Sunday, September 05, 2010

Four of a Kind -- Part II

We covered the growing importance of top-four defenseman corps in Part I of this exercise, and now it is time to turn to the Caps and their top-four blue-liners in the context of their competition. The Caps will enter the 2010-2011 season as one of the prime contenders for a Stanley Cup. If history – both that of recent Cup winners and the Caps – is a guide, then one of the important questions lingering around the club is whether their top-four defensemen can compete with those of their competition. First, the competition. You are free to quibble with us over which teams the Caps are competing with in the march to the Cup, but for our purposes, the competition boils down to:

(based on a survey of Las Vegas odds)

So, if this is the competition, how do they stack up in terms of their top-four defensemen? Objectively, the Caps will enter this season (absent any further changes) with a top four group that is less experienced than that of their competition.* Washington will enter the season with the least experience – both regular season and playoffs – of any of the top eight challengers for the Stanley Cup:

With 1,373 games of combined regular season experience, the Caps will go into this season with fewer combined games among their top-four defenders than any Stanley Cup champion since the lockout, except the Chicago Blackhawks (1,163). They will have approximately 1,000 fewer games than Anaheim (2,620 heading into the 2006-2007 season), Detroit (2,341 in 2007-2008), and Pittsburgh (2,209 in 2008-2009).

Of the eight teams we have identified for this exercise, only Washington and San Jose will start the year with a top-four squad that includes only one defenseman with more than 400 games of regular season experience. Three of the teams – Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Detroit – have three such players.

The Capitals are the only team among the eight clubs that has one defenseman with more experience than the rest of his foursome combined (Tom Poti – 787 of the 1,373 games of experience). The other three – Green, Schultz and Carlson – have fewer regular season games combined (586) than eight of the other 29 defensemen identified here.

The playoff experience deficit is equally pronounced. With 96 games of combined experience, the Caps will have fewer post-season games under their belts than any of the other seven competitors going into the season, and they will have fewer than any of the five Stanley Cup champions since the lockout ended. None of the other seven challengers heading into this season will have two of their top-four defensemen with ten or fewer games of playoff experience. The Caps, however, will have two such defensemen: Jeff Schultz (10) and John Carlson (seven). 

The Caps are one of two teams with one defenseman having played more playoff games than the combined total of his three teammates (Philadelphia, with Chris Pronger having 170 of the total 333 games of playoff experience, being the other). Tom Poti’s 51 games of post-season experience eclipses the combined total for Green, Schultz, and Carlson (45).  That combined total of 45 games is fewer than 15 of the other 29 defensemen in this group.

And here is the kicker. If you look at the five Stanley Cup champions since the lockout, only one – Detroit in 2008 – added what would be a top-four defender at the trading deadline (Mark Stuart). There is some history for adding that asset early, though. In 2006, Carolina won a Cup after having added Frantisek Kaberle and Mike Commodore before the regular season began (Kaberle having been signed as a free agent in July 2004, Commodore acquired by trade in July 2005). Chris Pronger was traded to the Anahelm Ducks in August 2005 before the Ducks embarked on their championship season. And the Detroit Red Wings signed Brian Raflaski as a free agent in July 2007 before going on to win the Stanley Cup the following spring.

If you look at the last five years of champions, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winners have tended to be young stars. Cam Ward in 2006, Henrik Zetterberg in 2008, Evgeni Malkin in 2009, and Jonathan Toews in 2010 all were under 30 years of age when winning the most valuable player trophy for the playoffs. In fact, Ward, Malkin, and Toews all were 22 when winning the award. But just as important, the teams on which they played had deep, experienced top-four defensive squads. Going into this season, the Caps do not match up with their likely competitors when it comes to that experience on the blue line. And if post-lockout history is indicative, adding that asset at the trading deadline might not have the intended effect. Caps fans might like to have (ok, they would like to have, if this summer’s commentary can be believed) that asset now, heading into the season.

* We make no accommodations for any players who might begin the season injured, since our focus is on the experience a possible playoff squad will have as they enter the season.  And you, dear reader, might quibble with who we identify as a top-four defender on any of these teams, but we do not think it detracts from the larger point we are making.

Two Russians and an Owner Meet in the Star

If this summer’s hockey off season has a subject it is “circumvention.” No, it’s not a movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a hockey player who dreams of a $100 million contract, it would be the concept of structuring an NHL player contract in a manner that adheres to the arithmetic of the league salary cap while subverting the intent of the cap to provide for competitive balance (i.e., the ability to pay and retain players) among the clubs and cost control.

The poster child for this summer’s defining issue is, of course, Ilya Kovalchuk. The once and future New Jersey Devil forward sat on the sidelines as the league and the players’ association wriggled their way to an agreement over the contract for Kovalchuk, finally agreeing on a $100 million, 15-year deal. There is much that remains unsettled about what the contract means for what shall remain allowable in terms of length of contract and the ability of teams to front load agreements. But for the moment we have the reaction to the Kovalchuk deal to contemplate. And one reaction was baffling to read.

Which brings us to this article in the Toronto Star by Damien Cox. First, a bit of context. Cox’ columnist page in The Star described him as a columnist who “loves to stir up trouble while chuckling at the foibles of the sporting world. He'll start with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, an organization he's been snooping around for almost two decades, but is happy to stick his nose into a few other games and places where athletes reside.” Well, he stirred up trouble and stuck his nose into a few other places in his column outing the “outlaw owners” who benefit from the Kovalchuk deal.

Of Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis, Cox writes:
“Ted Leonsis, to name another, was a hawk during the last labour struggle and now drinks deeply and gratefully from the revenue-sharing trough. The president of his Washington Capitals, Dick Patrick, is part of one of hockey’s most famous families and a committed league man.

