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The case for trading Filppula: Now is the time to sell high

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Valtteri Filppula is scoring at a near career-high pace. Is this a temporary run of good luck or a sign of a resurgence?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Scenario

The Lightning will be in a continuous state of cap crunch over the next few seasons. Excellent drafting combined with a few ill-advised free-agent overpays has resulted in the Lightning having too many players and not enough money. Jonathan Marchessault was the first casualty of the Lightning’s glut of forwards, and he will likely not be the last unless General Manager Steve Yzerman can find a way to work some magic. While I don’t want to underrate his magical powers, we can look at one realistic approach if his magic goes awry.

The Lightning are currently hampered by three big long-term contracts to aging veterans. According to CapFriendly, Ryan Callahan, Jason Garrison, and Valtteri Filppula combine to eat $15.4 million in cap space, which represents ~21% of the total cap for this season. Callahan has barely played this season as he struggles to return from a somewhat mysterious injury, and Garrison has combined with Andrej Sustr to be the Lightning’s worst defensive pairing.

The only bright spot among those three big contracts this season has been Filppula. According to corsica.hockey, he’s scoring at the second highest pace of his career and the highest since the 2011-2012 season in Detroit, which was his age 27 year. A 32-year-old having one of the best seasons of his career is unlikely given what we know about NHL aging curves. We would expect him to be playing at about 70% of his peak performance at this point in his career. And the deeper we dig into his numbers, the less sustainable they appear. All of the following numbers are again via corsica and are adjusted for score, zone, and venue.

The Evidence

For the first time in his career, Filppula’s team is getting less than 50% of the shot share when he is on the ice. For the fourth consecutive season, the Lightning are getting less than 50% of the expected goals when he is on the ice. His impact on the team using shot metrics as a guide is worse than last season. By all underlying measures, Filppula is not having a resurgence. He’s continuing on the downward path that we would expect from any 30+ forward in the NHL.

If you’re skeptical of that assertion, I don’t blame you. I started looking at Filppula’s numbers because I thought he was having a bounce back year. But the truth is that my lying eyes were fooled by the results. The Lightning are shooting 8.7% on unblocked shots when Filppula is on the ice, which is a full 1.5% better than when he isn’t. That leads to a goal share that is more than 7% better when he’s on the ice than when he isn’t. And that’s the reason he APPEARS to be having a better season. Unfortunately for Lightning fans, nothing in the underlying data indicates that this is happening.

The following chart shows how the Lightning forwards compare to the rest of the league in several key measures. Each stat is measured relative to the team and is presented as a percentile rank among forwards with at least 200 minutes TOI. Nikita Kucherov’s stat line here makes perfect sense. When he’s on the ice, the team gets more of the shots, they generate more dangerous shots, they shoot a higher percentage, and they score more goals. All of that follows logically.

For Filppula, we don’t see a similar logical story. Instead, we see a player who doesn’t have an above average impact in any area yet the team is shooting a higher percentage and getting a better share of the goals when he’s on the ice. That’s a telling indicator that we’re looking at a player having a good run of luck whose on-ice results (shooting percentage and goals) will most likely fall back in line with his on-ice shot metrics.

The Choices

If we accept that Filppula is a 32 year old center having an unsustainably great first half of the season where he appears to be having one of the best years of his career by traditional metrics, then we arrive at one of the fundamentals of asset management in professional sports.

“Selling high” is trading players at the peak of their value because that’s when you can get the most in return. Filppula certainly fits that description as nothing about his play over the last few seasons suggests that he will continue to perform at this pace. If the Lightning can find a team that will pay decent value for Filppula, they should take advantage of that while they can.

Of course, this scenario assumes that NHL teams who aren’t able to come to this same realization still exist. While that might not be the case, Yzerman should still be calling all 14 teams that aren’t on Filppula’s no-trade list just to make sure.

In past trade rumors, the Lightning have been specific about addressing certain needs such as a right handed defender. In this case, I would not be so picky. Even if the return is purely draft picks or less than ideal prospects, I would consider making the move while Filppula is at his peak value. Because if they don’t move him, the only option might be to buy him out after the season in order to make room for new contracts. The Lightning are uniquely positioned with enough depth at center (Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos when he returns, Brian Boyle, Cedric Paquette) that they could absorb the loss of Filppula without hurting the roster too much this season.

The counterpoint to all of this is that if the Lightning are serious about winning a cup this season, they need as much depth as possible. Given the injuries they’ve already suffered, I can understand hesitancy to make a move like this. And if the return was only going to be draft picks or second tier prospects, I could easily understand the team saying that another run at a cup is more valuable than whatever assets might come back in return.

The counter to the counter is that this team is currently sitting outside of a playoff spot. According to DTMAboutHeart’s model, they have a 22% chance of making the playoffs. According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s, 47%.

The argument here really comes to when you decide the value of assets you would get back is more than the cost of losing a player on the roster for this season. The complicating factor is that with every game, Filppula is more likely to see his points and goal-based metrics regress closer to where they have been over the past few seasons instead of remaining at their current lofty state. If he regresses and the team doesn’t improve before the trade deadline, he won’t be worth as much as he is now.

This is the game of probability that NHL front offices play every day. Should I try to sell this player at his peak value? Should I wait another two weeks to see if the team improves? If I wait and he has a bad two weeks, how much will that affect his value? All of these questions are difficult to answer. My suggestion would be to move him now if you can. The cap space will be vital and I think the roster even without him is good enough to compete when fully healthy.