Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Post-Chiarelli Puzzle Has Been Solved Once Before

The symmetry between the condition in which Chiarelli left the Bruins and the condition in which he left the Oilers is both striking and repellent.

However, studying the journey the Bruins have taken from that wreckage all the way to two strong chances at the Stanley Cup Final in back to back years is always informing and at times downright educational. Certainly it is for us as observers - and hopefully it will be for both those who are searching now for his replacement as well as whoever that replacement ends up being.


One of the reasons this comparison is often easily made is that, counter to a popular opinion, Chiarelli is said - by all sources that have spoken on the issue - to have had autonomy and trust from upper management in both cities. Trust to expend futures (with seemingly nothing off limits) and trust to build a team in his vision.

The league landscape took more kindly to what Chiarelli thought the ideal hockey team would be in 2008-2014, and he was supplied with more pieces of his liking through the pipeline in Boston than he was in Edmonton.

Via Sportrac, This is Boston going into the summer of 2013 versus Boston going into the summer of 2015. The difference in roster size is a function of one being at the end of a playoff tournament, and the other being a team that didn't enter the tournament, where obviously the some of the roster limit rules being lifted is used to full effect.

When you look at this, think of what the decisions about who was kept, who was disposed of  (and the price attached in each decision) tells you about the disposition of the decision-maker. Seem familiar?

How about the end result, do you recognise that?

Let's start with that result and work our way back. The 2014-15 Bruins were over two million USD over the cap pre-adjustment, and the Oilers today are too. Boston shelled that (3rd highest in the NHL) value out for the 17th highest point total that year - and Edmonton pays the highest total in the league for their spot at 24th in points this year.

Boston spent:

  • 19.24% on non-ELC replacement-level (or close), bottom-half players;
  • 10.59% on a pair of 33-year-old bottom-half players with trade protection;
  • 31.43% on three core players (Bergeron, Chara, Rask) with full no-movement clauses;
  • 2.63% on buyouts.

Edmonton is projected to spend:

  • 19.82% on non-ELC replacement-level (or close), bottom-half players;
  • 12.29% on a pair of 30+ year-old bottom-half players with trade protection;
  • 33.18% on three core players (McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins);
  • 2.01% on buyouts.

Yet again via Sportrac, this is end of 2015-16 and 2017-18 for the Oilers. The degradation in skill is profound, especially since there is just one real addition positionally in roster spots that matter, and it was obtained at a nauseating cost.

One entry of each list is not like the others. Having the core locked in wasn't a weakness of either club (and on Edmonton it will be a massive blessing - ridicule anyone who points to those three contracts as a problem), but it does describe the level of maneuverability available and the general makeup of the rosters being similar.

Chiarelli's last months in Boston saw him spend - among other (insignificant) things - a 6th and two 2nds for Max Talbot and Brett Connolly, in a hurry to improve waning playoff chances. The latter would be more useful than the former - but neither would remain with the team past summer 2016. In what would be his last months in Edmonton, several strange pick and young player expenditures netted him four players; two are already gone and the other two are likely to leave as well - one by free agency and the other by buyout.

You can draw parallels between the 2015 Bruins and 2018 Oilers hand over fist when it comes to target acquisition and structural makeup, especially in terms of salary cap expenditure and preference of position. Off-ice, you can also notice the distrust of data on one hand, and the misuse of it on the other. Signs of outright illiteracy in that field were there, best exemplified with a statement marking Kris Russell as a top zone exit defenceman league-wide.

Via an Edmonton Journal transcription of an Oilers Now interview with Peter Chiarelli in October 2016; author David Staples.

It's pretty easy to reverse engineer from a conclusion like that back to an error in interpretation of data, collection of data, or both, with considerable precision. To follow up that conclusion with statements like you can derive analytics any way you want at the end of the day, and there's been a lot of moves that are based on analytics that don't work out, is pretty obscene for obvious reasons. Possessing a contradiction of both distrusting data's utility and being willing to have it reaffirm your most dangerous self-sabotaging biases is to sit very far into the most dangerous quadrant of possible dispositions in regards to managing a hockey team.

