Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Making it Rain: Grabovski Gets Paid

mikhail grabovski leafs
The Leafs locked up one of their most important players on Tuesday. Mikhail Grabovski signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract, forgoing unrestricted free agency where he would have been the only real option at centre for many teams. Grabovski and his agent were pushing for six or seven years, which would have likely lowered the cap hit slightly, but the Leafs would not budge from five years.

The initial reaction from most parts—aside from a few, such as CBC's Elliotte Friedman—is that the deal is too much money. Grabovski is now the highest paid forward on the Leafs, $100,000 more than Phil Kessel.

I previously examined why Grabovski was so important to the Leafs, and if the last two games are any indication, he will be just as important to Randy Carlyle's version of the team moving forward.

Regardless of Grabovski's importance to the team, people just look at that cap number and see something big. They don't look at the context in which it was signed. When people compare contracts they are only comparing one cap hit to another, nothing else.

The Sedins are only making $6.1 million per season, and that's only $600,000 more than Grabovski. Wow, what was Brian Burke thinking? You can get an elite player for a little over $6 million, so why are you overpaying out the wazoo for Grabovski?

It's not that simple. The Sedins signed their deals a few years ago when the cap wasn't as high, plus they both took severe home-town discounts to stay in Vancouver. The Sedins are also an interesting pair because obviously either one could have commanded well over $7 million on the open market but they wanted to play with each other more than anything else. There aren't many teams that have the cap space to fit two major players like that in one off-season, so the Sedins sacrificed some money to stay together.

Comparing any contract to the contract the Sedins signed just doesn't make sense. Vancouver has a bargain of a deal on those two, but it's foolish to think anyone could sign them for the same price today.

If you still stick with comparing contracts strictly on their dollar value, and look at only centres, Grabovski's cap hit is similar to that of Ryan Kesler ($5 million), Tomas Plekanec ($5 million), Patrice Bergeron ($5 million), Mike Ribiero ($5 million), David Krejci ($5.25 million), John Tavares ($5.5 million), and Mike Richards ($5.75 million).

The difference is that all those players broke 70 points at least once before signing their new contracts (except Tavares, who will most likely do so this year). Grabovski's career high in points is only 58 points. That sure makes it seem like the Leafs are overpaying.

However, Tavares, Kesler, Krejci, and Richards were all RFAs when they signed their deals, meaning that they aren't truly comparable to Grabovski. Their deals were negotiated with one team, and the players had very little leverage. If any of those players hit the open market as a UFA their deals would have been larger.

That leaves Bergeron, Ribeiro, and Plekanec as the players with the most comparable contracts.

As players, Bergeron and Plekanec are pretty similar to Grabovski. They are both two-way forwards and are well-regarded for their defensive play. They match up against the opposition's best lines and do a pretty good job of it, much like Grabovski.

Plekanec scored 57 points last season, one fewer than Grabovski did, and is on pace for 51 points this season. He's a few years removed from his 70 point seasons, and going forward is probably a player that settles around 55-60 points a year, while playing good, responsible two-way hockey (although his plus/minus this season doesn't look good).

Likewise, Bergeron hasn't hit 70 points since 2006-07. He averaged 54.5 points over the last two seasons and is on pace to score 67 this season. Going forward it seems like 60 points might be a reasonable expectation year-in, year-out. He's also a player that gets mentioned for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward, so both his offensive and defensive game are a little more refined than Grabovski's.

Ribeiro is a fairly one-dimensional offensive player, so isn't as good of a comparison. He's better offensively than Grabovski, but not defensively.

It's also important to look at the year each player signed their contract.

Ribeiro's contract started in 2008-09, Plekanec's started in 2010-11, and Bergeron's started this season. This is important because the cap ceiling has gone up each season, meaning a contract signed in 2008 is not the same as a contract signed in 2012. When there is more cap space, there is more money to go around. Not only are GMs more willing to spend said money, but agents are more likely to demand that money.

So although all three contracts are $5 million, they aren't all equal.

When Ribiero signed his contract it took up 8.8% of the salary cap; when Plekanec signed his contract it took up 8.4% of the salary cap; and when Bergeron signed his contract it took up 7.8% of the cap.

Of the three players it's clear that Bergeron's contract is the best bargain. If he signed when Ribeiro did, his deal would only be about $4.42 million.

Pierre Lebrun said on ESPN that the salary cap might rise as high as $68-69 million this summer. Under that circumstance, Grabovski's deal would only take up around 8% of the salary cap—so lower than Ribeiro and Plekanec, but slightly higher than Bergeron.

The problem is that the $68-69 million reported is only a temporary figure. The CBA expires on Sept. 15 at midnight, and there is some thought that the cap might actually go down as owners try to scale back players' percentage of revenue. At this point, though, it is all purely speculative, but remember the union hired Donald Fehr, which means they aren't just going to give money away, so I'm not sure what to expect.

If the cap stays the same Grabovski's deal takes up 8.5% of the salary cap, which is pretty much the exact same as Plekanec's. That $5.5 million deal now would be about $5 million when Plekanec signed his.

If the cap goes down then Grabovski's contact becomes worse than most of the others cited, although not egregiously so. Plus, the market when Grabovski signed is much different than in years past.

Heading into the summer, there is no other quality centre apart from Olli Jokinen, who is having a renaissance season. That means Grabovski could have easily got more on the open market, especially after seeing crazy deals given out to third liners last summer.

If multiple teams view Grabovski's fair market value at $5-5.5 million, and there are multiple offers, extra money is what will get the deal done. That's why UFA deals are almost always overpayments. It wouldn't be surprising to see a desperate team put forth an offer of $6 million if Grabovski was a UFA in July.

Most importantly, if Grabovski walked the Leafs would have to replace their best centre either through an underwhelming free agent market, or by trading multiple young assets. Neither option is terribly appealing. Otherwise the Leafs would have to hand the second line centre duties to Joe Colborne. That's asking a lot from the youngster considering the type of heavy minutes Grabovski plays.

Ultimately, Toronto knew that losing Grabovski was going to cost more than keeping him, so they paid him. Mikhail Grabovski didn't  take a home-town discount to stay in Toronto, but he's getting his fair market value. And if the alternative was Olli Jokinen, that's a good deal.

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