What We Learned: NHL GMs and their terrible defensemen contracts

 

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

At this point, it seems that a lot of NHL general managers have figured out how to properly value forwards.

Sure, they get it wrong sometimes; overpay a guy here, give too many years there. But a lot of forward contracts are within a few degrees of “reasonable.”

This is simply not the case for defensemen, however. That’s a real roulette wheel, pretty much every time.

There is seemingly little rhyme or reason to any contract given to a defenseman of any note. If most hockey fans have heard of you, your contract options may well run the gamut from incredibly undervalued to incredibly overvalued and there’s no real way to tell.

This concept was illustrated perfectly on Saturday, when 43 defensemen signed non-ELC contracts. The biggest contract, in terms of cap hit and term, went to Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and fair enough. He’s really good and really valuable to that team in particular, and their window to win is pretty much “until Joe Thornton retires.” So yeah, it’s eight years and $7 million for a 30-year-old — not generally advisable — but you see the thought process.

However, with a lot of the big contracts this weekend, it’s impossible to see any sort of thought process. Dan Girardi, bought out earlier in the week and understandably so, got $3 million AAV from Tampa (usually a smart organization). Ignoring the fact that he actively hurts your club on the ice, let alone your balance sheets, why does he get $3 million on a bought-out contract when actual useful forwards — Scott Hartnell and Benoit Pouliot — who were also recently bought out went to other teams on bargain contracts.

The question is obvious: Why Girardi?

While $3 million may not seem like a lot of money — it’s just 4 percent of the cap this year — it’s at roughly the midpoint of what defensemen earn after their ELCs expire. Last season, 225 veteran defensemen played at least one NHL game, according to CapFriendly. The median salary for that group was more than $2.67 million. This shows us that Tampa clearly believes Dan Girardi is better than a median NHL defenseman, which we understand is simply not the case, based on years of evidence.

That was, however, not the worst ‘D’ contract given out this weekend. That honor obviously goes to Winnipeg giving Dmitry Kulikov — who was absolutely terrible last season and therefore crying out for a one-year, short-money “show-me” contract — $4.33 million AAV for each of the next three seasons. He might have been one of the worst defensemen in the entire league, and they put his AAV well above the median, the average, or any other reasonable measure.

They’re paying him to be a No. 3, effectively. He may not be a No. 6.

And as with Girardi, you don’t need to be an analytics genius to see how bad this guy is. He’s just regular-old bad. But one assumes that you make an evaluation on a player and see what you want to see, really. Steve Yzerman says Tampa has its own analytics that show, actually, Girardi is really good at what they need overall. Which, one assumes, is bad turnovers and terrible skating.

But at the other side of the spectrum, the large UFA contracts of the day were weirdly muted. Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk were expected to cash in big-time, and it didn’t really work out that way. Alzner only got $295,000 more than Kulikov. Shattenkirk took less money and fewer years than he could have gotten a lot of places, presumably because he just wanted to go to the Rangers and that’s what they could afford.

Alzner’s situation is weird. He’s become something of an overrated player, but he’s also now underrated by many in the analytics community. I’d say $4.625 million is a reasonable AAV for a player of his caliber, but it’s oddly muted in comparison with what you might have expected a week ago. And the fact that the Rangers didn’t back up an armored truck to Shattenkirk’s door is likewise surprising.

But then Pittsburgh gave Justin Schultz $5.5 million AAV, which is weird because just two years ago they got him for basically nothing and he was paid very little last season as well. Did Schultz become that valuable in two seasons? Was he always that valuable but misused and misunderstood in Edmonton? Most GMs probably couldn’t give you a real, satisfactory answer to that question.

What’s interesting in that graph above is how many NHL defensemen make less than $2 million. About a hundred of them fall into that category. It’s a huge underclass, representing 44 percent of the group. And as of this writing, only 11 of the 46 defenseman signings in this free agency period exceed that $2 million mark. While a lot of those contracts are for guys who are going to spend most or all of the coming season in the AHL, the fact remains that this money is not being distributed as evenly as it probably should.

