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Trending Topics: NHL free agent value system is still broken

Vancouver Canucks' goalie Ryan Miller, left, stands for photos with general manager Jim Benning after Miller signed a three-year contract with the NHL hockey team, Tuesday, July 1, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia
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Vancouver Canucks' goalie Ryan Miller, left, stands for photos with general manager Jim Benning after Miller signed a three-year contract with the NHL hockey team, Tuesday, July 1, 2014 in Vancouver, British Columbia. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)

Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead? 

The world has learned a lot about how to better judge the value of a hockey player over the last several years, in much the same way baseball and basketball have in the past.

While hockey is a little bit behind in this regard overall, the fact of the matter is that we're now seeing teams invest in guys who can drive the play forward pretty convincingly through possession numbers. In the past, a guy might get signed on his point totals — with a pretty heavy disregard for, say, shooting percentage, which might have inflated his numbers — or a strong plus-minus, which were seen as evidence that they could do something beyond “the eye test.”

Now we have many tools at our disposal in this regard. Zone start data, quality of competition metrics, corsi percentage in certain situations, on-ice shooting percentage, on-ice save percentage, zone entries and exit success, icing percentage for and against, penalties drawn versus committed, and so on, are all things that teams can and should keep a close watch on when they try to find the players that might help them succeed, if even incrementally.

And when it comes to forwards in particular, it seems that teams are mostly figuring out the ways in which they can be helped by specific players. The fact that Dave Bolland, for instance, went from wanting eight years to settling for five, and even the Maple Leafs stayed away from his asked-for dollar value, is proof that the league might be learning something in this regard. There are still bad deals out there — and Bolland's with Florida certainly qualifies as one of them — but for the most part you don't see too many guys getting completely nonsensical money to play center or either wing. Most forwards in the league seem to be somewhat reasonably valued overall; in fact, most probably fall within $1 million of what a normal human being would consider fair. If you have to overpay someone by that much and you really want them, does it really matter when the salary cap is almost $70 million?

However, this is not the case with defensemen or goaltenders, who still routinely get crazy money that's not in any way commensurate with what they actually do on the ice.

As far as goaltenders go, there's really no excuse for this. Goalies are the most valuable players you can possibly sign because the difference between mediocre and good is often the difference between a playoff spot and not making it; no player has a larger and more singular direct impact on winning percentage. You could very easily make the argument, therefore, that even league-average netminders are underpaid, but the market is the market, and it looks as though there's not going to be a team outside of the New York Rangers willing to pay more than $7 million for their goaltending.

When lumping in the guys signed after their teams were eliminated from the playoffs (Jaroslav Halak on Long Island, Brian Elliott in St. Louis, Carter Hutton in Nashville, Jonas Gustavsson in Detroit, Alex Stalock in San Jose, and Curtis McElhinney in Columbus), there had been 21 goalies signed — about one-third of all the jobs in the league. Their combined AAV is nearly $34 million, meaning that the average paid to each is a little less than $1.62 million. Not so bad, except that the vast majority are slated to be backups.

Jonas Hiller and Elliott are likely to be 1a/1b guys with younger prospects teams likely have more long-term plans for (Kari Ramo and Jake Allen, respectively). For that job, you'd have to say that Elliott's $2.5 million is reasonable, given that he typically delivers a save percentage that's not guaranteed to be great but over the balance of his career he's about league-average (.911). Hiller's save percentage is steadier from one year to the next than Elliott's, but he's also just .911 career in that time, and paid $4.5 million. Granted, Calgary had to get to the cap floor, but that seems a gross overvaluation for help at a position where they didn't need help; Ramo's save percentage last year? You guessed it: .911.

Hiller's was the second-largest AAV handed out to any goalie in this offseason, tied with Halak, who has a much more legitimate chance to put up solid or even strong numbers behind the Islanders. The runaway leader for first in this regard, obviously, is Ryan Miller, who's pulling $6 million per season from Vancouver for his age-34-to-36 campaigns. This despite the fact that Eddie Lack presented a far more affordable alternative.

Moreover, the Canucks are, as a result of this contract — which is indefensible for a declining team that's a seventh or eighth seed at best — currently paying $9.15 million to goaltenders alone for next season between Miller, Lack, Jacob Markstrom (who'll be stuffed in the minors if he can't be traded), and the retained salary for Roberto Luongo, which you necessarily have to count because it was his trade that created this mess. That's more than any other team in the league, including the New York Rangers, who pay Lundqvist alone $8.5 million against the cap.

Miller's probably going to post a save percentage in the range of his career average (.915), and if you go by a pure “This many dollars equals this many points in the standings” he's more than worth $6 million. But by that token, Lundqvist, Tuukka Rask, and most other elite goalies are worth something like league-max contracts. That Miller or Corey Crawford or Mike Smith or Cam Ward are making anywhere near as much money as them shows that this market is flat-out crazy.

