Today I want to take at look at four factors that will impact how the Tampa Bay Lightning front office might approach whether to send Mikhail Sergachev back to the OHL or keep him in Tampa — and then I want to try to quantify and weigh them.
Typical discussions of analytics in sports center around the evaluation of players and teams. Analysts try to determine which player or team is better than another, how much a player should be paid, how a player or team is likely to play in the future, etc. But running a database query and examining the outputs isn’t the only way organizations use analytics. It isn’t even the most valuable way.
Organizations face problems every day that require multiple methods of evaluation to arrive at an informed decision. The Lightning are facing one of those right now: whether to keep Mikhail Sergachev in Tampa or send him back to the OHL. From my perspective, this decisions involves four primary factors: two risks and two opportunities. These need to be assessed and ideally measured.
This isn’t one of those articles with a nice clean conclusion. Decisions like this are messy and the goal here is to understand the problem as best we can and make the best decision we can. But as you’ll see, this isn’t easy to do and the process is rife with opportunities for mistakes.
For the purposes of this analysis, we’re going to think about this as if the default decision is sending Sergachev back to the OHL. This allows us to define which direction the risks and opportunities go in our scenario.
Opportunity 1: Acquiring a second round pick from Montreal in 2018
If Sergachev plays fewer than 40 games, including playoffs, in Tampa this season, the Lightning will receive a second round pick in the 2018 draft from the Montreal Canadiens as additional compensation in the Jonathan Drouin trade. Second round picks are valuable assets.
The pick the Lighting would receive belongs to the Washington Capitals and they are likely to be a good team this season, so that pick will probably be in the second half of the second round and possibly close to the bottom of the round. That hurts the value a bit but with next year projected to be a strong draft, plenty of good players are likely to still be available and acquiring picks will be at a premium. Securing another high-end talent for the prospect pipeline is a valuable proposition.
Opportunity 2: Pushing out Sergachev’s first big contract by one year
Without going too deep into the CBA, if Sergachev plays fewer than ten games in Tampa this season, his entry level contract (ELC) will “slide” another season. In simple terms, that means the Lightning can delay the start of his first big contract by one more season.
Having good players on ELCs is one of the biggest advantages an NHL team can have. We saw this a few years ago with the Lightning and we’re seeing it now with the Toronto Maple Leafs. With Sergachev making far less than his actual value for an extra season, that would give the Lightning more time to allocate resources elsewhere and give them a little extra freedom in free agency.
Risk 1: Would it make the team worse this season?
The risk here depends on the assessor’s evaluation of Sergachev as a player now and how that evaluation projects to change by the end of the season. My belief is that Sergachev is one of the best six defenders the Lightning currently have on their roster. I also think that by the end of the year, he will be comfortably one of the top four players on the Lightning blue line.
Given that, sending him back to the OHL would significantly weaken the team this season. The next left handed defender on the roster is Slater Koekkoek. While I’m not ready to say he doesn’t still have potential to be a solid NHL player, Koekkoek hasn’t shown that in any consistent form since the Easter Conference Final in 2016.
The Lightning believe internally that this team can make a deep playoff run. They see themselves as cup contenders for at least the next few years with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman driving the top of a talented lineup. Intentionally making the team worse has even more impact under these circumstances.
Risk 2: Could it negatively impacting Sergachev’s development?
This is the most nebulous of the four factors. Quantifying the impact of an NHL-ready player spending an extra year in juniors is nearly impossible. The concept here is simple. High talent players seem prone to developing habits that lead to success at lower levels because of the talent gap between them and their peers but ultimately become bad habits in the NHL once that talent gap closes. Anecdotally, this tendency is more pronounced for defenders than forwards.
If we accept this conventional wisdom as true (and I’m inclined to agree with it), sending Sergachev back the OHL would be mostly wasting a year of his development from an NHL-centric perspective and could potentially result in him solidifying bad habits that will become even harder to break when he does arrive in Tampa full time.
We’ve established four primary factors. But identifying those is only the first step. Figuring out how to measure and weight them in order to arrive at a decision is the meat of this exercise. So let’s take our four primary factors and see if we can find some way to quantitatively compare them.
