Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Looking at the Eric Fehr Trade

Since my last posting, the Capitals have really only made one big move: trading away Eric Fehr to his hometown team, the old-is-new-again Winnipeg Jets. I have always liked Fehr, and even more so this season living in Pittsburgh. For those of you who have forgotten, Fehr scored two of the three goals for Washington in the Winter Classic. Varlamov was the backstop for that game. Both received high praise for their performances (at least from the room filled with Penguins fans that I was in), and now both are gone. The Varly move has already been looked at, and since there was only one NHL move by the team in the past almost-week, I get to analyze this one a little more.  Note: I am not including various moves made in terms of the Hershey Bears. The AHL affiliate has indeed lost several players and picked up several new ones, but I like to focus on the Capitals themselves.

"Why aren't we winning? I've been doing the
same thing for years! It should work, right?"
The team has still failed to resign Karl Alzner, arguably one of the top RFA defensemen in the league, and certainly the team's number one priority since signing Brooks Laich. How this has failed to happen while so many other moves have been made is downright befuddling, if not incredibly frustrating. This has been a major major concern of mine when it comes to McPhee: he has a terrible tendency to place his focus in the wrong spots in hopes of gaining some kind of upper ground over key players, rather than just working with them to create a happy environment for everyone. The team always seems to have their bottom-6 forwards and the 5/6/7/8 defensemen worked out long before any of the top, crucial players. Rather than first focusing signing the stars and necessities, like that second line center or top-4 defenseman or second line winger, and then focusing on the remainder of the roster with the remainder of the cap space, McPhee has repeatedly opted to sign the "lesser" players first, often time to bad contracts. I'm looking at Erskine, Sloan, Neuvirth, Steckel, Poti, and Schultz in terms of just the last two seasons. Sloan has been bought out, Steckel traded. Erskine and Schultz's futures are in some question with the team.
Erskine will likely be the 7th defenseman this year, while Schultz, in large part because of his hefty contract, is possible trade bait. Poti is injured to the brink of retirment, and Neuvirth... well I think everyone knows my thoughts on Neuvirth. McPhee makes these moves, in my humble opinion, for two reasons. First, because these are the sure things; these are the guys who you don't have to haggle with for long and will be more than happy to sign and take one more thing off your checklist. Second, if lowers the amount of cap room, allowing McPhee to say to the bigger name guys "Hey, we only have X amount of money left, and we're a strong Cup contender. We can only afford to give you this much, and I know it's less than you may get on a different team, but they'll be worse, and you won't be as satisfied." While those may seem like logical, even decent reasons, the problem is the team hasn't won when it counts. The players are starting to feel used and played with. Meanwhile, other GMs who do it the other way around have teams that win the Cup: such as the Blackhawks and the Penguins. They address their glaring needs first, then deal with the consequences of winning later.

Why do I rant about McPhee's questionable signing strategies? Because, along with the crazy spending-spree, those strategies played a major factor in trading Eric Fehr. The Caps were over the salary cap as of the official Troy Brouwer contract. Teams are allowed to go 10% over the limit during the offseason, but they must be cap-compliant by the start of the season. Again, the team had not signed Alzner, either. The current cap numbers are a little shifty, mind you, as Washington's cap hit currently includes Jay Beagle's contract, a player who has almost no chance of breaking the roster this year, despite playing a good portion of last season, and does not include any of the players who may make the roster as a result of development and training camps (mainly Eakin, Orlov, Sjogren, and Galiev). Eric Fehr had a cap hit of $2.2 million as a RW who saw limited minutes, usually on the ever-shifting, not-very-productive third line, and has missed many a game over the past two seasons due to shoulder injuries. As of right now, he is not expected to even start the season due to his recovery from his latest bout of shoulder surgery. To a guy like McPhee, he seemed to be the perfect trade bait. The Caps, in return, got a 4th-round pick and a low-level prospect. By low-level I mean he scores the same amount of points Fehr does, but in the ECHL. In other words, the team pretty much got a bag of pucks, which is all McPhee and Boudreau ever seemed to see in Fehr. I present to you my rebuttal of this notion:
Part 1 of my rebuttal: Eff the Pens

