5 things: What is Columbus doing?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:55 am by Ryan Lambert

This is something I wrote about briefly for Puck Daddy this week, but man, it’s hard to figure out the deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets. And it’s fascinating.

1. A weird summer

When trying to figure out what their general plan is, you have to obviously start with the David Clarkson trade last February, in which they took on what many consider — and they’re probably right here — to be the worst contract in the league. The reason they did it was, of course, that they’re something of a budget team, and the idea of paying Nathan Horton not to play for them was so galling that they were willing to pay David Clarkson even more to play and not be very good.

We can have an argument here about whether paying a negative-value player like Clarkson, who is at least a healthy body on the roster, $5.25 million against the cap through 2020, when he will be 36(!!!!) is actually a better investment than paying someone whose career is probably over $5.3 million over that same amount of time. It probably isn’t but you see why they might think it is. It’s $5.3 million (which isn’t insured for the dumbest reasons imaginable) of cost for nothing versus $5.25 million of a player that, at best, is probably worth about $1-2 million in actual dollars. Doesn’t make it smart but it’s a kind of logic you can at least wrap your head around.

After that you have a few minor re-signings for young players, then the big Brandon Saad trade, which also netted them a well-regarded NCAA defenseman named Mike Paliotta. They paid dearly for the multiple-Cup winner, of course, giving up Marko Dano and Artem Anisimov, among other pieces, but they got the clear best player in the trade, and that’s not a bad thing to do. They immediately re-signed him to a deal that pays him $6 million per year.

After that, as far as I can tell, they didn’t sign a single NHL player to a UFA deal. Just some housekeeping that’s not going to move the needle much one way or the other (with all apologies to Matt Calvert’s three-year deal). Then there was that bizarre David Savard extension that pays him way too much money.

Which gets to the real heart of the matter.

2. Who’s the core here?

Just looking at the guys they have signed for at least the next two seasons for at least $4 million, the Blue Jackets have $51.89 million — that’s 72.7 percent of this year’s cap!!! — committed to just 10 guys starting in 2016 (Savard’s contract doesn’t kick in until then). And it is a frankly bizarre mix of players.

Saad, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Ryan Johansen are clearly guys you want locked up for a good long while (and Johansen is actually the only one of these 10 guys who’s not signed beyond 2017, so he’ll be eligible for a big, fat raise 10 months from now on July 1, 2016). But the rest of these guys? Yeesh.

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This is, uhh, not ideal. Just looking at this, you have to say to yourself, “Why are these a lot of these guys making this kind of money?” Some of them (Hartnell, Tyutin) sound decent enough at that price point, but the rest are just big money committed to players who have in no way earned it. 

And that’s only the big-money deals of $4 million-plus. That doesn’t get into the still-calamitous lower-value contracts ($1.7 million for Jared Boll! $1.5 million for Gregory Campbell! $3.33 million for Rene Bourque!) that are kicking around at the bottom of the roster for reasons beyond understanding. Nor does it account for decent younger players like Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray who will likewise expect big raises this summer. So where, I guess, does all this money come from?

3. How good are these guys?

So the question becomes one of just how good these guys are. And the best way to do that, at this point, is to sit down and figure out how many wins they’ve provided to their teams above a replacement player — an AHL call-up who plays the same position. And blessings and peace be to War on Ice, which helpfully breaks down the number of goals above replacement, and also tells you how many goals equalled one win in a given season.

And with the acknowledgement that these guys all played for different teams at different ages from 2011 to present, here are those numbers:

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The obvious stars here are, once again, Saad, Johansen, and Foligno. Once the two forwards really began their NHL careers in earnest and aged somewhat into greater effectiveness, they consistently put up pretty respectable WAR totals. Same with Scott Hartnell, who is at this point, unfortunately 33 years old and not likely to put up 1.5-plus WARs for much longer, even if he does have some solid running buddies. You have to wonder what Foligno is — i.e. “just a product of Johansen being awesome” — and whether that’s worth his huge contract, made all the more immovable by dint of him having been named captain.

Bobrovsky’s record, likewise, speaks for itself.

Dubinsky is a decent player, and you look at the recent uptick for Savard and wonder if that’s for-real or just him getting more time and therefore contributing a middling-but-not-great WAR.

I don’t think these numbers will necessarily be representative of what these players do in the future. A lot of them are 30-plus and therefore likely to see their WARs decline. We have no idea what Saad looks like away from Chicago. And so on.

4. So what are they buying?

So let’s, then, assume the average WARs those guys have posted over the last four seasons will hold up, on a collective basis. Again, you can’t be sure it will — and given the number of guys leaving their primes as opposed to entering them, you might even want to bet it won’t — but it seems like a decent enough baseline.

And given what we know, we can take their WAR numbers and salary information, and figure out what the Blue Jackets are paying per win from those 10 players in this coming season. (Warning: These numbers are scary and bad.)

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The fact that the most “valuable” player on a per-dollar basis here is your old (actually old) buddy Scotty Hartnell should be worrisome, even if Bobrovsky, Saad, and Johansen at the very least are all trending up. 

By way of comparison, Brad Marchand — whose under-appreciated quality I talked about at length in this space last week — has an average WAR of about 2.48 over the last four seasons, and a current cap hit of just $4.5 million. That’s about 0.55 wins per $1 million. While we can agree that’s a very good contract as a result, all things considered, you also have to keep in mind that, oh hey, no one on Columbus even comes close to that value.

Moreover, the average wins per $1 million of cap space for a skater across the entire NHL last season was 0.14. So Columbus is actually right above that number. But these are all guys making north of $4 million, and the average WAR per million dollars for those 182 players was 0.17. Half of these 10 players were below that number, and in some cases well below it.

So in this regard, Columbus can be seen as a little below average in how they dole out cash.

5. What does this tell us?

Columbus will likely improve from last year for a number of reasons. But all this data, and the long-term commitments to iffy, declining players the team has made in the last season or three makes it difficult for them to ever rise above the status of “making the playoffs more often than not, then getting their lunch handed to them by teams that can find better ways to spend $51 million against the cap.”

Especially when it comes to budget teams, you have to make your cap commitments valuable on a per-dollar basis. Jarmo Kekalainen hasn’t even come close to doing that. And again, Johansen is due a raise real soon. Then the number is probably closer to $55 million through 2020.

And, well, yikes.