Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Explaining Away $7.8m and a -13


The other day on the Dallas Stars Postgame Show, the discussions about the future were continuing. I hate to say that is all I think about these days - how the Stars can adjust things so that they soon will be back in the mix in the Western Conference for the big prize - but it is close.

So, the discussion ensues about how best to spend your budget. Who you keep and who you flip for something else. Obviously, if you have put together a team that has missed the playoffs 2 straight years then you try not to fall in love with too many pieces of this puzzle. If you are Joe Nieuwendyk, you analyze what you have; and then you make the necessary adjustments to fix it as soon as possible.

Surely, a lot of this could hinge on a payroll boost from the potential of new ownership. But, nothing is promised, and no papers are signed. It is highly possible that the Dallas Stars budget for 2010-11 is very similar to 2009-10. That could mean that you have to make due with mostly the cash you have on hand. And there is where our debate began about the Stars most highly-compensated player, Brad Richards.

According to NHLNumbers.com , Richards is on the books for $7.8m each of the 5 seasons of his contract, a deal that expires after next season (oh dear, extension talks will be fun). He is clearly the Stars highest paid player, at almost $95,000 per game. Staggering, but the salary is never the issue in pro sports. It is salary divided by performance. In other words, a player can be overpaid at $800,000 - or underpaid at $10m per season. It is all a puzzle for the front office - you have "X" amount of money, and you can distribute it amongst your players in any formula you want. You just have to make sure that you put the money in the proper spots and that those you pay big money to are worth it.

So, that leads us to the discussion - is Brad Richards worth the money? I say, yes. Is he the Stars best player - by a good margin? Again, Yes. Is he someone you build around with your budget for next year? Yes. Yes.

I always notice Brad Richards. I select the 3 stars of the game on pretty regular basis, and #91 is always on the short list. He leads the team in points by a large margin. In fact, he has 82 points, and only 1 other player has more than 49 (Eriksson - 65). Richards has 61 assists, where nobody else has more than 38. He is your best faceoff man, he has scored the most shootout goals, he has 21 goals this season, and averages 1.15 points per game.

On the power play, we must ask where the Stars would be without Brad Richards. He has played 356:00 of Power Play time. Why is that interesting? Look at the next 3 totals for Stars players: Morrow 235, Eriksson 234, Robidas 229. Richards is on the power play all of the time and drives it. In fact, the Stars have scored 52 power play goals this season in 291 chances (17.9%, 16th in NHL). Richards has figured in on 35 of those. 67% of all Power Play goals go through #91. He is 2nd in the league in Power Play points (Stamkos just passed him). The other players in on that race are all part of Top 10 power plays - a sign that they have plenty of horses. I fear where the Stars PP would be without Richards on it in the post-Zubov era. 16th with him - 25th without?

Many of you think moving Richards frees up almost $8m to spend elsewhere. Sure, it does, but how much worse would that make you? But, let's visit 2 of the issues callers of the post game show have had with Brad Richards.

1) - How many of his assists are primary assists versus secondary assists?

2) - How can your best player be your worst +/- player?

Let's tackle these one at a time.

First, one caller (who I found to be extremely misguided) suggested that Richards is a selfish player who only gets assists because he won't leave the ice! I found this somewhat hilarious, but let's address his claims. Yes, to accumulate 356 power play minutes, you must stay on the ice a really long time on the Power Play. But, he plays the point - like Zubov before him - and you can really conserve your energy back there and spend almost all 2 minutes out there if you are a special athlete. #91 and #56 appear to qualify. Now, this next part is really important about primary to secondary assists. This, to me, demonstrates the true puck geniuses in the NHL. Total assists can deceive, with a point-to-point pass giving someone a pretty cheap assist. But primaries generally lead directly to a goal. They are usually the true key to the goal. This is where Richards thrives.

1 player in the NHL has more primary assists than Brad Richards, who has 38 this morning after 2 more in Nashville. Joe Thornton has 43 ($7.2m a season, by the way). The entire rest of the league is below Richards (Nicklas Backstrom is tied at 38). Sedin, Crosby, St Louis, Kane, Sedin? They all look up at Richards. In fact, Richards has 38 primaries of his 61 assists - Only Eriksson has 38 total assists for the Stars. Yes, Richards is good.