You can also consider his longstanding bullishness on the team - and the players on it - that suggests the pride of autonomous ownership. General managers in the NHL have to dance that dance to a degree, but there's a certain tact that went unused by Chiarelli. This was not due to errors in communication, but rather of substance. The only targets of Peter Chiarelli's criticism (among his acquisitions) seemed to be Cam Talbot and Todd McLellan - the latter rumoured to not be Chiarelli's explicit interview-and-hire (which I buy) and the former similarly rumoured about (which I don't). Lucic was celebrated for the most meagre of perceived improvements over the past year; Larsson was spoken of glowingly far beyond even typical pro-sports protocol for fluffing incoming assets. On that last one, it's informing to look it up and read his words on Larsson again. It's really something.

Pampering of Chiarelli hires extended into contract negotiations. Consider the treatment of Jeff Petry, after signing a one-year $3 075 000 contract, by Craig MacTavish to the treatment of Kris Russell, after signing a one-year $3 100 000 contract by Peter Chiarelli. 


The future that laid in front of the Bruins in the summer of 2015 has many differences from the one that awaits the Oilers this summer, but something I'll touch on now (and repeatedly harp on from here on in) is that the ability to sweepingly reconstitute an NHL roster and organisation in a short period of time is much more available than what is commonly said or seen.

A lot of bearish takes on the likelihood of future success for this organisation depend on the long history of NHL teams changing incrementally - and typically being awarded strokes of genius by fate as opposed to aggressively engineering the team they want and that team winning the way they want it to win. I have time for this as a general perspective, it's how I view the entire story of the modern NHL up to like, fifteen years ago.

But it's actually ahistorical and pretty much an outright fabrication to draw from that that teams are inherently these slow-turning freighters that can't radically alter the direction of their team-building. The reason you don't see massive salary-dumping summers or the type of big trading years that resemble your armchair-GM sessions is because teams (management and ownership) straight up don't want to do that most of the time. Not because it's ill-advised or impossible. It's ahistorical to put forth any other conclusion because of the historical examples that contradict it. 


This is a good time to get back to Boston, Massachusetts. Let's go back to June 25th, 2015. The general manager had been replaced, his last deeds had been a blow to the draft capital the team should have possessed, which was inconvenient because the draft was the next day.

The first post-Chiarelli trade is a classic cap-dump: Carl Söderberg for a 6th round pick in the draft after tomorrow's and that's it. This'll go well, because they'll later spend that pick on Oskar Steen, the kind of smart late-round gamble you take if you pay attention to the Swedish U20 league, the SuperElit. It's since paid off.

Söderberg would sign with Colorado and take of 6.51% of their cap space the next year in the first fifth of his new deal.

The second trade is the Dougie Hamilton deal the next day at the 2015 NHL entry draft. He's another RFA that had to sign, and he did for the Flames at 8.05% of the 2015-16 salary cap. The return was the 15th, 45th, and 52nd overall, all 2015ers.

The third ships out Milan Lucic with Boston retaining 45.80% to make the money nearly balanced when Martin Jones, Colin Miller and the #13 overall comes back. Lucic was at $6 000 000 (making 45.80% $3 250 000), Jones would sign for $3 000 000, and Miller $602 500. Here's that in visual format  (mercifully) via Capfriendly:

Then on June 30th Boston flips Jones to the Sharks for a 2017 1st round pick and the rights to Sean Kuraly - in a way dumping the entirety of the amount that Lucic would take up by not having to pay the $3 000 000 that Jones would sign for. 

The fifth, final significant transition trade is the coupling of the tail end of Marc Savard's back-diving contract (owed $1 150 000 cash that's counting as $4 021 428 cap for each of two seasons; though spending them on LTIR of course - fuck Matt Cooke and concussions) with pending RFA Reilly Smith for the rights to Jimmy Hayes. Where season-opening cap is concerned, this frees up $7 446 429.


And there you have it - I'm going to ignore a couple things (Jimmy Hayes' signing and the trade of a 3rd round pick for Zac Rinaldo that went unmentioned but occurred on June 29th of that timeline) for the purpose of stripping down the events to simply illustrate how much cap had been dumped. Of course those spots need to be filled, and they were by Hayes and Rinaldo, but the point here is to see where things were after being stripped bare, by a real team in the real NHL a mere four years ago.

