Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Matt Stajan: Putting a Price on #14

Matt Stajan is having a career year playing on a line with Phil Kessel.

Stajan's emergence comes at an interesting time. As a pending UFA in a contract year one has to wonder if the Leafs can afford to keep him or, given his chemistry with Kessel, can they afford to let him go?

One unintended consequence of landing Kessel could very well be Stajan getting priced out of the Leafs' plans.

Boxcars

Before Kessel was healthy enough to join the Leafs, Stajan was putting up points at an 0.58 per game (ppg) rate. Good for a 48 point season. Since being given the plumb assignment of centering Kessel, his production has nearly doubled to a very impressive 0.98 ppg. Pairing up with Kessel has put Stajan on pace for 65 points with career highs in both goals and assists.

Determining Value

I have no idea what transpires between players, agents and GMs, but with Stajan on pace for 65 points this year, all signs point to a hefty raise. Factor in a thin crop of UFA centres – demand exceeding supply – and it's a safe bet that Stajan will be Oprah rich.

In order to get an idea of the compensation Stajan might be in line for, I took a look at the types of contracts signed by Stajan's peers in 2009, that is unrestricted free agent forwards, in their 20s, that scored in the 50 to 65 point band. Here's a quick look at Stajan's comparables:

Nik Antropov, career high 59 points – signed a $4M/year deal in ATL
Johan Franzen, career high 59 points – signed a $3.95M/year deal in DET
Travis Zajac, career high 62 points - signed a $3.88M/year deal in NJ
Tumomo Ruutu, career high 54 points - signed a $3.8M/year deal in CAR
Ryan Clowe, career high 52 points – signed a $3.5M/year deal in SJ.

Stajan has already outpointed Ruutu and Clowe and this season he will likely outpoint the totals put up by Antropov, Zajac and Franzen in their contract years.

Given the comparables, don't be surprised to see Stajan looking for a contract in the $3.5M+/year range this summer.

Who’s Driving the Bus?

If Kessel is generating the bulk of Stajan’s points (and all signs point to this being so: Stajan’s ppg nearly doubled since joining Kessel and he has countless assists from down near his own goal line) two questions immediately come to mind:

  1. Can Stajan be replaced at a cheaper rate than the expected $3.5M+/year?
  2. Should the Leafs commit salary and term to a player that isn’t generating the stats he's being rewarded for?

In terms of replacement value, it’s not just about keeping salary dollars for UFAs this summer. A potential Stajan deal is about cap dollars, cap space and flexibility for the life of the contract. $3.5 to $4M may not seem like a heavy cap hit to carry, but how many Leaf fans would love to see Finger ($3.5M) and Blake ($4M) moved?

As Eliotte Friedman noted in his most recent 30 Thoughts:

One GM told me that if you're going to sign a player to a long-term, big-money deal, he'd better be three things: critical to your success, consistently healthy and, most importantly, extremely self-motivated.
As much as I'm eating crow over the Kessel deal (I didn’t, and still don't, like the deal even though Kessel has looked fantastic for the Leafs) Kessel remains a rather soft player. Boston has effectively neutralized him in two games by playing smothering, tough hockey. I fully expect that this style would be SOP if the Leafs ever make the post-season.

In light of this, there are a few downsides to keeping Stajan as the Leafs #1 centre:


  1. Stajan is not the guy you run 20+ minutes a night against tough competition. He’s not going to help shut-down the bigger pivots in the east;
  2. On the other side of the puck, he’s not going to fight through smothering, tough, defence to generate points;
  3. With Grabovski already signed as the #2 centre, can the Leafs succeed over the long-term, and in the post-season, with softer players centering the top two lines?
  4. To Friedman's point, is Stajan the right type of player to build around or do the Leafs need to focus what assets they have – salary, term, the trading of spare parts and pending UFAs – to acquire a more physical or grittier player than can make some room for Kessel?

VORP

In terms of replacement value, there are always going to be bona fide NHL players looking for a short-term deal to stay in the game. Afinogenov signed for $800k, Moore for $1.1M. Peverley got picked off waivers. I think all 3 would put up Stajanesque numbers if given prime minutes with Kessel.

If there are other centres available who can produce alongside Kessel for less than $3.5M/year, trade Stajan for whatever you can get.

If no other viable options are available, or if you believe Stajan is a key part of the medium term success of the team, get Stajan’s name on a contract.

If I were GM

My tendency would be to let Kessel continue to inflate Stajan's stats for the rest of the season to see what the return for Stajan is at the trade deadline.

If the price is right, I'd move Stajan.

