Winged Wheels & WARCap: Detroit’s Salary Situation

A little late, but as promised, I wanted to apply my recent work on WARCap to the Red Wings. In this post, I want to quickly shed light on the team’s contract situation: how we got here, the current state, and where it can go in the near future.

First, a few updates on WARCap.

WARCap Improvements

If you’re still unfamiliar with WARCap, read my introduction to the metric as well as my analysis of its relationship with player age.

Since publishing those two posts, I’ve made a few changes to make WARCap measure what it is intended to more accurately:

  1. Accounting for changes in league-minimum salary by season. Whereas in its original form WARCap used a constant minimum salary of $650,000 (the current league minimum), I’ve now updated it to vary by season. This is a minor change, but an improvement nonetheless.
  2. Accounting for changes in team salary cap by season. This change is more impactful. The WAR-to-dollars conversion that the metric is based on was written during the 2015-2016 season, so I adjusted the dollar value of 1 WAR based on the salary cap in each season (similar to an adjustment for inflation). Before this change, WARCap in earlier seasons was likely overestimated, as player’s salaries were lower and, as a result, so was their “expected” performance.

I’ll continue to make tweaks and improvements to WARCap, and will be sure to include updates in future posts when I do. Now, back to Hockeytown.

Detroit’s WARCap Distribution

To get a sense of how Detroit’s cap situation has compared to the league as a whole, I looked at the overall distribution of WARCap. Below is Detroit’s (in red) distribution of WARCap over the past five seasons (including the current season up to the All-Star break).

wingsdist

As you can see, the Wings have consistently had more contracts produce slightly negative value (between 0 and -1 WARCap) than the league, and have had more extreme cases (below -1 WARCap), as well. But how did this trend over time?

Below is the same distribution broken out over the last eight seasons. As you can see, through 2014-2015 (also the second-to-last year the team made the playoffs), they by and large got more value out of their contracts than the league average. However, since then they have shifted left, bottoming out in 2017-2018 before looking a bit more in line with the league this season.

wingsdistbyseason

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Maybe you’ve been thinking this already, but when aggregated on a team level, WARCap is essentially the same as WAR if teams are spending close to the cap (which the Wings usually are). If there’s no difference in the total amount of money spent, WARCap, like WAR, really just measures whether a team has good players.

However, the shape of the distribution is still telling. For instance, it could tell you whether a team is simply getting extremely good value out of a few contracts, or if they are essentially hitting home runs across the board.

On that note, here is every team’s WARCap distribution from last season.

allteamsdist

Note the strong right skew of teams like Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Winnipeg (the latter two performed well while being bottom-ten in the league in spending and Tampa is just that good). Conversely, look at how much of the space highlighted in red (for Detroit) is left of the 0 WARCap line. Whereas teams like Chicago and Ottawa look to have had more extreme cases (below-2 WARCap), the bulk of Detroit’s contracts  fell between 0 and -2 WARCap last season.

Now, let’s look at how we got here, and see which contracts specifically have provided positive and negative value.

Best and Worst Contracts, 2008-Present

Below I’ve laid out the total WARCap to date of all Red Wings skater contracts that started at or after the 2008-2009 season, separated by position. While I include defenseman contracts for reference (Jensen’s current deal looks best), I’ll be focusing on forwards for the most part here. This is partly because, as I’ve touched on before, I believe this WAR model makes it more difficult for defensemen to look good, and also because I’ve already covered a great deal of what I would say about the team’s defensemen in previous posts.

First let’s look at the best contract of this period: Gustav Nyquist’s two-year deal that spanned the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. When it was signed, Nyquist had played the bulk of the past two seasons in the AHL with Grand Rapids (explaining the $950,000 cap hit), but he broke out in a major way in ’13-’14, scoring 28 goals and 48 points in just 57 games. He followed that up with his best statistical season to date (though he may eclipse it this year), scoring 52 points. And, though he signed a much bigger ticket after that at a cap hit of $4.75 Million, Nyquist has still produced positive value against the cap on his current contract.

wingsforwardswarcap

wingsdwarcap

Now, let’s look at which players account for 4 of the next 5 “best” forward contracts over this 10+ year span (the other being Tatar, who is of course no longer with the team): Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader!

On his last two contracts, which combined span the 2010-2011 through 2015-2016 seasons, Helm produced significantly positive returns. While he was clearly a bargain at under $1 Million on the first deal, even after a modest raise to around $2.1 Million, his contract still produced almost 2 WARCap over four seasons.

Same story for Abdelkader. Over the same exact period, with the difference being a slightly lower original salary and a raise up to $1.8 Million, his contracts represented great investments for the team.

Then what happened? Both Helm and Abdelkader received contracts in the $4 Million AAV range, approximately twice what they had been paid before, lasting five and seven years, respectively. These contracts began when Helm was 29 and Abdelkader 28, so clearly both were already past the range of typical peak performance for an NHL forward.

Look at their similar trajectories in the chart below, which shows WAR by season of all players who have played at least 100 games since 2008 on contracts starting in or after that season. A much larger chunk of the team’s cap space was assigned to these two players right around the same time that their performance began to decline.

WingsWARBubbles.jpeg

I believe that these two players, and the contracts given to them, reveal the crux of the team’s contract woes. Players who performed well in depth roles have been given raises that, though hindsight is always 20-20, do seem excessive for the types of players they are. And, while letting players who are fan favorites (I’ve grown up as huge fans of both these guys) walk in free agency is a hard thing to do, that may have been the better option.

But, let’s look on the bright side: the team’s situation is about to get much more flexible.

Conclusion and Moving Forward

In short, the Red Wings’ cap situation has worsened over the years, in part due to overpayment for aging depth players. I believe the contracts given to Helm and Abdelkader over the years serve as primary examples of this phenomenon, and while you may have already believed this intuitively, WARCap provides quantitative backing for the narrative.

The team is strapped for cap space at the moment, and I hope this post helps a bit to understand why.

While the team has no space whatsoever at the present moment, the contracts of Nyquist, Jensen, Kronwall, and Vanek (plus Howard) will come off the books after this season (if not sooner in a trade). The following year, Ericsson, Daley, and Green’s deals will expire too, as will Athanasiou’s (though he will likely be due a raise if he’s still on the team).

Cap Friendly projects that Detroit will have approximately $13 Million in cap space after this season, and a whopping $40 Million after next year. So, though it’s been tough recently, things are most definitely trending up.

Feedback

Questions? Comments? Corrections? Things you think should be included in or excluded from future posts? Just want to have a good old-fashioned argument?

Leave a comment or check us out @SilkyAnalytics.

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