Remember as well, that this summer was highly, highly controversial in Boston and around the league when it came to Bruins fans and hockey fans in general. Don Sweeney was instantly ordained as one of the wilder general managers, and it wasn't just because of the draft selections. Lucic was a fan favourite. Hamilton was given the hatchet job by media while also being meaningful to the fanbase as the other major piece of the Kessel return.

The reason I make this point is to distance the understanding of Boston's 2015 summer from it  being a stroke of genius that turned the team around, or aligning of the stars otherwise. This is super important; it makes my whole point that major roster surgery isn't just possible, but plausible. It's  not to be understood as a terrifically difficult undertaking or an unspeakable risk but a modest and open-ended template.

That's not a commentary on the personalities or managerial styles of those that sit up high in Edmonton, by the way. Another thing I'll repeatedly stress is that this is not what I think the Oilers are going to do, if anything I'm getting out in front of a possible narrative that'll hit the airwaves and online spaces this fall if the 2019-20 season starts off poorly.

It'll go like this: Big Bad Man Chiarelli boxed them in (true) and so there were no good answers to return to competitiveness in sight this summer and New Guy can't be held accountable yet (false).


Back to the (true) story. Here's what Boston removed, by percent of the incoming 2015-16 salary cap:

Carl Söderberg - 6.51%
Dougie Hamilton - 8.05%
Milan Lucic - 4.55%
Martin Jones - 4.20%
Marc Savard - 5.63%

Total - 28.94%

That's a lot. In 2018-19 cap space, it's a shade over $23M. In 2019-20's, it's a hair over $24M.

Most  low-effort attempts at a straight-across analogy from Edmonton's prospective 2019 summer to Boston's 2015 past will be incoherent. You need to shave things down in some areas and do some addition-by-tinkering in others. Edmonton doesn't have a Savard-like LTIRable back-diver. Pending RFAs are few and not as valuable as Hamilton.

Here's an expendable (consider that two players the Boston sent out wouldn't be 'expendable' by the following arbitrary standard) asset list by cap (2019-20; $83M) percentage.

Sam Gagner - 3.80%
Zack Kassian - 2.29%
Kyle Brodziak - 1.39%
Andrej Sekera - 6.63%
Kris Russell - 4.82%
Brandon Manning - 2.71%
Matt Benning - 2.29%

Total - 23.93%

And their 2019-20 buyout savings / / bury-ables where applicable - where the player possibly wouldn't be claimed on waivers and there's savings in the buyout- no totals because that would be silly.

Sam Gagner - 2.57% / / 1.30%
Zack Kassian - 1.61%
Kyle Brodziak - 1.39%
Andrej Sekera - 3.61% / /
Kris Russell - 3.71%
Brandon Manning - 1.61% / / 1.42%
Matt Benning - 2.01%

(Notice how Milan Lucic is missing? That's because there's no use in bringing him up as an asset-out in a broad view of what can be removed. It's empty fantasy unless you narrow down the conversation, which I'll do in a bit. 
For inquisitive minds, his contract is 7.23% of the cap, and his buyout would save 2.36% of the cap. The percentage of total cap that would be moved if his contract was moved along with the rest of the list above is 31.16% - just past the amount that the Bruins were able to shed.)

The point here is that there's a practical liquidity to this roster, in the sense that a one-summer teardown been done before by a team that was both in a similar position (strong core locked in; overpaid ineffective supporting cast) with similar goals.

Setting exact values and conjuring up precise exchanges is a whole other pile of labour (which I will probably do) but what we're going to do here is take the historical examples of cap-shedding transactions from the Bruins' 2015 summer, as well as recent moves by other NHL teams, and process the Oilers' possibly out-list through that encyclopedia.

The point is to combine all the different types of deals and strategies in recent NHL history with the amount cap space that has been opened up in our historical example in order to model the possibilities a retooling summer could have in a way that's realistic and valid.

