How advanced stats are changing NHL contract negotiations

Justin Williams. (Getty Images)

It started like any contract negotiation. 
Agent Allan Walsh, who represents Jonathan Drouin, David Perron and Antoine Vermette, among many others, sat across from an NHL GM and assistant GM. The group was hammering out a deal for one of Walsh’s clients. They spent 45 minutes discussing staple statistics like points per game, goals, assists and ice time. Walsh, though, wasn’t satisfied. He told the executives they were omitting a crucial criterion.

It just so happened, Walsh explained to them, the player in question was tops on the team in almost every major possession metric, including Corsi and Fenwick. Walsh had his own advanced stat booklet prepared. He fished out two copies.

“I saw them open the first page, and I saw the GM and the assistant GM lock eyes with each other,” Walsh said. “And the look on their faces was, ‘Oh s—, he knows.’ ”

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Chris Pronger deal another example of NHL salary cap follies

Chris Pronger (Getty Images)

FORT LAUDERDALE – All right, let’s see if we have this straight. If the Arizona Coyotes can somehow keep their disputed lease in effect, the good people of Glendale will be giving money to a team that is paying a guy $575,000 to not play for them and another guy making $3 million who will actually play for them. That will cost them $3.6 million total, a little more than the $3.2 million they were paying to the guy they traded away, who will likely get paid by his new team to not play for it. The guy making $575,000, by the way, will likely be elected into the Hall of Fame in a couple of days and he now works for the league, while still being paid by the teams who are paying him to not play for them.

Only in the NHL. Shortly after the draft wrapped up Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers and Arizona Coyotes consummated a convoluted trade that saw defenseman Nicklas Grossmann head to the desert in exchange for Sam Gagner and the rights to Chris Pronger. The reason for the deal? The Coyotes will gain $1.5 million to help them get up to the salary floor, since Pronger’s deal is for $575,000 each of the next two seasons in real money and $4.94 million against the cap, and the Flyers will get some relief at the upper level. Pronger will also become the first player in history to be taken off the league’s long-term injury list without actually being activated.

Carry on, then.

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Doom & gloom for the Blackhawks after this year? Not so fast, cynics

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

The deeper the Chicago Blackhawks move into the NHL playoffs, the more I see people preparing requiems for their glory days. At the same time respect is paid to the franchise’s numerous achievements in the now decade-long salary cap era, the notion is floated that, once the cap’s constrictions begin suffocating the Hawks this summer, they’ll rapidly be downgraded from a majestic, soaring beast to a Tweety Bird in a cage, swinging around in mediocrity like so many of the league’s teams.

And maybe that’s what will happen in the coming years. Maybe. But perhaps there’s a chance the Blackhawks do what they did the last time the cap forced them into making major changes to the roster. You know – continue being a Stanley Cup frontrunner for the foreseeable future. Read more

Union president undeterred by Washington bill making WHL players amateurs

Ken Campbell
Jerry Dias  (David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The president of Canada’s largest public sector trade union, one that is attempting to get junior hockey players unionized, called the recent bill in Washington State rendering WHL players as amateur athletes and not employees “ridiculous,” and claimed it will not deter efforts to give major junior players collective bargaining rights in Canada.

“Obviously I can’t do anything in Canada, but I’m disappointed by it,” said Jerry Dias, president of Unifor. “But that’s not going to stop what it is we’re doing here in Canada. There’s no question the case here in Canada is significantly stronger. We think we’re in very good shape here in Canada.”

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Vincent Lecavalier’s washout in Philly should (but won’t) make NHL teams wary of lengthy contracts for thirtysomethings

Adam Proteau
Vincent Lecavalier (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Just two years into a five-year, $22.5-million contract, Vincent Lecavalier’s days with the Flyers appear to be numbered. There may be a chance he’ll stick around if Craig Berube – Philly’s head coach, with whom Lecavalier is at loggerheads with over his role – is shown the door in the off-season, but there’s also a chance both could be gone by the time training camp arrives.

With the 34-year-old Lecavalier struggling to put up points – his offensive production of eight goals and 20 points is down nearly 50 percent from 2013-14, when he posted 20 goals and 37 points – the Flyers will almost certainly find it difficult to trade him this summer and may have no choice but to buy him out of the final three years of the deal. That will leave Philadelphia with a salary cap hit of be $2.889 million in 2015-16 and 2016-17, $2.389 million in 2017-18 and $889,000 each season beginning in the fall of 2018 and running until the summer of 2021. That’s a at least a decent roster player (if not two) every season the franchise will have to do without, because management decided to use a good deal of their cap space on a big name strictly because he was a big name. For a fleeting moment, it boosted the Flyers’ pride to say they outbid everyone else for Lecavalier, but it didn’t take long at all for reality to intrude on them and paint a more stark picture of what they could expect for him.

