• Valuing Nicklas Backstrom

    by  • April 28, 2010 • Uncategorized • 19 Comments

    My post on Ovechkin attracted a fair amount of consternation from the readers at Japers Rink. As Caps fans faced in the cold reality of another game seven, without the heat from even a single burning police car in Montreal to warm themselves, I thought I’d take a closer look at the question.

    (A complete aside: a league with two star players named Nicklas Bäckström and Niklas Bäckström is like having a team named the Ottawa Röugh Riders and the Saskatchewan Röughriders.)

    I took another dip into Vic’s bag of tricks at timeonice.com to come up Backstrom’s ES numbers away from Ovechkin. One of the commenters in the Japers Rink thread made the point that Backstrom posted 3 goals and 11 assists in games without Ovechkin this year. The thing is, the numbers don’t look particularly appealing there. His shot spread, as we’d guess from his Corsi, isn’t good – it’s 138 SF and 154 SA. Not terrible but nowhere near the otherworldly numbers he’s posted with Ovechkin.

    While he was on the ice for 20 goals for and only 17 against, this was obviously somewhat percentage fueled, in that he had a 14.5% on-ice shooting percentage and an .890 save percentage. There are other signs of trouble with him too – his on-ice save percentage as a whole was high this year and that has a strong tendency to trend towards the mean. I know that Caps fans have come up with a million reasons why this won’t apply to the Caps but ask the Bruins how that goes. Or ask the 2008-09 Oilers whether shooting percentage is a solid foundation. Or the 2006-07 Buffalo Sabres. The list goes on. Washington (and the rest of America) have already paid a price for assuming that real estate prices can rise forever, something that you could at least argue there was data in support of, if you ignored all of the underlying indicia. There’s no reason to make the same mistake with shooting percentages.

    There was speculation in the thread at Japers’ Rink that Backstrom will come at a price of $7MM or so. I can’t see how that would occur when he’s scored 189 points over the past two years. Looking at the expensive RFA deals, Ovechkin comes in at around $9.5MM, Crosby and Malkin at $8.7MM, Stastny at $6.6MM and then Kane and Toews at $6.3MM. If I’m Backstrom, I’m arguing that I’m a lot closer to Crosby and Ovechkin than I am to Stastny, Kane and Toews. Given that those fellows have scored considerably fewer points, on the indicia commonly used in pricing hockey players, I would expect that Backstrom comes in at somewhere between $7.5MM and $8.25MM annually on a five year deal.

    It’s a huge price to pay if you don’t have confidence that he’s a driver of results like Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin. While I think that there’s no chance Washington moves him – Ted Leonsis will look silly if he deviates from the much ballyhooed plan with which he’s taunted players on other teams and I think he ascribes too much value to the skill of Caps management and not enough value to luck when it comes to team building – I’d be hesitant if I was Washington to hand over money to a guy who is as dependent on shooting percentage and Ovechkin for his success as is Backstrom.


    Backstrom’s on-ice shooting percentage this year was extraordinarily high, at 12.66%, a number that put him fifth in the league. As is illustrated by the table to the right, this simply does not tend to repeat year over year. What I’ve done there is taken the top 30 forwards by on-ice in 2007-08 and 2008-09 (60 in total) and then compared their results in that season to their results in the following season: the trend is obvious. I’ve appended the raw source data to the bottom of the post.

    If the reasonable expectation for Backstrom is something less than 101 points when you strip away the Ovechkin factor and the shooting percentage, the question becomes: what are those reasonable expectations? How much do you nick his numbers for those things? We can infer, from the Corsi data, that Backstrom hasn’t been a big reason for the Caps’ overwhelming territorial dominance. We know that the reasonable expectation is the on-ice shooting percentage will be less going forward.

    If – and I’m just playing math games here but, if the on-ice shooting percentage were to drop by the 2.6% average for my top 30 while the shots remain the same, the ESGF/60 with Backstrom on the ice falls from 4.45 to 3.52. That’s still really fantastic. Assuming he gets points on 75% of those, you’d expect him to post something like 2.6 ESP/60. That cuts about 11 points off his numbers and we still haven’t allowed for the Ovechkin factor.

