Jun 112013
 

Nathan Horton has been one of the stars of these NHL playoffs as will be an integral component of the Stanley Cup finals if the Bruins are going to beat the Chicago Blackhawks. Nathan Horton is also set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer so his good playoff performance is good timing. One of the things I have noticed about Horton while looking through the statistics is that he has one of the highest on-ice 5v5 shooting percentages over the past 6 seasons of any NHL forward (ranks 16th among forwards with >300 minutes of ice time).

Part of the reason for this is that he is a fairly good shooter himself (ranks 30th with a 5v5 shooting percentage of 12.25%) but this in no way is the main reason.  Let’s take a look at how Horton’s line mates shooting percentage have been over the past 6 seasons when playing with Horton and when not playing with Horton.

Sh% w/o Horton Sh% w/ Horton Difference
Weiss 11.28% 12.84% 1.56%
Lucic 13.03% 16.98% 3.95%
Krejci 11.41% 12.10% 0.68%
Booth 8.44% 11.26% 2.82%
Frolik 6.58% 10.84% 4.26%
Stillman 10.03% 15.38% 5.35%
Zednik 8.81% 13.56% 4.75%
Average 9.94% 13.28% 3.34%

Included are all forwards Horton has played at least 400 minutes of 5v5 ice time with over the past 6 seasons along with their individual shooting percentage when with Horton and when not with Horton. Every single one of them has an individual shooting percentage higher with Horton than when not with Horton and generally speaking significantly higher.  I have previously looked at how much players can influence their line mates shooting percentages and found that Horton was among the league leaders so the above table agrees with that assessment.

It is still possible that Horton is just really lucky but that argument starts to lose steam when it seems he is getting lucky each and every year over the past 6 years (he has never had a 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage at or below league average). Whatever Horton is doing while on the ice seems to be allowing his line mates to boost their own individual shooting percentages and the result of this is that he has the 9th highest on-ice goals for rate over the past 6 seasons. He is a massively under rated player and is this summers Alexander Semin of the UFA market.

 

Jun 292012
 

I generally have had little expectations/hope that Burke can dramatically rebuild this team into a serious playoff contender this season because of the large contracts that nobody wants on the roster, but after some thinking, I think there is way he can do it.  This is all pure speculation and hope, but don’t we all like to do that from time to time?  And as Maple Leaf fans, hope is pretty much all we have right now.

When Burke traded for James van Riemsdyk a week ago he indicated that he expects to see him playing the wing, and in particular Mikael Grabovski’s wing.  This is interesting because JVR is a left winger and the left winger for Grabovski the past couple of seasons has been Clarke MacArthur and they have seen substantial success together with Nikolai Kulemin on the right side.  I figured it meant that either MacArthur or JVR would move to the right side, but the optimist in me is hoping that Burke actually has another plan.

That plan, I hope, is signing Alexander Semin as an unrestricted free agent.  Semin is a true right wing with elite level offensive talent and as good as MacArthur has been for the Leafs, would be a significant upgrade.  As good as the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line has been at times over the past couple of seasons, a JVR-Grabovski-Semin line has the potential to be a true #1 line with 80 goal potential.

Signing Semin will not come cheap even though he is coming off a down year (in large part because he played with lower tier line mates like Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perrault and Jason Chimera) because I think there will always be teams looking to add high end talent and there is always the KHL option for Semin.  But what it does mean is that Semin likely won’t command the mega long-term deals that Brian Burke refuses to hand out.  It is quite possible, maybe quite likely, that you could get Semin on a 4 year deal at $6M per year.  That is an increase of $2.75M over MacArthur’s salary but the benefits far out weigh the extra cost.  Not only is Semin is significantly better than MacArthur it will mean not having to play someone (MacArthur or JVR) on the wrong wing and it also means that it makes MacArthur available to trade for other assets.  In particular, a center for Kessel and Lupul.