I'd also consider taking a page out of the St. Louis Blues playbook and move Stajan for picks at the deadline and look at re-signing him come July 1.

If Stajan is willing to take a home town discount (less than $3M/year or a very short term deal) I'd get his name on a contract.

The cap makes the NHL an efficiency contest. Elite teams lock-up their superstars and round out the rosters with players who are outperforming their contracts. Personally, I don't think Stajan fits either of these categories.

With 16 pending UFAs and RFAs on the Leafs extended roster and just 59 days between the January 1st opening of contract renegotiations (CBA 50.5 F iv) and the March 3trade deadline it's going to be an interesting few months for Burke and the Leafs.

Stajan may be the most intriguing challenge Burke has.

7 comments:

  1. I think your language pretty well gets your thoughts across long before the conclusion comes, MF.

    I think it's important to factor in the fact that Stajan put up points at a 0.72 PPG last year before we even thought about Kessel. 25 isn't too old for a breakout season, and discounting that number offhand while quoting Stajan's numbers in the first 12 games of the season isn't telling the whole story. How many Leaf forwards have seen their PPG increase significantly since the first 12 games? I think it's more than Stajan.

    As for Stajan not being a shut-down guy, if we want to talk anecdotally his line did great against Washington after the first 5 minutes. I would argue that being on a line with Kessel guarantees Stajan top-level checking and the line has still produced. Two games against Boston where the whole team looked bad isn't quite enough to throw the book at Matty.

    You're also making a ton of statements detrimental to Stajan's ability that aren't really objective, if he's such a liability as a centre pivot for Kessel then why are they both operating at a PPG pace? Are we assuming that Kessel would be on pace for better than 40 goals, and that the Leafs would be better than 8-3 with somebody else? Stajan's production and his line's performance have been perfectly in line with what you'd expect from top line production.

    There's also a bit of "grass is always greener" mentality going on here. You mention Blake and Finger as unlikeable contracts, but Blake is right up there in the list of Stajan's comparables for point production at the same amount of dollars. Finger's hitting/blocking/EV scoring stats from last year are all commensurate with the money he's earning. Would we rather have Barrett Jackman? I'm not really sure what we're meant to be expecting from top 6 forwards and top 4 defensemen.

    To make the argument that Stajan is not be worth the pay day we'd need to assume that his performance this year (if it stays the same) and his performance last year are both aberrations, or inflated beyond his means. I'm not sure whether they are or not, but the evidence is piling up in the positive direction for Matt.

    We can't let the contracts we have of players that have produced less (like Grabovski and Mitchell) or the possibility of guys maybe being ready (Bozak, Kadri) muddy up the decision to sign a useful, developed, Leafs draftee. If conflicts arise later we can deal with them then.

    I would think, however, given Wilson's attempts to supplant Stajan with Mitchell both last year and this season that Stajan is going to have to do a lot between now and March to earn his way into Burke's plans. I think you might be right that Stajan doesn't fit the mold for Burke, but I can't help but wonder if exceptions shouldn't be made in the face of results.

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  2. Scott - Thanks for a really great commment.

    I'll respond in the order you posted.

    In addition to Stajan's rate of 0.72 ppg last season he also went goal-less for long stretches at a time, going 5, 7 (three times: 21 games) 8, and 15 games without a goal. The bulk of his assists were also secondary meaning - once again - he was not driving the bus on offence. (I've read that Stajan led the league in 2nd assists, I don't know if that's a ratio or total, but I can't find that stat.)

    Anecdotally he may have looked great against Washington but empircally, Stajan is not a strong shut down guy. In fact, going by the stats, he's the worst C on the club in Goals against/60. Stajan is also behind only Hagman and Stempniak among Leaf forwards in that category.

    As for objectivity - it's a blog dude. If I was entirely objective I'd lose three of the four readers I have. I try, but you know...

    I am absolutely assuming that Kessel could be on a higher pace with a better pivot - perhaps someone that can step up in tougher games like the matches against Boston. I also think a better centre might improve the defensive results and reduce the line's goals against. It might also bring some much needed diversity to the Leafs rather homogenous mix of small, soft forwards.

    If you want to defend spending on Stajan, I personally don't think raising Jason Blake as an example of a good contract is a solid starting point. The term on that deal is awful.

    What to expect from the top 6? My main concern is the Leafs committing to yet another small, soft, player. Can this team succeed in the post-season (or even qualify for the post-season) with Stajan, Kessel, Blake and Grabovski in four of the top 6 slots? I'm really doubtful.

    I think evidence is absolutely piling up that Stajan's stats are inflated. Last year it was a tonne of secondary assits, this year it's playing alongside Kessel.

