Predicting performance in the NHL is hard.
Every signing, every trade, every draft pick is a gamble that will likely play out over a number of years. The interplay of risk, cost and reward impacts decisions on what players to acquire, what prospects to develop, and what veterans to sign (or get rid of).
That’s why I want to talk about Curtis Lazar, Mikael Backlund and Troy Brouwer.
Let’s get right to it. Here’s why I don’t much like the Curtis Lazar gamble:
– Lazar’s junior performance isn’t particularly striking (aside from his WJC performance). His best NHLe (NHL equivalence) in the WHL was 29, putting his probability of being a bust around 75% according to the Projection Project. That’s no better than the run-of-the-mill second or third rounder.
– Lazar’s performance at the pro level gives us enough information that we can more confidently assume he has a low NHL ceiling. He has no good results at 22 years old, not even in terms of underlying numbers (shots for, shots against, chances, etc. It’s all pretty bad). That means he has to improve drastically just to be a third liner in the NHL, let alone a useful third liner. As such, the chances of Lazar becoming an above average NHLer is probably smaller than an unknown second round pick: whereas a second rounder becoming a star is slim, the chances of Lazar becoming one (given what we know about him at this point) is pretty much nill.
– My final problem with the Lazar trade is he most likely projects to be a replacement level (or worse) player. Guys are called “replacement level” because they can be easily replaced from the minor ranks, gratis. Heck, the Flames have walked away or waived (probably) better players than Lazar over the last few years (Kenny Agostino and Paul Byron come to mind.)
That’s not me trying to re-open old wounds, it just shows how often fringe-ish NHL guys are available for next to nothing. Meaning, you often don’t have to move assets of notable value to get reclamation projects of this nature.
– In fact, I’m guessing part of the reason the Senators traded Lazar now was his expired waiver exemption and the impending possibility of losing him on the wire. That’s something the Flames will have to negotiate moving forward, which is not insignificant given Lazar’s rough season. If he can’t make the team as regular NHLer next year, the club will have to keep him around or try to sneak him through to the Stockton Heat. That means there’s a possibility the org ends up paying a second rounder for half a season of a reclamation project.
– So where’s the upside here? Essentially the Flames are hoping that Lazar is much better than what he’s shown so far. Not only was he rushed to the show as a teenager, his most recent developmental season was derailed by mono and a falling out with his draft team. The Flames are not only betting that those factors undermined his performance to date, masking his true value, but that they can rebuild the player back up.
– Brian Burke had an interesting bit on the FAN960 the other day. He noted Mikael Backlund seemed like an expendable player when he arrived in Calgary and that Mickis’ current season proves that sometimes you need to wait on a player in order to understand his value. He mentioned Anton Stralman as another example.
I think the lesson is actually a bit more nuanced than simply “wait it out.” There are plenty of players in the NHL who will never get better or prove to be secretly valuable no matter how long you wait. The real trick is to identify the guys worth waiting for.
In terms of Backlund and Stralman, the math liked both guys long before most fans or conventional hockey people did. If you can leverage data to find guys who drive play and out-chance the opposition, that’s when you can be confidently patient. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of years and contracts randomly guessing about which kids to bank on and which are simply running in place.
– Yes, the first two topics of this article are tangentially related. Lazar’s pedigree suggests patience is warranted, but his results from all angles are underwhelming. If he doesn’t show something drastic and soon, it won’t make sense to wait on him for another few years. Backlund, in contrast, consistently showed better than average shot and chance numbers. Which is why I have been arguing in his favour for years.
– Change of topic! The current hot streak is great, but the Flames are probably still a middling team at this point in the rebuild. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just that they aren’t really Stanley Cup contenders just yet. The third line still needs an improvement, the bottom pairing can be exploited and the Monahan/Gaudreau line still needs the high ground and favourable circumstances in order to flourish.
Again, this is not a condemnation of the team. It’s noting the reality of the situation, which has tactical implications for the rest of the year and strategic implications in the offseason.
– Speaking of which, it is clear the team has to expose Troy Brouwer in the upcoming expansion draft. The Brouwer contract was a bad bet to begin with and it has already started going south.
That may actually be a blessing in disguise. A good year – or even mediocre year – may have convinced the decision makers to hang on. But with a season this lousy, it should push them to play their get out of jail free card.
– Let’s be clear: Brouwer’s season has been lousy. He’s on pace for 29 points over 82 games, despite ample even strength and PP ice time. That’s not the worst part, however: Brouwer tends to get completely outshot and out-chanced when he’s on the ice. In fact, anyone playing with Brouwer gets outplayed.
Data Rink has a handy table that illustrates the Brouwer effect:
Yeesh. This is simple to interpret. The far right column shows how much each guy’s possession rate improves when they are away from Brouwer. None of the improvements listed are trivial.
– Just to hammer things home – Brouwer has the worst relative corsi of any regular Flame skater this year outside of Jyrki Jokipakka and is bottom three amongst regular forwards in terms of XGF% (expected goals) and SCF% (scoring chances). There’s almost no redeeming angle to Brouwer’s performance this year.
– This is of acute concern because the NHL under a salary cap is an efficiency contest. The more efficiently a GM can spend his money, the better the team he can put on the ice. This summer, Brad Treliving has to re-sign Micheal Ferland, Curtis Lazar, Alex Chaisson, and Sam Bennett as well as two goalies, at least three defenders, and a replacement for Kris Versteeg (if not Versteeg himself).
That’s a tall order with the club’s current available cap space. An added $4.5M would do wonders for Treliving’s summer budget.
– Of course, if the team decides to go the expansion route with Brouwer, they’ll have to ensure that Las Vegas is going to take him. It would make for a fairly awkward relationship between player and team if he’s exposed but passed over.