I am not a fan of Bozak between Lupul and Kessel because he has no defensive abilities, just like Lupul and Kessel don’t.  It’s a bad combination.  I wish we had seen more of Connolly there last year.  He isn’t an ideal option either but at least has some defensive capabilities, but he is undersized too so still isn’t a great option.  So with that said, I think Burke needs to look elsewhere for the center for those two.

As far as pieces we could trade to acquire that center, well, they are actually quite abundant.  MacArthur would definitely be available after a Semin signing.  Kulemin could be traded as well and would be an attractive player to many teams.  Kadri is a trade possibility as there won’t be an immediate opening on the top 2 lines.  Franson is too but with Schenn traded would mean having to acquire another defenseman to replace him.  A package of MacArthur, Kadri and maybe a prospect or draft pick should be able to land at least a second tier first line center, or maybe even a guy like Paul Stastny.  With Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly in the mix at center for the Avalanche I can’t imagine why the Avalanche would want to keep Stastny and his $6.6M salary.  Stastny wouldn’t be ideal because he isn’t great defensively but would definitely be an upgrade on Bozak.  So, now let’s take a look at the top 2 lines if all this unfolded as I laid out.

Lupul – Stastny – Kessel

JVR – Grabovski – Semin

Ok, just reading that has me a little excited.  Both those lines are capable of producing 80+ goals and the Grabovski line in particular is a defensively capable line as well.  I have plugged some numbers into cap geek and came up with the following fictional lineup.

FORWARDS
Joffrey Lupul ($4.250m) / Paul Stastny ($6.600m) / Phil Kessel ($5.400m)
James Van Riemsdyk ($4.250m) / Mikhail Grabovski ($5.500m) / Alexander Semin ($6.000m)
Matt Frattin ($1.200m) / Tyler Bozak ($1.500m) / Nikolai Kulemin ($2.750m)
Colby Armstrong ($3.000m) / David Steckel ($1.100m) / Mike Brown ($0.737m)
Matthew Lombardi ($3.500m) /
DEFENSEMEN
Dion Phaneuf ($6.500m) / Carl Gunnarsson ($1.325m)
Jake Gardiner ($1.117m) / Cody Franson ($2.000m)
John-Michael Liles ($3.875m) / Korbinian Holzer ($0.700m)
Mike Komisarek ($4.500m) /
GOALTENDERS
James Reimer ($1.800m)
Ben Scrivens ($0.700m)
BUYOUTS
Darcy Tucker ($1.000m)
——
CAPGEEK.COM TOTALS (follow @capgeek on Twitter)
(these totals are compiled without the bonus cushion)
SALARY CAP: $70,200,000; CAP PAYROLL: $69,303,333; BONUSES: $212,500
CAP SPACE (22-man roster): $896,667

You will notice no MacArthur, Kadri (both hypothetically traded to Colorado for Stastny) or Connolly.  I think Burke should be able to find a taker for Connolly as he is on just a 1 year contract with no long term salary cap ramifications (which some teams might find important with the uncertainty surrounding a new CBA) but will not get much in return.  Dallas (to replace Ribiero), Calgary (to replace Jokinen) and Pheonix (to replace Langkow) seem like possibly destinations to me.  For now I have also left Armstrong, Lombardi and Komisarek in the line  and gone with Reimer/Scrivens in goal but some moves could be made with those guys to improve the defense or goaltending situation or improve on Bozak in the #3C position.  With the moves up front, it does make trading for Luongo more unlikely, but if he gets traded to Florida, I’d be ok with acquiring Theodore to backup/mentor/support Reimer.

So Leaf fans, what do you think?  Are you hopeful something like this could happen this off season, or pessimistic that Burke can’t/won’t be able to make any significant moves to improve the team?

 

Jun 302011
 

Anyone who knows anything about hockey, save for Florida GM Dale Tallon it seems, immediately thought ‘bad contract’ when they heard that the Florida Panthers had signed Tomas Kopecky to a 4 year contract at $3M/year.  But how bad is that contract?  Well, lets take a look.

