Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Completely Arbitrary

Anaheim calling to the hockey world...

TSN reported this weekend that Ducks defenseman James Wisniewski was one of 20 players who requested to take their teams to salary arbitration this offseason. The process can be a messy affair if the team and player ever make it to a hearing, where blunt characterizations are supported by circumstantial evidence.

As a hypothetical exercise (and because we love blunt characterizations and circumstantial evidence), Daniel and I will play the roles of ruthless salary arbitration advocates for Wisniewski and the Ducks, respectively. We will be using the statistics chart below, in addition to any evidence we feel relevant in determining a fair salary.

Stats Obtained from NHL.com and hockeyreference.com (expanded +/-): G=Goals A=Assists P=Points +/-=Plus/Minus PN=Number of Penalties PIM=Penalty Minutes SHF=# of Shifts AVG=Average Time/Shift S=Shots on Goal A/B=Attempts Blocked MS=Missed Shots HT=Hits Given GV=Giveaways TK=Takeaways BS=Blocked Shots PP=Power Play SH=Short Handed EV=Even Strength OT=Overtime TOT=Total Time On Ice TGF=Total Goals For PGF=Power Play Goals For TGA=Total Goals Against PGA=Power Play Goals Against

Alright, Daniel. Make your case.

James Wisniewski is an invaluable asset for the Anaheim Ducks. With the loss of Pronger and Beauchemin, James will be one of the top defenseman in TOI, going past the 19:51 he averaged last season. In the 17 regualr season games he played for the Ducks, in only 5 did he play less than 21 minutes. As that time increases, so will the opportunity to increase all other statistical categories. Moreover, James has seen significant proportional increases in points and decreases in PIM. Wisniewski's totals with the Anaheim Ducks, when projected over an 82 game season, would be 52 points and 76 PIM. Compare that to the 103 PIM he had in only 68 games the year before, as well as the 26 points in the same time frame. Additionally, Wisniewski has always been a plus player. Never in his career has he been a minus player, meaning he is solid in one of the key statistics that measures how good defensemen are at defending. His +9 rating puts him in the top 45 among all defensemen in the league. That would rate him as a Top 2 defenseman, which most teams would claim is a nearly priceless asset.

Therefore, Wisniewski should make $3.25 million next year. It would make him the third highest paid man on the defensive corps, despite being second in points accumulated, and number one in +/-. This would also put him in the same price range of defensemen who do not have equally impressive statistical lines. Brooks Orpik of Pittsburgh earns 3.75 million a year to produce 5 less points and skate only 30 seconds more a game, or one more shift. Orpik only finished with a +10 rating, one better than James. Bryce Salvador of New Jersey, skates 30 seconds less, scored 8 less points and finished with a -1 rating for the bargain price of $2.9 million. Niklas Kronwall of Detroit makes $3 million a year to produce numbers that are close to Winiewski's 2009-2010 projections: 51 points, 22:53 TOI, and +6 rating that would be potentially smaller than Wisniewski. Atlanta's Zach Bogosian plays almost a full 2 minutes less per game, produced 5 less points, and was not on a playoff team. All of these defensemen log significant minutes for their teams in clutch situations, and produce numbers comparable to those of James Wisniewski.

More importantly, Wisniewski has become important as a physical presence on the team. Wisniewski had 36 hits in the playoffs to lead all Anaheim defensemen. In fact, that total is double that of any other skater now on the Anaheim blueline. And his 90 hits led Anaheim defensemen in the regular season. Hockey is a physical game, and Wisniewski provides a shield to his teammates, and makes opposing forwards work for their scoring opportunities. He has demonstrated a willingness to pay the price in order to get the job done defensively by blocking 12 shots in the playoffs and 60 in the regular season, a total closer to 120 projected over a complete season. He has demonstrated a tough attitude and a willingness to put himself out there in order to accomplish the greatest amount of success for the team. He has what is known in the sports world as "heart." Based on the salaries of comparable defensemen who have similar worth to their respective teams, and similar statistical success, James Wisniewski should be compensated in the sum of $3.25 million annually for the quality of services he provides to the Anaheim Ducks and its defensive corps.

