Gone are the days where a team could simply buy themselves a championship. It used to be that teams in lucrative markets had a huge advantage, but now that advantage is in the hands of the front office staff most adept at finding value players. Whether you love it or hate it, the salary cap era is here, and a player's cap hit can be just as important as goals and assists.
To determine whether a player is delivering good bang for the buck, we used a variant of GVT called GVS: Goals Versus Salary (explained here). While GVT tells us the number of goals a player is worth relative to replacement level, GVS tells us the number of goals a player is worth relative to what you could get using the same cap space. Led by Norris trophy winner Duncan Keith, here are last season's top 20 skaters in GVS.
Player Team GVT CAP GVS
Duncan Keith Chicago 23.9 1.5 20.9
Nicklas Backstrom Washington 25.4 2.4 19.7
Alexandre Burrows Vancouver 19.9 2.0 15.4
Zach Parise New Jersey 21.8 3.1 14.0
Tyler Myers Buffalo 15.9 1.3 13.5
Ryan Kesler Vancouver 16.4 1.7 12.8
Patric Hornqvist Nashville 12.3 0.6 12.0
Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay 21.4 3.7 11.8
Marc Staal NY Rangers 12.5 0.8 11.6
Ian White Calgary 12.4 0.9 11.2
Chris Stewart Colorado 12.3 0.9 11.1
Jussi Jokinen Carolina 14.7 1.7 11.1
Jonathan Toews Chicago 17.5 2.8 10.6
Alexander Semin Washington 22.8 4.6 10.5
Loui Eriksson Detroit 13.7 1.6 10.4
Rene Bourque Calgary 12.7 1.3 10.3
Henrik Sedin Vancouver 27.0 6.1 10.2
Andy Greene New Jersey 10.7 0.7 10.1
Matt Moulson NY Islanders 10.3 0.6 10.0
Tomas Fleschmann Washington 10.5 0.7 9.9
There are some common themes here, which we'll explore in sequence. A team composed of young and restricted free agents, stay-at-home defensemen, players of smaller stature and assorted reclamation projects are very well positioned to compete in this new era.
It's pretty obvious that a team with excellent young talent is bound to measure well by GVS, and a lot better than a team of older, more experienced peers. Looking at the leader board you can see that over half of them are young RFAs in the tail end of their initial contracts.
That being said, signing your RFA for up to $3.0 million can be dangerous, because it can take a while for even a blue chipper to give you a positive return on that kind of investment. Last season Victor Hedman had a -4.3 GVS, Atlanta's Zach Bagosian and Evander Kane were a combined -7.3, and even the vaunted John Tavares was -3.6.
Just as the Oilers learned with Sam Gagner, be careful how you burn those entry-level years. You've got 3 years as an RFA if the player started between age 18-21, meaning that if you first sign someone at 18 he'll be free at age 21 instead of the usual 24 or 25. Some players are best developed in the minors until age 21, with just a few short trips to the NHL of the allowed 10 games.
Say Hello to My Little Friends
To get secondary scoring for the best possible price, supplement your roster with some talented but smaller players. I'm not just saying that to get on Iain Fyffe's good side, it's seriously easier to find underpaid little guys than underpaid big guys.
Just look at all the smaller guys on our value list – do you think that Burrows, Parise, Hornqvist and Greene would be obtainable for the same salary if they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dustin Penner? Smaller players of all different styles and roles come at discount prices, whether its Frans Nielsen (GVS 8.6), Mike Weaver (GVS 6.0) or Derek Roy (GVS 4.8).
It's not hard to find little guys who consistently tear up the AHL. There are literally dozens of no-risk smaller players that could easily bag 30 points in the NHL for league-minimum contracts. Check out Keith Aucoin, David Desharnais, Chris Bourque, Martin St. Pierre, Corey Locke and Jason Krog, to name just a few.
Just off the edge of the leaderboard above is where you'll find a pack of shutdown defensemen, who are often underpaid because NHL front offices find it so difficult to properly value defensive abilities.
Fortunately it looks like the NHL is finally catching on to this one, but it's been a rocky road so far this offseason. Philly and Florida did it right with their value signings of O'Donnell and Weaver, and Washington should still benefit even when paying Schultz $2.5 million, but it's harder to explain the Devils paying $7.7 million for Tallinder and Volchenkov, or the Penguins offering up $9.0 million for Michalek and the talented but already overpaid Paul Martin.
Defenseman Signed With GVT CAP GVS $$$
Jeff Schultz Washington 10.2 0.7 9.6 2.5
Niklas Hjalmarsson Chicago 7.6 0.6 7.2 3.5
Mike Weaver Florida 6.9 0.8 6.0 0.6
Sean O'Donnell Philadelphia 7.6 1.3 5.2 1.0
Dan Hamhuis Vancouver 8.4 2.0 3.9 4.5
Zbynek Michalek Pittsburgh 5.3 1.3 2.9 4.0
Henrik Tallinder New Jersey 8.6 2.6 2.3 3.4
Anton Volchenkv New Jersey 5.9 2.5 -0.1 4.3
Paul Martin Pittsburgh 4.9 3.8 -5.0 5.0
It might take a couple more seasons for the teams to get this right, and until then you can still find great values on the blue line. Just look at Mike Mottau and Jay McKee, for instance.
Reclamation projects can be risky but usually cost-effective ways of beating the cap. Look for players coming off of an injury, a bad year or postseason, coming from a European league, or truly talented folks that just didn't fit on their previous teams. Last season players like Miroslav Satan, Maxim Afinogenov, Ville Leino, Guillaume Latendresse, Rob Schremp and Peter Mueller all gave their teams an edge, at very low risks.