Goal based stats (i.e. any stats that requite goals to calculate which is pretty much everything except things like shots or corsi) are heavily influenced by random events over the short term but over the long term tell a much more accurate picture than shot or corsi based stats.  Personally I consider goal based stats over a 3 or 4 year period to be a fairly reliable indicator of a players talent level so lets see how Kopecky compares over the past 4 seasons.

There are 183 NHL forwards who have played over 3000 minutes of 5v5 ice time over the past 4 seasons and Tomas Kopecky is one of them.  Here is how Kopecky compares to his forward peers over that time.

Statistic Value Rank out of 183
Goals For/20 minutes 0.719 150
Goals Against/20 minutes 0.798 106
Goals For % 0.474 157
Opposition GF/20min 0.737 183
Opposition GA/20min 0.760 71
Opposition Goals For % 0.492 183

To summarize, his performance numbers are bad and he has arguably played against the easiest competition of any forward with 3000 minutes of ice time over the past 4 seasons.  On top of that he has never played any significant time on the penalty kill.  Last season he got increased ice time on the Blackhawks top 2 lines and on the PP which boosted his offensive numbers to a career high of 15g and 42 points (previous high was 10g, 21pts) but that is more a result of who he was playing with and not his own talent level.

Kopecky for the most part has been a third line player who got some top six minutes last season because of the post-Stanley Cup salary cap induced fire sale that left the Blackhawks short of experienced forwards. For the past 2 seasons Kopecky earned $1.2M and I don’t think he deserved a raise from that level.  To pay Kopecky $3M over 4 years is probably a $1.5-2M/yr over payment and probably 1-2 years longer than he deserved.  It might be the worst $3M/yr contract ever signed in the NHL but he may be in good company soon because I suspect Maxime Talbot will get a similar contract and his numbers are equally bad, if not worse (though Talbot has played significantly more on the PK than Kopecky).  I pray that the Leafs do not sign Talbot.

Jun 082011
 

Lance Hornby has an article this morning discussing a report from the New York Daily News that the Leafs are looking to make a trade for the rights to Brad Richards. Two problems with this:

1.  Just last week Brian Burke said “it wasn’t something we are in the process of looking at” (right at end of interview)

2.  Brad Richards agent Pat Morris over the weekend was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying Richards was not willing to waive his no trade clause and will almost certainly wait out June and become a UFA July 1st.

The second point is interesting because in the Lance Hornby article Mr. Hornby wrote:

If Dallas is trying to maximize compensation for Richards’ rights, he must first agree to waive his no-trade clause, a move that agent Pat Morris told the Daily News the Stars have not yet requested. Richards is also awaiting developments with the Stars and their ownership change.

The original New York Daily News article that Mr. Hornby referred two said Pat Morris hadn’t been asked to waive his no trade clause:

“The Stars have not asked Brad to waive his no-trade clause, and at this point in time, he has no intention of doing so,” agent Pat Morris told the Daily News Monday night when informed that a source had said a move to the Toronto Maple Leafs could be completed by the end of this week. “We’re still pointing toward July 1.”

Now it is a shame that Mr. Hornby chose to leave out the important fact that Morris indicated that Richards has no intention to waive his no trade clause at this time but the other interesting point is Morris being quoted as saying that the Stars have not asked Richards to waive his no trade clause.  This contradicts the Toronto Star article over the weekend where Pat Morris said the Stars asked Richards to waive the no trade clause and the request was denied:

“We’ve been asked by Dallas to (waive the no-trade). We’ve analyzed it and, to date, we’re not in the position to give any clearance on a trade,” said Richards’ agent Pat Morris on Saturday.

“In all likelihood, as we go through the remainder of June, we will not be doing so. It isn’t likely that Brad’s mind will change.”

So what is the real story?  Has Brad Richards been asked to waive his no trade clause and chose not to?  Who knows.

Jun 302010
 

As always, there is a lot of speculation as to what the Maple Leafs will do on July 1st when the NHL free agent season begins.  Some are suggesting they should go big or go home and do whatever it takes to sign Ilya Kovalchuk as the answer to their offensive woes while others believe Kovalchuk is going for the big long term contract to which Burke has said on numerous occasions he isn’t interested in doing.  After Kovalchuk though there aren’t any top tier forward free agents available to help solve the Leafs lack of scoring problems.

