[This Post was also posted at Lighthouse Hockey. Feel free to go over there to comment, the comment section should be more lively there. You can comment here of course, but the post is cross-posted here for posterity's purposes]
One thing that’s been taken for granted since the first two days of free agency, was that the Islanders were going to have to trade a forward. After all, there are currently 13 one-way contract forwards on the roster (including Eric Boulton) as well as 3 highly talented prospects on two-way deals who you’d think the team would like to make the opening night roster (Anders Lee might in theory be sent down for roster reasons, but it seems highly unlikely that Ryan Strome or Brock Nelson are going anywhere). Somebody has to go then – the team can’t really carry 15 forwards on the opening night roster (14 is very doable – 15 means the team basically can’t carry an extra D Man on the roster plus it means you’re scratching 3 healthy forwards in a night, which doesn’t seem like a good use of resources). I’m telling you all nothing new, obviously.
The other thing that’s been taken for granted is that the team is most likely to accomplish this by trading Josh Bailey or possibly Michael Grabner. After all, Bailey seemed to underperform for his contract last year – the overall point #s aren’t bad, but he simply didn’t score goals as he did the year before (He went from 1.27 G/60 in 13-14 to 0.36 at even strength), his worst rate in the last 4 years. And then there was the insane streak where he basically had no point production whatsoever – nearly half of his points came after the olympic break too. Add in a not cheap (although not expensive) contract with 4 more years on it, and it’s not an unreasonable thought to think the Isles should deal him and they obviously have put him out there. Michael Grabner is a slightly different case – Grabner is obviously valuable in ways Bailey isn’t outside of scoring (elite penalty killing, greater goal scoring potential, strong defensive play, ability to play with other centers besides Frans Nielsen, etc.) but like Bailey he had an insane cold streak which (stupidly) resulted in a one game healthy scratch and unlike Bailey, his backloaded deal gets a bit pricey for the Isles starting next year.
That said, if the Isles can afford to carry Bailey and Grabner’s salaries (and no report from Staple says otherwise, but rather that the Isles are hoping to swap one for a top 4 D Man), this basically makes no sense for multiple reasons:
First, you’d be dealing either guy from a position of weakness – both guys had down years last year and are extremely likely to bounce back stronger – Bailey’s shot rate dropped from 12-13’s increase, but his shooting percentage also dropped which is a likely fluke (Shooting % fluctuations tend to be random, and Bailey has always been an above average shooter, but was below average last year)- he should be good for at least a few more goals next year. Grabner is similar – his drop in goals was nearly entirely shooting % driven – at his career rate of shooting (12.3%) he’d have averaged 22 goals per 82 games instead of his rate of 15 last year, and Grabner has twice shot above that mark. Grabner may also have better linemates for scoring next year too.
In short, you’d be selling low on either guy, when both guys are likely to have a bounce back season next year simply due to regression. That’s generally a nono for any sports negotiating – instead of selling high and buying low, you’d be selling low and hoping to buy low. You’re less likely to get a great (presumably Defensive) piece back given the seasons each guy is coming off – you might be better off trading midseason.
And you really should only trade either guy for a clear 2nd pair caliber D man for a simple reason: Both guys are pretty good players who are amongst the Islanders’ current top 12 forwards. Yes, the Isles have 15 non-goon forwards, but why on earth would you want to play Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, or Colin McDonald over either guy (arguably Cal Clutterbuck too)? Even WITH their bad years both guys were better scorers than those 3 grinders, and they were strong possession players as well. Bailey’s possession #s won’t likely be that great again unless he plays with Frans, but they’ve always been better than Martin’s. Seriously, look at this:
Let’s take a quick tangent here: Why do teams play GRINDERS on the 4th or third line?
The answer isn’t that teams are better off with grinders rather than skill players in those spots – there’s a reason why olympic teams stack their rosters full of skill players instead of grinders, skill players are simply better at playing hockey in most ways. No, the reason is simple: With 30 teams and a salary cap, there simply aren’t enough skill players for teams to roll 12 skill forwards, so teams rely on grinding lines to eat up ice time (getting their skill players time to rest) and to hopefully prevent opposing teams from scoring in the mean time until the skill players can get back on the ice.
But some teams – like Chicago or the Rangers last year – do have enough skill players to fit four lines, and it tends to lead to being a pretty successful team. After all, this means that no matter when your opponents have out a line that basically can’t score and is limited to trying to playing defense, you’re icing a line that can defend AND score, giving you a clear advantage.
This doesn’t mean teams can’t be cup contenders with 3 skill lines and a grinding line – see Boston, the East’s best team for a few years now for example – but in those cases, the team tends to have skill forwards and D Men who are elite enough that the grinders’ issues aren’t that costly (and in Boston’s case, a top 2 goalie). Still, teams like Boston and Pittsburgh would also rather have skating talent on the 4th line and don’t simply because their other players have them RIGHT AGAINST THE CAP. The Isles don’t have that situation – so why should they suffer the same limitation?
Again, let’s bring up the #s again:
The highlighted stat is relative corsi – the difference in the corsi (Shot differential including blocked and missed shots) of the team while each forward is on the ice from the corsi of the team with them on the bench. In short, with those 3 forwards on the ice (especially Cizikas and Martin, since CMac was better when he played with other centers), the dropoff on the Isles was dramatic – they were pretty damn bad. But you can practically use any other metric and you get the same thing – raw corsi only has Nikolai Kulemin as worse and well that was largely the impact of playing on the Leafs. Points per 60 at EV again has Martin and Cizikas clearly at the bottom (and not the first time in Martin’s case) with again Kulemin (again, they’re hoping this is a Toronto thing and he had tougher minutes than any Islander) and now Clutterbuck (who has a better track record) the only other guys below CMac. And no, context doesn’t explain it either – while the grinders had slightly defensive minutes in terms of faceoffs, they weren’t extreme defensive minutes enough to account for this, and nor were they minutes harder really than any other option for the same minutes other than maybe Cory Conacher (The only guys who got really easier minutes than the Isles 4th line in terms of faceoffs were the Tavares line, for obvious reasons).
So it’s clear that Martin and Cizikas are clearly inferior to the other 13 forwards, and CMac is pretty likely inferior to the other 12 guys as well. So you DO NOT HAVE A JAM OF FORWARDS THAT MAKE IT SO YOU NEED TO TRADE A SKILL FORWARD – you have enough skill forwards (11 or 12 depending on what you call Clutterbuck) to make a full team and then you have a bunch of not needed grinders. Trade those guys! Don’t trade skill forwards at their lowest value unless you can get a clearly very positive thing in return.
I recently posted on my IslanderAnalytics blog on how the way analytics helps teams the most isn’t by helping them outsmart opposing teams but by preventing them from making stupid errors that those other teams might make instead. This is one such case -> there’s nothing brilliant about playing a team of 11-12 skaters and without a designated “checking line.” But there is something dumb over playing a checking line when you’re not forced to by cap or personnel issues – it’s rare to have the opportunity not to, but it’s right there for the Isles to grasp. There’s no reason to trade skill players just to play inferior players at the same spots – and the Isles shouldn’t do so.