What is the most money a team should spend on a single player?

NOTE: Due to a sorting error in my spreadsheet, I had the incorrect median EVP/60. Post corrected.

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Handsome Shrek

It probably goes without saying that, in a cap league, a team’s allocation of money goes a long way toward ensuring depth. This goes doubly for poor teams with less money to spend.

It seems that the approach of most NHL teams has been to identify and lock up their core players, complementing them with a rotating cast of young players on ELCs, free agent veterans, and reclamation projects. This has led to situations where pending free agents, having delivered as core players, reap massive deals taking up huge percentages of the cap. In many cases, high-end draft picks are given huge, long-term deals on the basis of potential alone.

What’s interesting to me is how the perception of a player’s above-averageness is transformed from a relative salary-to-production scale to a less tangible premium. Every point (or point of possession) above the league average that a player produces costs more than a point toward the average.

The question isn’t whether a player like Jonathan Toews is worth $10.5 million, because that’s what any team with the means would pay Toews to play for them. In the strictest sense, a player is worth what the market will pay him. The question is whether any above average player is worth paying a premium for.

It’s not hard to see this applied to Bobby Ryan. If he gets paid north of $7 million by Ottawa, it will be in part because he’s good, in part because he’s a core player, and in part because Ottawa gave up a lot to get him and doesn’t have any other option. But if you question the underlying logic of why teams pay a premium for anyone, then what else could Ottawa do with that money?

If your allotment of cap space is $70 million, that gives you $3.5 million per player, per position. That’s a convenient breakdown; some articles peg the average salary of an NHL player at $2.4 million, and that was two years ago, when the cap was lower, so for the purposes of this article we’ll assume it’s about a million higher. (If anyone has a spreadsheet of all of the salaries in the NHL that allows for a quick average on the cap hit, please hit the comments section.)

One might imagine a team populated by $3.5 million players being decent, but would it be good enough to win a championship? To even make the playoffs? Let’s assume that every player making that amount was worth the money – this would be a team of Clarke MacArthurs, not Derek Engellends. What about then?

The thinking goes that you need a game-breaker: someone who can be relied upon to produce above the league average. In the absence of a hockey equivalent to baseball’s WAR stat – wins above replacement, or what a player produces relative to what someone else might have produced in their place – we’re left with imperfect measures of value. We have league average salary, league average and median point production, and league average and median possession metrics. It’s a bit like hitting the broad side of a barn with a tank shell and calling yourself a marksman.

Let’s look at Alex Ovechkin. I got some heat in the comments of my Worst Contracts post for calling him one-dimensional and not worth the money.

Alex Ovechkin – 2013-2014

Cap hit – $9,538, 462

EVP/60 – 1.74

Corsi For – 49.3%

Corsi Relative – +2.5%

NHL – 2013-2014

Cap hit – $3,500,000

EVP/60 – 1.29 (median)

Corsi For – 50.14% (average) 50.5% (median)

Corsi Relative – 0.08% (average) +3.0% (median)

 

So if the median even-strength-point-per-60-minutes is 1.29 and the average cap hit $3,500,000, you have a relative value of $2,713,178 for every averaged point-per-60. Similarly, if the median Corsi For is 50.14%, you should pay $69,805 for every positive point of Corsi For. In 2013-2014, Ovechkin received $5,481,874 for every averaged EVP/60 and $193,477 for every point of CF.

It’s an admittedly limited scope. We’re looking at point production here, not exclusively goal production, which is what Ovechkin is known for (especially powerplay goal production). You’d also have to account for other, non-performance factors: how much swag does Ovechkin sell? How many season tickets? Does a team full of league average players produce the same kind of brand loyalty as a team with a superstar and a bunch of role players? There are a lot of moving parts.

But the fundamental question remains: does it ever make sense to pay a premium for an individual player? Ovechkin is a generational talent, but is paid such an extreme premium that you have to wonder if he, or anyone, is worth it.

How about other superstar players? Ryan Getzlaf had the best EVP/60 at 3.12, and makes $8,250,000 per year, working out to $2,644,230 per average EVP/60. So, if you’re literally the best player in the league in this category, then you deliver value.

This isn’t necessarily stupid; being above average means being exceptional. A player who produces higher than average should be paid more for every point they produce above the average. However, the question remains: is it worth it to pay someone $8.25 million to produce above the average, or to use the savings to ensure higher rates of production further down the lineup, where you might have, before, only had the resources to spend league minimum on some plugs?

An interesting analysis would be to look at all of those players who are only slightly above league median and average in terms of point and possession production and see what sort of premium they receive. I suspect it’s highly variable, but that across the league teams pay their core talent a premium in order to lock them up long-term. Eric Staal’s contract is terrible. Kyle Okposo’s is great. But generally speaking, teams tie their identity to a group, and then are forced to overpay them.

So, what’s the alternative? Could a team actually populate a roster with $3.5MM players who produce 1.29 EVP/60 and 50.14% CF? Would anyone buy tickets to see a team like that?

It’s slim pickings on the free agent market, and those pickings would be made especially slim by the insistence of players that they go to teams who have star players because they’re perceived to be better. An easier method would be to draft and develop above-average players, only to trade them when they’re due their big payday for a package of average performers on average salaries.

What would Edmonton look like if it had traded Eberle, Hall, and Nugent-Hopkins for packages of value players instead of giving them $6 million a year each? They wouldn’t have high end players, but then they’d also not have Luke Gadzic at $800,000 or Matt Hendricks at $1.850 million in their bottom six. I guess the Oakland As and Tampa Bay Rays have been doing this forever, so much so that their fans don’t raise a stink when they trade away a star player just before his big payday.

The interesting thing is that the 2014-2015 Ottawa Senators are about as close as we’ll get to testing this theory. Outside of a few stinker contracts (Cowen, Greening, Neil) and one particularly high-paying one (Karlsson) the team is made up of players making league average salaries or less and producing at league average or more. If they spent to the cap, but on players in that $3.5 million / 1.29 EVP/60 / 50.5% CF range, it’s not hard to imagine them on the right side of the bubble.

6 thoughts on “What is the most money a team should spend on a single player?

  1. What a shock… a talentless Canadian hack continues to pick apart Ovechkin’s weaknesses during a long summer. What distinguishes this article from every other article out of Canada? A funny picture and accompanying joke at the beginning… that is all.

    • Well, I guess what distinguishes this article is that I was asking a question about whether any player is worth Ovechkin money. If you want to pay him $10mm a year to score on the power play, which it sounds like you do, then that’s cool. I respectfully disagree.

    • Error corrected. Thanks for pointing it out. I sorted all skaters on Extra Skater by EVp/60, then navigated by page, assuming that they stayed sorted. Fixed by viewing all skaters on one page.

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