I am in the camp that I don’t believe that Kovalchuk will be a Maple Leaf.  He’ll end up signing a long term big dollar contract somewhere else.   Whether the Leafs will, or should, go after Kovalchuk depends a lot on what Burke believes he can acquire in a Tomas Kaberle trade.  If Burke believes he can land a scoring winger with size in a Kaberle trade then the need to go after a guy like Kovalchuk is minimized.

Historically teams that win the Stanley Cup have excellent defenses, solid goaltending and are strong down the middle.  Teams that have had elite level wingers but have lacked at center have generally not done well.  What has Kovalchuk won?  What about Jarome Iginla?  What about Rick Nash?  These are three of the best wingers in the game but haven’t achieved much, if any, playoff success.  Feel free to toss Ovechkin into the mix (for now anyway). The Leafs already have an offensive minded winger in Phil Kessel and I don’t believe they necessarily need another offense-first winger like Kovalchuk, at least not if the price tag is $9 million.

As it stands right now, the Leafs forward lines might look like this:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Tyler Bozak Phil Kessel
Mikhail Grabovski
Fredrik Sjostrom
Mike Brown Colton Orr

I have intentionally left a lot of blanks in there and have only listed the players I believe are fairly certain to fill those positions.  That leaves the two left wing slots on the first two lines open, the second and third line right wing positions and the third and fourth line center positions as well as a reserve position or two which Brown may get bumped to depending on how the roster unfolds.  Should Kulemin get re-signed he will fill in one of those open winger slots, probably either on the second or third line.  The Leafs also have Luca Caputi, Viktor Stalberg and Christain Hanson in the fold but while all have showed flashes of potential, I don’t believe any of them showed enough last year to make me believe they should be written in as a sure bet to make the club.  The same goes for John Mitchell who is set to become a UFA but who the Leafs have said they would like to bring back at the right price (read: close to league minimum or even a 2-way deal).  Caputi probably has the best opportunity to make the club because he plays a physical game and is probably more suited to a third line role than Stalberg though Stalberg showed he might be ready for a top 6 role late last season.  I haven’t mentioned Nazem Kadri yet but I should as it is likely he will fill one of the top six positions, possibly as a winger or as the second line center pushing Grabovski to wing where he may be better suited anyway (or he could be used as trade bait).  So as it stands now there are five or six forward slots up for grabs and I am certain that Brian Burke wants to bring in at least two, if not three additional forwards to really create battles for those open slots.

Now it is time for some speculation.  If Kovalchuk is out of the picture, as I believe he is, who will Burke go after.  There are three things that we know that can guide us into figuring out what Burke might do.  First, Burke has stated he wants to find a winger that can score, preferably one with some size.  Second he wants to add more toughness throughout the lineup.  Third, historically he has shown that he really likes to bring back players who have played for him before.  So where does that leave us.

There are no first line or even true second line wingers who can score and have size on the open market.  It seems to me that this is what he intends to acquire via a Tomas Kaberle trade.  That trade probably won’t happen for at least a few days after the early free agent frenzy settles so I won’t speculate on that here right now.

There are players that will address toughness further down the lineup though and who are young enough who can contribute to the Leafs for the next several years.  Two names that have been speculated upon are Colby Armstrong and Raffi Torres and both of these guys can fill that toughness role and they are both capable of scoring 15+ goals so in a pinch are capable of playing a second line role or second PP unit role.  I fully expect that Brian Burke to go after and sign one of these guys so long as the price tag is around $2.5-3M per year on a 3 or 4 year deal.

In my mind the Leafs can desperately use a veteran centerman, if not two, as Bozak and Kadri would form a pretty inexperienced top two.  If Burke is looking for a center under the age of 30 who can produce offensively you are pretty much limited to Matthew Lombardi, but I don’t see that as the route Burke will go because I don’t see Lombardi as the kind of ‘role player’ Burke wants on the third line.  That means you may have to go a little older and so I think he might consider going after a guy like Matt Cullen who is 32 years of age and a pretty good 2-way player versatile in that he can play a second or third line role and play at center or on the wing.  His price tag might get a little high for what Burke wants to spend on a third line player but he would be a nice veteran addition.

