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It’s good to be broke on July 1

Frankly, it’s good to be broke all the time in the NHL.

Preview Of Paul Storr Regency Silverware Exhibition
Trying to see the Maple Leafs cap space.
Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

There’s nothing better for an NHL hockey team than to be broke this morning. Poverty is bad. Poverty eats at your entire self and changes your worldview until you just aren’t competing in the same game as everyone else. You either run up credit card debt or you fake really hard you’re in the game. You can decide where Florida, Ottawa, Carolina and Arizona fit in those two categories, but none of them are actually broke, they just have no money.

Broke means you have no cap space, and if you’re doing it right, no extra assets either. But being broke is exactly where you want to be in the modern NHL. And staying broke is often a really good plan because it means you’ve put it all out there on the ice, not left it in the bank. Kyle Dubas has been broke since he signed that deal with Auston Matthews, and he knew as soon as he became GM he was going to be digging quarters out of the couch cushions for a decade. He’s seems to be really good at it. But it’s worth checking his math on that.

I chose to have a look at last season’s roster, what they contributed on the ice and what they will be paid this year to see who Dubas should pluck off of that list as the reality of living on a tight budget sets in. First I needed salary amounts for this season for everyone, so I used Evolving Hockey’s prediction model for the players that haven’t got contracts yet, Then I needed some way to measure value, and I could have just used raw points totals, but I couldn’t stop laughing at how dumb that would be, so I picked something less drenched in randomness. Although it’s still not perfect, I chose Evolving Hockey’s WAR stat.

WAR stands for “wins above replacement” and there is still a very heavy influence of shooting percentage luck on the output, as is true with all WAR models at this time, but it factors in so many other genuinely repeatable skills, that it does a better job of figuring out who accounted for what proportion of the Leafs success.

Next, I wanted to see who was worth their salary now — not last year or at the time their contract was signed. This isn’t about judging the contract, it’s about bang for the buck in the coming season, so I’m taking the current season salaries and assuming the players perform like they did last year and asking who does a smart GM jettison and who does he keep?

Maple Leafs Roster 2018-2019

Name Real AAV or Prediction % of Cap Ceiling WAR in 2018-2019 % of total WAR (25.7) Difference
Name Real AAV or Prediction % of Cap Ceiling WAR in 2018-2019 % of total WAR (25.7) Difference
Frederik Andersen 5,000,000 6.13% 6.7 26.07% -19.94%
John Tavares 11,000,000 13.50% 3.2 12.45% 1.05%
Mitch Marner 9,600,000 11.78% 3.2 12.45% -0.67%
Morgan Rielly 5,000,000 6.13% 3.2 12.45% -6.32%
Jake Gardiner 6,800,000 8.34% 2.3 8.95% -0.61%
Auston Matthews 11,634,000 14.27% 1.9 7.39% 6.88%
Kasperi Kapanen 3,200,000 3.93% 1.4 5.45% -1.52%
William Nylander 6,962,366 8.54% 1.1 4.28% 4.26%
Andreas Johnsson 3,400,000 4.17% 1.1 4.28% -0.11%
Zach Hyman 2,250,000 2.76% 1.1 4.28% -1.52%
Jake Muzzin 4,000,000 4.91% 0.9 3.50% 1.41%
Travis Dermott 863,333 1.06% 0.7 2.72% -1.66%
Frederik Gauthier 675,000 0.83% 0.7 2.72% -1.90%
Nazem Kadri 4,500,000 5.52% 0.5 1.95% 3.58%
Trevor Moore 775,000 0.95% 0.4 1.56% -0.61%
Connor Brown 2,100,000 2.58% 0.3 1.17% 1.41%
Tyler Ennis 1,850,000 2.27% 0.3 1.17% 1.10%
Patrick Marleau 6,250,000 7.67% 0.2 0.78% 6.89%
Calle Rosen 750,000 0.92% 0 0.00% 0.92%
Justin Holl 675,000 0.83% -0.1 -0.39% 1.22%
Garrett Sparks 750,000 0.92% -0.6 -2.33% 3.25%
Nikita Zaitsev 4,500,000 5.52% -2.8 -10.89% 16.42%

One thing that we need to talk about first is that this exercise illustrates something that I think we all know, but maybe don’t always take into account. A player’s cap hit isn’t just a reflection of their value on the ice, it’s a reflection of how rare they are. You aren’t paying $11 million for John Tavares just because he tops your skaters in WAR, but because there’s very, very few John Tavareses out there.

EH has a long set of articles on Hockey Graphs explaining their model, and they are so well done, I understood a surprising amount, but this chart is the one we need:

8377 is the total number of skater seasons in their dataset that they built their model from. And this chart shows you how rare certain player classes are. The Leafs had three players at 3.2 WAR, and that’s Superstar category, or 183 out of 8377 tries, which is 2%. By the way, I’m told the Unicorn is one of Pavel Datsyuk’s seasons. Meanwhile, you have almost 70% of the NHL skater seasons somewhere in the just below to just above zero range, the two shades of average player, one who needs to be good in the room, and the slightly better ones who are allowed to be a bit annoying.

