working on the 2019-20 NHL season. First, they extended goaltender Jimmy Howard and now they’re bringing back head coach Jeff Blashill.

The Red Wings announced on Thursday that Blashill has agreed to a two-year extension through the 2020-21 season. He was hired in June 2015 and has headed up a rebuild that is still on-going, but has some bright spots to it.

Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou each hit the 30-goal mark for the first time during career years, while Anthony Mantha hit 20 goals for the second straight season, and Tyler Bertuzzi took a big step forward as part of a developing Red Wing core. There’s still plenty of age on the roster beyond this season — Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericcsson, Trevor Daley, and likely Niklas Kronwall, whose contract expires this summer — but a youth movement is afoot. In general manager Ken Holland’s eyes Blashill is the right choice to continue to lead this transition phase.

“Jeff has done a tremendous job developing our young talent as we continue to rebuild our organization,” said Holland in a statement. “Our young players have made significant strides during his time as head coach and are playing important minutes in key situations. As we continue to build towards the future, we have the utmost confidence that Jeff is the coach best suited to help our prospects become impactful NHL players. He has gained valuable experience as an NHL coach in each of his four years in Detroit and has instilled a work ethic in our current team that makes us hard to play against every night and competitive in every game, which is the identity we want our team to have as we move forward.”

The one solution the Red Wings have yet to find is a goaltender of the future who can step in in a year or two. With Howard’s extension and Jonathan Bernier still under contract through the end of next season, Holland has $7.25M invested between the pipes for 2019-20.

A two-year extension is a short enough leash that a change could be made if things aren’t trending in the right direction. There’s plenty of speculation about Holland’s future as well. He signed two-year deal last April, but his name has been constantly brought up in rumors surrounding the GM position for the Seattle franchise, which isn’t entering the NHL until the 2020-21 season.

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins – Red Wings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Sunday night’s matchup between the Boston Bruins at the Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

On one side, you have the Bruins, a team hoping to cement its hold on the second seed in the Atlantic Division, and thus a round of home-ice advantage.

The Red Wings don’t face much in the way of stakes … yet they’ve been playing with pride lately, nonetheless. It might not help their tanking chances to win on Sunday, but try telling that to the players on the ice.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 PM. ET – NBCSN]

What: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings
Where: Little Caesars Arena
When: Sunday, March 31, 7:330 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Red Wings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINES

BRUINS

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciMarcus Johansson

Danton HeinenCharlie CoyleChris Wagner

Joakim NordstromNoel AcciariDavid Backes

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

Kevan MillerMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

RED WINGS

Darren HelmDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha

Tyler BertuzziAndreas Athanasiou — Dominic Turgeon

Martin Frk — Christoffer EhnTaro Hirose

Matt Puempel — Ryan Kuffner

Danny DeKeyserFilip Hronek

Niklas KronwallMadison Bowey

Dylan McIlrath — Luke Witkowski

Jake Chelios

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

Brendan Burke (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Keith Jones and Anson Carter.

WATCH LIVE: Red Wings host Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks have won nine of their last 11 games (9-2-0), including seven straight wins from Jan. 20 – Feb. 10, to climb right back into the playoff race. On the morning of January 20, exactly one month ago, the Blackhawks had 41 points and were dead last in the NHL. Now, as of Tuesday morning, they have 59 points, and are just one point behind the Minnesota Wild, who currently owns the second wild card in the Western Conference.

Patrick Kane is having arguably the best year of his career, and should the Blackhawks rally to make the playoffs, he could perhaps win his second career Hart Trophy. He’s currently on a season-best 18-game point streak (40 points: 14 goals, 26 assists), and is averaging 1.53 points/game, which would be the best of his 12-year career. He has an assist in 17 straight games… only two players in NHL history have posted a longer assist streak than Kane – Wayne Gretzky (23 games – 1990-91) & Adam Oates (18 games – 1992-93).

The NHL Trade Deadline is less than a week away and Detroit has a few key players that are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season: Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, Nick Jensen, Luke Witkowski and Jimmy Howard.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland has been weighing whether he should try to sign some of the pending free agents or trade them – with a focus on Howard, Nyquist and Jensen specifically. Holland said he’d like to sign all three to extensions – and all three players have expressed a desire to stay – but a deal must work for both sides.

“I need to weigh which of them we consider re-signing because they can help us in ’19-20 and then we maybe need to do something to add to that in the summer of ’19 because if you just trade all those players away your team is worse,” he said. “So now you got to make moves to get back to where you’re at and even beyond and that’s hard to do in the summer.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Detroit Red Wings
Where: Little Caesars Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Red Wings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Drake CaggiulaJonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromeDominik Kahun
Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovDylan Sikura
Chris KunitzMarcus KrugerJohn Hayden

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy
Slater KoekkoekGustav Forsling

Starting goalie: Cam Ward

RED WINGS
Tyler BertuzziDylan LarkinAnthony Mantha
Thomas Vanek – Frans Nielsen – Gustav Nyquist
Andreas AthanasiouLuke GlendeningChristoffer Ehn
Darren HelmJacob De La RoseJustin Abdelkader

Niklas Kronwall – Mike Green
Danny DeKeyser – Nick Jensen
Trevor DaleyFilip Hronek

Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

MORE: Jonathan Toews is back

For the first time in his career, Mike Tirico will call play-by-play for an NHL game on Wednesday when the Red Wings host the Blackhawks. He’ll be joined in the booth by Eddie Olczyk and ‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst Brian Boucher. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.