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?

Comments (10)

  1. Do you think Cody Hodgson is a case of the inverse? He got ‘showcased’ on 2nd PP minutes and against weak competition for the Canucks from January onward, put up numbers good enough to win Rookie of the Month, and got traded. Maybe Vigneault really does hate Hodgson.

  2. The Oilers forwards with the easiest zone starts are Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Hall and Gagner, in that order. Gagner starts 55.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone. His most frequent even strength linemates are Hall and Eberle. If you want to just look at raw numbers, he’s still averaging 2:35 in pp time, only about 30 seconds behind the “first” powerplay unit, which to me says that the Oilers split their pp time pretty evenly between the first and second units. I really don’t think you can say that they are trying to hold Gagner back.

    As for Giroux, here are some stats from Behind the Net and Left Wing Lock:

    11-12: 47.5% ozone starts, toughest Corsi Rel Qoc among Flyers forwards w/ 40 gp, most frequent linemates: Hartnell/Jagr, PPTOI: 1st among Flyers forwards
    10-11: 49.2% ozone starts, 4th hardest Corsi Rel QoC, most frequent linemates: Carter/Van Riemsdyk, PPTOI: 1st among forwards
    09-10: 50.6%, 6th easiest Corsi Rel QoC, most frequent linemates: Richards/Van Riemsdyk PPTOI: 5th among forwards
    08-09: 51.0 4th easiest, Corsi Rel QoC, most frequent linemate: Asham, PPTOI: 8th

    If anything, the opposite has happened with Giroux. Other than his rookie year, he has had as good (if not better) linemates, easier matchups and more offensive zone starts prior to this season. The last two seasons he’s been their top pp forward, while playing on the second unit his sophomore year and getting 1:23 pp time as a rookie (behind Briere, Richards Gagne, Knuble, Carter, Hartnell and Lupul, not exactly the easiest group to crack for a 20 year old rookie). I think Giroux is more a case of someone just getting a whole hell of a lot better than him being buried in the past. He’s doing more with less, tougher matchups and harder zone starts. Looking this up actually made me even more impressed with what Giroux has done this season.

    As for someone like Staal, you might be right. He plays with Kunitz and Dupuis and gets all the toughest matchups, while playing only 2:13 on the powerplay. Pittsburgh also really rides their top pp unit, with four forwards around 4:00 per game. However it may be less a case of trying to bury Staal offensively and more to do with trusting Staal to win the matchup with the opponents best players.

  3. Well, there’s a lot to think about.

    The GM and coach would have to weigh the options: “bury the guy in the depth chart in hopes of signing him to a more reasonable contract” VS. “push the guy to the max to see how well he does”

    What would be the net gain?

    Option 1 – Maybe the guy signs a more reasonable contract (+). OR maybe he bails (-).

    Option 2 – Maybe the guy becomes a consistent producer, makes a few extra bucks, but sticks around for a while (+). OR maybe he doesn’t reach his potential and you’re stuck with another 3rd pair D playing 1st D minutes (-). OR maybe he does well and becomes trade bait for that guy you REALLY want (++).

    In my books, the potential outcomes of Option 2 out-weigh those of Option 1. But I’m not a GM; I just play one in NHL12.

  4. I highly doubt it, some(most) players just take time to reach their potential, I doubt it has anything to do with some sinister plan by coaches and GM’s, especially since most of the time coaches need to be worrying about getting the next win to keep their jobs (same goes for many GM’s).

    Just look at Erik Karlsson, he hasn’t been locked up to a long term contract and the owner of that team has gone on record saying he thinks the guy will be one of the all time greats….

    Having a winning team is much more important than possibly saving some money on a player in the future.

    Besides with all the Coach firings that have happened throughout the years don’t you think one of them would have gone on record with this sort of thing

  5. I think this probably should happen more than it does. As a Leafs fan, I’ll use them as an example. Coming into this year, Kulemin and Grabovski were pending RFA/UFA, respectively. They were also two-thirds of the Leafs’ only decent puck possession line. I thought they should have been fed a steady diet of Dzone starts and tough competition. Treat them like Bergeron’s line in Boston.

    This was defensible hockey strategy (Leafs are deep in scoring types but not possession types). It would have allowed them to shelter the first and third lines and put out their only decent possession line to neutralize the opposition’s top threat. It also would have depressed Kulemin and Grabovski’s numbers.

    Instead, they still faced solid competition because of their skill level but received a steady diet of OZone starts. This was bad for the Leafs and bad for their contracts (though Kulemin couldn’t take advantage.

    Basically, I wouldn’t play contract games if it would hurt the team’s chances, but if there are two defensible strategies, I’ll take the one that helps the team come contract time.

  6. I could see it happening. Maybe with Giroux, it’s a case of them really wanting to draft Bobby Sanguinetti but he was drafted by the Rangers one pick earlier. The Flyers GM had to be told how to pronounce Giroux’s name, as I read the other day. If I could only remember where I read it…

    Anyway, maybe they didn’t have too much confidence in Giroux from the start, so that gave them ample reason to “ease him in” once they saw that he was actually much more talented than Sanguinetti. (Stupid Sather)

  7. Sounds really rough for that juniors kid that got run out of town. He gets away from a coach that hates him, he starts the season hot so he’s got his confidence up, and he gets traded to a team that believes he can continue to produce do his minutes are going to stay high and he’s going to play with better line mates. Did he get get traded to the first place team in the league too? Where can I sign up to get run out of town by that coach? What does he do for players he likes?

  8. This is exactly the strategy I want to see the Oilers take with Eberle next year. He’s having a tremendous season this year, but he’s being sheltered both in terms of zone start and opposition that he’s facing. He’s still got one more year on his ELC, I say have him spend it learning to play the toughs. Let him play with Horcoff and Smyth/Jones. Start him in the D-zone more often. He’ll be a better (and cheaper) player for it… then after he’s inked his next (hopefully long-term) contract, let him fly again with Hall/RNH.

    A lot of Oiler fans loved the signing of Hemsky, as it would allow him to take the hard minutes on the RW… but honestly, switching the expected roles of Hemmer and Ebs next year seems like the better strategy long-term.

    • It’s not a great strategy if you, you know, want to WIN HOCKEY GAMES. Oh wait, it’s the Oilers we’re talking about. Nevermind.

  9. Baseball does this with bonuses for young pitchers… they will specifically pull them early so they dont get a certain amount of IP for a bigger bonus/better next contract

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