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Going to WAR: Evaluating the Lightning salary situation in terms of cap efficiency

On the eve of what was supposed to be yet another display of misguided GM largesse, I stumbled upon an excellent THN article by Dominik Luszczyszyn (@omgitsdomi on twitter) which evaluated the then-upcoming free agent class in terms of win contribution and expected salary. While July 1st and beyond has proven to be surprisingly sane, I was still hooked with Dom's modus operandi for the article- its marriage of salary cap management and player value forms a line of thinking rightfully considered the crux of modern NHL competitiveness. Decision making in today's NHL is constantly grounded in the two main areas of "how good is Player X" and "how much is Player X's salary cap charge", and synthesizing the two is the basis for player acquisition and management.

And yet, while we can look at a contract like David Clarkson's and laugh at its palpable competitive unwieldiness, and harp on the importance of productive young players still locked into cheap entry-level contracts, I've seen very little in the way of numerical evaluation that expresses these obvious truths. The largest roadblock to doing so is the inability to confidently state just how good a particular player is with an actual figure- Sidney Crosby is fantastic, and we have crude counts like points and time on ice along with more sophisticated and predictive measures like adjusted shot attempts, rate stats, and linemate impact measures to show how fantastic he is, but no measure can encapsulate exactly how many 'fantastics' he is, especially when comparing across positions.

That roadblock still exists, but the hockey community has taken the first steps in chiseling through it. I'm specifically referring to the absolutely fantastic work undergone by war-on-ice.com; true to their name, they have developed a Wins Above Replacement statistic comparable in utility to baseball's more mainstream measure of the same name. I could write an entire article about the mechanics of war-on-ice's WAR and its worthiness as a tool or lack thereof, but I'll instead defer to their own blog's 11 part series explaining their methodology and rationale, as it is far more eloquent, detailed, and knowledgeable about the stat than I can attempt to be. What's important to this post is the assumption that the measure has significant importance and value- those unfamiliar with the idea should at least skim the explanation, and those who see little value in WAR will see little value in this post as a result.

With that said, I undertook the relatively simple task of combining the results from war-on-ice's WAR measurements with contract information in an attempt to evaluate the efficiency of the use of Tampa Bay's salary cap. The resulting key figure- something I coarsely dubbed "GAR per % of cap" (which is a literal description)- is something I doubt is original with me, but I've never seen it anywhere else and feel that at the very least it will have some worth as a rough counting figure.

"GAR per % of cap" is exactly what it says on the tin- it divides "Goals above replacement" (the metric created by war-on-ice one step before they convert to wins above replacement; I used it because the results are more aesthetically pleasing with GAR) by the percentage of the salary cap a player's contract fills. (Why percent cap rather than the direct figure? As the cap rises, a player's cap hit becomes less onerous; this is obvious, but many fans and analysts retain an outdated idea in their head of what a 5 million AAV player is.) While I used the player's 2014-2015 cap hits and regular season GAR, there would've been value in considering certain players' current contracts instead, or in using a 3 year GAR average, or even applying an aging deflator to GAR like Dom did. The goal of this post, though, is introductory and exploratory in nature so I kept it simple.

Here's the data, along with term and status details for the Lightning players:

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There's a lot to digest here, and indeed I don't see this as anywhere near my first post about cap efficiency. However, when I finally produced the relatively finished product you see here, there were some obvious conclusions to draw:

