With a new NHL season underway, we’re bound to hear about which players have contracts coming up next season and whether they’ll “step up their play” in order to get a big payday. Does this happen?
Martin Lapointe, who played for Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Ottawa, is the poster boy for this phenomenon. For the seasons ending in 1997 through 2000, Lapointe was remarkably consistent. He scored 16, 15, 16, and 16 goals those seasons, and earned about $1,000,000 per for his solid productivity. The next season, 2000-01, was his “contract year;” after that season Lapointe became an unrestricted free agent. Mr. Consistency somehow managed to score 27 goals that season and also managed a career high in assists. His total of 57 points was almost 40 percent higher than his previous best of 41.
Boston stepped up and paid him like a 27 goal-scorer, giving him a four-year, $20 million contract. In the following five seasons Lapointe reverted to the player he was from ’97 to 2000, scoring 17, 8, 15, 14, and 13 goals, respectively.
Now, before we start jumping to conclusions about players shamelessly playing their hardest only when they know their paychecks depend on it, let’s keep in mind that all players have season-to-season fluctuations in productivity, which means if we look at enough guys, some are going to get lucky and have that big season when they most need it. So was Lapointe just lucky, or is his story representative of how players routinely up their game at just the right moment so they can cash in when free agency rolls around?
To find out, we looked at what every NHL forward who signed a contract during the past seven seasons did in: the two seasons before his contract year, his contract year, and the season after his contract year.
If Lapointe were the norm, we would expect to see a big contract season bookended by less productive seasons on either side.
A first cut through the data didn’t reveal anything like Lapointe’s story. On average, when a player’s contract expired at any time during our seven-year sample, he continued to have the same points, shots on goal, and hits per 60 minutes of five-on-five ice time as he did in the two years leading up to his contract year.
That said, this is one of those situations where looking at things in the aggregate can hide some interesting effects within the group. Separating players into four quartiles based on their points per 60 minutes (five-on-five) proved to be quite revealing.
The bottom half appears to be mostly players who are in a state of decline. They’re getting steadily worse seasons after season. The second-best quartile’s numbers are roughly the same in the two seasons leading up to free agency, so once again no real contract season effect for that group – although that group’s productivity did decline significantly in the season after a new contract was signed.
The really interesting group is the top 25 percent. These players did see a significant increase in their performance in their contract season, but they managed to maintain that performance (or close to it) once their new contract began.
So what does this all mean for a general manager negotiating a contract with a forward? If the GM is negotiating with a player who’s not among the league’s top 25 percent in scoring, and the player’s stats have been declining – he shouldn’t expect that to change. If a GM is negotiating with a top player, he shouldn’t focus on just the past season. The league’s top line players do seem to somehow step it up in their contract years, but fortunately for most GMs, that performance doesn’t immediately fade the following season either.
So how, for example, should Hurricanes GM Ron Francis handle negotiations with Jiri Tlusty, who is in his contract year? For most of his career with Carolina, Tlusty has scored at a rate that would put him in our second quartile. If he scores at a similar rate again, then Francis can sign Tlusty to another contract without expecting a drop-off the following season. If, however, Tlusty manages to score at a rate of a legitimate top-line forward, as he did in the lockout shortened season, then some caution should be exercised as the numbers indicate a likely decline in the season following the contract signing.
The Department of Hockey Analytics employs advanced statistical methods and innovative approaches to better understand the game of hockey. Its three founders are Ian Cooper, a lawyer, former player agent and Wharton Business School graduate; Dr. Phil Curry, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo; and IJay Palansky, a litigator at the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale, former high-stakes professional poker player, and Harvard Law School graduate. Visit online at depthockeyanalytics.com.