1A. Cap-dump for Draft Capital

A player with (some) positive value, for picks, with much lesser value than the players' actual impact on the ice. It's difficult to exactly gauge who fits where here on the pay scale of Edmonton's asset list: Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell are closest to taking up Söderberg's cap-space percentage (Sekera a near-perfect match) but there's trade protection available to each individual and an age/health concern with the much better player. Zack Kassian and Matt Benning are both permissible logically, Kassian almost certainly had a price-tag set at the deadline. Those two together represent a possible 3.62% of cap space instantly available - though unlike at defence, there's not enough forwards (realistically) coming for Kassian to be automatically replaced.

The key signifier here is that the asset earns a return that is obviously negatively influenced by their cap-hit to contribution ratio or constrained bargaining position of the selling team.

I'll note that the list I perused on Capfriendly of simple, two-asset cap-altering deals depopulates significantly the closer you get from seven years ago to today. The richness of contracts being dumped in this way has also been reduced in terms of dollars of cap itself and not just cap percentage, making the case for an argument that teams have become hyper cap-sensitive profound. Consider some of those older deals against a 2017 example of retention being needed for a much less weighty cap burden.

1B. Player for Prospect

There's off-ice strata to this, with the slide rule, waiver eligibility and signing status itself as significant factors. For example if you have a signed player that's outperformed their draft position, but has already signed their ELC at a lesser price-point than they would have if they signed after their uptick in production or otherwise perceived production, that's a value modifier. Waiver eligibility is a massive value modifier.

These deals are more complicated than straight 1A types are. There's also a kind of stylistic slant to them; I've noticed they're favoured by two types of management teams. Those led by former pro/ama scouts/scouting directors - Jim Benning loves trading for prospects instead of picks - and those led by timeline-conscious actors, like Peter Chiarelli circa February 2018 when he pivoted one return into another to turn Pat Maroon into Cooper Marody and Mark Letestu into Pontus Aberg through player-to-pick-to-player transactions.

2. Asset Deconstruction

This protocol was used in the Lucic-for-Jones, Miller, and a 1st trade.

In practice, most 'package' returns are bad. A good way to avoid suffering the typical fate of selling player for package is to move on from the out-player at the right time; scout another organisation's assets well; achieve a cap-related objective; or all of the above.

This is a an optically uneven example outside of illustrating the basic design for that reason. Miller wasn't an NHLer at this time and was coming from a long way back, and Jones wasn't a starter. You could theoretically get this package for a player of Lucic's former prestige in the form of a young, capable defenceman and a matured and talented backup with starter potential, but that doesn't mean they're going to turn into Colin Miller and Martin Jones. And that's without the 1st. It's important to understand that this trade isn't being used as a template because it was a winning one.

Anyways, one part that is good about using this couple of deals as a practical example is that the cap objective wasn't meant to be achieved in the first deal. Most of the time it won't, if only by virtue of the shallowing pool of cap-imbalanced trades year-by-year as of late. In the modern NHL, every team is in on cap-neutral hockey trades, but salary-shifting ones have a much smaller market. The cap-neutral trade with Los Angeles involves most of the moving pieces in the sequence, and then the simpler sale of Jones is the one that results in relief of 3M.

You're probably wondering what heavy-cap asset the Oilers can afford to deconstruct this way. I'd argue there isn't one - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins qualifies especially as a player on a career year, but he's not only inner-circle in effectiveness on the team, but he's also a rare (on this roster) proven skill forward. You would essentially have to trade him for a wing that can score and a secondary asset, and then pacir that secondary asset with picks and prospects for another wing who can score in order to end up with a net gain in forward scoring. Possible, but requires some dexterity and for those inclined to care the optics would be awful.

Here's the real answer for modelling this trade to fit the needs of the current Oilers cap situation-

Invert the values of the assets.

We can even use the same initial player. The current Lucic contract is probably the same distance in value from replacement level as the version the Kings traded for, except in the opposite direction.

So in this model, instead of trading a major positive value asset for a group of them, we're trading a major negative value asset for a group of them

For example, trading a majorly overpaid player for a minorly overpaid player and a junk contract.