    If the Leafs decide to sign Stajan, it shouldn't matter a whit that they drafted him. What should matter is that he can make a meaningful and valuable contribution to the team and that the cap hit and term are reasonable and efficient.

    Thanks again for the comment - I really appreciate it.

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  3. The '67 Sound8:40 a.m.

    I think you summed it best with this: "The cap makes the NHL an efficiency contest. Elite teams lock-up their superstars and round out the rosters with players who are outperforming their contracts. Personally, I don't think Stajan fits either of these categories." Stajan's currently massively outperforming his contract (hence my loveletter to him on PPP) but next year he won't be. As much as it pains me I think you've nailed it that we should seriously consider getting what we can at the deadline for him.

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  4. Excellent discussion on this topic.
    I think the Stajan conundrum should be looked at from a different perspective. What is he worth as a 3rd line pivot, and will he accept the mantle?
    Stajan's value as a top line centre is middling. He's okay both offensively and defensively, but has yet to dazzle. He's been doing better than normal since his pairing with Kessel, so his stats are inflated, even if not terribly. The problem is that Matt is very near his ceiling in terms of ability, and his best will not cut it against the premiere centres on contending teams.
    Looking at what you have in the system, Kadri, Bozak & Grabovski are all top-six guys, with Bozak giving the most flexibility. Mitchell is a bottom-sixer, and Primeau will not be with the team long term.
    Matt Stajan could be amongst the best 3rd line pivots in the game, and be useful when mixing up lines, or filling in for someone ahead of him on the depth chart should injury occur. Does the role suit him? I think so, and I think he'd take a reasonable deal to continue on here.

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  5. Hey thanks for the well-reasoned response, mf.

    You might be on to something with secondary assists in terms of Stajan's numbers, the bulk of his points come from the 'A' column and the fact that he got an assist on Kessel's goal against Ottawa is a great example of the ephemeral nature of many secondary assists. Still, I struggle with the idea of faulting a player for being on the ice for a scoring play, there's a lot more that leads to a goal than being the last guy to touch the puck.

    As for Stajan's streaky goal performance last year, I think it's fair to say that any forward that doesn't crack the 20 goal mark will have streaks of inactivity, there's too few goals to spread around. Grabovski had goalless streaks of 6,7,11,and 17 last year while scoring 20 yet it didn't stop us from signing him to big dollars.

    The problem with playing a lot of minutes on a losing team with often spotty goaltending is that your numbers take a hit, and I'd like to know how much of Stajan's differential comes from the first 12 games of the year. I have a hard time believing that Stajan would be pulling PK time if Wilson didn't have faith in his defensive abilities as a forward.

    I think we'll have to agree that we don't see eye to eye on the first line's potential production, Kessel played with an excellent centreman last year and failed to record a PPG. The first line's numbers are remarkable considering the circumstances, and if you haven't noticed I have a hard time arguing with on-ice results.

    Bringing up Blake wasn't so much a defense of his contract as it was stressing the idea that our expectations seem to be very harsh when dealing with our own roster. Blake's production up to this point is perfectly reasonable for his cap hit and minutes, and there's a slew of comparables across the league that say so. The length may bad for his age, but that has yet to show up significantly in his production. And come now, you can't tell me that I'm painting a poor picture of Stajan because of Blake's term when the actual subject in question is merely 26.

    Size is a concern, but the team is actually putting up very good numbers 5 on 5 regardless (I've been working on a blog post about goal differential). While it's a fair point that size/physicality may improve Kessel's space in the zone, I'd rather find out some other way than trading a player that's found chemistry with him.

    I think Stajan's history and tenure with the club are absolutely factors in resigning him. He's been our NHLPA rep since a young age, is a leader on the team, he's had years working with Wilson, the other veterans on the team, and the atmosphere and pressure of playing in Toronto. With any signee or rookie the adjustment period can be significant, Stajan has proven that he works within Wilson's system in our building with these teammates.

    In Wilson's tenure Stajan's been benched two different seasons, and rotated on just about every line with dips and highs in his minutes. Yet he's still with the team, has managed to work himself onto our top line, and excelled. I don't think that's coincidence, and I happen to believe that if Stajan was relegated to a third line role in the future he would excel in that role as well. Even if the guy is just depth after this season there's something to be said for possessing that depth.

    Plus, if he sucks later, we can always just waive the guy.

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  6. What is your final offer, MF?

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  7. Eyebleaf - Less than $2.9M and Stajan can stay. Otherwise I'd rather have a pick/prospect for him and channel that $3M+ into other areas of the team.

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