In the NHL’s salary cap era, a good player with a bad contract is not a good player.
Or at least, he’s not a good asset, which these days is essentially the same thing. It’s no longer enough to judge players based on what they can do on the ice while letting the front-office accountants worry about who makes what and for how long. In a league that features a hard cap and guaranteed deals, a player’s value is inescapably tied to his contract.
None of what I just wrote is remotely controversial. On its own, it’s probably not even all that interesting. Every NHL fan understands this sort of thing on some level, and talk of contracts and cap hits permeates the discussion of any player. It’s why we all lost our minds when CapGeek went away — smart fans need this stuff to function. And it’s why we can have those fun arguments over whether you’d rather have Jonathan Toews and his monster contract or John Tavares and his bargain one.
But a funny thing happens when you start working your way down the list and follow this kind of thinking as far as it can go. As sports fans, we’re used to valuing players on a sliding scale from “really valuable” to “not valuable at all.” We’ll argue over who gets what label, of course, but the basic rules remain the same. A good player is worth a lot; a bad player is worth next to nothing; a truly terrible player may even be worth nothing at all.
Once a hard cap comes into play, things can get unintuitive. You start to realize that “no value” isn’t really the bottom of the scale after all. A player with an especially bad contract can’t really be said to be worth nothing, because that’s being too kind. He might actually be worth less than nothing. We’ve hit the floor and kept on digging, and down there we meet a relatively new specimen in the hockey world: the Negative Value Guy.
Again, this isn’t some sort of new concept — in other sports, fancy stats based on concepts like VORP (value over replacement player) and WAR (wins above replacement) have flagged players with negative value for years. But that’s based on what happens on the field, and those players tend to be rare, a type of outlier you rarely see sticking around for long. Hockey doesn’t have a widely accepted all-in-one value stat like that yet, but if it did we’d no doubt see the same thing: a handful of players kicking around the league who probably didn’t really belong based on their production.
I’d argue that once you start factoring in contracts and cap hits, we’re no longer talking about a handful of fringe players who dip ever so slightly into negative territory. There are lots of negative value guys, and you’ll find them on just about every NHL team. That’s because we’re no longer talking about a player’s value to his team in between whistles during a given game, but his value to his franchise as an asset.
Here’s one way to think of it: An NHL player is a negative value guy if he can be made available on the open market, at no cost, and nobody would want him. If that happened, we’d know that even “free” was too high a price to pay to acquire someone. That’s negative value.
And of course, that exact scenario plays out all the time. It’s called waivers, and it’s the way that NHL teams can make a player available to any other team in the league. Here he is, they say. If you want him, he’s all yours. You just have to assume his full contract.
Sure enough, on most days during the season, a player or two hits the waiver wire. And in the vast majority of cases, the player clears. Those guys, at least temporarily, have negative value in the eyes of the free market. Around the league, 29 other teams take a look at a potential asset being offered up for free and say, “No thanks, you go ahead and keep him.”
A lot of those players are fringe NHLers whom fans have barely heard of. But bigger names occasionally go through the process, and we saw one example just two weeks ago, when the Los Angeles Kings waived center Mike Richards.
Richards is a reliable two-way player, one who’s won gold on the Canadian Olympic team and two Stanley Cups. He’s certainly not the player he once was — he scored 80 points as a 23-year-old in 2008-09, but his offensive numbers have been dropping steadily for five seasons. This year, he’d spent time on the Kings fourth line and was even a healthy scratch on some nights, so his days of making all-star teams appear over. But on the verge of turning 30 and in his 10th NHL season, Richards is exactly the sort of battle-tested veteran with a winning pedigree over whom teams used to get into bidding wars. Even if his game isn’t what it once was, you’d think he belongs on an NHL roster.
And yet he cleared waivers. Richards may not be a bad player, but he comes with a terrible contract, one that carries a $5.75 million cap hit through 2020. That’s too much money and way too many years for a guy who contributes what Richards does. And in today’s NHL, that makes him a negative value guy.