The Flames’ big get in free agency this summer was Troy Brouwer. Unlike most of Treliving’s moves over the last 12 months or so, the addition of Brouwer is somewhat divisive. On one hand, the former Blackhawk seems to fill a primary need on the team: he’s big, right handed, a veteran and a consistent 17-20 goal scorer.
On the other hand, Brouwer will be 31 years old when the season starts and his new contract, worth $4.5M per year, will stretch until 2019-20 when he’ll turn 35. His deal also comes with a NTC and he’s a guy who has never scored more than 43 points in a season, despite skating with some pretty good line mates.
I’ll take you through why this is probably a bad bet. And maybe why the Flames took it anyways.
Brouwer is big, tough and has won a Cup. Don’t the Flames need exactly this type of player?
It depends on how much you weight those of factors. Conventionally, NHL teams like to have at least a couple of “big bodies” in their lineup, particularly in their top six. There’s also a lot of talk about the value of “heavy hockey” as well, particularly in the Western Conference thanks to the success of clubs like San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis. Of course, what often isn’t talked about in this context is the fact that three of the Western Conference’s biggest teams (Arizona, Winnipeg and Colorado) were also it’s worst last year, but we won’t get into that now.
Having Cup experience is also often talked about a value add with players, though no one has ever really offered any definitive evidence that this sort of thing actually helps teams (aside from anecdotes and generalities of course).
In the end, I’m not against those qualities, but I’m sensitive to NHL executives potentially overestimating their value. It’s interesting to see how much added interest and value a 40-point player gets once you add the qualifier of “big bodied” next to it. The obvious qualifier being that bigger doesn’t necessarily make a guy’s points more valuable or ensure he drives a higher goal differential when he’s on the ice.
So… kinda is what you’re saying?
Sure. I’m okay with the Flames getting bigger and (functionally) tougher, assuming that leads to better overall outcomes.
Doesn’t Brouwer do that? He’s a pretty consistent goal scorer.
One of the best things about Brouwer is his goal scoring. In fact, he’s a career 14% shooter, which is an excellent scoring rate. Jarome Iginla, for instance, is about a 12-13% shooter over his career.
Two types of players in the NHL shoot in the mid-teens like that: snipers with way above average shooting ability; and crease crashers, who are adept at banging in rebounds and goal mouth scrambles.
Brouwer is the latter. Over the last three seasons, his average shot distance from the net is only about 28 feet, which is about three feet or closer than most forwards.
That’s not a bad thing, because crease crashing itself is kind of skill. That said, it’s not the same as being a preternaturally adept sniper who can pick corners or rifle shots over a goalie’s shoulder from the top of the circle. Crease crashers are more reliant on linemates getting the puck to the net for them as a result.
That means the Flames are making a bet on Brouwer’s style of hockey meshing with Monahan, Gaudreau or Bennett?
Brouwer is good around the net and he’s strong down low, so the thinking here is the kids can move the puck through the neutral zone and then Brouwer can help them cycle it against other big bodies in the zone and crash the net. They probably envision him standing in front of the goalie on the PP as well. And fair enough – he has scored 27 PP goals over the last three years.
That all sounds good. So what’s the problem?
There are three concerns when it comes to Brouwer. I’ll list them all here and then we’ll work through each of them in turn.
1.) Despite his great personal SH%, Brouwer is a mediocre even strength scorer.
2.) Players Brouwer’s age tend to see their scoring rate erode rapidly.
3.) Brouwer is also middling possession player.
Wait, Brouwer is a steady 40-point getter. That’s pretty good. How do you call that mediocre?
I said mediocre even strength scorer. Although Brouwer puts up decent totals every year, the truth is his career even strength scoring rate (points per minutes played) is what you might expect from the average third liner.
Let’s put it in context. Brouwer’s ESP/60 (even strength points per 60) over the last three seasons is 1.38. Above average first liners are usually around 2.00 or better. The Mendoza line for top six players is about 1.8. Conversely, guys around 1.00 or below are usually grinders or enforcers. That puts Brouwer a bit behind the league’s legit scorers and a little closer to the fourth line replacement players.
Putting some names to these numbers might help. Over the same period of time (the last three seasons), Matt Stajan’s ESP/60 is… 1.38. Lance Bouma’s is 1.35.
What? Then why has Brouwer scored so many more points than those guys over the last three seasons?
For two reasons:
1.) Because his style of game and subsequent high personal SH% convinces coaches to play him a lot more with better players and on the PP. Over that period of time, Brouwer has played almost 700 more minutes than Stajan and almost 900 more minutes than Bouma at 5on5 alone.
