When are bought-out players a good bet in the NHL?

Yahoo Sports Canada
Kevin Shattenkirk has an opportunity in Tampa Bay. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Shattenkirk has an opportunity in Tampa Bay. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Late last week, Kevin Shattenkirk and Michael Stone became the latest players to be bought out by their employers. They bumped the total number of buyouts this summer to 12.

Of those, only three — Corey Perry, Andrej Sekera, and now Kevin Shattenkirk — have signed with another team so far this summer. For a number of reasons, all are likely to be at least somewhat useful to their new teams, as will some of the others who might inevitably sign on the cheap as training camps approach, like Patrick Marleau and perhaps a David Schlemko or Dion Phaneuf.

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The problem with many bought-out contracts is not necessarily that the player is bad (though usually, they’ve had a bad season or two) but rather that the player is overpaid, and often grossly so. But between the chunk of change they received in being cut loose, the fact that many guys who get bought out are older veterans who have earned tens of millions over their careers, and the fact that they’re not exactly perceived as in-demand, they suddenly become no longer expensive as they sign short-term deals for even shorter money.

League-wide, there have been 61 contracts bought out from summer 2014 to present, and just 21 of those players never played in the NHL again after that. The other 40, it seems, were worthy of a second look, though a few of them got maybe one, five, or 10 games before their teams said, “Oh, your previous team was right about this.” Only two of them were for goaltenders.

Most often, bought-out players get one more season at that reduced rate and never play in the NHL again, but a few persist for at least a few more seasons before calling it a career.

The numbers are these: The average bought-out deal from summer 2014 to present had an AAV of just under $3.6 million with an average of about 1.6 years remaining (the medians here were $4 million and one year, as only 20 deals had more than one season remaining). After the buyouts, those players who did get extensions received an AAVs averaging of about $1.16 million and all but a few contracts were for one year, none more than two.

So you’re slashing salaries by about two-thirds and the term is falling as much as it can in most cases. But what are you getting for that money?

Before these contracts were bought out, the skaters delivered an average of a shade over 0.09 goals above replacement (including goalies Steve Mason and Antti Niemi skewed the numbers considerably), meaning they were effectively as good as most call-ups would have been, but for several times an AHLer’s salary.

But what’s interesting is that of the players who got new deals after their buyouts, they saw their average quality improve to 1.5 goals above replacement. It’s not great or anything — not even close to a full win — but it’s a noticeable improvement nonetheless. Is that worth the average AAV of $1.16 million they received? Probably not, but averages aren’t created equal, and some players really excelled in their post-buyout deals even after being horrible on the previous deal.

That necessarily leads you to wonder why. Surely, players that are hovering around replacement level and making a bunch of money go through a demoralizing buyout, but even a year older they see their play improve sharply.

Take, for example, Brooks Orpik. He was horrid in the last year before he was traded to Colorado for the express purpose of a buyout (-12.7 goals above replacement, meaning the Capitals would have been more than two wins better if they’d just played an AHLer in his same role). But the next season, he comes back to the same team through cap machinations, and he’s about a 1-WAR player. Not bad, right?

That’s obviously an example, but the same was true — to lesser extents than a 3-WAR turnaround, obviously — with Tim Gleason, Dan Girardi, and Dennis Seidenberg. All but Seidenberg were net negatives for their previous employers (you can throw Dainius Zubrus, who’s not a defenseman, in the same boat). But then they enjoyed turnarounds.

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When you’re talking specifically about defensemen, you can reasonably argue that deployment matters a lot more; defensemen are matched up or used in very specific ways that most forwards are not. So if a coach is looking at an Orpik, for instance, and sees he’s a $5.5-million defender whose utility is limited, he might still feel obligated to use that player as a shutdown guy. But if you throttle back his minutes and alter who he’s being used against, suddenly he’s producing some excess value for you, and he’s worth his contract at the very least.

Which is what makes the Sekera and Shattenkirk signings such good low-risk bets: If they don’t work out, those guys cost next to nothing, but if their new coaches (both of whom are very smart about player deployment) can put them in a position to succeed, they’ll exceed their market values.

It’s less common that forwards enjoy big turnarounds, and very few went from negative to even somewhat overwhelmingly positive contributors. But the lessons of a Mike Ribeiro or Jussi Jokinen can be applied here a bit: If you’re taking the expectations that come with big money off the table and putting guys in a position to succeed, they’re often talented enough that they’ll make you look pretty smart.

That’s why some people think Corey Perry is such a good bet (though that bonus money makes every additional game played a worry). But sometimes you’re just washed due to injury and age, like a Brad Boyes, Martin Havlat, or Mike Cammalleri, and the team has to prepare for that too.

As with a lot of things in this sport, success is all about perception and often viewed relative to salary. If the Stars and Lightning get even a little something out of Sekera and Shattenkirk, their GMs are going to look pretty smart.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat TrickEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceCapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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