benoit pouliot chris kelly

Right now I guess we’re still waiting for the manager of a good team that has the audacity to ship out his lower-level, fan-favourite players at the end of a good season.

Salary cap realities forced the Chicago Blackhawks in the summer of 2010 to shed some depth players. That was Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Adam Burish—but part of the reason they were forced into reality is because of not only the Great Restricted Free Agent Flap of 2009, but also because David Bolland inexplicably earned a five-year contract after 119 career NHL games and 23 total goals.

This summer, Stan Bowman caved into surely what was a lot of pressure and gave Bryan Bickell a five four-year deal. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea to pay a depth winger long-term that has a shaky spot scoring goals or registering ice-time at the NHL level. He had a good playoff run, but you’d somewhat hope Bowman could have seen through his biases and recognized that Bickell’s scoring in the playoffs (nine goals and 17 points on a 13.86% on-ice shooting percentage and 18.4% individual shooting percentage) was more of a bonus on top of the things Bickell does bring to the lineup than a new talent that somehow manifested itself within.

Here’s something a Stanley Cup-winning general manager once said on the concept of evaluating depth players:

[the] ratings provided by the coach, tallied up after every game, never matched reality. A coach’s subjective bias, he explained, benefit the third line players and the players who were closer to replacement level. Those players ratings were “unfairly propped up because the expectations for that player are much lower.”

For a grinder, “he’s expected to go out on the ice and create energy,” Bowman continued. “That player can probably do the job to the coach’s liking without a doubt as long as the effort’s there.”

Oh, I guess it was Bowman who made those points.

Now I’m not in the boardroom so it isn’t fair for me to judge a general manager on how he re-signs his own players. Sometimes teams pay a premium in years to keep together the known quantities and avoid the scary world of depth players on the NHL free agent market, though I think teams would be better served by letting some players go and keeping cheaper options.

Check out the summer of the 2012 Boston Bruins. Chris Kelly was a third-line centre coming off of a 20-goal season, the first time he’d ever hit that number. He was also a plus-33 and a very key player on the ’12 Bruins squad looking to repeat, that often put up six goals on opponents early in the season.

On the first day of free agency, the Bruins re-signed Kelly to a four-year deal, to go along with the three-year deal Rich Peverley had signed the summer before. Both were going to start contracts worth a combined $6.25-million per season against the cap, largely as depth players. Good depth players, but depth players nonetheless.

In the summer of 2012, Peverley and Kelly were at the height of their value, having led the NHL in PDO with matching 105.6 numbers. A basic understanding of PDO and you think “oh, those two will probably not match the performance you saw out of them in the 2011-2012 season, but you re-signed Chris Kelly anyway even though he was a free agent.”

Kelly scored three goals and was a minus-8 in the shortened 2013 season, while Peverley dropped from a plus-20 to a minus-9. Peverley’s PDO fell to 95.7 and he was included as a throw-in with Tyler Seguin in the Loui Eriksson trade. Kelly’s PDO dropped to 96.0.

At the time, I thought the Bruins would be better served to re-sign Benoit Pouliot, a 16-goal scorer for the Bruins in 2012 with good possession numbers that wouldn’t be so highly-priced. In the 2013 season with Tampa, Pouliot scored one fewer goal than Peverley and Kelly combined despite making just $1.8-million. I can’t seem to find any literature that would indicate why the Boston Bruins and Pete Chiarelli soured on Pouliot, but sour they did, and he was the odd-man out in 2013 after his linemates got big contracts.

Now Pouliot, who became an unrestricted free agent again this season, is making even less to sign with the New York Rangers. An outsider may see that Pouliot is going to his fourth team in five years and conclude that there isn’t a lot there, but I’m partially convinced that the Wild, Canadiens, Bruins and Lightning all missed a chance to capitalize on Pouliot’s value. He has much more value in a depth role as a player making less than $2-million risk-free than one on a Kelly-like deal. Dig closer into the numbers and you find very surprising things.

Over the last three seasons, Pouliot is tied for 34th in the NHL among forwards in “points per 60 minutes” with 2.14, tied with James Neal and ahead of Taylor Hall (barely). Not to say Pouliot is better than Neal or Hall because he doesn’t get to play against top-level defenders, but you could do much, much worse when looking for a player to line up on your third line. His possession differentials are stellar, with his team racking up 53.9% of Corsi events (overall shot attempts) during that time-frame. His teammates, without Pouliot on the ice, registered just 50.1% of the Corsi events without him.

He’s played some easy minutes over that time, but the point is that he has objectively succeeded in the roles he has played no matter which team he’s with. I’m not understanding just why it seems so difficult for him to find a continued spot in the NHL since he’s a very good checking forward with skill who is going to give a team plus value as long as his salary cap hit is low. What more, the last two seasons, he was 2nd on his team and 1st on his team in penalties drawn.

More signings like Pouliot is a bit of a shift for the Rangers, who generally acquire big stars on the market and develop their depth players. Glen Sather had a bit of cap space to work with this season after buying out Wade Redden but they stayed largely quiet, adding quality depth players. One will expect that in an Alain Vigneault system, this means that Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore get the bulk of the work “sheltering” the scoring lines, something that John Tortorella was remiss to do with the Rangers’ second line last season. With the talent up front on the wings, who knows which role Pouliot will find himself in—scoring or checking—but it may be defined pretty early in Vigneault’s system.

I look at the Rangers and see some waste at the top of the lineup. I don’t like either the Rick Nash or Brad Richards contracts, but I love Ryan McDonagh’s deal, and the fact that the Rangers have several cheap guys in depth positions. They haven’t overpaid yet for a Taylor Pyatt or Brian Boyle type of player, which allows the team to keep good players like Richards instead of buying them out and getting nothing.

The Rangers look to be headed into this next season with a bit of cap space and could add a player or two at the deadline. This may be the year for them to make a run: Boyle, Pyatt, Pouliot, Moore, Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman and Henrik Lundqvist are all unrestricted free agents after this year. Team-building is always pretty interesting and it’s fun to see how different teams allocate resources. Curious to see what happens to those four forwards I mentioned should they have good seasons.

Interestingly, the Bruins are stuck a little ways over the cap and the Rangers are a little ways below. Would the Bruins trade Kelly-for-Pouliot now and shed $1.7-million in space to help them get under for the start of the year?

Salary info via Capgeek