Can Troy Brouwer play his game for four seasons?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:12 am by Ryan Pike

I’ll be honest: when the Calgary Flames announced that they had signed Troy Brouwer to a four-year contract I didn’t really see a lot of the downsides. In fact, my first reaction was, “Well, that makes sense.”

You see, the Flames likely feel this signing solves two big problems: they were super-thin on their right side, and they were easy to play against. When I use the term “easy to play against,” I refer you to the many games where Johnny Gaudreau was slashed on the wrists or hands (and the games he missed late in the season due to those slashes). Teams felt they could get away with it and let’s be honest, they largely did; the Flames didn’t have enough scoring depth to make them think twice (and their power-play was bad enough that they probably weren’t worried abut taking slashing minors).

But let’s not mince words: four years is a long time, and $4.5 million per season is pretty pricey. Once the Gaudreau and Sean Monahan extensions get done, he’ll likely be the third-richest forward contract on the team – even if you factor in Sam Bennett’s eventual extension. What has to happen to make that contract worthwhile?

Here’s the big question: since Brouwer will be the third-highest-paid forward for the entirety of his contract, is it unreasonable to expect him to be the third-highest-scoring forward? Given the financial commitment and term given to him, I’m not sure if it’s an unreasonable bar for him to clear – though it’s unclear if it’s likely to happen.

For the sake of argument, and after a few back-and-forth e-mail exchanges with Ari debating this, let us set the bar thusly: four seasons of 40 points and 50% Corsi For. Heck, I’ll go a bit lower: four seasons in which he averages 40 points, and in which he doesn’t cause a significant possession drain on his teammates. For context, pro-rating Brouwer’s last four seasons of production gives you 58, 43, 43 and 39 points – if you remove the pro-rated lockout season of 58, 40 points is a reasonable average. 

Given the expectation is he’ll be playing primarily with Gaudreau and Monahan, and probably getting a lot of offensive zone starts in that role, a slight production spike probably isn’t out of the realm of possibility. And new systems from a new coaching staff could conceivably result in a team-wide bump in possession stats (and improve power-play production), so I’m not about to suggest that offensive production or puck possession are necessarily the big challenges here.

Given the role that Brouwer is likely to play and the style of game that brought him to the proverbial dance, the biggest challenge for him may be longevity.

For context, I refer to a superb piece by MoneyPuck over at Hockey-Graphs looking at how physical players age from last fall.

Running a regression, I found that for the entire population, Total
Hits per game for the 25 and 26 year-old season was a statistically
significant variable when predicting games played from ages 27 on wards
(r2 0.07, p-value 2.6-10)

Here are Brouwer’s hitting statistics from his 24-year-old season (2009-10) through to his 30-year-old season (2015-16):

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 6.26.10 PM

Brouwer’s hitting statistics from his 25 and 26-year-old seasons (2010-11 and 2011-12) put him in the “high” frequency category. The Hockey-Graphs analysis indicated that players in that frequency group averaged 135 games played from age 27 onwards. Brouwer is already at 293. Similarly, their modelling estimated only about 20% of medium-frequency players and fewer than that (eyeballed at around 12 or 15%) of the high-frequency group make it to his 31-year-old season – which Brouwer will begin in October. Even fewer made it to age 32 in the league and almost nobody made it to age 34 (which would be the final year of his contact).

The reason? Physical play takes its toll on a body, and when your calling card is having your body crash into others (and the boards), it’s probably only a matter of time before (a) a big injury takes you out of the game or (b) a bunch of small bumps and bruises accumulate to limit your effectiveness to the point where you slide out of the lineup. Based on the Hockey-Graphs analysis, Brouwer seems like a statistical outlier so far.

Here’s the best-case scenario: Brouwer plays his crash-and-bang style with the Gaudreaus and Monahans for four seasons. He scores many points. He stays healthy. He’s no more of a possession drag than he was in Washington or St. Louis. However, players that rely on his style of game typically don’t maintain a high level of play forever, so a reasonable expectation is probably for him to hold up for a season or two before his play noticeably degrades.

But here’s the dilemma facing Brouwer, and the thing that makes his signing risky as heck (for both sides): if he’s going to last four seasons without his play falling off a cliff, he’s going to need to ease off the physicality somewhat. But the entire reason he’s been effective in the NHL so far (and the thing that made him attractive to the Flames) is his physicality. So he’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t.

Given his expected deployments and linemates, it’s entirely possible that Brouwer’s offensive production can remain fairly solid for a couple of seasons. But whichever way you slice it and even if you try to give the signing as many benefits of the doubt as you can, given his playing style and the expected drop-off physical players usually see, it’s going to be really tough for him to justify his cap hit over four seasons.