What We Learned: Dan Cleary and NHL players who cost you wins

What We Learned: Dan Cleary and NHL players who cost you wins

The headline from the rather partisan Wings blog Winging it in Motown tells you everything you need to know about Ken Holland's latest roster decision:

“Red Wings sign Dan Cleary, stupidly waste roster/cap/contract space.”

This is in all ways not a good idea for Detroit, and the idea that this is worth pursuing is silly; Cleary is well, well, well past being useful at the NHL level. However, there are a number of caveats here that are worth noting:

1)    This stems from that time in 2013 that Cleary almost signed for three years and $8.25 million with the Flyers but then didn't report to camp because that seems to have only been a handshake deal, and instead re-signed with Detroit after a PTO with Philly. That in and of itself is convoluted, but it gets more complicated.

Because Cleary gave up a ton of money to re-sign with Detroit — money, by the way, he was not worth then and is certainly not worth now — and Mike Babcock, who's no longer the coach of the Red Wings as far as I know, basically made Ken Holland promise to get Cleary back some of the money that he gave up by abandoning the three-year deal with the Flyers.

So last year Cleary earned $1.5 million against the cap, following a year in which he earned $1.75 million. Across those two seasons, Detroit only played him 69 games (52 in 2013-14, and 17 last year). He wasn't good. And yet here we are with another new deal signed.

2)    Cleary's cap hit is $950,000, which is the CBA-mandated maximum that can be buried in the AHL without a cap hit coming to the NHL club. Meaning Cleary probably signed a one-way deal knowing that he almost certainly wouldn't make the NHL roster, but would get an AHL paycheck to bus it with Grand Rapids if he so desires.

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3)    Because this is a one-year deal, Cleary can just retire with no cap hit applied to the Wings. He'd forego the money, but he's made tens of millions playing this sport, so whatever.

Here's Ken Holland on this deal:

"Like anybody, he's got to come in and make the team. He understands the competition he's in with our younger players. He understands it's going to be a very competitive camp. … He provides depth. When we signed him in '05 in time he became a real leader on or team and in our locker room. He was a good two-way player. As Father Time marches on you're not quite the player you were. He provides leadership."

But even with the understanding that Cleary won't beat out anyone for a roster spot at this point — he's two and a half months away from being 37 — and will probably be buried in the minors, this is still problematic for the Wings for two reasons: It's a waste of a contract against the 50-man limit, and frankly there are just better things to do with everyone's time.

Here, via War on Ice, is Danny Cleary's wins above replacement player in the salary cap era:

So over the last two seasons, Cleary has cost Detroit about 0.94 wins when he was on the ice, which, again, was only about 42 percent of the Wings' actual games. The more bad players play, the more wins they cost their teams, and so on. He was marginally positive (plus-0.03 wins provided) last season in an extremely limited role that would have gotten worse as he got more time.

Now, those early-cap era numbers are really strong. Getting 2.35 wins in 2007-08 from a third-liner is basically nuts, but that was also eight years ago, and Gustav Nyquist was still playing U19 in Sweden at that point. So that's a long time ago.

Not that anyone needs to be told, “Hey what's with this Cleary contract, huh?” But it does actually raise a more interesting question vis a vis player value and what teams are willing to pay for. Specifically, they are willing to pay plenty of money for guys they have a pretty good idea won't even be league-average in terms of helping their team. There are guys who any number of statistics will tell you are not worth having on your team, and yet they skate around with multi-year contracts that pay them a few million dollars per year. Look how many guys got cap hits north of $5 million and delivered negative wins to their team:

On that chart, which accounts for every skater who touched the ice in the NHL this year, you obviously want your players to be as low and to the right as possible. That guy who's way down and to the right of the chart was Vladimir Tarasenko, who delivered a second-in-the-NHL WAR of more than 4.13, for just $900,000. On the other end of the spectrum, the guy who's highest to the left is Alex Pietrangelo, who cost the Blues more than 1.2 wins for $6.5 million. These numbers don't take everything about a player into account, so Pietrangelo's usage might come into play there, but nonetheless, that's a major concern. And for the record, Phil Kessel is the guy with the $8 million salary on the wrong side of that dotted red line.

This is, however, a stat which is going to negatively impact even the best players on bad teams. Moreover, it's just one year worth of data, and it doesn't take into account things like time on ice (a lot of those guys you see clumped near the bottom around zero played a game or three at the most, and were AHL call-ups on cheap cap hits). You can go a lot deeper to find the actual value of players by taking into account all this information in addition to their cap hit. But you can also say that there are guys on here whom you know will provide negligible or even negative value, and yet here they are, locked up through 2017 or whatever

The data here remains instructive despite the WAR statistic's few shortcomings. Essentially, you want to sign guys who would be around that green line or perhaps a little above it, and to the right of the blue one. It's a drum that's been banged a lot this summer here are a number of guys who are still going around without contracts — Lee Stempniak, Cody Franson, Jiri Tlusty, etc. — who can certainly deliver below-the-green-line value (at this point) and right-of-the-blue-line wins if you use them anything resembling correctly. That would qualify as spending money efficiently.