Lecavalier’s saga in Orange & Black should give all teams pause to think twice about signing veteran NHL stars in their thirties to long-term pacts, but experience tells us it won’t. Read more

How suspensions happen: THN goes inside the NHL player safety war room

Matt Larkin
Department of player safety czar Stephane Quintal, front, oversees a night of games with a team including Patrick Burke, second from bottom. and Damian Echevarrieta, top right. (Photo by Matt Larkin)

It’s February 18, 2015. Montreal Canadiens center Lars Eller finds himself in a frighteningly familiar predicament. He speeds into Ottawa’s neutral zone, stretching out to receive a pass…and spots his old buddy, Senators D-man Eric Gryba, bearing down on him, forearms at chin height. Violent impact. And then–

Timeout.

Eller and Gryba freeze as their torsos separate. Remember what Zack Morris used to do on Saved by the Bell, locking everyone around him in tableau when he had a predicament to solve? That’s what’s happened here, but swap Bayside High for the NHL Department of Player Safety’s war room. Eller and Gryba stretch across four television screens, paused mid-game so the league’s experts can debate the collision’s legality.

Every set of eyes and ears perks up in the room, because everyone present knows the context. Gryba KO’d Eller with an illegal headshot in the 2013 playoffs, ending Eller’s season and earning Gryba a two-game suspension. Another run-in between the two lights up four criteria on the NHL’s no-no board: emotional narrative, potential for repeat offense, potential for injury and a potentially illegal hit. If Gryba has indeed caught Eller in the head again, Gryba has every strike against him and can hang up his skates for a while. Alas, a room-wide review reveals he hit Eller clean in the chest this time. Crisis averted. Game unpaused.

That moment encapsulates the busy life inside the war room, which screens every second of every game all season. The department, led by senior vice-president Stephane Quintal, vice-president Damian Echevarrieta and director Patrick Burke, has invited THN to the New York office for a full night’s slate of games. The mutual goal: improving the media’s understanding of exactly how the league doles out supplemental discipline. What is the chain of command? How does the league weigh prior history and injuries? And, most importantly, are its decisions as “inconsistent” as the keyboard warriors claim?

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Argue with NHL player safety suspensions if you want, but blame team owners & players for soft punishments

Dustin Byfuglien (Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

The instant Dustin Byfuglien’s four-game suspension for a vicious cross-check on Rangers center J.T. Miller was announced late Thursday afternoon, hockey fans and some media types took to social media to vent anger and frustration over the brevity of it. And it wasn’t just Blueshirts supporters; in this era of heightened awareness of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ post-career quality of life, an ever-increasing number of people agree that actions like Byfuglien’s are absolutely unacceptable and warrant a severe punishment that causes NHLers to think twice before doing something so reckless. They didn’t get that with a four-game ban.

Believe me, nobody agrees with those folks more than I do. However, there’s a group of fans out there who direct their wrath over the league’s consistently underwhelming suspensions at the NHL Department of Player Safety. Those people were out in full force in the wake of the Byfuglien verdict. And those people are wrong. You can disagree with the choices of chief disciplinarian Stephane Quintal or anyone in Player Safety, but attaching primary blame to him or his department is like faulting police for laws they enforce; if you want to effect change and put pressure on the appropriate parties for the long-established leniency of the league, you should look at the two groups chiefly responsible for soft punishments: the first is NHL team owners, and the second is the NHL Players’ Association. Read more

Don’t blame fans for Bizarro World “tanking” cheers; they show how savvy the modern NHL fan actually is

Buffalo Sabres fans have a mixed reaction to their 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs Wednesday in Buffalo.  (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

When the Sabres and Maple Leafs clashed Wednesday night – OK, “clash” is probably too strong a word, as it’s commonly associated with the word “titans” and an excellent band you young punks should get into if you haven’t already, and we don’t want to sully either of those things by linking them to these two teams – we saw another instance of the Bizarro World phenomenon that occurs when fans obsessed with winning the upcoming NHL entry draft lottery cheer for the opposing team to beat their own organization.

Some NHLers have all but dry-heaved after the indignity of performing in front of their hometown fans and being subjected to cheers for the visitors. That’s certainly understandable, as it runs contrary to every instinct we have about pro sports. Playing on the road should put the fear of the hockey gods into players, not wrap them in blankets and give them a nice hug and a cookie. But players and team executives shouldn’t see this as the fault of fans. To the contrary: they should appreciate a fan base that recognizes the best way to build a Stanley Cup contender under the league’s current collective bargaining agreement is to do what teams like Toronto and Buffalo are doing: by tearing it all down, taking your lumps like a grownup and building slowly. Read more