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Monday, September 08, 2008

Random Pacific Questions: Are the Kings really going to sit out Kopitar's bargain year?

I know "Random Pacific Questions" is Rudy's gig, and I don't really mean to be spiteful or anything, but I do have an honest question for Kings fans: Really?

The Kings are going to put as little funding as possible around Anze Kopitar and Jack Johnson in this -- their last bargain season -- and you're all cool with that?

Let's clarify my thinking a bit. You see, I'm a believer in bargain years, which for a productive player is usually the last year of an entry-level deal. Because while good players will still improve even after their first contract is over, it seems near-impossible for them to become better dollar-value players, especially if they've put up some good numbers as youngsters.

On the Ducks for example, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry just finished off their bargain years -- while I suspect that both players will be better top-liners this season than last, I would rather build a team around last year's duo for $1.3 million than this year's duo for $10.7 million (rough numbers). The change in talent / experience / production won't come near to matching the change in salary. With cheap kids in the lineup, more money can be spread around to other positions (nearly $20M thrown at three defenseman slots, for example), and overall there have been some groovy results for the Ducks -- see our non-empty cup case.

On some other coast, some kids named Crosby and Malkin also finished up their collective bargain years (Crosby got his raise this summer; Malkin's up next summer), and filled last year's roster with enough talent to lose gracefully in the cup finals. True, both the Ducks and Pens are now feeling the squeeze of those raises and have to compensate by losing talent elsewhere. That's not to say that these teams are finished or anything; they'll just need to find other Getzlafs and Crosbys -- guys who will outpace their salary. But at least both teams were able to take advantage of their young-gun bargain years; they didn't sit on their hands until after those players got raises.

By the way, entry level deals aren't the only source of bargains by any means. Detroit gets a bargain by signing goalies for peanuts and having star players sign team-friendly deals. Anaheim has found bargains in a washed-up Selanne a few years ago and undrafted players like Penner and McDonald. Still, young talented players is definitely a milkable source for bargains in a salary-capped league, and by my eye the Kings are dealing with a few of them.

So is the best strategy for the Kings really to "sit this season out" and promise to spend money sometime in the future, when Kopitar and Johnson are quite expensive? As a reformed gambler, that strategy makes very little sense to me. I mean, of course more money will need to be spent in the coming years, just to keep the same team together. And as the Kings are a team that already are bemoaning their annual financial losses, I really don't see how they plan on actually adding talent to a Kopitar-and-Johnson roster in the coming years -- that would require a huge increase in spending (raises plus additions/upgrades), which seems unlikely at best.

Now I'm not the biggest Kings fan on this site, so it's quite possible I'm not seeing the full picture here. Perhaps Lombardi has a plan where he's going to use some other bargain years (Doughty and friends) to build around, and maybe there's even a plan (cough, Schneider, cough) to still better this year's roster. And maybe there's really no envisionable win-scenario for the Kings: even if they spent to the ceiling the Kings couldn't compete with the big boys in the west.

Still, if you tell me that (a) Kopitar is the real deal, (b) this is the cheapest he will ever be again, and (c) Kings fans do actually enjoy winning, I don't know why everyone seems to drink so much Lombardi Kool-Aid when it comes to cap-floor spending. If you asked me what would be the better team -- if the Kings spent to the cap ceiling with a cheap Kopitar this year, or if the Kings spent to the cap ceiling with an expensive Kopitar next year -- I'd fully expect this year's team to be the better version, because there's so much extra money to spend elsewhere. Isn't this the year for the Kings to go for a gamble, instead of essentially folding before the flop? Is Kopitar's best-opportunity window shutting, or am I just crazy?

Rationalize it for me, Kings fans.

(p.s. I don't really want to hear "but the Kings need to save cap space next year for Kopitar's raise!" as a valid excuse. It's very possible to spend money this season without touching next year's cap, and even if they did, it's not that difficult to ditch salary if needed -- see all the teams unworried about their current over-the-cap situation this late in the summer.)

24 comments:

RudyKelly said...