Our first opportunity, a second round draft pick, is one of the easier things to value in this analysis. Every team should have some method of assigning value to draft picks. That could involve translating them into the expected value of a player drafted in that position based on a statistic like goals above replacement (GAR) or even a straight dollar value by translating that GAR into dollars based on the typical cost of similar players on the free agent market.
As a rough approximation, here are the Lightning second-round picks since 2012: Brian Hart, Dylan Blujus, Adam Erne, Dominik Masin, Johnathan MacLeod, Matt Spencer, Mitchell Stephens, Boris Katchouk, Libor Hajek, Taylor Raddysh, Alex Volkov. Based on that recent history, the Lightning would be expecting to get an NHL player, but probably a bottom-six forward or low end bottom-pairing defender. Using that as a guide, let’s estimate that pick is worth a player who provides one goal above replacement. But we also have to keep in mind that one GAR player more than likely won’t arrive in the NHL until at least the 2021-2022 season.
The second opportunity is much more difficult to evaluate. The ability to delay Sergachev’s first big payday offers short term cap flexibility to maximize the talent level on the team during this two to three year stretch where the team expects to make runs at the Cup. Specifically, it means Sergachev’s second contract wouldn’t start until the 21-22 season instead of 20-21.
If we estimate his first contract at $6M per year, which is reasonable based on the player he’s projected to be, we’re talking about an additional $6M of cap space in the summer of 2021. That will be the summer after Kucherov (hopefully) signs his big extension so that cap space will be valuable. Exactly how valuable is difficult to say.
The first risk is the easiest to evaluate of all of our factors. The math is simple here. If Sergachev goes back to the OHL, that pushes someone into the top six who isn’t currently. The most likely player to fill that role is Slater Koekkoek. The risk of sending Sergachev back to junior in this context is the difference in performance from Sergachev to Koekkoek. If we estimate Sergachev is a bottom end number four defender, that would put the gap between him and Koekkoek based on how the latter played last season at around 1.5 GAR.
The second risk is the most difficult factor to value of everything discussed in this article. Assigning a measurable effect to the impact of an unnecessary year in the OHL on Sergachev’s development is nearly impossible. If he goes back, how much worse will any bad habits get? How much longer will it take him to correct them at the NHL level? How much later will he be an effective NHL player than if he had stayed in Tampa?
Those questions are largely unanswerable. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter, and this is one of those situations where a front office needs to rely on their collective experience to try to formulate all of the anecdotal evidence into a meaningful assessment.
Putting It All Together
We’ve done our best to define and evaluate each of the primary four factors as identified at the outset of the article. Here’s what we have:
Opportunity to draft a ~1 GAR player who will reach the NHL in about 3-4 years
Opportunity to save ~$6M in cap space in the summer of 2021
Risk of dropping ~1.5 GAR from the blue line this season
Risk of pushing back Sergachev’s development timeline
If this was my decision, I would keep him here. The next two seasons are the best chances the Lightning will have to win a championship. Having a top ten player in the NHL (Kucherov) for under $5M per year is an incredible advantage. Once he signs his new deal, the Lightning will have a much harder time building a team. A second round pick and the future cap space isn’t enough to offset the possibility of chasing a Cup this year and next for me. The risk to Sergachev’s development is the kicker. I don’t know exactly how to assess it but I was already leaning toward keeping him in Tampa and that solidifies it.
Outside of the context of this article, these kinds of decisions should never be made by one person. Ideally, a package of information far more refined that what is written above would be shared with several key decision makers with different backgrounds and perspectives so that a consensus could be reached.
The Lightning have to make this decision before Sergachev’s tenth game. Their ninth game is on October 21st. If he’s still in Tampa for their October 24th game against Carolina, we’ll know the decision.
Analytical decision making is valuable not just in comparing players head-to-head or deciding how much to offer in a contract negotiation but also in making complex decisions that involve disparate factors that can’t be compared one to one. No team is right all the time. But teams that take a structured approach to decision making are more likely to be right more often than those who don’t.