If a contract that pays Shawn Horcoff an average of $6.5 million over the next four years — that’s right, Shawn Horcoff — sounds like something an owner would offer to a favourite son, that’s mighty logical.
Lowe deserves better, despite the fact that — with Dustin Penner’s and Horcoff’s deals — the Oilers now own two of the 10 worst contracts in the NHL.
The above is from Mark Spector’s column in the aftermath of Darryl Katz’ text message supporting MacTavish. I’ve never been particularly impressed with Spector – he wrote one of the more sexist things I’ve even seen in a mainstream newspaper in the 21st century and, during the lockout, was sort of a blind supporter of the owners on the general bsais that the players make too much money, a position that I found to be awfully weak.
His view on Horcoff’s contract is pretty widely shared amongst Oiler fans and media. Everyone seems to agree that he’s going to be wildly overpaid in the coming season. What I haven’t seen anybody do yet is look at Horcoff in the appropriate context and compare him to centres who are actually unrestricted free agents.
“Overpaid” is a multi-faceted concept in the NHL. The first angle is whether a player is overpaid relative to his contributions to winning. This is probably true of all players who are UFA age. The market for NHL talent isn’t a free one and, as a result, players who are RFA’s or on entry-level contracts get underpaid while players who are UFA age get overpaid. In a league with a salary cap, there’s a legitimate issue as to how many of those players you can have and reasonably expect to win – if they generally cost more than the value of their contributions, a team made up UFA’s is going to have a difficult time winning. That’s not what I’m looking at here though.
The second angle, and the one that I’m looking at, is whether Horcoff is being overpaid relative to the market. In most of the arguments that Horcoff is being overpaid that I’ve seen advanced, he’s being compared to players like Ryan Getzlaf. While that’s a relevant comparison from a hockey perspective, from the perspective of comparing contracts, it’s difficult to compare Getzlaf, who couldn’t sign elsewhere without considerable compensation going the other way and Shawn Horcoff, who would have been completely unrestricted. Here’s the list of centres of UFA age signed for next season, along with some of their numbers from the past four years:
Right off the bat, I can see two contracts that I’m reasonably confident are worse than Horcoff’s in the form of Brad Richards and Scott Gomez, both of whom have strikingly similar ES/PP numbers to Horcoff but have cap numbers that are $2.3MM and $1.857MM higher, respectively. Richards can at least kill penalties, something that Gomez doesn’t do. Patrick Marleau, who has a cap number that’s $800K higher and who doesn’t kill penalties, is also very similar, although he’s scored an extra goal an hour on the PP over the past four years. Whether that’s to his credit or to Joe Thornton’s is, in my mind, an open question – in the four years preceding the lockout, Marleau scored 1.43 PPG/60.
What about the guys below him? Horcoff’s deal doesn’t look particularly good compared to Marc Savard’s but Savard’s contract is up after next year and, assuming another season of numbers like he’s posted post-lockout, he’ll be getting $7MM+ from somebody. Olli Jokinen is playing on a contract signed in 2006 that bought some of his RFA years in addition to UFA years; the actual price of the UFA years is probably higher than $5MM and, in any event, it was a deal done at a time when the salary cap was at about $44MM.
Mike Ribeiro looks like a reasonable offensive comparator for Horcoff over the past few years, with a bit of an edge at ES. Against that, you have to weigh the fact that Ribeiro doesn’t kill penalties and doesn’t look to play against the opposition’s best. Nylander is considerably older than Horcoff and he undoubtedly takes a salary hit for that.
Finally, you then hit a group that I think you can make an argument about compared to Horcoff. Arnott seems to play the tough minutes in Nashville, although he doesn’t penalty kill, has ES scoring numbers that are better than Horcoff’s and PP numbers that are comparable. He’s clearly more of a goal scorer too, which is something that I’d be willing to pay a premium for. Again though, it’s worth noting that Horcoff signed his deal at a time when the salary cap was $56.7MM, whereas it was $44MM when Arnott signed his deal. Andy McDonald is a bit closer to Horcoff money-wise, although he had a broken leg when he signed his deal, the potential financial disaster facing the NHL was a lot clearer and, per his behindthenet numbers, he’s not really a tough minutes guy. Langkow is another guy who you can probably add to that group.
Beyond that, I find it difficult to find a guy who has a contract that makes Horcoff’s look bad. It’s certainly not one of the ten worst in the NHL. If there’s an argument to be made that Horcoff’s contract is a bad contract, it has to be based on the argument that you can’t win in a league with a salary cap if you’re paying market value for non-star UFA players. That might be true – MLB’s salary structure changed dramatically in the early aughties as teams became less willing to lavish rich contracts on non-star players – but it’s not an argument that I’ve seen seriously put forward by anybody.