As someone who played enough hockey to see the inner-workings of depth charts, I’ve come to feel like this is worth talking about:

Do GMs and coaches ever purposely tinker with their players’ numbers to sign them to lower contracts?

I’m not saying they ever actually change their stats, I’m saying that in my opinion (and that of @JCiocco14), sometimes coaches will “bury” players in the depth chart early in their NHL (or AHL) careers until they can lock them up on some longer term deal, when they can officially unleash them on the world.

Case in point: Claude Giroux.

Giroux is locked up on a three year deal with an average cap hit of $3.75 million a year, and that goes through to 2014 (his real salary this season is $2.75M). He’s currently 3rd in the NHL in scoring, four points out of first. Is there some chance he was held back a bit and not given the best opportunities to succeed (“eased into things,” as the team would likely call it) until they could get him on a cheaper deal? Could they have known he could be this good?

I say yes. I mean, who knows for sure, but it’s certainly possible.

I know what you’re thinking: surely winning is the most important thing. You play the guys in the situations where they can be the most successful, and where they can help your team be most successful.

Usually, yes. For example, the Islanders and Oilers can’t afford not to play their young talent if they hope to ever win. But some of the upper echelon teams… I could see it. Especially when it can ensure that you’ll be Cup contenders for a longer run.

The Penguins have obviously thought of having Jordan Staal play with either Malkin or Crosby instead of centering guys like Kunitz and Dupuis (yes, I know all three are centers. Wing is the world’s easiest position, he’d be fine). Jordan Staal comes with a $4 million cap hit that ends next year. Isn’t there some possiblity that the Pens are afraid a gigantic offensive year (which would be very possible playing with another stud) puts him out of their price range next season? And don’t forget, Sidney Crosby will need to be re-signed that same summer. Don’t think they don’t know that.

It happens in the inverse, I know that for a fact. I know a story of a junior player who was hated by his coach (not mentioning any names here, but I certainly can), who incidentally wasn’t very good, who gobbled up top-6 and PP minutes. He got off to a roaring start, and got dealt for a much better player. It happens. Asset management.

What about Sam Gagner in Edmonton?

Right now Gagner has a raw salary and cap hit that are both under $2.3 million. He has 42 points in 59 games, is 22 years old, and is on a fairly poor hockey team, yet he can’t get first line minutes or on the 1st powerplay? It’d sure be a lot more costly to lock him up for awhile after this year if he put up monster numbers this season, wouldn’t it?

As a guy who spent time in the minors, I saw something similar happen often, but I always understood it. Some young draft pick who wasn’t as good as an older guy would get the better minutes, and that was totally fine. The kids a prospect, not a project, and everyone is making peanuts anyway.

But with teams in the NHL, winning is everything, and the stakes are a lot higher. There are incentives to do this sort of stuff.

So I put it out to you – what do you think? Does this happen more or less than we think? And more importantly, are there other, specific NHL names that you think are being held back (or propped up) in order to make them look like a less (or more) valuable asset?