They don’t call the period around July 1st the NHL’s ‘silly season’ for nothing, and this year general managers didn’t even wait for unrestricted free agency to begin before signing decent but not overwhelming players to massive contracts. Christian Ehrhoff’s rights were traded like a baseball card before the Sabres eventually signed him to a heavily front-loaded, decade-long contract. James Wisniewski also saw his rights dealt, and in the hours prior to the opening of free agency Scott Howson managed to get him under contract.
And what a contract it was. Six years long, with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million, for a total tab of $33.0 million to be handled by the owners of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Rather than focus on how crazy those numbers sound, let’s look at the positives.
The best part of this signing, from a Blue Jackets perspective, is that it fits an obvious and definable need. For years now, the team has lacked a right-shooting point man for the power play, and they’ve filled the role with a number of stop-gap players – Jason Williams was probably the most successful of that group, which featured virtually every single defenseman on the team to show the slightest hint of offensive prowess.
The results have been horrendous. Last season, Columbus saw their man advantage click at a 14.0% conversion rate, good for 29th in the league ahead of only the miserable Florida Panthers. They were the worst team in the league in 2008-09, and since the NHL lockout have finished higher than the mid-20’s just once.
How much can James Wisniewski help?
His 2010-11 season was exceptional. He averaged 4.65 points for every 60 minutes of 5-on-4 ice-time. He managed a career high seven power play goals, while adding 22 helpers in those situations. Wisniewski also contributed 22 points at even-strength.
Yet 2010-11 also represented an offensive breakout for Wisniewski, who has bounced from team to team with regularity over the course of his NHL career. What has he done in seasons past? In that respect, there is both good news and bad news.
Power Play Scoring
Before I delve into the point totals, I think the ice-time totals need to be examined. At first glance, this looks like four separate seasons worth of data, but it is worth keeping in mind that Wisniewski played almost as many power play minutes in 2010-11 as he did in the previous three seasons combined. That is important for two reasons. First, it means that when we are weighting things, we ought to keep things in proportion: 2010-11 means far more than any of the previous three seasons. Secondly, when a defenseman plays heavy minutes rather than light minutes, there is an added advantage: the guys playing the big minutes generally play with first unit talent, while the guys playing lighter minutes generally play with second unit talent. That can have a significant impact on scoring totals.
The scoring totals, in any case, are quite good. The two lesser seasons are still acceptable for a power play defenseman, while Wisniewski’s point totals from this year are superb. I would wager that we will see a slight drop in goal-scoring – his shooting percentage was a fair bit higher this season than it had been in preceding years, and his power play conversion rate is roughly double what we’ve seen prior, but I don’t think it will drop off entirely. As a power play option, I think the Blue Jackets are going to be quite happy with Wisniewski going forward.
As for the other special team, Wisniewski didn’t get a lot of short-handed ice-time in Montreal, but I think the Blue Jackets will make him an integral part of their penalty-killing unit. Generally, a guy traded midseason doesn’t get used to kill penalties, but Wisniewski has had significant experience in that role in his previous NHL stops, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again in Columbus.
What about at even strength? Let’s lead off with two charts – one showing scoring, the other showing situational statistics.
Even strength scoring
Table 3: 5-on-5 context
|2009-10||1st, D||4th, D||47.7%||11.7|
|2007-08||8th, D||6th, D||49.3%||2.8|
Surprisingly good numbers for Wisniewski here, and durable ones to boot. This is a guy who in each of the past four seasons has been a high-end offensive option at even-strength, and given the track record here I would be quite surprised if he failed to put up points in those situations for Columbus, even with massively increased ice-time.
The Quality of Competition and Quality of Teammates numbers (from behindthenet.ca) are omitted for two seasons because Wisniewski played for two teams in those years and I don’t trust the numbers across teams. Basically though, we’ve seen Wisniewski move from an end-of-roster option in Chicago between 2007-09 to a top-four guy over the past two seasons. He’s been quite good over the last two years.
The bottom line? This deal isn’t as crazy as it sounded at first blush. I still think it’s an overpay, simply because Wisniewski doesn’t have a lengthy track record as a top-pairing guy, and correspondingly doesn’t have a big-name reputation. That said, Columbus was not negotiating from a position of strength and Wisniewski has really come into his own over the last few years. This is a much better deal than I thought it was initially (my initial reaction echoes Scott’s).