    The guy who caught my eye while looking at this was Paul Stastny. Stastny, who earns $6.6MM has been a 70-80 point guy for most of the past few years, while playing on a lousy Colorado team. If you could flip Backstrom for him and, say, the Avs first round pick next year, would either team do that? I suspect that the Caps wouldn’t – management would rather make the perceived safe risk and not make the move. I’m not saying I’d do it either, but I’m reasonably certain that the distance between Backstrom and Stastny is alot smaller than it appears. If that’s not reflected in Backstrom’s new deal, well, Washington will have made a mistake. As someone who’s seen the results of an overpay here and an overpay there…it’s not pretty.



    19 Responses to Valuing Nicklas Backstrom

    1. April 28, 2010 at

      I would expect that Backstrom comes in at somewhere between $7.5MM and $8.25MM annually on a five year deal.

      If the Caps were willing to do that, the contract would have been signed and announced long ago. That contract is simply not happening.

      Since the time the parties started negotiating (sometime in the fall is our best guess), Backstrom’s play, the effects of OV notwithstanding (which I think everyone on the planet realizes that his numbers are inflated playing with OV), has certainly upped the ante from the 6M x 6yrs the Caps probably initially optimistically penciled him in at before the season, but I imagine they’re still thinking just south of 7M on a 5-7 year deal, and closer to 6.5 on a long term deal (10-13 years) that is heavily front loaded and provides good present value financial return to Backy and a nice cap hit for the team.

      I think some of the unsavory underpinnings of this post are along the line of “Caps fans are dumb and they’re going to be happy regardless of what Backstrom signs for and I’m going to show them how stupid they are in a subtle and clever way that they haven’t thought of,” but I can almost assure you that any astute Cap fan, let alone management, is not even considering an 8M cap hit for no. 19 going forward. That cap hit would essentially destroy the team’s cap structure and not only force Semin out after next year (who it’s going to be incredibly tough to keep as is), it also likely means Flash and Fehr are gone this summer, and I’m not sure there’s enough around to absorb Schult’z arbitration award if it comes to that. I think a consideration that this is the most static period of HRR and cap inflation since the lockout has to affect Backstrom’s market value vis-a-vis the Kane and Getzlaf and Stastny and Kopitar and Malkin and Crosby deals, and perhaps more importantly, the lure of playing on what I imagine is an incredibly fun team to play for also lowers the potential cap hit. Is it worth a 7% reduction in salary to play with Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin instead of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel? How about a coach that basically lets you do whatever you want?

      I think Stastny is a great player, though appreciably not as good as Backstrom. If I had to choose between Backstrom at 8 per and Stastny at 6.6 per plus some assets, it would get pretty trick for sure. Thankfully, I can’t imagine it coming to that. Hey, maybe Caps fans will get lucky and they’ll lose tonight and Backstrom will get branded a choker (“enigmatic” if only his name was Backstromov) and his market value will come down!

    2. April 28, 2010 at

      Though probably more relevant in the previous WOWY Ovechkin post, I’ll also add that I think the Ovechkin w/ Backstrom numbers are inflated because 30-40% of EV OV/Backstrom time was actually OV/Backs/Semin, a line that absolutely killed it in terms of Corsi, GF/GA, and Shooting %. And obviously in none of the Backstrom w/o OV time did Backstrom see OV and Semin as linemates. So, I think that makes the dip in Backstrom w/ and w/o Ovechkin look more severe than it realistically is/was.

    3. Tyler Dellow
      April 28, 2010 at

      A link to Rajeev’s fine post on the topic.

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        May 31, 2013 at

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    4. Tyler Dellow
      April 28, 2010 at

      It’s not intended as a shot at Caps fans but I think your faith in them is misplaced. I can’t figure out how to link to Japers’ comments but this is the thread. Some comments:

      “I think backstrom for crosby is about the only way it would be worth it to trade backstrom.”

      “The Caps should definitely look into trading the number 3 scoring center (who is younger than both people above him). It’s definitely easy to find another 100 pt player.”

      “So stupid. Perhaps Backstrom is inflating Ovechkin’s numbers, and not vice versa.”

      “My point is this – you can make statistics say whatever you want and then can use them to draw whatever conclusions you want. You can interpret these stats to point out how incredible Backstrom will be when his experience catches up with his talent just as easily as you can say trade him or cut him.

      Either way – it’s one of those articles written only to provoke responses as we have on this board. Ignore it and sign Nicky long term.”

