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The Case Against Signing Patrick Marleau

Yesterday, I released my piece outlining the case in favour of signing Patrick Marleau. We tend to learn more about topics when we examine both sides of the argument, so today I’m going to make the case against signing Marleau. Consider this my rebuttal to yesterday’s piece.

Marleau is, for all accounts, a great human being, has had an illustrious career, and may even end up in the hall of fame one day. He’s also turning 38 years old next week. Unfortunately, this isn’t the 30-goal, point-per game, shot generation machine we all think of when we hear the name Patrick Marleau. He’s coming off of a 46 point season, preceded by a 48 point season, which are actually inflated totals given how much ice time and PP usage he was getting in San Jose.

I know those visuals might seem confusing, so let me quickly break them down. When you look at his point generation on a per-minute basis, he’s actually been performing like a third-line forward for the past few seasons. When you consider that he produced this little with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski as his most common linemates last season, you have stop and ask yourself if this is a player worth paying $6.25 million. The Thornton effect is real, and it’s spectacular.

Jumbo Joe has consistently made everyone he plays with so much better (just ask Jonathan Cheechoo or Devin Setoguchi). As the graph shows, Marleau was no exception to Thornton’s other-worldly ability to enhance his teammates’ shooting percentage. Another important thing to remember is that Marleau saw an uncharacteristic rise in his Sh% last year, which means he’s likely due for some regression next year. To help show you what I mean, let’s take a look at Marleau’s 5v5 and 5v4 Sh% over the last five seasons:

If Marleau had shot at the same percentage as he had in the previous 5 seasons, he would have scored 9 fewer goals last year, bringing his total down from 27 goals to 18. When we take shooting luck into account, all of a sudden Marleau’s goal scoring ability is much less impressive than last year’s numbers would have us believe. When we throw in the fact that goal scoring deteriorates more with age than any other metric, there’s some real cause for concern moving forward.

Objectively speaking, he’s on the wrong side of 35 and is only going to decline as he gets older. To help provide fans with some realistic expectations for Marleau over the next few seasons, I’ve come up with some recent comparables. Here is a list of players who scored between 0.5 and 0.7 PPG in their age 37 season over the last decade (for reference, Marleau scored 0.56 PPG last year).

As you can see, players’ production tends to fall off as they age into their late 30s. Only three of the eleven players were able to sustain their scoring rate from age 37 to age 38. That’s only 27% of the sample, meaning 73% of Marleau’s comparables saw a considerable drop-off in production in their age 38 season. This obviously isn’t a perfect study (the samples are very small), but it’s definitely not a good sign. Recent evidence seems to suggest that Marleau’s point production will fall into the 30-point range sooner rather than later, which I’m sure most fans would be disappointed with considering his cap hit.

To put it kindly, this contract doesn’t provide the Leafs with great value. To put it unkindly, he’s getting paid 1st line money for 3rd line production on a per minute basis, and is all but guaranteed to regress and potentially implode by the end of the deal. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this management group overpay for a player on the open market, which is a troubling trend for a team that’s heading in the right direction. Contenders can’t get in the habit of overpaying players in AAV and term; they need to maximize the value of their cap space by spending it efficiently.

If the Leafs felt that they needed to add a veteran winger to their young core, they had many to choose from in free agency. Rather than committing $6.25 million over multiple years to a player on the decline, they could have minimized their risk and maximized their cap efficiency by spending $1 million for one year on a veteran who provides similar on-ice value. Here are a few players that would have fit this definition:

Mike Cammalleri (signed a 1-year contract for $1 million in Los Angeles)

Scott Hartnell (signed a 1-year contract for $1 million in Nashville)

PA Parenteau (still looking for a PTO)

Daniel Winnik (still looking for a PTO)

Jiri Hudler (still looking for a PTO)

You could make the argument that Marleau might be more valuable than some of those players, especially when you take factors like health into account, but is he worth $5 million more than them? The answer to that question is unequivocally, no. There were wingers available this offseason (and still currently available on PTOs) capable of providing similar value to Marleau for a fraction of the price. That $5 million in savings could have been used to bolster the roster in other areas of weakness, including backup goaltending or defence. For example, if a high profile defenceman becomes available within the next year, the Leafs are going to wish they had more cap flexibility. Opportunity cost matters, which is why spending your money efficiently is so important in today’s salary cap world.

Like we discussed, this contract is realistically only going to last two years, so it obviously doesn’t have as much downside as some of the 7 year UFA deals we’ve seen handed out in recent memory. With that being said, the Leafs are still taking on some considerable risk with this signing. They’re betting on Marleau providing $6.25 in value for the next two (maybe even three) seasons, which is extremely unlikely based on recent evidence.

