Monday, February 05, 2007

Dollars To (Dunkin') Donuts

One of the most talked about topics of late in the Caps' blogosphere (and beyond) has been the team's payroll and its correlation to the team's record. Now, no one would argue that the Caps should be spending money just for the sake of spending money just as no one would argue that the Caps wouldn't be better off in the short-term without a couple of upgrades in the lineup. But with the Boston Bruins coming to town tomorrow night, we're all provided with some measure of perspective.

You see, the Bruins went out and spent money - a lot of money - this past off-season, all the way up to the salary cap. Somewhat ironically, the two big-ticket items in Boston's free agent shopping cart were a first-line center and a number one defenseman (which, of course, are currently the Caps' two most glaring needs). The Bruins will spend $12.5 million (nearly 30% of the team's total payroll) on those two players - center Marc Savard and defensemountain Zdeno Chara - over the course of the 2006-07 season. They'll spend another $12.5 million on the two next season. And the season after that. And the season after that.

Chara and Savard have been good this year, without question. The problem? The Bruins haven't. And so Boston comes to town with a payroll that's more than 45% higher than Washington's, but trailing the Caps in the Eastern Conference by a point. Chara, at $7.5 million, makes around $500,000 less than the Caps entire nine-man blueline corps. Savard, at $5 million, makes over $1 million more than the four centers the Caps are likely to ice against him Tuesday night (Dainius Zubrus, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon and Brian Sutherby).

By committing to Chara and Savard, the Bruins have chosen to make them (along with $5 million/year Patrice Bergeron, $4.1 million/year winger Glen Murray and rookie Phil Kessel) their foundational players, and with those four making upwards of $22 million - half of the salary cap maximum - the B's are forced to fill-in around them with spare parts like Petr Tenkrat, Mark Mowers, Jason York and the like and play either a 32-year-old "never was" or a kid with a 4.33 GAA in net. That's the bed they've made, and currently they're lying in it... in 13th place in the Conference... behind the Capitals.

For all that money spent, are the Bruins a better team than the Caps? Right now, they might very well be. But do any Bruins fans want to bet on which team will have the better record over the next, say, three years? No?

Again, that's not to say that the Caps couldn't have used a little help so far this season - on far too many nights, they brought knives to gun fights. And of course, there were (and perhaps still are) less expensive options for the Caps than Chara and Savard that would have (and perhaps still could) help the team, but there are two overarching points here. The first point is that in a salary-capped league, teams have to decide who "their guys" are. If the Caps were to sign guys like Chara and Savard, how would they re-sign guys like Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Mike Green, Eric Fehr and Nick Backstrom (to name just a few) when they become free agents during the duration of the contracts signed by the big-name free agents? Come 2011, would you rather have a $7.5 million, 33-year-old Zdeno Chara or a 26-year-old Mike Green at maybe half of that cost? To continue the architectural metaphor, the Bruins have their cornerstones, but are they going to have enough materials leftover to be able to build any walls in between them? The Caps will because their core is young and, for the moment cheap. Add in a handful of relatively interchangeable role players that you can afford to lose - because you will lose some of them - and a few key free agent signings and you have the recipe for success in a salary-capped league. Just ask Bill Belichick.

The second point is that teams need to maintain a salary structure within the organization. This point isn't as frequently talked about, but is just as important. Take Richard Zednik as an example. Zednik will make just under $2 million this year, and his production (limited by injury and, to a certain extent, opportunity) has been unimpressive. As the team, writers and fans debate whether or not Zed should be brought back next year, the question isn't only "Is Richard Zednik worth $2 million per year?" but also "Can we justify paying $2 million per year for Richard Zednik's 15-20 goals when Chris Clark is making $1.1 million and knocking in 30 a year?" The minute you upset this internal salary structure, you're asking for trouble in the locker room and at the bargaining table (which is why if Dainius Zubrus thinks he's going to make $4.5 million or so on a long-term deal, I can tell you right now, it won't be in Washington).

In sum, while you may get what you pay for on the micro-level - I'm sure the Bruins are fairly happy with the way Chara and Savard have played - on the macro-level, opening up the wallet doesn't necessarily equal success. Success only comes when your foundation is solid, the filler material is strong, and things are structurally sound. Then and only then should you consider adding the flashy, decorative facade.


Rob said...

Absolutely brilliant!

