When two huge contracts are signed on the same day, the natural tendency is to draw parallels between them.
Marian Gaborik got seven years and a shade over $34 million from the Los Angeles Kings just a few hours after Ryan Callahan got six years and $34.8 million — plus a limited no-trade clause for the final two years of the contract — out of Tampa.
And people had the gall to sit there and ask, “Say, which of these deals was better?”
Well heck. It should be pretty obvious. Gaborik is a guy whose career points per game number is better than the best one ever posted by Ryan Callahan, just as a jumping-off point. Gaborik also has just one season — his age-18 rookie campaign — in which that number was lower than Callahan's career average.
But judging by points alone isn't really a fair thing to do in the case of these two players, in particular. Gaborik is an out-and-out scorer who has a reputation for not doing very much in his own zone. Meanwhile, Callahan is seen as a consummate defender who brings a kind of unyielding fervor to shot-blocking, checking, and so on. Callahan is a leader, Gaborik is not. What the Lightning were paying for, then, was not so much the points, though they'll take those as well, but the intangibles.
And paying for intangibles is a dangerously ill-advised thing to do. Long-time Devils defenseman cum hockey analyst Ken Daneyko went on the NHL Network yesterday and said, “Intangibles outweigh statistics.”
They do not, and not in any circumstances. If that were true, Shawn Thornton would be the highest-paid player in the league.
The fact of the matter is that what is considered “intangible” should have some sort of a tangible effect on the ice. Leadership, or accountability, or whatever you want to call “being good in the room,” should be provable. For instance, we should be able to dig into the numbers, of which we have so many these days, and point to some aspect of the sport, and say that his leadership results in improved performance in such-and-such a capacity. Players who are perceived to provide little or no leadership — Mikhail Grabovski, for example — should do something worse than Callahan. Or his teammates should do something worse when he's on the ice, but when you dig into them, that's not the case.
Over the last five seasons, Callahan's teams have done better, pretty much by any measure, when he's on the bench. And it's important to establish here that I'm using a five-year window because that brings us back to Callahan's age-25 season, the point at which he should technically have been most productive, while Gaborik — one of the elite shooters in the league — should have been starting to decline. By using the data below, it becomes pretty obvious that not only is Callahan not worth the $5.8 million freight for six years now, but he wouldn't have been over the entirety of his late 20s either.
For instance, is teams have a total corsi of 50.2 percent, and his own is just 49.4. Among forwards who have received at least 3,500 minutes of ice time at even strength during those five years, Callahan's relative corsi (minus-0.8) is 154th out of 194 in the league. Now, to be fair, Gaborik's is also negative in this regard (but marginally, at minus-0.1), but his numbers are still positive (50.3 percent).
So perhaps this is where the perceived defense provided by Callahan comes into play. He starts more of his shifts in his own zone than Gaborik does by a pretty wide margin (31.6 percent to 24.6 percent). In fact, Gaborik's zone starts are the easiest among the 72 forwards whose relative corsi is in negative territory since 2008-09. All that certainly helps contribute to the disparity. But you can adjust for zone start effects and it turns out that the impact was minimal; Gaborik (49.8) still remains ahead of Callahan (49.1).
But again, that's only over the last five years. Last season, the one perhaps most germane to discussions about what these players are going to be able to do moving forward, was one in which things were very different. Gaborik faced tougher competition and started a smaller percentage of his shifts in the attacking zone than did Callahan, and walked out with a better relative corsi to boot. Which is to say that even when sheltering Callahan at this point, he's not doing much for you.
You get the feeling that the reputation for success Callahan carries with him — while not particularly well-earned if you look at his career history — comes from the fact that he plays hockey “the right way.” Again, that's blocked shots and checks and all that kind of thing. You know, the kind of thing which necessarily must be done while one's team does not have the puck. Which means you can't score. The ability to prevent a goal — suppressing shot quality, etc. — is a lot harder to judge than the ability to score one, but when the disparity between two players is so significant in the latter regard, it wouldn't matter very much.
So consider scoring. Over the last five seasons, Callahan's team goals-for percentage is second-best among 3,500-minute forwards in the league (53.9 percent, in the same neighborhood as Vancouver and Boston). That's colossal. The Rangers have been getting a whole lot of work done in this regard. But when he personally on the ice, that number drops to just 48.6 percent, making him 184th of 194 in relative goals-for (minus-5.3). He's in the same neighborhood as Steve Ott, Scott Gomez, and Jay McClement, among others.
Gaborik, meanwhile, actively makes his team better at scoring when he's on the ice. His relative goals for number is plus-7.9, good for 18th in the league among those forwards — 59.4 percent for him, 51.3 percent for his teams. In the neighborhood of guys with surnames like Getzlaf, Couture, and Thornton (Joe, to be needlessly specific).