The ability of NHL teams to assess and accurately value defensive play leaves a lot to be desired. You can see that on just about any team’s roster. And one wonders if that’s an issue that will ever be sorted out. If Dan Girardi can get that kind of contract from one of the league’s “smarter” teams, the outlook is a little dim.

Which is amazing because most fans can tell you a lot of these contracts are bad on Day 1.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Oh speaking of inadvisable defensemen contracts: How you gonna give Cam Fowler that kinda term?

Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes……. NOT spending money in free agency? No way.

Boston Bruins: Well at least someone is learning.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres seem to be quickly becoming decent again???

Calgary Flames: The Flames’ players think Brad Treliving is making good decisions lately. Apart from the Lance Bouma buyout and the Travis Hamonic trade, they are extremely wrong.

Carolina Hurricanes: Ah, that Justin Williams contract is, like, fine. Term is fine. Money’s a little too much but when you’re not at the cap and not likely to be, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Chicago: This kind of cachet to attract low-cost vets must be nice. One wonders how much longer it’ll last, though.

Colorado Avalanche: Real good trade for the Avs. Baffling one for the Preds.

Columbus Blue Jackets: This is a team on the lookout for forwards. Okay, cool.

Dallas Stars: Not the biggest fan of this Hanzal contract. Why, if you’re Dallas, are you on the lookout for more forwards. Sign a defenseman. Sign five!

Detroit Red Wings: Trevor Daley took the money for three years of misery.

Edmonton Oilers: Not the first to suggest it, but someone should really offer sheet the hell out of Leon Draisaitl. If it works you still get a good player, but Edmonton already said they’d match any offer sheet. So let’s go here.

Florida Panthers: Dale Tallon sure is doing a bad job so far this summer.

Los Angeles Kings: Easy to forget Mike Cammalleri played for the Kings before, and I say that mainly because I forgot that happened.

Minnesota Wild: Truly, I do not get these additions.

Montreal Canadiens: Karl Alzner said being sick of losing in the second round was a big reason he left Washington. I have bad news for Karl Alzner about the first round.

Nashville Predators: I like these moves for Nashville but they still need a goalie.

New Jersey Devils: Not sure Boyle has much left to give here — weird that he’s only 32 I guess — but this is a perfectly fine contract.

New York Islanders: Seems like the Isles are gonna sink or swim with the kids. John Tavares is, I’m sure, thrilled.

New York Rangers: Going from Dan Girardi to Kevin Shattenkirk is a phenomenal upgrade. People don’t like Shattenkirk for reasons I do not understand, but anyone who tries to tell you this isn’t a huge positive is a maniac.

Ottawa Senators: What a great organization. Everything is going great.

Philadelphia Flyers: Maybe Brian Elliott will be good. I don’t know. But he said the big issues he had in Calgary were adjusting to a new, non-Blues system. This is his third system in as many years.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The term on that Schultz deal is what makes it good. Three years seems like the perfect amount of time for just about any contract.

San Jose Sharks: Martin Jones is fine I guess. This is a team that couldn’t afford to mess around with its goaltending too much at this time.

St. Louis Blues: I thought they were getting smarter when they traded Ryan Reaves. I thought wrong.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Ah, hmm. Nah.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Stanley Cup Champion Ron Hainsey is about to go 2-for-2 on making the playoffs and winning a Cup.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks made……. nothing but smart signings? The Vancouver Canucks? Hold on. No way.

Vegas Golden Knights: The Golden Knights just wrapped their development camp and everyone had fun. Cool cool cool.

Washington Capitals: They just basically lost players and didn’t replace them at all in free agency. Hooray. That’s gonna get them over the hump.

Winnipeg Jets: Poor, poor Connor Hellebuyck. How many bad goaltending seasons in a row do the Jets need to have before they realize the goaltending itself isn’t necessarily the problem?

Gold Star Award


Nick Bonino went way in on some fanboy idiot and it was the best thing of the weekend by far.

Minus of the Weekend

That Kulikov contract might legitimately be one of the absolute worst in the league. Bottom-10, easy.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “RetiredWBC8” is wrong.

Carlo
Debrusk
2018 first
Beleskey

For

Landeskog
Morrison/meloche /’18 or ’19 2nd

Signoff

I come from, uh, someplace far away. Yes that’ll do.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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