Well, they could have signed Brad Stuart, Rob Blake and Brooks Orpik, but those players decided to sign elsewhere. The myth is that the Kings are trying to suck this season; the reality is that they were banking on signing a few bigger defensemen this off-season but whiffed. They could have signed someone else that wasn't as good but what would be the point of that? It would be great if the Kings had two Norris-caliber defensemen, a great goaltender and a 40-goal scorer to go with their young talent, but they don't. This year wasn't the time to go on a spending spree a la Chicago; our time will be next year.

Tomorrow's Random Pacific Question: Sammy Pahlsson is gay.

Earl Sleek said...

They could have signed someone else that wasn't as good but what would be the point of that?

I guess the point isn't so much focused on "who to sign" specifically, but "when to spend". It's got to be easier to create a legitimate roster this year with $10M extra to spend than say next year, when that $10M goes in Kopitar and Johnson's pockets.

This year wasn't the time to go on a spending spree a la Chicago; our time will be next year.

Yeah, but the dollars that can be thrown around will be significantly stifled by Kopitar's raise, no? I see next year as the year where nearly the entire increase in player spending gets devoted to two players getting raises. In other words -- the team gets more expensive without getting significantly better.

Tomorrow's Random Pacific Question: Sammy Pahlsson is gay.

Hopefully that makes him cheaper to re-sign?

RudyKelly said...

Well yeah, it's not the best monetary-wise, but it's the best way to make the Kings a better hockey team. There was no one they could have signed this off-season that would have made the Kings a post-season team, especially in our division. They could have signed Marian Hossa and Jeff Finger and this team is still looking at a #10 spot at best. Not spending money now may be wasted cap space, but it's not wasted money. That money can be saved and used next year, when the Kings are ready to make the playoffs. At least, it can in my retarded little head.

Earl Sleek said...

Not spending money now may be wasted cap space, but it's not wasted money. That money can be saved and used next year, when the Kings are ready to make the playoffs.

This is a very valid point, and if the Kings stick to this, I could buy into their "plan".

Problem is, I don't trust the Kings (or any other NHL team, for that matter) when it comes to promises of future spending. Even if they are sincere today, I'll need to see how a year of pocketing extra revenue does to their spending appetite.

I guarantee that every increase in spending, even if planned, will come with its accompanying CBA-whining. That's why I'm a bit loathe to believe promises of future spending at face value.

Anonymous said...

maybe the GM is just sandbagging their stats to try and give them less leverage in the next round of contract negotiations? less goals scored should = less $$ paid...

Earl Sleek said...

maybe the GM is just sandbagging their stats to try and give them less leverage in the next round of contract negotiations? less goals scored should = less $$ paid...

Also not a bad cap strategy, if that's Lombardi's plan.

Still, (a) Kopitar's scored enough already that I'm not sure he's going to get hugely affected by next year's totals, and (b) the proper way to limit a kids' production is to hide him in the non-scoring lines, and maybe more importantly, off the 1st power play unit. There's little evidence that Kopitar will get anything but the sweetest scoring minutes in next year's projected lineup.

I don't think that's Lombardi's game, at least with Kopitar.

ian said...

No offense Earl, and I find no fault with your analysis of teams with regard to salary cap and contract issues (I'm sure it's correct), but I REALLY FUCKING HATE THIS SHIT. I'm a hockey fan, but the realization that your team's chances of being a Cup contender primarily depends on weird arbitrage formulas is unbearable depressing.

It's like being a fan of a commodities trader. "Holy Fuck, did you see the deal that guy got on orange juice futures??!"

Hooray, post-lockout NHL!

Earl Sleek said...

Hooray, post-lockout NHL!

I hear you, and I don't hear you, Ian.

On the one hand, I also hate knowing how much averaged salary every Duck makes, as I used to think in much more general senses about salary-I-don't-have-to-pay.

Still, the notion of bargain players and team budgets has existed well before this CBA, so it's not entirely a new phenomenon. If Kopitar had emerged in the late 90s, I also could have asked the question, "Should the Kings surround him with as much talent as possible before he turns expensive?" and it still would have been a semi-valid question. An individual's salary increase always comes with a tradeoff, with or without a salary cap.

So, yes, it's a shitty era of spreadsheeted salaries we live in. But aside from the engineered limits set forth in the CBA, the tradeoff of "what can I pay a player, considering I also have to pay his teammates?" has existed since there were salaries and budgets. It's not all new.

RudyKelly said...

