In debuting this column for Hockey Prospectus, I must first admit that this is a very difficult week to think about late free agency signings and challenge trades, following the horrific plane crash that took the lives of so many connected to the game last Wednesday, which put a sickening closure on a summer that has already seen so much loss around the game, with the untimely deaths of three 2010-11 NHL members in Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and most recently, Wade Belak. The more mundane transactions this column focuses on pale in comparison to the sheer finality of the transaction between the quick, and the no-longer-quick, remembered here.
In the 2009-10 NHL season, 764 players appeared in at least one regular season game. Of those players, 182 (23.8%) did not do the same in 2010-11. Some, like Chris Chelios, Rob Blake, or Rod Brind'Amour have retired. Others, including Byron Bitz and Mark Streit, missed the entire 2010-11 season due to injury. The 182 also includes experienced veterans Wade Redden and Jeff Finger, whose parent teams did not want their bloated salaries to count against the salary cap and so they were banished to the AHL for the duration of the season. Still others, including Owen Nolan and the recently deceased Pavol Demitra, found contracts in Europe more to their liking. However, most were journeymen who simply could not find spots on NHL rosters. I don't have the figures for the other major North American sports leagues, but when nearly 25% of a league's players are moved out in a given season, it is fair to say that there is significant roster turnover in the NHL.
The above figure also does not account for the great many transactions of less finality, those players yo-yoing between the NHL and the AHL or other lower-tier leagues. On a regular basis, this column will serve to analyze recent moves of significance, looking into how the transaction will affect the roster using the statistical and economic tools at our disposal, clearing the ice like a finely-tuned Zamboni.
After a summer of such tragedy in the hockey world, the upcoming campaign must be glorious. With that in mind, several teams have made a few last minute moves to help prepare themselves for the season. We'll cover two teams involved in a challenge trade today, and hit a few more later in the week.
Acquired RW Lee Stempniak from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for C Daymond Langkow (Aug. 29, 2011)
Before this trade was consummated, the Flames had under $1.5 million in available cap space with which to manoeuver. Also, their (now) third-highest paid forward, C Matt Stajan, was no higher than fifth on their depth chart for pivots. Although VUKOTA is not projecting Stajan for much improvement from last year's 31 points and 4.0 GVT, he is still worth a regular shift. On the other hand, Daymond Langkow, with a cap hit of $4.5 million, was set to earn more than any of the Flames' forwards but the inimitable RW Jarome Iginla. Langkow, who will turn 35 less than two weeks before the start of the upcoming season, was limited to four games last season due to a serious neck injury.
On the other hand, after the aforementioned Iginla, Calgary was weak down their right side. After the captain, David Moss earned the second-highest projections at the position, 27 points and a 5.1 GVT. Not a bad player to have, but not what anyone would be looking for in a second-line winger. Enter Lee Stempniak. Stempniak wowed Phoenix hockey fans immediately after arriving in a late 2009-10 trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, with 14 goals and 18 points in 18 games as the Coyotes made the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season. Fast forward one year, and Stempniak regressed in a big way, losing nearly 20% of his point production and causing the same Coyote faithful to forget his earlier contributions.
You have to give credit here to Flames GM Jay Feaster for taking advantage of a Coyotes team who needed to spend more dollars to meet the cap floor. Although both Langkow and Stempniak will be free agents after the upcoming season, Stempniak is by far the safer bet to contribute this season. VUKOTA expects similar point production to last year, although in less playing time. A projected 6.0 GVT would serve as an upgrade to the Flames second scoring line, with Stempniak likely playing with LW Rene Bourque and one of Mikael Backlund or Olli Jokinen as the pivot. Stempniak should best his projection with the improved quality of his presumed linemates, as he spent most of his even strength time last year playing with bottom-six forwards Vernon Fiddler and Taylor Pyatt. Stempniak should also give the Flames a more well-balanced offensive attack. If not being enough on his own to make the Flames a lock for a playoff spot this year, he at least moves them that much closer.
Acquired C Daymond Langkow from the Calgary Flames in exchange for RW Lee Stempniak (Aug. 29, 2011)
Fated to be a cap floor franchise until either the Coyotes are moved or the good people of Arizona learn to love hockey en masse, the Coyotes nevertheless are mandated by NHL regulations to spend at least $48.3 million dollars in salaries this year. Before this trade was consummated, the Coyotes were close, but not quite there, up to a cap hit of $48,244,000. One can (correctly) point out that restricted free agent center Kyle Turris is not yet signed, and surely his cap hit will be more than the missing $56,000, but reports on Turris are that he wants a three-year pact paying him at least $4 million per season, or a two-year deal at $3 million per season. Call me crazy, but Turris is not a four million dollar player. Looking at other 2011-12 cap hits in that neighborhood shows fellow pivots Derek Roy, Jordan Staal, Joe Pavelski, Nathan Horton, and Brad Boyes. Turris may still be very young (entering his age 22 season), and of high pedigree (selected third overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft), but he has yet to show enough growth in his game over two nearly full NHL seasons to presume that the corner is about to be turned. VUKOTA projects an improvement in his point production by just over 25% (32.7) and a 75% improvement in GVT (to 4.9, leaning on defensive improvements). A comparable player last year in both points and GVT was Boston Bruins' RW Michael Ryder. A much more proven player, Ryder was able to leverage that output into a two-year package with the Dallas Stars at $3.5 million per annum. Another player with similar 2010-11 production, who like Ryder has recently earned a Stanley Cup ring, was former Blackhawks RW Troy Brouwer; that production was actually vastly inferior to his 2009-10 numbers. Nonetheless, Brouwer was signed by the Washington Capitals to a two-year deal worth $2.4 million per season. About the only thing you can say is that Turris clearly has greater breakout potential than either Brouwer or Ryder. Including his contractual bonus, Turris had a cap hit last year of $2.7 million. His actual value may be more properly found in that range again.
So how is that relevant to the Coyotes' trading for Daymond Langkow? If Turris does not make his demands more reasonable, he could very well be traded before the season starts, leaving Phoenix that much shorter of offensive centermen. With Langkow and Turris, the Coyotes have three dependable centers, with Martin Hanzal likely slotting on the first line. One of Boyd Gordon, Petteri Nokelainen, Alexandre Bolduc, or Marc-Andre Pouliot will begin the season as the fourth-line center. And that is why GM Don Maloney would feel the need to pay big money for an aged center coming off of a fractured vertebra. If Turris needs to be traded and the Langkow deal is not made, the Desert Dogs enter the season needing three of the aforementioned small four to stick. On the positive side, the four games that he did play in last year were at the end of the season, and his previous GM, Jay Feaster, was quoted as saying that Langkow has been training without restrictions all summer. Having already experienced the joys of playing hockey in the desert (Langkow was a member of the Coyotes from 2001-02 to 2003-04), VUKOTA projects him to play for half the season, producing just under 20 points and a 2.9 GVT. If, as Feaster maintained, Langkow is now healthy, we might be able to add 25-30 games to his tally and prorate his points accordingly. 35 points would not be a stretch. Then again, 35 points makes for a poor second-line center. Like Stempniak, Langkow will be a free agent after the 2011-12 season, so the risk is at least minimized. Still, this trade feels like one that was forced upon Maloney and the Coyotes.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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