  • Holy mackerel Nikita Kucherov. An insanely productive 2014-2015 season and basement salary figure (low even for a market UFA 4th liner/entry level player) makes Kucherov's GAR per % of cap 15.46. Although this is a new measure and therefore we have no reference for the relative impressiveness of that figure, I can say with high confidence that this was the highest mark for any NHL player for this past season. I browsed through the first few pages of forwards, defensemen, and goalies sorted by GAR hunting for other cheap ELC players, and though a few forwards came close to matching #86, Kucherov was still the most efficient individual use of salary cap space. What's more is that only Kuch and Anaheim defender Sami Vatanen continue to operate at the low salary figure for 2015-2016 among the elite GAR per % of cap players of this past season (elite defined conveniently by myself as Vatanen and above and including other names like pre-extension Vladimir Tarasenko, Jake Muzzin, and John Klingberg; I could've included Cedric Paquette but I am not confident enough that there aren't others in his GAR efficiency range I have yet to consider), meaning that the Lightning continued to enjoy the efficiency for this offseason (and utilized the saved space wisely with the Erik Condra signing). The argument that Nikita Kucherov is the most valuable asset for the 2015-2016 season isn't an absurd one based on these results.
  • The aforementioned tenet of team construction's reliance on entry level contracts is already well-established in casual and advanced settings, yet the results for the Lightning still manage to further hammer this point home. The T and O in TKO unsurprisingly yield a high return on small cap frontage, and cheap effectiveness in the form of Paquette and Namestnikov exists as well. The contracts are short and capped by restricted status, so the Lightning won't be able to exploit the flexibility for long- but in the meantime, their existence fuels this competitive window. Figuring out how to keep these players' operating relatively efficiently (around the ballpark of Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn's GAR per % of cap hit) will be key to keeping that window extended. All of this is obvious, yet useful to see in a measurable manner.
  • At first glance, the Lightning defense seems to be shoddily constructed from a salary cap standpoint; however, further investigation shows the make-up to be at least league average. As much as I am mind-blowingly impressed by war-on-ice's creation, I fail to believe that Michael Raffl's 2014-2015 season (among many others, and Raffl of course enjoyed a fine under-the-radar campaign) exceeded Victor Hedman's in value; indeed, Hedman's entire career seems diminished by WAR. A piece of that 2014-2015 paucity may be explained by Hedman's early season broken finger, but a quick glance at his linemate impacts and HERO charts on ownthepuck describe a player far outperforming a $4,000,000 contract. Further, the GAR metric seems to undervalue defenders as a whole; I fished around many other team's defensemen and found far more egregiously negative values on multiple teams. Indeed, the only true albatrosses lie at the bottom of the page (though Jason Garrison is not a more negative asset than Kucherov is a positive; I couldn't quite construct an acceptable way to measure the below replacement level players on the GAR per % cap scale, which is the reason for the cartoonish number), and though Carle and Garrison are ugly players to consider from a salary efficiency standpoint, they are forgivable mistakes.
  • Lightning captain Steven Stamkos sits surreptitiously in the middle of the Lightning efficiency situation, but I haven't forgotten about him. With his upcoming extension imminent and his WAR figures surprisingly lower in his past three seasons than in his early career, Stamkos will prove a key piece to the Tampa Bay salary puzzle and I plan on exploring the different scenarios and their implications in a separate post. What is worth noting is that Stamkos' GAR salary efficiency is in line with the top cap hit players' salary efficiency marks and still would be at upwards of $10,000,000 in average annual value, though the giant will be easier to work around with better play from Stamkos.
  • On a final note, I am extremely pleased with the free agent work done by the Lightning front office during the past two offseasons. While the team suffered with the relative dud that was the Brenden Morrow acquisition, GM Steve Yzerman has now hit pay dirt on two consecutive Canada Days- on a day, no less, when many executives annually make their biggest mistakes and where Yzerman has already erred from an efficiency standpoint with Carle and, to some extent, Filppula if Val is unable to stabilize his performance. The Anton Stralman signing of last summer and the Condra affair of this summer both sit among the entry level contracts in terms of efficiency. That is a commendable feat and in stark contrast to most July activity, which in most estimations produces a ton of 1.0 and below Goals Above Replacement per percentage of salary cap deals, spawns a sizable number of negative beasts, and creates very little situations as efficient as high performing entry level contracts.
In the future, I look forward to delving deeper into the nitty-gritty of these numbers while also making some league-wide evaluations. In particular, it will be interesting to see this past season's truly most valuable players to have in an organization and to appraise individual situations like Stamkos'. In any case, I'm excited to combine player value and salary cap management to truly study which teams are acting as competitively as possible, and which players best aid a success-minded organization competing in the salary cap situation.

I would like to mention and credit again the contributions of The Hockey News, Dominik Luszczyszyn, and war-on-ice.com, as I feel like this post is, in some manner, just an extension of their ideas and efforts.

This post was written by a member of the Raw Charge community and does not necessarily represent or express the views or opinions of Raw Charge staff.