I think the Kings are going to get value not out of Kopitar and Johnson, but from everyone else that comes up after them. A guy like Oscar Moller would have the future of the team 5 years ago and now I'm having trouble fitting him on the team a few years down the road. Those are the guys the Kings can take their time with and put on the third line because they'll have guys like Kopitar and Johnson to lead the way. The Kings have to start somewhere, it might as well be with Kopitar.

And I think we should make sure we point out the difference between Johnson and Kopitar. Johnson's a nice young defenseman that could eventually become a #1 guy; Kopitar's arguably a #1 guy right now, at 21. It doesn't matter who the Kings had signed in the past few years, Kopitar is getting heavy ice time.

Earl Sleek said...

Johnson's a nice young defenseman that could eventually become a #1 guy; Kopitar's arguably a #1 guy right now, at 21.

Very true. The only reason I really included JMFJ at all was just to consider dollars, as young defensemen tend to make bigger raises than they probably "deserve" (that's a loaded word, though).

You can notice that as I got towards the end of the post, though, I gradually eliminated Johnson from the discussion and made it all about Anze. That's really my issue, anyways. If it just boiled down to an expected JMFJ raise, I'd have no issue with the strategy of not spending money this year.

Ian said...

Sure, budget and salary issues have been around since sports became a big business. It doesn't make it any more compelling to me. Post-lockout, unfortunately, I have to keep up with the intricacies of the cap and the contracts of most of the players to understand how the game works.

I'll put up with that all of that to a point, but sweet Jesus it's a drag. Maybe that's just late offseason exasperation setting in. I dunno. I'm just never going to get excited by someone's points-per-dollar-of-salary ratio.

RudyKelly said...

Relax Ian, training camp hasn't started yet.

Oh, and Earl, I find it awesome that you're advocating signing veterans and worrying about fitting the young players in later since, you know, you lost Penner because of that very strategy.

Earl Sleek said...

you lost Penner because of that very strategy.

That's a bit of a side story, but Penner was definitely the definition of "bargain" for the Ducks (league-minimum, bitches), but in the same way was no-longer-the-bargain once he got his raise (whether we want to talk about the Ducks' expected raise or the Oilers' interjecting raise, it doesn't matter that much). The point is still valid: the Ducks won a cup with a very cheap Penner, and it's going to be tougher to build a cup-winning team around Penner and his salary going forward.

Plus you're leaving out the most important part of the context -- it wasn't a problem paying the veterans, but rather it was a problem paying the veterans plus allowing cap space for two maybe-retirers. It was a very unique summer when Penner got signed, and to tell the truth, the Oilers may have done the Ducks a favor -- we'll see. I'm happy the Ducks don't have a $4.25M Dustin Penner on their books, at least.

Earl Sleek said...

...unfortunately, I have to keep up with the intricacies of the cap and the contracts of most of the players to understand how the game works.

Yeah, I hear you on this. And maybe the worst part is that the league has done very little to help us fans understand cap math, even though it's turned out to be a very important function of team-building.

I would love it if the NHL would just tell me, for one season, what one team's actual cap hit was and how it was calculated. Right now I think we have a very good rough model, but it's been done more by independents than by the guys who do the actual cap-regulating.

That's bullshit, league. If your CBA is all about the salary-manipulation business, then show us fans how the damn math works. In fact, do the math for us.

Mike in OC said...

Every year the cap has gone up, but what will happen if every team gets knocked out in the 4 games minumum next year and the matchups are so boring television ratings drop.

Does the cap get lower? How will that effect all this?

For the Kings I think it boils down to one thing:

The owners are cheap!

McNall would never sit around and waste Anze's skills. Even if he had to print his own money (or borrow it with no plan to repay it), he would build a team around him....

Earl Sleek said...

Does the cap get lower? How will that effect all this?

I would assume so, but my CBA reading is on hold until my brain no longer has the will to live.

The cynic in me says that if the NHL gets to the point where the cap gets lowered, it automatically triggers another season-long lockout.

Also curious: if the cap did go down enough, would guys paid to the previous individual maximum have their salaries reduced for that year?

Earl Sleek said...

Of course, all this Kings-discussion is designed to conveniently hide the fact that the Ducks' owner might be going to prison, but I'm much more adept at writing about theoretical roster-filling than big-shot lawyering anyways.