This is all just stuff you can look up, but the fact of the matter is that if a team doesn't score as many goals when a player is on the ice as it does when he's off, that tells you something about the quality of that player, especially if he's being brought on to provide “defense” while getting top-line minutes (Callahan's ES TOI is 88th in the league among forwards over the last five seasons).
But there are other factors besides what these guys bring you on the ice, individually. What effects do they have on their teammates? Look at their WOWYs (with-or-without-you stats) and Callahan is something of an anchor on everyone he plays with, dragging down shooting and goal rates more or less across the board. Meanwhile, Gaborik provides a boost to just about everyone. And this is notable because the guys with whom each got the bulk of their minutes during that time were on the same team, making them much easier to compare for at least a little bit of that time.
And maybe you chalk some of that up to quality of competition, but here, again, Callahan is 100th out of 194 so he's not exactly facing the heavies despite his reputation for doing so. Gaborik, at 146th, gets off even easier, though.
So what we've figured out so far is that Gaborik is a better possession player, and a better scorer, who also makes his team better than Callahan does, while neither of them play super-tough competition. But there's a pretty big knock on both of them that still looms over the proceedings: Durability. You can count on both Gaborik and Callahan to miss time every season, certainly. Gaborik has just 88 games played over the last two years, and Callahan only 110. Both seem like iffy long-term risks in this regard.
But with that having been said, Callahan is only 29, and therefore unlikely to retire even if injuries are basically a guarantee given the type of play he engages in every night. Marian Gaborik, meanwhile, is 32, and unlikely to play out the duration of his deal even if he starts playing 82 a season. The cap recapture rules do not apply to this new deal, only those signed prior to the current CBA, and thus the Kings would be out from under this front-loaded contract the second he filed retirement papers (or they could write off the cap hit Mattias Ohlund-style if the injuries are that severe). That's why giving seven years to a fragile 32-year-old is actually a bit wiser than giving six to a similarly fragile 29-year old, even without all the above scoring and possession factors taken into account.
Yes, everything here suggests that Marian Gaborik, for about $900,000 less per year, is a much safer buy for the Kings than Callahan is for the Lightning. The chance that the latter looks bad in two or three years' time — and we're talking “David Clarkson” or “Ryan Malone” bad — seems high.
But people don't want to hear that. As Daneyko alluded to (and low-scoring players have a vested interest in saying that intangibles matter more than they do), people want to believe that there's more to hockey than possession and goalscoring. So they keep telling themselves that. It's the same reason Dave Bolland is going to get paid like crazy this summer despite not being much more than a No. 3 center. Callahan, at this point, shouldn't be viewed as much more than an okay No. 2 wing in a best-case scenario. Three years from now, not so much.
But that thinking plays into why the Lightning gave him such a ludicrous deal, and so do some other factors as well. For one thing, Steve Yzerman likely felt the need to make the loss of Martin St. Louis sting a little less by getting the guy, for whom they ostensibly traded the face of the franchise, to be something other than a short-term rental. Not sure you need to do it over six years at $5.8 million per, but the reasoning there is understandable if misguided.
Plus, Callahan was pretty strong for the Bolts down the stretch, as long as you don't count the playoffs, in which he went scoreless. Six goals and five assists in 20 games, playing nearly 20 minutes a night, drawing a lot of penalties, and remaining a positive possession player (though less positive than his entire team during that time, meaning another negative corsi relative number).
And he did it with a sky-high PDO of 106.2, coming from both a .960 on-ice save percentage and a 10.2 percent shooting percentage. In short, he got very, very lucky for 20 games; Callahan's PDO over the last five years at even strength is right about where it should be at 99.3, from a shooting percentage of 7.2 and a save percentage of .921. In short, if the Lightning expect anything resembling the production they got in the final 20, they're going to be sorely disappointed, especially in terms of goals against.
Finally, there really isn't anyone that much better out there that's also a “name” player, and teams would rather overpay for mediocre players than go without and wait until a good one comes along. Why sign Ales Hemsky or Nikolai Kulemin, who are demonstrably better, when you could have this guy who was on the U.S. Olympic team?
There's really no justification for giving Callahan $5.8 million against the cap.
That's Alex Steen Money. It's Patrick Sharp Money. Both are better than Callahan at everything related to hockey.
Meanwhile, Gaborik is making $4.875 million against the cap, and that's solid value.
That's James Neal Money. It's Ryan Kesler Money. It's very much in the ballpark of what he's worth.
Gaborik is by any measure a more productive player despite all the factors that might be considered negatives against him, and Callahan is a drag on his team getting by on little more than reputation.
The Lightning have decided to pay — dearly — for Callahan's leadership, and not much else. Guess they didn't hear Shawn Thornton would be available cheap come July 1