Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Expected NHL Free Agent Salary Based on Ice Time

What are the expected salaries (in Average Annual Value) of pending NHL free agents based on their ice time? Most teams will have their own internal guidelines for how much they'd like to pay free agents based on where they fit into the line-ups, then adjust that up or down for how well they think that player can perform in that role. We can approximate an average of all these internal guidelines by looking at the ice time of players who were about to become free agents and what they got paid. These are mostly unrestricted free agents, but there will be a few who are older RFAs.

The scatter plots below show expected salary (adjusted for a $72M salary cap) for pending free agents age 27-32 (from 2006-2017) based on ice time. The ice time is in their contract year, and the expected salary is what they got in free agency. The white line represents the best fitting trend line (exponential) that Microsoft Excel had to offer, but the red line shows the truly best fit. (Note that an AAV of $4.3M in 2006 with a $39M salary cap would be like 8M in 2017 with a $72M cap). 


All things considered, ice time is a quality variable for predicting free agent salary in this age range. The outliers above the line of expected value are more likely to be centers. Typically 3rd line centers will get more money than 3rd line wingers. A 15-minute forward will earn on average $2M AAV while a 20-minute forward will earn an avg of $8M. Among the biggest outliers beneath the lines are a several contracts from 2006-07 in the early days of the salary cap. Several veterans got squeezed into short term contracts with low AAV while teams struggled to become cap compliant.

Next is a chart with the important spots on the red line above. It would have made some sense to separate Wingers and Centers since they are on different pay scales. I'll be isolating that premium in a future blog post "Buying Face-off Wins" (which is still in the draft phase). There's a premium for Centers who can play big minutes in both ends of the ice. For now, we'll just look at forwards as a whole.

Over 95% of pending free agent forwards (especially wingers) who play under 15 minutes per game will earn $2M AAV or less on the open market. 


It is immediately clear that ice time for pending free agent defensemen is not as tightly correlated to salary as forwards. In the case of D-men, offensive specialists are more coveted, but can only play in limited situations. The two defensemen who averaged under 14 minutes of ice but over $2M in adjusted salary were Derek Englland and Clayton Stoner (who have both qualified for some of my past worst contracts lists). There's a few of these "above the line" outliers who share that distinction.

The outliers "below the line" are more defensive specialists who eat minutes but don't put up impressive numbers, like Kris Russel, Chris Tanev, Ron Hainsey, or Dennis Seidenberg. Typically defensemen who put up quality point totals will get paid big salaries on the free agent market, especially at this age. Those who can eat minutes but don't produce much offense will make less than the average.

Below is a chart with the important spots on the red line above. Remember there is a premium for the Kevin Shattenkirk type of offensive specialist who play in limited situations. 

The majority of defensemen playing under 20 minutes per game will earn less than $3M AAV, with a significant number of outliers above the line. The slope flattens out for all values under 20m.

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