There has been a lot of talk in recent week about the Pittsburgh Penguins salaries woes and what can be done to solve the issue, with quite a lot of the talk centering around Matt Niskanen, who will be hitting the free agent market in just over a month. It is a topic that was brought up last Summer as well when his name was brought up in trade rumours and people were arguing the merits of the Rob Scuderi new contract. I was unable to find the article I read last year that broke down average salary by depth position, so I wanted to go ahead and look it up for myself.
I had originally intended to just do a quick rundown plotting Cap hit vs TOI, but in doing so it became readily apparent that players on cheap Entry Level contracts were skewing the data. Either they were excellent young players that were getting Top 4 minutes, thus dragging down the average values set by the more veteran blue liners, or else they were seldom used depth options that were actually inflating the value of their lesser paid veteran counterparts. So clearly I needed to adjust the data by excluding ELCs.
But these numbers should give us a pretty decent idea of what we can expect pending free agents like Brooks Orpik, Simon Despres, and Philip Samuelsson to be worth. And we can get an idea about whether or not Paul Martin or Kris Letang are overpaid, or whether the Robert Bortuzzo contract is a good deal compared to the rest of the league.
Setup and Data Management
That in itself proved quite a time consuming task, as there were 303 unique D that played in the NHL at some point this season, and being that I needed to input each one individually so that I could not not only the Average Annual Value but also the distinction between ELC and standard player contracts, it took quite a bit of effort. Since I had already decided upon differentiating between ELCs and SPCs, I also decided to denote whether a player was on a 1way or 2way deal, and for the 1way players whether they had re-signed as a Unrestricted Free Agent or as a Restricted Free Agent.
I also noted the Time on Ice per game of all 303 D in order to break down the tiers. Since the standard pairings only exist at even strength, they jumble up partners for special teams play, I decided that sorting the list by ES TOI would be the best way to determine who should count as which position on the depth chart.
With 303 D it meant that each team on average used 10 different D this season, so my initial thought was to separate it into 10 equal tiers. However, by the time I narrowed it down by taking away the cheap 2way and ELC deals we were at 199 D, or 6-7 per team. Even adding back in the guys on non-ELC 2way contracts, as sorting through the list I realized they do not really skew the numbers as they almost exclusively exist in 3rd pair or lower minutes, brought us up to 226 D, or 7-8 per team. Thus I decided to break it down into 7 unique tiers, which is what a team would normally carry assuming a fully healthy lineup.
I also toyed with the idea of breaking it down even further, as I mentioned above with my discovery that the 2way players called up from the AHL were not adversely skewing the numbers. Out of 303 unique D this season, only 27 were playing on non-ELC 2way deals, while there were 77 playing on ELCs, 88 who signed their current contracts as an RFA, and 111 who signed their current contract as a UFA.
For the 2way guys, only 4 played enough minutes to just sneak into the Top 4, whereas 23 were 3rd pair and below, so they didn't appear to be an issue. The ELCs, however, nearly half played Top 4 minutes, 33 unique D, while the remaining 44 got lesser 3rd pair and below minutes. So clearly the ELCs were going to skew the numbers while the 2way guys could stay.
In looking at the RFAs vs UFAs, you always hear about how a certain player isn't going to make as much as he could on the open market if he is still under team control. That is true, but it certainly hasn't prevented those guys from getting paid. The UFAs ranged anywhere from our very own Deryk Engelland at $567k to Ryan Suter at $7.54M, with an average of $3.06M. The RFAs ranged anywhere from Ryan Stanton at $550k to Shea Weber at $7.86M, with an average of $2.69M. So there is a slight elevation in UFA salaries, but RFA salaries aren't nearly as repressed as people tend to believe they are.
With all of that out of the way, I ran the numbers and separated the D into 7 tiers. Out of 226 D on non-ELC contracts the average salary was $2.62M and the averaged D skated 18.6 minutes a night, that is total TOI including usage on special teams.
A #1 D on average skated 24.4 minutes a game and earned $4.85M.
A #2 D on average skated 22.3 minutes a game and earned $4.01M.
A #3 D on average skated 20.5 minutes a game and earned $3.20M.
A #4 D on average skated 18.6 minutes a game and earned $2.04M.
A #5 D on average skated 17.1 minutes a game and earned $1.56M.
A #6 D on average skated 15.6 minutes a game and earned $1.70M.
A #7 D on average skated 11.9 minutes a game and earned $958k.
That is about what I expected to find, the Top 3 are all quite close in usage, while there is a much steeper drop off to #4. If I had to wager a guess as to why the #6 D make more than the #5 D, I would assume it is because some older D who were paid due to past experience aren't quite living up to expectations and as such fall further down the depth chart. We can further break this down into groupings.
A 1st pair D on average skated 23.4 minutes a game and earned $4.43M.
A #2/3 D on average skated 21.4 minutes a game and earned $3.61M.
A 2nd pair D on average skated 19.6 minutes a game and earned $2.62M.
A Top 4 D on average skated 21.5 minutes a game and earned $3.52M.
A #4/5 D on average skated 17.8 minutes a game and earned $1.80M.
A 3rd pair D on average skated 16.4 minutes a game and earned $1.63M.
A #6/7 D on average skated 13.8 minutes a game and earned $1.33M.
A fringe depth 5/6/7 D on average skated 14.9 minutes a game and earned $1.41M.
Of course there are other factors involved as well. Players who put up more Points are going to get paid higher than the average for a player at their level, and there is even more of a premium when it comes to Goal totals. Likewise, D that can excel on the PP are going to get a boost above average, and even those who play key roles on the PK are likely to get paid slightly higher. You also need to realize that there is going to be some fluctuation, as one player may take a hometown discount to remain with his team, while another may be overpaid by a team trying to reach the Cap floor, or perhaps inflated due to a bidding war between two or more teams. And of course with the Cap going up next year we could see an increase upwards of 10% over what the calculated averages for this season turned out to be.