And yet some of the most recent signings in this league are those for guys like Cleary, Frazer McLaren, and Adam Cracknell. Why bother? In some ways it seems to be the hockey world clinging almost bitterly to the ideals that ought to be left in the past: toughness, leadership, and nostalgia. “Hockey is a business,” can't just be a thing players say after they're traded any more; it has to be something GMs take to heart. There should be no room for emotion to play into decision-making.

For example Holland should have realized the Wings have already more than done right by Cleary, and used this contract and cash resources to sign someone who can actually help his team win games instead of “making him whole” on a contract that shouldn't have been signed in the first place.

As the cap flattens out – which it probably will in the coming years, because how much longer can players take on escrow dollars in exchange for giving teams the benefit of the 5 percent cap inflator? — the thing that's going to separate bad and even okay general managers from good and great ones will be two things. First will be the ability to fleece other, less competent general managers in trades, and second will be the ability to sign guys who deliver max value per dollar throughout the roster.

Doing one or the other will be helpful, but doing both will probably grant you Stanley Cup potential. But these might just be things some GMs, like Ken Holland, have to learn the hard way.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks' high school league has 48 teams in it? Maybe if things with the expansion process don't work out, Quebec can get a team into that.

Arizona Coyotes: Now Mike Smith isn't the only minor-league goalie on the team.

Boston Bruins: The Bruins' AHL affiliate acquired Harvard captain Max Everson from the Leafs for future considerations, and boy is it a weird story.

Buffalo Sabres: Don't do this.

Calgary Flames: This is and always will be great. Just so awesome.

Carolina Hurricanes: A thing people forget about the Hurricanes last season is that they were 20-19-7 — an 84-point pace — with Jordan Staal healthy and despite hideous goaltending (10-22-4, on pace for 32 points, without him). One imagines they improve upon their finish this coming year.

Chicago: Yeah, Chicago wants to sign Marcus Kruger to an extension. But how do they get that done right now, given the Patrick Kane situation?

Colorado Avalanche: Looks like we're gonna see our first boarding major in an outdoor alumni game.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets play in a suddenly deep division and have a rather suspect defense. I don't know if Brandon Saad delivers you from that.

Dallas Stars: Reasons for the Stars' success this coming season? Somehow not one of the answers contained in this link say, “Tyler Seguin.” He is, in fact, not mentioned at all.

Detroit Red Wings: Blessings to Henrik Zetterberg, who is great and lovely and who we might not appreciate as much as we should.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers aren't naming anyone captain any time soon. Which is weird because Andrew Ference is currently the captain and has been for a while now, but everyone's kind of acting like he isn't.

Florida Panthers: Good on the Panthers for doing this kind of thing pretty regularly.

Los Angeles Kings: So much remains unresolved for the Kings (Mike Richards, Slava Voynov, etc.) that headlines like this seem a bit premature.

Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter is really putting in the hours maintaining a rink in Middleton, Wisconsin. This is the kind of stuff that perpetuates every “Hockey Players Are The Salt Of The Earth” please-like-my-sport story you ever hear, but in this case it seems to be true.

Montreal Canadiens: Maybe try being a little bit deterred here, bud.

Nashville Predators: Yo, let's always be doing this exact thing. In every NHL city, all the time. Thank you.

New Jersey Devils: The Devils are doing a great thing for a fan with Marfan syndrome, whose school district seems intent on being pretty crappy to him.

New York Islanders: It's frankly surprising that we don't see stuff like this more often.

New York Rangers: Yeah, uh, no pressure or anything, Brady.

Ottawa Senators: Their reasons for optimism include, “This coming season will definitely have to end at some point in the relatively future.”

Philadelphia Flyers: ...because it's already bad?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Dozens were injured here, all diving to point out that Tyler Bozak actually weighs 195.

San Jose Sharks: Hmm, trade Joe Thornton? Why didn't they think of that before?

St. Louis Blues: I really like this move. It is a good move. I think it is a move that could be good.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Remember how Brenden Morrow was on the Lightning last season? That was weird.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Oh I'm sure Steve Simmons isn't that bad.

Vancouver Canucks: These are the kinds of pronouncements that were coming out of Baghdad circa early 2003.

Washington Capitals: Marcus Johansson is one of those guys whose arbitration award seems just about right. He's just glad he stuck around.

Winnipeg Jets: Bad news about those playoffs, Nik.

Gold Star Award

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 28: Rich Peverley #17 of the Dallas Stars talks with media during a press conference discussing his medical condition before a game against the Nashville Predators at the American Airlines Center on March 28, 2014 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - MARCH 28: Rich Peverley #17 of the Dallas Stars talks with media during a press conference discussing his medical condition before a game against the Nashville Predators at the American Airlines Center on March 28, 2014 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

Best of luck to Rich Peverley, who was just super-fun to watch.

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Minus of the Weekend

Hard to believe a KHL team would screw over its players like this haha just kidding folks.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “LCDavid4” is neither the first nor last to come up with something like this:

Carey Price
Max Pacioretty


Corey Crawford
Patrick Kane 

Where does Chicago sign?

He’s latticing my face!

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

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)