Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Best and the Worst of the 2011 NHL Offseason

The 2011 NHL offseason was an interesting one. An unprecedented growth in the salary cap (and floor) meant that GMs had more money to throw around than ever before. Unfortunately for these teams (but not for the UFAs and their agents), there was a dearth of high-end talent which resulted in numerous bad signings and an increased frequency of big-time trades. From the day before the draft when Philadelphia offloaded both Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to the draft day trades where two WC elites cemented their status for years to come, to the surprise swap of Dany Heatley and Martin Havlat, to say this offseason was hectic in terms of trades would be a drastic understatement. The goal then of this post is to address the moves we think were best and the moves we think were worst.


5. Ian White signing - 2 years, $5.75 million

Triumph has already done a great job highlighting this move, so I’ll keep it brief. Frankly, I don’t know which element of this deal is more impressive from Detroit’s perspective, the cap hit or the term. Signing a defenseman with White’s offensive prowess in UFA to a deal paying him less than $3M/year is a real coup. Detroit needed somebody to run the power play with the retirement of Brian Rafalski; thankfully for them they found upgraded the player for about 50% the cost.

4. Jeff Carter trade (Columbus)

Again, this move has been well documented by my colleague, though most of that has been an analysis of Philadelphia’s haul. I want to focus on this from Columbus’ perspective. First and foremost, they get an elite forward who is likely to play Center alongside Rick Nash. The folks at Broad Street Hockey put together some great analysis on Carter. An under appreciated element of this deal is that a trade like this is the only way Columbus could’ve acquired a player of Carter’s caliber without drastically overpaying somebody as a free agent, a mistake we will cover later on in this article.

3. Brian Campbell trade (Chicago)

The reaction that most had to this trade tells us all that needs to be said. Most hockey folks were in utter disbelief that the Blackhawks could actually move Brian Campbell’s deal. 5 years left at a cap hit north of $7m for an above-average (but not elite) defenseman. Fortunately for Blackhawks fans, Brian Campbell’s biggest fan had found himself a new job in Sunrise, Florida. The newly found cap space allowed Stan Bowman to add some precious depth to an already impressive core, and if necessary, gives the Blackhawks freedom to tweak their roster before the trade deadline. While Chicago is assured to miss Campbell, they are still a Stanley Cup contender and #1 on Driving Play’s forthcoming pre-season power ranking. Looking to the future, this move will also pay-off next year and the years thereafter. Having all core players locked up for at least 3 years plus an added $7.5m in cap space puts Chicago in the discussion of the NHL’s most dangerous teams going forward. None of this would’ve been possible with Brian Campbell’s contract still on the books.

2. Semyon Varlamov trade (Washington)

This one is pretty simple. Semyon Varlamov, while a nice player, is by no means an elite goaltender. He was also on his way out of Washington, likely to the KHL. George McPhee deserves a medal for moving a player his team was unlikely to sign for what has the potential to be the first overall pick. Washington already has an impressive core, and Michal Neuvirth’s play last year made Varlamov expendable. Adding a high first round pick to that mix is extremely impressive. To be less politically correct, I’d set the over/under on 15 seconds for George McPhee holding off laughter once the trade call was finalized.

1. Tomas Vokoun signing - 1 year, $1.5 million

We believe the best move of the offseason belongs to Washington for their signing of Tomas Vokoun. While the benefactor of one of the league’s most aggressive shotcounter, there is no doubting Vokoun’s status as an elite goaltender. Adding one of the NHL’s best netminders to one of its best teams makes for a scary proposition for the rest of the league. What makes this deal all the more impressive is the low term and the low cap hit. It is unlikely Vokoun will play in Washington in 2012-13, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is they made an appreciable improvement to their 2012 Cup equity for the absurdly low price of $1.5m. One side note - if the rumors about Colorado's interest in Vokoun are true, then they really got played this offseason, what with losing out on Vokoun, overpaying for Washington's goalie leftovers, and then seeing Vokoun sign a 1-year deal in Washington.


Honorable Mention: Florida's Offseason

Dale Tallon has always had the reputation of somebody who can spend like a drunken sailor, so news of a rising cap (more importantly, a rising cap floor) must have been well received on his end. He responded first by trading for Brian Campbell, who’s large cap hit made a nice initial dent into the amount of money they’d need to spend to reach the floor. July 1st is when the fun really started, and when it was over he gave a collection of average 2nd and 3rd liners (Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergeinheim, and Marcel Goc) a total of $15,450,000 for next year. None of this is nearly as bad as giving Ed Jovanovski $4,125,000 a year for 4 years on a 35+ contract. Where some teams made the most of a rising cap (Washington), other teams shot themselves in the foot (Florida).

5. Philadelphia's Trades + the Ilya Bryzgalov signing - 9 years, $51 million

Again, the two trades have been covered at great length by my colleague Chase, so the plan here is to take a little bit of a different approach. I first want to address the timing of these moves. Philadelphia did about as well as they could from a return standpoint. This in specific has been covered by Chase, so I’ll merely direct you to that analysis if you have not seen it before. My issue with the trades is timing. There seems to be a pretty big disconnect between the ages of Philly’s core pieces. On one hand you re-tool for the future, with the idea that the haul of Voracek, Couturier, Simmonds, and Schenn can come close to duplicating the performance of Carter and Richards. There are two problems here: first, there is a good chance this doesn’t happen, for reasons that should be pretty obvious. Second, if it does happen, it’s unlikely to occur soon, which is important considering their best player is 36 years old and coming off of knee surgery. If Pronger stays healthy, the Flyers probably win the East and Sergei Bobrovsky is probably still their starting goaltender. That ought to tell you all you need to know about the Bryzgalov signing. It’s an overreaction and it was completely unnecessary.