“But when they wanted to give Alexander Ovechkin a 13-year, $124 million contract, one they knew Bettman wouldn’t approve of, they did it anyway. That encouraged others, like the bizarre Tampa twosome of Len Barrie and Oren Koules, to engineer a deal with Vinny Lecavalier that started with a $10 million salary and wound down to $1 million.

“Why? Why did all these powerful owners, largely devoted Bettman supporters, repeatedly ignore his advice and pleadings?

“Well, because they wanted to win Stanley Cups. So they worked in concert with player agents — the very people they have accused of wrecking the industry — to cook up contracts that basically allowed them more bang for their cap buck.”

Conflating the Capitals’ contract with Alex Ovechkin and the Kovalchuk deal or similarly structured contracts under the current collective bargaining agreement is a stretch at best. There are six contracts that command attention as a product of their length, total dollar value, and year-to-year variation in salary. They belong to Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Lecavalier, Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, and Rick DiPietro. All are more than ten years in length; all have a total dollar value in excess of $60 million (two – Ovechkin’s and Kovalchuk’s – are at least $100 million). There the similarities end. The six contracts break down into two general groups. There are those that snake through their respective terms with different annual salary amounts that suggest, at least, a desire to satisfy the “having one’s cake” (satisfying the player’s demand for high overall compensation value) and “eating it too” criteria (ensuring that the later years of the contract are cap-friendly and, if need be “trade friendly,” or if the player decides to forego the later low compensation years, convenient). Then there are those deals that track roughly evenly the average annual compensation determined by years and total dollars.

Here are the four contracts that fall into the latter group, those of Kovalchuk, Lecavalier, Hossa, and Luongo:

There is a common “look” to them, but beyond that is a common structure, most notably the precipitous decrease in compensation after year eight of the respective deals. After year eight, Kovalchuk’s compensation (preliminary, according to drops 30 percent, Lecavalier’s by 53 percent, Luongo’s by 49.6 percent, and Hossa’s by 75 percent. The other side of that coin is that though year eight, the bulk of compensation has been paid to the player. Through year eight, Kovalchuk would have received 79 percent of the total value of his contract, Hossa 94 percent, Luongo 89 percent, and Lecavalier 92 percent. All of these deals would still have at least four more years to run, and Kovalchuk’s would have seven years to recover the remaining 21 percent of the deal.

Now, compare those to the contracts of Alex Ovechkin and Rick DiPietro:

These contracts have a common look about them, too. They show little, if any, year-to-year variation in compensation. In fact, while all four of the first group show those significant decreases in the out years of the respective deals, Ovechkin’s shows a bump up in year seven that carries through over the remaining seven years of that deal. DiPietro’s compensation is evenly distributed among all 15 years of his deal.

If one looks at the other side of the coin, DiPietro receives 6.7 percent of the total value of his contract in each and every year (his deal, controversial when signed, looks almost quaint now). Ovechkin receives 44 percent of his total dollar value through year six, 56 percent over the last seven years of the contract. These values are not significantly different that the 46 percent of total compensation he would receive over the first six years if the total value was divided evenly over the years, or the 54 percent he would receive over the last seven years. And then there is again the matter that his compensation actually increases in year seven and is maintained over the remaining life of the contract.

Cox’ article appears to suffer from a divergence of issues. The Kovalchuk issue is one that dominated the summer off-season, and its meandering path to a solution does have its consequences for future contracts, and perhaps the next round of collective bargaining. The article is far from clear, however, what Alex Ovechkin’s contract (or the manner in which it might have been negotiated with club management) has on that matter.

What does Kovalchuk’s deal (or Ovechkin’s) have to do with revenue sharing? Perhaps there is a point to be made that there is a connection, but Cox doesn’t make it. What does the relationship among owners and player agents have to do with Kovalchuk’s or Ovechkin’s respective contracts (Ovechkin’s contract, not insignificantly, was finalized without the benefit of a player agent in direct negotiations with the club)?

Cox introduces issues (we hesitate to call it “evidence”) that suggest one could draw a straight line from the machinations of the Kovalchuk deal to a cabal of outlaw owners turning on the Commissioner, with an impotent players union in the middle. Frankly, we do think that there are owners out there who in their own sense want their cake and eat it, too. They want that fine patina of “cost certainty” that a salary cap provides in theory. But they like having, or would like to have, the freedom to game the system to be able to bend the cap to their liking, to pay those high-end players the compensation they might otherwise (read: in the absence of a cap) pay, tacking on meaningless seasons at the end so that the arithmetic works to bring in other players. They can afford to make those up-front outlays that other clubs perhaps cannot afford.  It is a close cousin of the spendthrift ways in which some franchises engaged before the lockout – behavior that required a cap so that ownership could be saved from itself in the name of "cost certainty." Maybe some owners won’t take being “saved” for an answer.

What Ted Leonsis has to do with this issue escapes us. If Cox wanted to expose the Caps participation in revenue sharing, or if he wanted to make an argument on the damage that 13-year, $124 million contracts do to the game, he could have done that. But linking Alex Ovechkin’s contract and Ted Leonsis’ role in it to the Kovalchuk issue as a means to “prove” that there is a group of outlaw owners looking out only for their competitive interests? Maybe there are outlaw owners who will, out of selfish motives attached to the salary cap or revenue sharing, do damage to the sport. We wouldn’t be surprised if there are, but we don’t know, certainly not from the arguments made in this article. Maybe Cox just has a beef with ownership in general and perhaps Leonsis in particular. We don’t know, but whatever case he is trying to make, the dots just don’t connect...

...unless this is part of an "Ovechkin Project."