Penalty drawing is another undervalued talent. Classic examples include Dustin Brown and Cal Clutterbuck, and we saw players like Darrol Powe in the postseason, but take a page out of Vancouver's (Kesler, Burrows, Mason Raymond) and San Jose's (Torrey Mitchell and Devin Setoguchi) playbooks and look for players like Tuomo Ruutu, Parise, Jon Sim and Darren Helm. A lot of these guys tend to be small, too, because of the way the league calls penalties, which is yet another reason to like Mathieu Perreault and Derek Roy.
Other tricks are finding players on the final year of their contracts. The player has a built-in incentive to play really well and if he doesn't, you're not left on the hook at the end of the season. It's also nice to get players willing to play at a discount, either because they like the team, their teammates or they want to win a Cup - Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu being a great example.
Between the Pipes
The absence of high-priced netminding in recent Stanley Cup championships suggests that spending a lot on goaltending is unnecessary at best, and harmful at worst. Unless you can get your hands on someone like Tomas Vokoun, who we discovered long ago is the best goalie money can buy, you're best advised to pick up a value goalie, like last year's suggestions Jonas Hiller and Craig Anderson.
Goalie Team GVT Cap GVS
Jimmy Howard Detroit 25.6 0.6 25.3
Jaroslav Halak Montreal 21.1 0.8 20.2
Ryan Miller Buffalo 35.6 6.3 18.2
Tuukka Rask Boston 25.4 3.2 17.3
Ilya Bryzgalov Phoenix 26.8 4.3 15.4
Evgeni Nabokov San Jose 29.8 5.4 15.1
Craig Anderson Colorado 18.0 1.8 14.1
Jonas Hiller Anaheim 15.3 1.3 12.9
Johan Hedberg Atlanta 11.4 1.1 9.6
Tomas Vokoun Florida 24.5 5.7 8.9
Jean-Sebastien Giguere Toronto -2.0 6.0 -18.5
Niklas Backstrom Minnesota -3.7 6.0 -20.2
Cristobal Huet Chicago -7.8 5.6 -23.1
Pascal Leclaire Ottawa -13.4 3.8 -23.3
Vesa Toskala Calgary -17.0 4.0 -27.5
It doesn't take a psychic with a “Cristobal” to know that paying big bucks to someone without a shelf full of Vezinas will end in heartache. Fortunately this is another trend NHL GMs have finally caught on to, explaining why the Habs dealt Halak to the Blues rather than take the $3.8 million cap hit themselves, or why the Blackhawks signed Marty Turco for $1.3 million instead of re-signing Antti Niemi for $2.8 million.
The going rate for free agent goalies is under $2.0 million, meaning that only goalies like Josh Harding (1.2), Patrick Lalime (1.0), and Alex Auld (1.0) are getting signed. Some goalies, like Antero Niittymaki and Michael Leighton were fortunate enough to have room for modest pay increases within this new ceiling, but others like Andrew Raycroft, Chris Mason and Martin Biron all took sizable pay cuts over recent seasons to get jobs – Nabokov had to leave the league entirely.
Players to Avoid
All of the great moves made by following the advice above won't mean anything if your team is saddled with players that are paid top dollars just to be average. Here are last year's worst values among skaters.
Player Team GVT CAP GVS
Sheldon Souray Edmonton 0.4 5.4 -14.3
Wade Redden NY Rangers 5.1 6.5 -12.9
Vincent Lecavalier Tampa Bay 8.8 7.7 -12.8
Mike Komisarek Toronto -0.3 4.5 -12.3
Chris Drury NY Rangers 7.2 7.0 -12.3
Jay Bouwmeester Calgary 6.6 6.7 -12.0
Scott Gomez Montreal 8.8 7.4 -11.9
Rod Brind'Amour Carolina -2.3 3.6 -11.6
Shawn Horcoff Edmonton 3.4 5.5 -11.6
Evgeni Malkin Pittsburgh 13.1 8.7 -11.5
Other than players signed by Rangers GM Glen Sather or former Canadiens GM Bob Gainey, cap-conscious teams will check the back of a defenseman's jersey and avoid writing too many zeroes unless they see “Lidstrom.” A lot of these guys are excellent examples of why you don't want to lock down into long-term contracts, especially when a player is still an RFA.
You also want to avoid spending too much on enforcers. Not only do they use up valuable bench space, forcing your remaining skaters to play bigger minutes, but they can eat up precious cap space that's best held in reserve for a late-season signing. It's one thing to sign Ben Eager, Daniel Carcillo or Steve Downie, but signing Jody Shelley for $1.2 million and Derek Boogaard for $1.7 milllion is quite another. If those two were allergic to good hockey they wouldn't even get the sniffles. Put it this way – if a player isn't going to get a regular shift in a postseason situation, then you probably shouldn't pay them much more than the league minimum (if that!).
To be successful in the new Salary Cap era it's not enough to find the best players and pay them whatever it takes to get them under contract. Teams need to be on the lookout for undervalued players, like the younger, smaller players, stay-at-home defensemen and various reclamation projects, while trying to avoid long-term, high-priced contracts, especially in the net.
We've seen NHL teams get wiser this season, especially with regards to goaltending and defensemen, but there are still so many opportunities to get an edge. Get to know the teams looking at the smaller, penalty-drawing players and you might find next season's champ.
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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