      “OK, enough is freakin’ enough. This whole statistical analysis thing has jumped the shark. Look at the entire suite of data in that mc79hockey entry, and you could make the argument that if ANY of the forwards mentioned were in a contract year, you might think about trading them (comparing the severely abused Corsi measure). In fact, Backstrom takes LESS of a hit to his WOWY (dear sweet God, I wanted to hurl a shoe at the monitor when I saw that acronym) numbers than either of the other two members often mated with Ovechkin on the first line. Ovechkin is the best of the lot, not exactly a surprising finding.

      Extend that logic, and you might say, well… you could stick any forward on a line with Ovechkin and you would get significantly better productivity out of that forward than if he was on another line.

      Uh, you know? We’ve SEEN that movie. It starred Chris Clark and Dainius Zubrus, and the result was a pair of 70-point seasons.”

      “If Backstrom is resigned at $7.0 million or so (where I think the top-end is for him), and he’s viewed as “Jonathan Cheechoo-lite,” then how much are Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews being overpaid at $6.3M?”

      “Saying Backstrom isn’t as good because he’s riding Ovechkin’s ability to points and should be traded is ridiculous. It’s like saying Malkin really isn’t that good and is only putting up points because he’s not facing the top D pairs, so he should be traded.”

      “And if you take that money and look for a separate first line center there’s the issue of re-establishing chemistry. I really just don’t think there’s any reason the Caps should explore other options from Backstrom (unless Crosby becomes an option, which will never happen).

      I think it’s ridiculous to search for alternates when you have one of the top 10 centers in the league, who is only 22 years old, and has shown improvement each year, and not just in points.”

      “Don’t blame this on statistics as a whole. Just because somebody is using a genuinely flawed statistic to make their argument doesn’t make statistics irrelevant in the scope of the NHL as a whole. I’ve seen a lot of “modern” hockey statistics come up just short of something that would be really, really relevant. The quality of teammates/competition numbers, for example, are only first-order because going any further would be “computationally intensive” when going further than first-order is necessary to make them relevant for serious discussions. I hope we aren’t too far from a day when there’s more to pick from, but that may or may not be true.

      Bottom line, it’s frustrating to see statistics misused like this, but it is not the fault of statistics themselves.”

      In fairness, one guy seemed to get my point. As for Caps management not getting fooled, how’d that Nylander contract work out for them?

    5. R O
      April 28, 2010 at

      Backstrom for Crosby

      Dear, sweet, God. That’s incredibly moronic.

    6. April 28, 2010 at

      Those comments are pretty brutal and why I avoided reading them in the original post to begin with. I’ll note, though, that I think I covered myself by including the modifier “astute” and that the roughness of some of the comments aside, I don’t think any of those people are expecting or will be happy with an 8M, 5 year deal.

      Re Nylander, I’d actually argue that that deal worked out pretty well for them, though I’ll note as a huge defender and fan of the player that this was largely because of a course of management conduct so heartless and inconsiderate that it took me literally months to be able to watch the team play again – a team that i had watched the vast majority of games of since the lockout – w/o a bitter, bilious, blighting taste in my mouth. Given what the Caps thought they knew about what they had at the time (they had no idea what they thought they had in nos. 19, 52, 55, 14, 16, 74, etc.) I don’t think the Nylander signing was nearly as unwise as, say, the Oilers attempt to sign the same player for a very differently composed team. I’d argue that McPhee knows what he has now to a much greater extent than he did back then, and the possibility of that kind of arguably mistaken signing this summer is nearly impossible. My appreciation of hockey is so intertwined with a fetishism for critiquing and criticizing moves that NHL GM’s make that I think it’s caused potential permanent damage to my ability to relate to joyousness, but I think since the Nylander/Poti summer and up to and including both signings, McPhee has done everything absolutely right in terms of team/cap/asset management (with the one minor exception maybe being the 7 year add-on extension past the 6 years he had OV originally agreed to, though I’d guess that was more Leonsis’ doing than anything).

      Incidentally, I tried to run Vic’s tool for 08/09 to look at Backstrom w/ and w/o OV to see if there’s anything there, because to my eye Backstrom is so good everywhere on the ice it doesn’t make much sense that he would have a negative CORSI w/o OV, but it didn’t work. Not sure if it’s just not set up for past seasons or what the deal is.

