The Byfuglien Blunder

The are many aspects to being a general manager in the NHL, but one of the most important is being a good gambler. What is often referred to as talent assessment for GM’s is really just making bets about players future performance. The manager puts down a certain amount of money in the form of a contract and hopes the player will provide commensurate value over the life of the deal.

Bets can be good ones because the contract is short or cheap or because the player has an established history of being a difference maker. The resultant risk is minimal. Some bets are bad ones, however – and perhaps the best example of poor riverboat gambling is buying high on a player during a career peak. That’s what the Atlanta Thrashers have done with Dustin Byfuglien and his five year, $26 million extension this week.

I dealt with Byfuglien’s performance previously in this post, part of which is worth revisiting now:

Byfuglien’s circumstances this year have been of the favorable variety this season. He plays top-six type competition, but he’s not deployed as a real, shut-down option in the same manner of, say, Duncan Keith or Nicklas Lidstrom. He has averaged just nine seconds of PK ice per game this year, as compared to the 3:48/game he sees with the man advantage, for example. What’s more, Byfuglien’s offensive zone start ratio is one of the friendliest amongst Atlanta’s regular defenders: only Ron Hainesy (52.4%) has started more often in the offensive zone than Byfgulien (51.9%) thus far. In contrast, consider Zach Bogosian (36.8%) and Johnny Oduya (37.6%) – a pair of guys who are getting completely buried at even strength in order to give Byfuglien the high ground.

Not much has changed since then. Oduya and Bogosian are still getting buried. Byfuglien still boasts one of the easiest zone start ratios on the team; he doesn’t consistently face top-end competition; he still doesn’t kill penalties (incredibly his average ice time on the PK his actually fallen to seven seconds per game). So his impressive offensive stats should be viewed with caution: the big guy has been scoring this season, but he’s also been put in a position to succeed. Of course, as Dion Phaneuf can probably attest to, things change drastically when the pay checks and expectations increase.

Soft circumstances alone isn’t the reason Byfuglien’s $5.25M/year extension is a bad bet, however. The former Blackhawk had three seasons of results under his belt prior to 2010-11 and he averaged 19 goals and 37 points (prorated over 82 games for each year) on one of the most dominant teams in the league…as a forward. This season, he’s on pace to manage 60 points as a defender on a distinctly middling squad. The chances that this will be a high water mark for the big man is therefore extremely high. As such, the idea that Byfuglien’s remarkable current output is an accurate indicator of his abilities going forward is an…aggressively optimistic forecast.

It’s entirely probable that Byfuglien’s output will fall back down to earth at some point in the near future (it’s already begun) and he will struggle to live up to the weighty expectations of his new deal. Add in a limited no trade clause and the fact that the contract is back-loaded for some baffling reason and you have yourself a probable albatross down the road.

Because no one can tell the future, there’s always a chance a contract will work out despite all current evidence to the contrary. I wouldn’t bet a nickle of my own money that that will be the case with Byfuglien’s new deal, however.