Vancouver seems to have paid Miller based on the fact that he had a good 40 games behind a miserable Buffalo team (.923, well beyond all but his Vezina-winning season as a career outlier), and what he's done in the past, which is always a very dicey proposition. The Islanders, meanwhile, paid 25 percent less for a goalie who's better historically put up strong numbers behind both a good team and a terrible one. Doesn't make a lot of sense; who were they bidding against?

The fact of the matter is that goalies should be the easiest guys to value in the league. They can be judged on one stat, and one stat only: save percentage. That's it. If you're above league average — as Miller is — then you're good. If you're below it, then you really don't deserve to be paid very much at all, because you're actively detrimental to the team. Pretty simple, some team factors enter into it, but not as much as one might expect.

But at the same time, the guys who many believe are most directly responsible for influencing goaltender decisions are the least reliably evaluated pretty much every year. This is pretty easy to illustrate.

More than half of the 30 defensemen signed this offseason — that constitutes one-sixth of the league's blue line spots — signed for $2.5 million or more per season, but the breakdown of where each falls is very strange indeed.

For instance, Tom Gilbert got $2.8 million AAV and two years from Montreal despite the possession statistics saying that he generally makes his teams better when he's on the ice. Meanwhile, Deryk Engelland got $2.9 million and three years from Calgary, despite the fact that among defensemen who played 1,000-plus minutes over the last two seasons, Engelland's relative possession numbers ranked 159th out of 174. Gilbert, for the record, was comfortably in the top one-third at No. 53, suggesting he's a top-pairing defenseman. Clayton Stoner, who got $3.25 million per year out of Anaheim, ranked 139th on the list.

And this goes on and on. Possession stats darling Anton Stralman got $4.5 million (No. 2 out of that 174), the same money as aging power play specialist Dan Boyle (No. 34, pretty fantastic), and middle-pairing-at-best Nikita Nikitin (No. 101). Kyle Quincey (119) and Willie Mitchell (117) got a quarter of a million less per year. Christian Ehrhoff, at No. 13 and therefore an elite possession defenseman, signed with Pittsburgh at $4 million, though to be fair he would have commanded a lot more had he chosen to go to the open market.

These same reasons are also why one can't begrudge Matt Niskanen — No. 10 on the list — his big-money deal in Washington ($5.75 million AAV for seven years), because again, he objectively makes his team better and that is extremely valuable. Particularly for Washington. He's clearly a No. 2 guy at the very least, but not much more than that, because you have to account for the fact that he's often been on the ice with possession monsters like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Those guys also helped significantly boost his production, which is what Washington likely thinks they're getting for their money. They shouldn't count on it.

But there are deeply mystifying deals mixed in here too. Brooks Orpik (No. 169 of 174) getting $5.5 million per for five years, has been widely ridiculed and rightly so. But people seem to have also forgotten that Andrew MacDonald (No. 173) got $5 million per for six from Philadelphia back in April.

There's a reason that these guys who actively make their teams more likely to concede goals get this kind of money, however: It's the perception that they do the opposite. Flames GM Brad Treliving from suggesting that Engelland — who is abjectly and objectively terrible — had been “undervalued.” By whom? In what regard?

You have to look at what Calgary values. Toughness, first and foremost. If you have guys who are “hard to play against,” then you are more likely to win, and if you're going to lose, teams will know that they played you. That's the thinking. That's why Engelland and Orpik and MacDonald and Nikitin and Mitchell got the deals they did. They're gritty defensive defensemen. But Dave Tippet, who runs a pretty successful team in Glendale (at least, given what's being paid for it), has a pretty good view of the ways in which stay-at-home guys are really affecting the games.

And yet they're seen as valuable. Millions of dollars per year put toward making a team actively worse. It seems exceptionally irresponsible for this line of thinking that “purely defensive defensemen can be good” to lead directly to big contracts. Not that relative corsi is the be-all, end-all — you have to take into account quality of teammates and competition, for example — but the fact is that eight of the bottom 10 of this list is largely under contract (only Chris Butler and Douglas Murray are currently without a team), and getting paid an average of about $3.85 million per. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

People still say this is an eyeballs business, but you can watch 82 games a year and safely say Orpik or MacDonald or Engelland are disasters in their own end, and they never leave it. That's borne out in the numbers. But there's very little way to test whether a defenseman actually lowers the quality of shot his goaltender sees. There's on-ice save percentage, and over a long period of time you can probably surmise that those with the highest numbers in this regard are also those who can do a little bit better to keep opponents to the outside (or maybe just play with good goaltenders, or both).

Until someone comes up with a way to better quantify this kind of thing — and here's hoping SportVU arrives sooner than later to do just that — there are players who are still going to get into the league, and still going to get a lot of money that they flat-out do not deserve on the merit of their play.

Good-team discount or not, a league in which Brooks Orpik is making almost 40 percent more than Christian Ehrhoff is one that has plainly gone mad. Or perhaps it's always been that way, and the problem's just undiagnosed.

 

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

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