Three issues diminish Wisniewski's value: the defenseman is an injury risk, he displays lapses in judgment and his contributions as a niche player are limited.

Injury Risk
James Wisniewski has never played an 82-game season in the NHL, and much of that can be attributed to repeated injuries to his right knee. In March of 2007, he tore his right ACL in a game against the Kings. He then sprained the MCL in the same knee during a fight with Jordin Tootoo in December of that year. Then, last July, he tore his right ACL again while training for the 08-09 season.

The longevity of Wisniewski's knee is questionable after THREE major injuries in the last 18 months. This should diminish the value or term of his contract.

Lapses in Judgment
Wisniewski is prone to lapses in rudimentary hockey judgment. During an Oilers game on March 27th, the forwards were pressuring the puck in the corner on Wisniewski's side of the ice. Scott Niedermayer pinched down toward center ice to support a play to the net. The puck squeezed out, and stopped under the circles on Wisniewski's side. The defenseman took two strides toward the puck before he realized he was the last man back. That action is dangerous, whether it is attributed to lack of awareness, lack of understanding of the forechecking system or over-committing to offensive-defense.

In that same game, Wisniewski decided to support a play in the corner, even though Dustin Penner (a front-of-the-net player) was hovering around him. Sure enough, Penner received a pass in front of the goalmouth and scored. Two nights later, killing a penalty against the Colorado Avalanche, Wisniewski again chose to abandon the net to support the play in the corner. And again, the puck was centered and converted. To me, these plays indicate that Wisniewski does not know when he can and cannot go into the corner and successfully retrieve the puck, or worse, that he is completely incapable of going into the corner and successfully retrieving the puck. Either would make him a defensive liability.

Wisniewski displays inconsistent and sometimes poor judgment. He has not produced enough offensively at the NHL level to compensate for that shortcoming, and his value should be diminished as he is potentially a defensive liability.

Limited Contributions
Wisniewski can be characterized as a locker room guy. However, the Ducks are getting younger this year, and parting ways with many of the "serious" older players that won the Cup in 2007, making his contribution far from unique.

-Statistical Contributions
Based on his performance with the Ducks, I believe Wisniewski can only characterize himself as one of two player types: an offensive-defenseman or a hitter/shot-blocker. He may argue that he is also a fighter, but he has yet to fight for Anaheim, and was rarely successful in his past fights.

Of the offensive-defenseman signed this offseason, Wisniewski most directly compares with Steve Montador. Both players have skated at forward in their careers, both players feel comfortable handling the puck in the offensive zone and both players averaged .06 G per game for the Ducks last season.

You could argue that Wisniewski was on pace for more assists, but despite being known for an accurate shot that gets on net, Wisniewski missed 37 shots last season, averaging .77 missed shots per game. Montador averaged .67, while obtaining an identical shooting percentage. If compared to Montador, Wisniewski should receive a contract no larger than the 2 yrs./1.55M per year that Montador received, and arguably less because Montador has proven himself consistent in recent seasons.

But let's say we compare Wisniewski to an offensive-defenseman that hasn't proven consistent. After a great offensive season in Russia, Anton Babchuk returned to the NHL this year, accepting a one-year 1M deal with Carolina. He went on to produce 16 G and 19 A in 72 games at a .23 goals per game clip. That's almost four times the Ducks blueliner's pace. As an offensive-defenseman, Wisniewski's market value this year can be no more than 1 to 1.5M per year, and is probably less when you consider he did not outperform similar defensemen, and that offensive rearguards like Marc-Andre Bergeron (1.7M last year with 14 G and 18 A) remain unsigned.

If Wisniewski believes he is a hitter/shot-blocker, the most direct comparison this offseason is Greg Zanon, who signed for 3 yrs./1.93M per year with Minnesota. The No. 3 shotblocker in the league logged 237 blocked shots (2.89 per game) and 153 hits (1.76 per game). By comparison, Wisniewski had 60 blocked shots (1.25 per game) and 90 hits (1.875 per game) in his shortened season, which is even less impressive when you consider that Zanon averaged 20:51 through ALL 82 games this season.

As an injury risk, an inconsistent performer and arguably an under-performer, I believe Wisniewski would be overvalued at more than 2 yrs./1.375M per year.

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