My personal caveats on using this information for anything other than a very rough estimation of Dubas’s decision-making about the cap are:

  1. I think the goalie WAR is overstated but that’s mostly a philosophical question not a math question.
  2. It’s not fair at all that I’m using one season, particularly to William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri.
  3. I think some players are getting credit for other players’ shooting percentages here like Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly.
  4. Calle Rosen and a few others have too few minutes played to judge from. Nic Petan has no rating.
  5. I don’t like how anyone’s model ranks defensive defencemen, but I’ll spot you that Zaitsev was no better than team average, if perhaps not as bad as this portrays him.

But with that in mind, and recognizing that some of those top end salaries include a huge rarity surtax embedded in them, who is costing more than they produce?

Start at the bottom of the list, with the least useful players.

  • Nikita Zaitsev — Uh Oh category and 5.5% of the cap? — move him out
  • Justin Holl — Locker Room Guy, but cheap — keep him (in the press box)
  • Garrett Sparks — Locker Room Guy and also cheap — eh, upgrade if you can
  • Calle Rosen — Average Player and cheap — keeper
  • Patrick Marleau — Average Player and 7.67% of the cap — move him first!
  • Tyler Ennis — Average and almost cheap by the projected salary — re-sign him if he’ll take less
  • Connor Brown — Average for the price of 3 minimum salary players — move him once you have a replacement
  • Trevor Moore — Average and cheap — we found our Brown replacement
  • Nazem Kadri — Average and 5.5% of the cap — I’d say ditch him, but that season wasn’t absolutely typical, but if you find a cheaper centre who is nearly as good...?
  • Frederik Gauthier — Average and cheap — keep him, but he needs to thank Moore and Ennis for the boost
  • Travis Dermott — Average and still on his ELC — think hard now about his extension, and don’t overrate him
  • Jake Muzzin — So close to Good Player — bank on him rising next season, but he’s not underpaid by performance
  • Zach Hyman — Good Pro (he gets his own category) and cheap for what he produces — Clone him
  • Andreas Johnsson — Good Player — goals cost you more than good pros, and his deal is a good one
  • William Nylander — Good Player — his worst results of his career and he’s still in the good category? Stop complaining
  • Kasperi Kapanen — Good Player — Ditto the conclusion on Johnsson
  • Auston Matthews — Very close to All Star — He’ll spend most seasons as a Superstar in the future
  • Jake Gardiner — All Star — At this projected contract, I would try my damnedest to make that re-signing work and worry about his age-related decline when it appears (this message is endorsed by Mike Babcock)
  • Morgan Rielly — Superstar — What a bargain! Start being terrified now of his next deal
  • Mitch Marner — Superstar — pay him, just maybe not JT money, because some of his WAR is JT’s talent splashing over, I believe
  • John Tavares — Superstar — did you know he didn’t give the Habs an interview?
  • Frederik Andersen — To take the goalie WAR seriously, I have to say Freddie is as valuable as Datsyuk — bargain contract however you rate him

So, if Dubas moves out Zaitsev (even if that comes at the price of one year of Cody Ceci) and he also trades Brown, in addition to the hefty price he paid to get Marleau off this roster, he’ll have cleaned out the worst overpays that aren’t Superstar overpays.

What’s left is about as efficient as it’s possible to be in the NHL, unless half your roster is on an ELC. Remember: this roster has only one player still on that artificially low contract, and it’s as clean of major mistakes as you can find. There’s also no room to add new mistakes. There’s room, just, to very carefully add some cheap depth and some sort of defender. There’s room to find a legitimately replacement level or even average backup goalie (which may have already been accomplished). But any temptation to add a big salary is going to be thwarted. PK Subban was never joining the Leafs on his full salary, no matter what happens with Mitch Marner. Even the temptation to chisel out enough cap space for Jake Gardiner is likely to be thwarted, and considering the defence prospects coming, and Rielly’s next contract, maybe that’s a good desire to be forced to leave unfulfilled, even if it’s hard to accept.

The flaw in looking at players in just this way, even while accounting for rarity of talent, is that it ignores the marketplace. It might be correct to say that Kadri isn’t quite the bargain he’s thought to be when you dig deep into his results, but that doesn’t mean centres are suddenly plentiful.

When you’re broke, you have to look at every decision from every angle, now, the future, the real value of it. You have to give up on your darlings. Waves sadly to Jake. And you have to figure out how to make the whole you can afford, greater than the sum of its parts. Luckily, in the real world, the Leafs aren’t broke, so when it comes to making that happen, they can have hall of famers doing player development and 15-year pros as their Russian translator. They can damn near make players bionic. They can run their AHL team at a loss forever, and give the prospects the best of everything. But wealth makes you stupid. Some of their money splashing around is likely very inefficient spending. They have too much of it to care, though, so they’ll keep spending their actual cash like a team with cap space on free agent day.

It’s good to be broke, because it forces you to pay attention and to be smarter than you already are.