 

Final Verdict

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the summer, and it’s definitely a tricky assessment. There’s a lot in play here: the Leafs’ cap situation; knowing what was actually available in the trade market this summer; the value of adding a two-time gold medalist to a team of memers; age curves; opportunity cost – the list goes on. We could talk for hours about each of these topics, which just goes to show you how multi-layered this conversation is. To spare you the time though, I think I’ve come up with my final verdict when it comes to the Marleau contract – it just takes some re-framing.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Marleau contract is that it’s an inefficient use of cap space, in that the player is providing less on-ice value than his cap hit would warrant. Let’s then ask ourselves: what would be fair market value for this type of player? Using Matt Cane’s salary projection tool (which uses fancy math to determine what NHL teams have historically paid for players based on their production, usage, and age), Marleau’s value came in at about $3.9 million. Taking his pedigree and ironman streak into account though, I think it’s fair to say that we could bump up his value to $4.25 million. So instead of looking at this contract as a 3 year deal with an AAV of $6.25 million, let’s imagine it was a 2 year deal with an AAV of $4.25 million. That probably looks a lot better to most fans, since it represents a more reasonable AAV and term.

Now, the third year of the contract does exist, but it’s one that can be moved fairly easily if (and realistically, when) Marleau retires in 2019. What you may not realize is that the price of unloading retired players with large cap hits has been quite small in recent history (ie. Datsyuk and Pronger). This is because teams that are struggling financially can take on the large cap hit to get closer to the cap floor without having to pay any actual dollars. Teams in this situation will actually be looking for this type of contract. Taking this into account, and assuming Marleau does retire in 2019 (which is the likeliest scenario), let’s estimate that Toronto could move Marleau’s $6.25 million cap hit for the value of approximately a 3rd round pick in the summer of 2019.

So when we’re thinking about the Marleau contract, what we’re essentially doing is considering the following trade:

 

Toronto Receives

Patrick Marleau ($4.25 million AAV for 2 years)



Toronto Gives Up

2020 3rd Round Pick

$2 million in Cap Space

 

The final verdict on the contract comes down to whether or not you would accept that trade. I personally wouldn’t considering the alternatives that were available in free agency, but I definitely understand the other side of the argument. Toronto is in a position where they need to take advantage of their cap flexibility over the next two seasons, and they spent a premium to land the player that they feel provides them with the most value on and off of the ice. The Leafs are clearly trying to take the next step forward this season, and as my boss Adam Laskaris put it, you don’t get bonus points in the standings for having extra cap space.

Now here’s where I make my optimistic heel turn: I actually agree with the sentiment of Toronto going for it in these next two years. I’ll dive deeper into why I’m so high on the Leafs in my Season Preview podcast, but I would argue that they’re ready to contend as early as this season, which some of the predictive #models online are already alluding to:

With a team that’s trying to make a significant jump sooner rather than later, Marleau provides the Leafs with considerable value both on and off of the ice. Is he worth the price? That comes down to whether or not you would pull the trigger on the “trade” that we discussed. Most would, some wouldn’t, but at the end of the day, the Leafs’ brass decided to take the risk and go all-in for the next two seasons. Considering their cap situation, it’s hard to blame them for taking that approach.

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  • FlareKnight

    I’d go with that trade in all honesty. But really I respect going all in with the pros and cons of this signing.

    There are some downsides to this move no doubt. But I still think they are overshadowed by the good. Market value is one thing, but what it will take is another. That’s 8.5 million on what is probably his last NHL contract. He’s not leaving San Jose for that. If he does 1 year deals for the next couple years in San Jose he probably beats that figure pretty easily. And the Sharks are still a team that can make the playoffs and do damage so he isn’t giving up on winning if he stays either.

    I don’t see the Leafs signing any of those other guys if they passed on Marleau. They are more cost effective. But team building isn’t just a cost-effective game. It’s good in most cases to get the most bang for your buck, but only to a point. Rather than signing those guys…we probably just keep what we have. That’s even more cost effective. Just in terms of raw ability he’s more useful which matters when your roster is basically already set and you have cap space sitting there. And they’ve been trying to improve the blueline for a long while and this is what we’ve got. It’s nice to have cap space for what-ifs, but it’s nicer to have that space used on guys you want and can get now.

  • Regulator Johnson

    All NHL bloggers should take a class from Shawn Tierney in data visualization. I work with numbers & data for a living and 99% of the charts I see here and on other blogs make no sense without careful study. At that point, you’ve eliminated the purpose of having a chart; I could have understood more by reading an explanation of the info.

    Not picking on you by any means, but I think it’s a big thing holding hockey analytics back. Fangraphs in baseball does a great job of making complicated statistics accessible to the layman & I think it makes a bigger difference than those of us numerically inclined would like to admit.

    Perfect example is the “financial frontier” chart which puts the X-Axis label next to the Y-Axis & vice versa. Spent a hot second trying to figure out how % applied to cap $ spent.

    • Completely agree with you. I’ve been trying really hard to make my nerdy musings more accessible to the average hockey fan, but I can definitely improve in that area. I’m going to update that chart you mentioned to make it easier to understand.

      Also side note on Sean Tierney: he’s probably my favourite hockey writer. The way he’s able to simplify things, breaking down complex info with neat charts & video…it’s amazing. I’ve been trying really hard to model the type I work I do on his stuff, it’s so good.