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February 11, 2011
Howe and Why
How to Analyze a Trade

by Robert Vollman

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The Nashville Predators are currently sitting fifth in the Western Conference, 10th overall, riding a hot Pekka Rinne to allow the fourth-fewest goals in the league. By filling a few minor holes they could finally have all the tools required to win a playoff series for the first time in their 12-year franchise history. Despite all of this, we are putting them on the losing end of their recent trade with the Ottawa Senators where they acquired an obvious asset in Mike Fisher for a couple of draft picks. Why?

Mike Fisher is a gritty, two-way 30-year-old veteran center, on pace for score 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. He placed third in Selke Trophy voting in 2006 as the league's best defensive forward, and has widely acclaimed leadership qualities. Predators head coach Barry Trotz called Fisher "an outstanding fit" and "just what we need." ESPN's Pierre LeBrun called this trade "a perfect fit," and TSN's Bob McKenzie even called this a "great move for Nashville," tweeting that Fisher is a "good player" who "fills a huge need" and that it was "pretty obvious that Nashville was a perfect fit."

We're sorry to rain on the parade, and while all of this may be true, it's still a bad deal for the Predators.

Analyzing Trades in the Salary Cap Era

In the salary cap era, it's not enough to simply acquire an obvious asset and declare yourself the winner. Today, the winners are those who have managed their salary cap most efficiently, so you need to look at a player's contract, and that's exactly where Mike Fisher hurts the club most.

Step One in analyzing trades in the new NHL is to get the player's contract information from a site like CapGeek. In this case, we see that Mike Fisher carries a cap hit of $4.2 million for two more seasons after this.

Step Two is to get the player's Goals Versus Threshold (GVT) data from a site like Behind the Net. Here you can see the value the player brings to the team relative to replacement level.

Finally, based on the cap hit, figure out how much value the player must provide, and compare that with the value that player is expected to provide. To calculate, subtract $0.5 million from the cap hit (the cost of a replacement level player) and multiply by three. (Why three? To be competitive, a team must get 120 GVT from the remaining $40 million in cap space).

That's all the information you need to determine whether that player is a good investment or not. Quite frankly, a player's rights are simply not an asset unless they produce more than they cost, because otherwise the same funds could have been used elsewhere for greater effect.

Mike Fisher: An Inefficient Investment?

In Mike Fisher's case, a $4.2 million cap hit would require a GVT of 11.1 to break even. Unfortunately for the Predators, Fisher has averaged only 7.9 GVT over the past three seasons, is past his prime, and on pace for only 2.0 GVT this season. That means that Nashville can expect to lose at least three goals a season for two more seasons based on acquiring Fisher at this contract.

We're not concluding that Fisher won't contribute to Nashville's success; the conclusion is that Fisher is not an efficient asset. For the same cap space, Nashville could either get a much better player, or the same caliber of player but with room left over for another.

Putting all the information in a graphical format where the blue line represents what Fisher needs to produce and red what he actually produced, you can see that Fisher, even in his prime or at his very best, can just barely justify the cap space invested in him. Even in this best case scenario, he isn't helping the team, he's just not hurting them.

20110211_timo_1.png

It's more realistic to expect the 30 year old to decline over the remaining couple of years on his contract, using up space that could have been used on another asset. That's exactly what hurts a team in the long run.

A quick look at Fisher's Snepsts Comparables helps further reinforce the unlikelihood of his returning to previous form and helping Music City break even—Fisher is currently on pace for the tail end of projections.

Age Player         Season  GP  G  A PTS
30 Dick Duff       1966-67 51 11 11  22
28 Scott Mellanby  1994-95 48 12 12  24
31 Martin Gelinas  2001-02 72 14 17  31
29 Mario Tremblay  1985-86 56 13 15  28
29 Robert Lang     1999-00 78 23 43  66
32 Steve Heinz     2001-02 73 16 17  33
29 Shawn McEachern 1998-99 77 33 27  60
29 Brian McLellan  1987-88 75 12 25  37
28 Vic Hadfield    1968-69 73 24 39  63
28 Rene Bourque    2009-10 73 28 30  58
WORST (Duff)               82 18 17  35
BEST (Hadfield)            82 27 44  71
AVERAGE                    82 22 28  50
VUKOTA (82 GP)             82 22 29  51
CURRENT PACE               82 21 15  36

What the Predators really need is someone who can efficiently help their power play, which has been consistently among the league's worst for four years now. Clearly, Fisher won't help there, either.

2010-11: Power Play Points per 60 minutes, this year
2006-10: Power Play Points per 60 minutes, average of previous 4 years

Forward        2010-11 2006-10
Martin Erat      5.2    3.8
Sergei Kostitsyn 4.7    4.1
Patric Hornqvist 3.6    3.2
Joel Ward        3.0    2.8
Colin Wilson     3.0    2.8
J.P. Dumont      2.2    4.0
Steve Sullivan   1.7    4.2
David Legwand    1.5    3.0
Mike Fisher      1.1    2.8

The Predators already have over two full lines of options proven to produce better with the man advantage than Fisher. They also already have the third-best penalty kill in the league, and have allowed the fourth-fewest goals, so regardless of price, how could they get maximum value out of a defensive specialist?

Popping Champagne in Ottawa

Meanwhile in Ottawa, Senators fans are popping champagne bottles. Not only did they shed a contract that could have cost them over 20 goals over the next two seasons, but they also picked up a first round draft choice, and another pick next season. Though it's harder to place an exact value on a draft-choice, we can start by bookmarking Iain Fyffe's latest article—it's potentially a windfall.

At this very moment, there are probably Sens fans calling their friends and relatives in nearby Toronto, wondering why their own local team is actually swapping bad contracts with the Ducks when they can simply dump them on a team so desperate for short term playoff success that they're willing to give up their long term health. Even though they ought to be showing Leafs fans more mercy than that, you can't blame them for their celebratory move.

Lessons Learned

It's not our intention to rain on anyone's parade, but simply to add a cold hard splash of objective reality. From all accounts, Mike Fisher is a fantastic guy, and we hope he does very well in Nashville. But even at his very best, the Predators would be better off using that same cap space either on an even better player, or a player just as good with room for one more.

In the new NHL, it's not about acquiring assets. It's about managing a limited commodity as efficiently as possible, and that's where the Preds came up short.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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