Nut said...

How many free agents did you see sign for 1 year? I don't really understand your point, because the kings weren't going to get anyone helpful for one year, and if we got somebody for stupid money/years, that is gonna mean we aren't going to have money for are young guys when they are signing their contracts. Your point is more vaild, like Rudy said, when Doughty, Hickey, Tuebert, Moller, Simmonds, et al. will be on their entry level deals and our current young guys will be in their prime, or close to it.

Earl Sleek said...

How many free agents did you see sign for 1 year?

Well, I know Morrison, Selanne, and Montador shouldn't count, but I don't even know if that stops me. Even if Lombardi had to sign guys to three-year deals (or whatever), so long as they're smart signings, the salaries should be moveable.

And really, that's what bargain contracts really enable: you can cover mistakes elsewhere. The Ducks have never been salary-perfect (I thought for the first few years both Marchant and Rob N. were overpaid), but with enough winning bets those were very easily glossed over.

Your point is more vaild, like Rudy said, when Doughty, Hickey, Tuebert, Moller, Simmonds, et al. will be on their entry level deals and our current young guys will be in their prime, or close to it.

And like I said, I don't know the Kings pipeline the best -- it may be that there's an even bigger collection of big bargain years coming all in a bunch.

Still, how much will the Kings be spending on payroll then? Let's say Kopitar and Johnson get a collective $10M or so -- that's a huge increase in spending already without even adding anyone.

I'm not going to say things are "wrong", but I don't know if you'd see other successful GMs throw away opportunities like this one. Stars like Lecavalier, Staal, Getzlaf, and Crosby all made the cup finals while they were bargain kids; it'd be sort of a shame if the Kings couldn't even attempt that with a similar star in Kopitar. And you gotta think that might affect his psyche, to some degree.

Nut said...

Well the penguins were playing well and added good players once they were fairly certain they were going to be in the playoffs. I'm sure if the kings are within striking distance at the trade deadline that they would go after a Roberts or a Hossa type if the opportunity presented itself.

Earl Sleek said...

if the opportunity presented itself.

See, and that's the tough thing, because I don't recall hearing the words "Pittsburgh Penguins" and "salary cap floor" together at any point last year. There was no indication that they were going to wait for Sid to get older to start spending on payroll.

I guess there's the Nashville theory -- they always seem to be bottom-spending, but they're not promising to spend big at some future point, really.

There's no real guarantee that this season goes badly for the Kings, of course. I'm no fortune-teller. But if there's money purposely not being spent, that's not even trying.

Anonymous said...

"For the Kings I think it boils down to one thing:

"The owners are cheap!"

This is the truest comment I've read on this blog in months.

MontrealKing said...

Well, the major flaw in your thinking is that you assume that players of a high talent level, enough to really help the Kings improve, would be willing to sign expensive one year deals. If I follow your logic, you suggest that we load up for a year while Kopi and JJ are still cheap, is that correct? How many high end players do you see that sign the one year deal? Hossa? He's in it for a shot at the Cup and we all know that won't happen this season in LA. How do you know Lombardi did not try to sign guys for one year, I'd be willing to bet he did. Problem is, he couldn't offer them much more than a year since they would need the cap space to sign the young guns after the season. Lombardi is trying to work the cap long term so that the Kings are in a position to retain as many of the talented young players as possible.

Earl Sleek said...

Well, the major flaw in your thinking is that you assume that players of a high talent level, enough to really help the Kings improve, would be willing to sign expensive one year deals.

Read the above comments. I don't think that one-year UFA contracts are the only way to spend above the minimum this year, or the only way to improve the Kings team this year.

Multi-year contracts, if they are sensible, can be traded. Or players can be acquired by trade. Whatever the method, that's not really the main point. The main point is that this year provides a cap opportunity for the Kings -- one that I suspect GMs like Ken Holland and Brian Burke would take advantage of. They'd probably get more creative than "Hossa won't sign a one-year deal, so I won't do anything."

I know there will be future cap opportunities down the line, and perhaps the Kings will gamble with all their eggs in a future basket. But there's no guarantees in hockey; I don't see what's the harm in gambling this year and in the future.