You then play the minorly overpaid player in the former's roster spot, and buy out the junk contract or trade it again. Nobody's taking Lucic's contract straight up, not even if Puljujärvi is attached. You could be trading with a budget team, so you could also be trading for a LTIR version of the same dead cap, or a player that the trading partner would like to bury in the minors but the ownership won't let them, there are tons of possibilities here.

The general idea is to replace the frontloaded, massive values required in order to get teams to take a larger contract with several smaller taxes.

3. Asset and Anchor

This template is one used in almost every speculative summer I've read (and ridiculed) on Capfriendly's publicly published Armchair-GM pages for the Oilers, typically involving one Milan Lucic. This means it doesn't need much explaining, but the history of these deals is the most important point for understanding what makes our guesses realistic or not.

Brooks Orpik's contract in the Colorado trade is showing up on Capfriendly as his current, post-buyout contract. This is incorrect - at the time of the trade his contract was 5.5M through 2018-19.

Let's add some context quickly to our Post-Chiarelli Boston example: Jimmy Hayes was coming off of a 19-goal, 35-point performance in a 72-game 2014-15 season. He was (and is) also a six-foot-five BC-alum born in Dorchester, MA. The Bruins weren't trading for a warm body here, or they didn't think they were, which is all that matters when we're learning trade values from history. It's about what GM's think players' 'true' value is.

Plenty has been written about who the Oilers need to hire - general manager and otherwise. Brainstorming about who should be hired, what kind of departments inside the organisation need to be built or bolstered - fans and media combing through interviews and press availabilities of different candidates.

These things change on a whim (with possible candidates being confirmed or denied) and it's hard to really say who unequivocally should take these positions with just an everyman, spectator's amount of information on these executives.

In addition, regardless of who Edmonton hires, their goals and objectives should be the same, in a broad sense.

On one hand, yes, the Oilers need to do some Toronto-style front-office house-cleaning.

On the other hand, they would also be served well by a Boston-style book-cleaning.


  1. Bit of a tough read... but after taking time with it, I'm thinking you've done more thinking about this than the whole of the Oilers front office haha
    Nice work, very interested in reading how you'd put all this information into practice!

    1. thank you, and yeah the struggle between keeping depth without so much density in my writing is ongoing

  2. Wow that was really an amazing breakdown and trying to learn from the past. Nice work!

  3. You are quickly becoming my favorite "read" on Oiler-Reality.
    ...although, I do tend to get up, have a stretch, top off the coffee (make it Irish), have another stretch, roll up my sleeves and get back down to your work.
    I really appreciate your effort and lucidity!

  4. This was both eye-opening and frightening. I appreciate the comparison with the 2015 Bruins and the steps taken by Seeney to rectify a flawed roster. I, like the majority of Oiler fans, believe that management will fail to do what needs to be done. Bob Nicholson, in my opinion, has become a toady.

    1. thanks & me too, the first hire should have been a POHO that conducts the search for executives; like how Yzerman poached Brisebois and others and took them all to Tampa Bay with him - with Nicholson moving completely out of hockey ops as soon as Chiarelli was fired

  5. I think that you brilliantly illustrated the sheer ineptitude of Oilers upper management with this piece. This was not Chiarelli's first rodeo of draining talent while simultaneously creating cap hell. Well I understand you hire soneone to do a job you have to let them do the job; only idiotic upper management would not be cognizant of Chia repeating the same miatakes he did in Boston. It was like knowing your kid is a pyromaniac and turning your back and going to sleep while leaving a lighter in one hand and gadoline in the other. It oes give hope that by shedding 30% of the cap and being shrewder we can claw our way back; but unfortunately i agree with ypir take that Nicholson and the ol noys club will not do whats needed. I would keep Kassian...shed Benning, Sekeras, Russel you need that 12 mil in cap..

    1. No doubt. This obviously sounds obnoxious, but it's actually kind of crazy how unlucky the Oilers have been since winning that 11.5% prize. Do they trade for Reinhart if he wasn't a former Bob Green Oil King? If Klefbom and McDavid play all of 2015-16 and they don't get to pick Puljujärvi does Hall get traded?