    7. April 28, 2010 at

      “Don’t blame this on statistics as a whole. Just because somebody is using a genuinely flawed statistic…”

      Sweet. It’s gone from fatally flawed to genuinely flawed.

      Anyone know the difference?

    8. kinger
      April 28, 2010 at

      The internet is angry with you Tyler.

    9. Hawerchuk
      April 28, 2010 at

      Not just mad at Tyler, but me too:

      “Don’t blame this on statistics as a whole. Just because somebody is using a genuinely flawed statistic to make their argument doesn’t make statistics irrelevant in the scope of the NHL as a whole. I’ve seen a lot of “modern” hockey statistics come up just short of something that would be really, really relevant. The quality of teammates/competition numbers, for example, are only first-order because going any further would be “computationally intensive” when going further than first-order is necessary to make them relevant for serious discussions. I hope we aren’t too far from a day when there’s more to pick from, but that may or may not be true. Bottom line, it’s frustrating to see statistics misused like this, but it is not the fault of statistics themselves.”

      I’ve been publishing Quality of Competition statistics for 3.5 years and, frankly, I don’t know enough about recursive strength-of-schedule algorithms to figure out how you adjust for the other 11 guys on the ice with you.

      I put the question to a friend who’s a stats analyst in the NBA (“don’t bother”) and to a friend who runs the strength-of-schedule site Teamrankings.com (“not sure.”)

      I have also not yet seen anyone suggest a modification to the Qual Comp algorithm that would use deeper recursion to get better results. The best modification was Sunny’s suggestion to use Corsi instead of +/-.

      Anyways, I think what this commenter wrote was a total cop-out. Qual Comp is useful. If it wasn’t (like TOICOMP) nobody would ever look at it. And if it’s not useful, then the guy who wrote that comment should say how you fix it instead of getting mad at me because I was honest enough to say I don’t know how to fix it.

    10. Hawerchuk
      April 28, 2010 at

      Oh, the point of saying I’ve been doing it for 3.5 years is that in 3.5 years, nobody has ever suggested a way to improve it by having additional recursive depth. I get lots of crazy suggestions over email, none relating to this.

    11. Vic Ferrari
      April 28, 2010 at

      In 08/09 Backstrom was 51.6% w/o Ovy.

      Ovechkin was 58% without backstrom.

      They were 57.5% together.

      That’s Corsi, scoring chances will be very similar. Still, only 16% or so of Backstrom’s EV ice time was sans-8, these are pretty small chunks of ice time in both seasons. So while the arrows may be light grey, they point in the same direction.

    12. speeds
      April 28, 2010 at

      Vic, out of curiousity, what were the numbers like in Backstrom’s rookie year? My understanding from memory is that Backstrom didn’t necessarily play with Ovechkin much, was that the case?

    13. speeds
      April 28, 2010 at

      answered my own question with the help of hockey analysis . com

      Backstrom played roughly 65-70% of his ES time with Ovechkin his rookie season, so I guess what I’d read at that time wasn’t all that accurate.

    14. cajuncook
      April 30, 2010 at

      Hawerchuck: if I knew how to contact you, I’d be more than happy to discuss ways to write recursion into the qualcomp algorithms (or at least I could tell you how I would do it). You’re right; it’s computationally intensive and it’s not easy, but that doesn’t make it not worth trying. To me, that’s a bum excuse.

    15. cajuncook
      April 30, 2010 at

      For the record, the reason why my comment appeared as a “copout” is because I wasn’t going to write a treatsie on statistical analysis and how I think it should be performed in Japersrink’s comments because, frankly, I don’t many commenters there would care. I don’t see why calling out Corsi and QUALCOMP for not adjusting their numbers for proven factors isn’t a legitimate addition to the discussion. I’m not mad at you — and it very well may turn out to be an illegitimate adjustment with little to no value. But I still think it should be explored. The potential for more accuracy is a good thing, right?

    16. April 30, 2010 at

      You can contact Hawerchuk by going here:


      His email address is at the very bottom of the page.

    17. cajuncook
      April 30, 2010 at

      Just so happens that I already knew that! But thank you.

    18. Drew
      May 17, 2010 at

      Looks like Rajeev nailed it.

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