So, how do we explain away his team-worst -13?

This one, is obviously much more difficult. I think plus/minus has a number of flaws if you are going to compare from player to player around the league. But, I do think you can compare from teammate to teammate, because they are receiving the same coaching, goaltending, and are all benefactors (or the opposite) of what they have constructed as an entire organization. There are many flaws in the stat (Fistric may lead the team in the rating, but does he play against the same quality of forwards that Robidas does?) but it should not be completely ignored, either.

Richards is a "+5" at home and a "-18" on the road. This, of course, is not uncommon around the league. Home teams get the match-ups they want, road teams are at the mercy of the opposition. Other players with crazy home/road splits? Jamie Langenbrunner has the craziest "+21" at home, "-13" on the road. Steven Stamkos is +17/-17, Sidney Crosby is +18/-11, and Dany Heatley is +19/-7. The list is actually pretty star studded. Playing on the road is more difficult, but not for the same reasons as other sports. In the NHL, it is about getting your checking line out there against their star.

But, maybe you are saying, "Still, Bob. He is "-13"!"

My 2 responses. 1) Yes, like many players on a bad team, he has had flaws in his commitment to getting back on defense some nights. On the road, he is matched up against teams best choices that can pin the Stars in their own end the whole shift. He is being keyed on, and when things are going well, that is fun. But, when things are going poorly, bad habits get worse. He needs to be better, and he can be.

2) Did you know that players get minus numbers for allowing short handed goals and empty net goals? Richards has been on the ice for 6 SH goals against. This may be partially his fault, since anytime you put a forward on the point, you run the risk of bad things if the opposition gets the puck and goes. But, -6 there, and another -6 because he is on the ice when the Stars pull the goalie only to allow a freebie, and you see where the number gets big. Add those up and that explains away "-12" just because he is the best player on an average-to-below-average team. Yes, that would also apply to several other Stars players, but not as much, since Richards plays the most ice time in those spots. "-13" sounds way worse than "-1". If this sounds like I am justifying a bad number, it could be. But, I don't believe for a second that he is as lousy as "-13" suggests. Sometimes, you have to look into the numbers just a little deeper to see meaning and mitigating circumstances.

In conclusion, I hope this demonstrates where I stand on #91. He is well compensated for sure, but I think he lives up to it. He is 8th in the NHL in scoring, and what is the going rate for a Top-10 scorer? Let's see. If we eliminate the 3 kids in the Top 10 who are all on their rookie contracts (Backstrom, Kane, and Stamkos) then the 7 veteran players are like this: Ovechkin ($9m), Sedin ($6.1m), Crosby ($9m), St Louis ($5.2m), Thornton ($7.2m), Gaborik ($7.5m).

Average Salary of a veteran Top 10 scorer? $7.3m a year.

Sometimes you get what you pay for. Dallas is with Brad Richards.

3 comments:

Jay Beerley said...

Richards is a stud. Foolish to move him. This isn't fantasy or video game hockey where you can replace him with whoever you want. The Stars have gone after free agents hard and have been turned down. As the saying goes, Richards in the hand is worth who knows what in the bush.

wdj03 said...

Great writeup Bob. I completely agree. Also consider that opponents target Richards when they gain possession on their PK.

Here are the UFA age centers that I consider to be comparables for Richards..

Datsyuk - $6.7mil for 5 more years. Sweethart deal and I consider him to be a better player than Richards. I'd be thrilled for BR to extend in Dallas at a similar rate.

Lecavalier - $7.7mil for 10 more years. Almost the same money, and probably a better player, but because of the crazy term I don't think that you could say that Richards is overpriced in comparison.

Thornton - $7.2mil for one more year. A bit less money, but I think Richards is better.

I could go on with names like Gomez, Drury, Briere, but they're not even in the same tier as BR.

So yes, BR is expensive, but that's different than overpriced. The way he's playing this season, he'd easily land Thornton money or more as a UFA.

Josh said...

#91 had a great game in LA this weekend. 2 goals, 1 assist. No. 1 star of the game.