2.) Because he also plays on the PP a lot more than your average third liner. Again, NHL coaches like his game style and the fact that he scores on a higher rate of his shots than guys like Bouma and Stajan.
Here’s the weird thing though – despite Brouwer’s better personal SH%, each guy mentioned has almost the same rate of goals per 60 minutes of even strength ice: 0.56 (Stajan), 0.56 (Brouwer), Bouma (0.54). To be fair, Bouma has an outlier season skewing that number (2014-15), but it’s surprising nevertheless.
So, the real difference is that Brouwer is a decent PP scorer, gets time with the man advantage and plays a lot at ES. Bouma and Stajan (and most third other liners) don’t.
And how do you know his scoring rate is going to fall?
We certainly don’t know it for sure because no one can perfectly predict the future. But we do know the average rate of decline for NHL forwards, which we can use to determine some expected scoring rates for Brouwer.
As you can see, NHLers tend to peak scoring wise in their mid-20’s and then see things fall off rapidly after 30. From the linked article: “On average, players retain about 90% of their scoring through age 29, but the drop from there is pretty sharp — they hit 80% at age 31, 70% at age 32-33, and 60% at age 35.”
If we round up and say Brouwer is a true 1.40 ESP/60 scorer, we can reasonably expect him to drop to 1.12 by as early as next next year and be down to about 0.84 by the final season in Calgary. That’s around the same scoring rate as Brandon Bollig.
Obviously, every player is different and Brouwer’s drop won’t necessarily be direct and linear. Heck, if he gets cherry minutes with Gaudreau and Monahan this year, I’d expect his scoring rate to actually increase as a matter of course at least for one season.
These numbers simply highlight the level of risk in the Brouwer contract. His scoring rate is already low enough such that If he takes any sort of step back he hits fourth liner territory – and he’s entering the period of his career when we would expect that to happen (and to accelerate over time!).
What’s more, big guys who aren’t exactly fleet of foot aren’t known to age well in the NHL either.
Well even if Brouwer isn’t a great scorer for his whole contract, at least he can be a good grinder or shutdown guy, right?
That brings us back to the possession thing. Brouwer doesn’t drive play. Like his scoring rate, his shot generation and shot suppression rates tend to hover around the average third liner. Observe:
The stuff we’re talking about is the lower, right hand bars above – shot generation, shot suppression and productive (relative) possession. This is relevant, because in the end there’s only a few ways to drive goal differential at even strength in the NHL: by driving scoring or by driving possession (elite players do both at the same time). If you’re not a great scorer and not a great possession guy, then you tend to get outscored pretty consistently. No matter how big bodied you are.
The thing about shutdown guys is you at least need them to be able to suppress shots against. Brouwer doesn’t – or at least hasn’t to this point in his career.
You’re depressing me.
Sorry about that. It’s probably not all bad though.
Let’s be fair to Brouwer – he played in some of the tougher circumstances for the Blues last year, so his results are likely somewhat suppressed by low offensive zone starts and tough competition.
That said, his most frequent linemates over the last couple of seasons have been nothing to sneeze at: David Backes, Paul Stastny, Robbi Fabbri, Alex Steen, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. Brouwer faced tough sledding, but he didn’t go it alone.
Alright smart ass, why did the Flames do this then? Are you saying Treliving is dumb?
Not at all.
In the end, the Flames really needed to do something about their RW depth and were likely out of the running for the (very small number of) established guys who were available given their cap situation. All the other quality UFA options got more money and longer term, so Brouwer became the first/best guy in the “next tier” down.
His intangibles and game style probably put him over the top, but in reality Brouwer is something of stop gap measure for now. Treliving didn’t want to be caught standing without a chair when the music stopped and the four years, $4.5M and NTC were the price of doing business in a shallow free agent market. Also, the Flames GM probably didn’t want to bet on an unknown guy given how questionable the organization’s starboard side is already.
Although $4.5M will likely seem expensive for Brouwer by year three and four of his deal, it’s not so much that it will cripple the club – mostly because they have a lot of bad money coming off the books next summer. If Treliving can avoid three or four more Brouwer-type bets with those freed up dollars, the player can be eased into a “veteran leader who is kinda overpaid” role without too much consternation.
So from an organizational perspective, Brouwer was the best veteran available given needs and prices and the hope is his style of play will mesh with some of the key difference makers up front. At least for a year or two while Treliving tries to further improve the Flames’ winger depth.
And heck, if the deal goes bad immediately, they can always hope Brouwer gets claimed in the expansion draft next summer, right?