A similar player to Cullen who will cost somewhat less is Eric Belanger.  Belanger isn’t big, but he plays a gritty physical game and would look good in a third line role and has consistently gotten around 35 points throughout his career.

We know Brian Burke has liked Brendan Morrison in the past.  He had Morrison in Vancouver and signed him as a free agent in Anaheim.  The Anaheim experiment was a bit of a flop mostly because he paid him too much money for what he could contribute but last year in Washington he showed he could be a serviceable role player as a third or fourth line center.  I don’t know if Burke intends to go after Morrison but it wouldn’t surprise me if Burke signed Morrison so long as his contract short term (1 or 2 seasons) and no more than the $1.5M he made last year.

If Brian Burke is set on trading Kaberle for help up front he’ll probably want to pick up another defenseman but not one with a big salary.  There are a lot of defensemen to choose from in this UFA class so it is difficult to speculate who he might go after but I suspect he’ll wait until the first rush on defensemen passes and he’ll try to pick up someone at a bargain price a week or two down the road as players start to see job openings dwindling away and get concerned about if and where they might play come September more than they are about holding out for maximum dollars.

Update:  The Leafs have acquired Kris Versteeg from the Chicago Blackhawks for Stalberg and prospects DiDominico and Paradis.  Versteeg will likely fill one of those second line winger roles.

Jun 302009
 

It seems that the majority of the Toronto hockey media seem to have the belief that the Maple Leafs are at least 3-4 years away from being a good team and that the best way to get there is to do nothing this summer and hope to get another high draft pick in next years draft. Howard Berger is a prime example as we can see from his latest article, as well as his comments on the radio today.

It’s the reason Burke has to do his utmost to resist temptation this week. A number of distinguished names will be available on the open market, but none will lift the Maple Leafs into the Promised Land. At least, not yet. Furthermore, signing expensive free agents will diminish the ice time required for the club’s growing list of youngsters to prove whether they belong in the NHL.

I understand Howard’s argument that you build success through the draft and player development and there is some truth to that. You can build your team by being bad for a number of years and stocking up high draft picks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington have done. But more often than not, that doesn’t work. See Columbus. See Atlanta. See Florida. See Los Angeles. See Phoenix. Maybe someday these teams will be good, but honestly, can you see Columbus, who made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, compete for a Stanley Cup in the next few years? Not me. On the flip side, how many high draft picks has the Detroit Red Wings had over the past 10 or 15 years? Their highest pick in the past 15 years was in 2005 when they drafted Jakub Kindl 19th overall and more often than not, they don’t even draft in the first round.

If anything, the NHL in the new salary cap era is probably less about drafting well because talented young players are getting big time money upon leaving their entry level contracts which is completely different from the pre-lockout environment when you could keep your young players relatively cheaply for much longer. The biggest difference in the new system is you can’t afford to make mistakes or over pay players for what they provide. This is what makes Burke a good General Manager. He is resolute in that he has a game plan and he will stick to it. In trades, he won’t over pay even if it is for someone he really wants (see moving up in the draft) and likewise in free agency he won’t pay more than he thinks a player is worth. But there is no reason why Burke shouldn’t try to sign a big name, big salaried free agent so long as he believes that the player is a player who can be a component of a winning team both now and in the future and so long as he isn’t over paying for that player.

The New York Rangers have made mistakes. Signing Gomez, Drury and Redden to such big contracts was a mistake, not because those are bad players, but because they are all making probably 1-2 million more per season than they should be. Had they been on more reasonable contracts the Rangers could very well afford another $4-5 million player which would make them a much more competitive team and might move them from a first round playoff exit to a contender to go deep into the playoffs. If Brian Burke can sign a big name free agent or two for a reasonable contract then I absolutely believe that he should, and I believe he will.