I think you, Ted, and GMGM should get together. :)

Anonymous said...

Terrifc work!

Apparently you and Tarik went to different schools of journalism together!

Anonymous said...

As always, an intelligent way of looking at the big picture. After wading through the filth of the WaPo message board on the Zednik topic, this was a nice change of pace.

Capital Fanatic said...

I agree 100%. Caps fans just need to be patient and watch this team continue to grow.

The Peerless said...

It's all a matter of timing in the context of the cap. You could add a couple of flashy signings when a young club is too young, and you'll be essentially wasting money. If you sign those guys to three-year deals, they are on their way when the kids mature.

This has been a problem for Caps fans to wrap their arms around, in my opinion. Guys like Eminger, Morrisonn, Green, and even Ovechkin and Semin simply weren't well enough developed last year or this to merit expensive signings.

With the end of this season, the development should be far enough along to start making investments timed to the development track of the core youngsters. That isn't a prescription to write checks as if they were confetti, but a forward (preferably a center to run interference for Backstrom, who no doubt will be under pressure from Caps fana to produce, and free up Zubrus -- if he's still here -- to play a more appropriate role) and/or a defenseman to work with the five youngsters now getting time seems appropriate for the next phase of the rebuild.

In a salary cap world, it's important to be mindful of the timing of your signings.

JP said...

It's what you (Peerless) refer to as the "virtual cap." While the Caps' payroll is currently around $31m, when you add in what it will take to re-sign the Alexes et. al., you're up near the ceiling.

Why does that matter for this year? Because the big name UFAs don't sign one-year deals. They're looking for years as much as (if not more than) dollars. Therein lies the rub*.

* Obviously the Pereault-type lower profile free agents are a horse of a different color, so don't jump on me, Tyler!

Anonymous said...

Well said/laid out blog. If a team wants to do what Boston did with Chara/Savard they are going to need to have the farm system full stocked because with so much money tied up in a few players they will need cheap quality replacement players that fill out the rest of the roster. Because of this the emphasis on drafting/developing will be huge for a team's long term success.


3 Grumpy Caps fans said...

One thing you fail to mention (not to be a negative nancy) is the fact that the Bruins are 1 point below us but have 3 games in hand. Admittedly, it still makes them an underachieving team, but chances are when the games equal out, the Bs will have more points.

Still, unless they can find a real #1 goaltender, they're still destined to be on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Fauxrumors said...

1) Nice article/post. The reason the Bruins likely made the free agent splash that they made this past summer was to cover up/placate their disgruntled fans after that awful Thornton trade
2) They also forgot that for all the money spent on a forward and defensemen, the most important position is still between the pipes. A mediocre team suddenly becomes a playoff contender with an above average tender, and the reverse is evidently true as well.
3) As for the Caps, going into last offseason their # 1 need was a center. It was not addressed. Perreault could have been a relatively cheap stop gap addition until Backstrom comes over. GM GM will still need to find a true center this summer.
4) That said, don't expect any major changes to the caps roster from what is out there now. As of today 12 players for 20 million are signed for next season

JP said...

I believe the Caps will sign a center in the offseason and a defenseman. The real question, in my mind, is will Zubrus be here. If he wants #1 center money, the team will likely go out and get a real #1 center instead (no knock against Zubrus, but if he and Chris Drury are asking for relatively similar deals, I know which one will be in a Caps sweater on opening night).

Tyler said...

Agree with you... and yes on Yannic!

But if you can get Sheldon Souray for 3/$12-14M this off-season, don't you do it?

JP said...

Chara got $7.5m/year for 5 years coming off a 16 goal/27 assist/+17 year.

The salary cap is going up for next year, and I'm not sure what the overall market for top-notch blueliners will look like, but Souray has 18 goals and 26 assists already (interestingly, he's a -10 on a pretty decent defensive team). I don't see how he's going to sign anywhere for under $5 million per year or under four or five years.

That said, yes, I would love to see the Caps sign him for three years at $12m-$14m if the opportunity presented itself.

KevinP said...

A center, eh?

It's gonna' be Briere, JP. It's gonna' be Briere.

When that deal happens, will you sell me the rights to the "Diveiere" name?

JP said...

It's Diveial Briere, and can't you guys keep him and let us sign Drury? I'd prefer an American guy who's not such a little girl.