4. Brad Richards signing - 9 years, $60 million

Yes, Brad Richards put up some pretty numbers the last two years, but no, he’s not as good as those numbers appear and he’s certainly not 9 years/$60 million good. For one, Richards doesn’t do much in the way of puck possession. Dallas has been outshot when Richards was on the ice for three of the last four years, and while Richards has generally played against relatively tough competition over that stretch, he has not shown the ability to drive the play forward, an asset we believe to be an important element of player evaluation. And while there is no doubting Richards is one of the league’s best playmakers, it does not make him one of the league’s best players. This overpayment, coupled with Richards’ general injury history and his non-elite even strength play, makes the signing of the star of the 2011 UFA class a bad one.

3. Ville Leino signing - 6 years, $27 million

Where the Richards deal was more the case of a very good player being paid like an elite one, the Leino deal is a case where a slightly above average player is being paid like a very good one. After struggling to get solid ice time on a stacked Detroit roster, Leino parlayed a good 2010 playoffs and a nice 2010-11 regular season into a 6 year, $27 million dollar deal. The talent is there, but our issue with the deal is that Buffalo likely failed to delve deeper into Leino’s numbers. See, Leino’s numbers had a few things going for them that made them appear to be better than they actually were. First, he played for one of the league’s best teams. This had an impact on the quality of his minutes. Philadelphia had the fortune of having two elite centers to play against the opposing teams’ best players, allowing Leino and his principal linemates, Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell, to reap the benefit of soft minutes. Leino - Briere - Hartnell as a unit also took a disproportionate amount of faceoffs in the offensive zone (Leino’s OZone% was 62.3%). Even under this perfect storm of good teammates and soft minutes, Leino only managed to put up 53 points. Now, his raw point total may rise because of an increase in ice time and power play time, but as we know, a player’s point total is misleading without context, and as of now, it looks like Buffalo mistook a player who took advantage of a very favorable circumstance for a very good player.

2. James Wisniewski signing - 6 years, $33 million

Part of the reason the Jeff Carter trade was so great for Columbus is because it allowed them to acquire an elite player without having to overpay in terms of cap hit. While Wisniewski is not an elite player, he is still quite solid, but nevertheless, we saw the phenomena that afflicts Columbus and similarly sized and located markets take full effect, as the Jackets drastically overpaid to acquire the services of Wiz. The problem is that almost all of Wisniewski’s offensive value comes from his ability on the power play, as 60% of his points came with a man advantage. There is obviously value here, but as power plays occur less frequently, the value of power play specialists fall. Wiz is solid at even strength; he’s not much of a play driver, but in the past he’s shown the ability to play tough minutes. However, all of this doesn’t really add up to a player worth $5.5 million per year. Teams like Columbus generally have internal caps that are pretty rigid, and dedicating such a large proportion of that space to good but not great players is a recipe for sustained mediocrity.

1. Semyon Varlamov trade (Colorado)

To be honest, the first thing I did when I heard about this move was laugh. I didn’t laugh because of Semyon Varlamov, I laughed because a team that is in the middle of rebuilding just moved what will almost assuredly be a top 5 pick for an average (at best) starting goalie. Yes, Varlamov is young and now under team control for three years, no, that is not as valuable as a high first round pick. Where this move is worse than any of the signings (or the other trade) is while this move might make Colorado marginally better this year (but still nowhere near good enough to be a playoff team), it almost assuredly makes Colorado much worse in the future. The recent success of teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins show that rebuilds can happen quick with good drafting, especially in the early rounds. Colorado just traded away what used to be a top organizational asset for a player who will have no appreciable impact on their ability to contend in the future.


  1. Interesting how the best move, and two of the worst, involves a goaltender. The Capitals played the market beautifully. There is a lot of terrific goalie talent in hockey right now, and I'll leave overpayment of that position to the Carolinas and the Rangers of the world.

  2. To be fair, sources say Colorado wanted Cory Schneider for the first rounder and the Nucks wouldn't take it. That would've been a much better trade

  3. Are you saying Ian White is an upgrade over Rafalski? I understand the value in having White at less than half the cost, but I wouldn't say White is a better player than Rafalski.

  4. I'm not so sure that's better, as Schneider is a UFA in just 2 years. Varlamov was 4 years away from being unrestricted. And good lord are the Nucks idiots if they turned that offer down.

  5. "To be fair, sources say Colorado wanted Cory Schneider for the first rounder and the Nucks wouldn't take it. That would've been a much better trade"

    Wow. If this is true I'd put the Canucks turning this down as the #1 worst offseason move.

  6. "Are you saying Ian White is an upgrade over Rafalski? I understand the value in having White at less than half the cost, but I wouldn't say White is a better player than Rafalski."

    I can't speak for Matt, but I'll say that White is a better player than Rafalski. White handled tougher minutes last season while the two played comparable competition in '09-10 and has outperformed his balanced corsi (http://www.broadstreethockey.com/2011/3/22/2062073/balanced-corsi) expectations both years. His balanced zone shift (http://www.arcticicehockey.com/2011/6/9/2210569/bzs-2-0-ironing-things-out-a-bit) also holds its own a little better than Rafalski's, who didn't have the benefit of playing with Nick Lidstrom as much last year. Just at a quick glance, it seems to me that Rafalski can eat up bad competition while being carried by Lidstrom against the toughs. White, on the other hand, seems to be carrying the play on his own in both situations, regardless of competition.

  7. I would say that the Caps had the best off-season but I didn't like that they gave Laich a six-year deal and opted to sign Roman Hamrlik at $3.5 mil instead of just bringing back Scott Hannan at a lower cost. Other than that, McPhee was a wizard this summer.