Today marks the beginning of this summer’s NHL salary arbitration hearing period. Unsigned players who have not agreed on contract terms with their clubs and who meet certain criteria, make their case before arbitrators while teams counter with their reasons for offering a lower salary. The arbitrator will listen to each side and make a decision on the salary to be paid within 48 hours after the end of the hearing. It’s a fact of life for modern hockey fans that even cursory knowledge of the NHL’s arcane financial rules is now necessary to understand why teams make certain player transactions and signings but not others. We won’t list and explain all the arbitration criteria because others have already done an excellent job. CapFriendly has a schedule of NHL arbitration hearing dates and pre-emptive signings.
Some important points:
- Only players who meet certain age and professional experience requirements and are restricted free agents (RFAs) who have not signed an offer sheet with another team, are eligible for arbitration
- The contract term resulting from arbitration will either be one or two years
- The salary the arbitrator awards could be the player’s demand, the team’s offer or a figure anywhere in between
- If a player elected to file for arbitration, clubs have “walk-away rights” in certain cases to decline an arbitration-awarded contract, making the player an unrestricted free agent. However, if a club elected to file for arbitration, they do not have any walk-away rights
BRIAN DUMOULIN, D
ARBITRATION HEARING DATE: Monday, July 24, 2017
2017-18 AGE: 26
2016-17 SALARY: $800,000 ($1.6-million / 2 year contract)
When trying to assess defensemen, we know that traditional counting stats like goals, assists and points often fall hopelessly short of building a true picture of a blueliner who is not primarily involved in creating offense either at even-strength or from quarterbacking a power play. Dumoulin falls in this category – a steady defenseman whose contributions do not show up on a standard scoresheet.
We know it is meaningless that Dumoulin has scored just two regular season goals in his entire NHL career or that over his first two full seasons in the NHL, for defensemen who played the same or more games as he has, Dumoulin ranks 59th out of 68 defensemen in points-per-game. Let’s focus not on raw scoring totals or per-game scoring ratios but analyze statistics that give a broader picture of the effect Dumoulin had on the Penguins’ ability to control the puck at even-strength when he was on the ice, in other words, some basic Corsi and Fenwick numbers.
The objective of this analysis is to find players similar to Dumoulin in these categories who are likewise not as involved in the offensive aspects of the game. By looking at the contracts they signed as RFAs, we can make a reasonable projection on a salary for Dumoulin should he and the Penguins leave it in the hands of the arbitrator on Monday.
In the last two regular seasons combined – Dumoulin’s age 24 and 25 campaigns – he had a shot attempts percentage (Corsi For %) of 52.0 and an unblocked shot attempts percentage (Fenwick For %) of 52.1. Also, both his relative CF% and relative FF% were slightly above zero, meaning the Penguins were a tad better with him on the ice than when he was on the bench. Finally, in the last two seasons, Dumoulin had 49.6% of his starts in the offensive zone, indicating that the Penguins were starting him on faceoffs almost equally in both halves of the ice, not shielding him from defensive zone draws.
In postseason play, after bettering the team average in CF% in 2016, Dumoulin found himself on the negative side in 2017 with a 45.2 CF% while the Penguins overall were at 46.5%. It should be noted however, that Dumoulin started a team-high 58.1% of faceoffs in the defensive zone in the 2017 playoffs.
Using Hockey-Reference’s Play Index, I searched the past 10 seasons for defensemen who had two consecutive seasons resembling Dumoulin’s 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons using these criteria:
- age 24 to 25 seasons
- games played >/= 120 (approximately >/= 60 games per season – a low number – but one that accounted for the shortened 2012-13 season)
- CF% >/= 50
- FF% >/= 50
- Offensive Zone Start % </= 50
The original search found 14 players in addition to Dumoulin who fulfilled all the criteria. I eliminated the obvious goal-scoring/point-scoring “offensive defensemen” and those who logged considerable time on the power play (e.g. Subban, Suter, Josi). This filtered the list down to three, shown in the table below. Like Dumoulin, all three were heading into their age 26 season and all three would be arbitration-eligible RFAs in the summer prior to signing their current contract (though Tanev signed prior to the off-season).
|GP||CF%||CF% rel||FF%||FF% rel||oZS%||TOI/Gm|
Here are their current contracts and most recent expired contracts, below. Note: Cole, Tanev and DeKeyser all signed before going to an arbitration hearing. All contract data from CapFriendly.com
The DeKeyser contract jumps out due to the 6-year commitment and average annual value. Detroit wagered that the offensive touch DeKeyser showed early in his career will continue to develop in his prime years. Indeed DeKeyser produced the most scoring out of this quartet before age 26 and like the contract signed by Justin Schultz showed, offensive skill in defensemen is always flashier and always commands more money.
On a mediocre Vancouver club and despite making the most defensive zone starts out of this group, Tanev’s Corsi and Fenwick relative to his Canuck teammates stood out nicely in positive territory. Finally, it is surprising how similar Dumoulin’s numbers are with fellow Penguin blueliner Ian Cole. Both scored minimally – less than 20 points in each of their first two full seasons, but each man blocked an identical number of opponents’ shots in both of those seasons.
PREDICTED SALARY AND TERM IF DECIDED VIA ARBITRATION
I value Dumoulin somewhere between Ian Cole and Chris Tanev. Dumoulin has the added premium advantage of playing for a back-to-back champion club and his playoff scoring – essentially an anomaly due to the sample size, yet a pleasant bonus to his team – will marginally bolster his case. Dumoulin’s 14 points ranked 12th out of 176 defensemen who played in the past two playoffs. Four of his 14 points came in the Stanley Cup Final including a goal in the clinching game at San Jose in 2016. This past spring, Dumoulin led his defense corps in total playoff ice time and shorthanded ice time in the absence of Kris Letang.
Taking into account a 5% rise in the salary cap since Cole and Tanev signed and all the factors discussed in this analysis, I predict an arbitration-awarded $3.25-million contract for Brian Dumoulin and the Penguins electing a one-year term.
IMPLICATIONS ON PENGUINS SALARY STRUCTURE
While this price seems undoubtedly steep, look around the NHL. Teams are paying heavily in unrestricted free agency for defensemen this summer. Nevertheless, instead of locking him in for two years, the Penguins will take a one-year term as it will give them flexibility to re-examine Dumoulin’s performance one year from now and potentially negotiate a long-term contract that saves them money by coming to terms before he is eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2019.
Presently, the Penguins as of now, have over $10-million in 2017-18 salary cap space. The conventional thinking is that Dumoulin’s new contract and a nearly $4-million arbitration award for Conor Sheary would leave only $2-million to purchase two lower-line centers and a $1-million buffer for in-season acquisitions. More likely, given the Penguins organizational depth in forwards, the team will make critical decisions after Dumoulin’s contract is settled on whether to…
- continue negotiating with Sheary to avoid arbitration
- go to arbitration with Sheary
- trade Sheary or other roster players to directly acquire center(s) or to free up money to pursue remaining unrestricted free agent centers or possibly centers whose teams reject their upcoming arbitration-awarded contracts