Fehr, as I noted, was a third-line RW on Boudreau's Capitals. The first-line RW was Mike Knuble, and the third-line LW was Jason Chimera. Knuble is set to be 40 years old, and has a cap hit of $2.0 million. Chimera is 32, and has a cap hit of $1.875 million. Both of these players are in the last year of their contracts, and will become UFAs. Fehr's contract is also ending, but he will be 26 at the start of the season and an RFA at the end of his contract. Additionally, the guy who likely has taken Fehr's spot is Joel Ward, 30-year old RW getting $3.0 million from Washington for the next four years. McPhee has stated that after the free agency signings,  the Capitals had a "glut" of right wingers. By my count, before the Fehr trade, they had four: Knuble, Semin, Fehr, and Ward. He may be counting Troy Brouwer, who can play RW, but prefers LW. He might also be counting Matt Hendricks, who can play any role at forward. But then the team's left wingers are just Ovechkin and Chimera. So I count Brouwer on the LW. Either way, the team has eight wingers, if you include Hendricks. This does not a glut create. Strike 1 for McPhee.

Then you look at the guys with the closest contracts in the closest roles to see who would be better kept on the team than Fehr. To me, that's Knuble and Chimera. Let's see how they stack up. All stats here only include time the players have with the Caps.


Knuble 148 53 93 2577:07
Fehr 230 46 93 2605:35
Chimera 120 17 43 1565:22

One thing here that is immediately apparent is the Chimera is not as productive as Knuble or Fehr. Yes he has played fewer games, and significantly fewer minutes, but he has less than half as many points and more than half as much ice time. Of note, as well, is the Knuble has played arguably the best hockey of his career with the Caps, and that Fehr's numbers include his rookie seasons, such as playing 11 games in 05-06, when he was only 20, and had zero points in 63:13 of ice time. Even still, Fehr has the same number of points as Knuble, including a comparable number of goals, in only 28:28 more total ice time with the Caps. Yes, he has far more games, but he is also getting pretty crappy ice time, and did not have a real spot on the team until 08-09. In fact, if you were to take out that first 11 games, his points total stays the same and he has less ice time with the team than Knuble. Additionally, nearly all of Knuble's time comes on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, both of whom broke 100 points in 09-10, Knuble's first season with the team. Fehr has jumped around the
Well when you put it like that...
lines some, but traditionally has seen his time on the third line, often with Jason Chimera playing opposite him. In short, Fehr is far more productive than Chimera while playing on the same line, and is roughly as productive as Knuble while playing with demonstrably inferior linemates. Fehr is also hitting that age where most players enter their prime in terms of offensive production. A friend of mine here in Pittsburgh asked me after the Winter Classic "Why is that guy not playing on the top line?" I had no answer for him.

Now, of course, a player's value is not measured only in his offensive production, but you also have to look at things like grittiness, physicality, and defensive playing. These don't always show up in the stats, but when they do, they manifest themselves in things like hits and blocked shots. Joel Ward was brought in this year because he is perceived to be a defensive forward that can bring his game up in the playoffs. Granted, this is based off of only this year's playoffs, and not the previous year's first round exit where he had four points in six games. I have also never really watched the guy play. What I have done is looked at and pulled up his stats. Based on stats alone, I don't see where he earns $3 million from a team like Washington, especially when they had a guy like Fehr on the squad. Here are their stats from 2010-2011:


Ward 1,365:48  80 67 57 120:18:00
150:33:00 5
Fehr 654:39:00 52 34 20 101:36:00
0:00 7

I can't say this looks totally legal,
but I can say it looks totally awesome
Now looking at Ward vs. Fehr, I try to see where Fehr was deficient that Ward is able to get a long term contract for more money and take his spot on the roster. In terms of hits, Fehr had roughly 3.116 hits per sixty minutes to Ward's 2.943. This number actually surprised me. I never thought of Fehr as a particularly physical player, especially given his shoulder injuries, but it looks like he is at least as much of a hitter as Ward is. Take this with a grain of salt, though, as it is the home teams' stat-keepers that determine hits, and it is a very subjective, fluctuating stat. Looking at blocked shots, Fehr blocks about 1.833 shots per sixty minutes while Ward blocks roughly 2.504. There is a pretty significant difference there. Remember, we're talking about forwards, not defensemen. However, Ward spent 150:33 minutes killing penalties, while Fehr was not used for that job even once last season. The PK is a time when everyone, including forwards, are called to block shots. On the PK, you're playing a man down and facing, in theory, a lot more shots than you would during two minutes of even strength. Given Ward's ice time on the PK, it is not surprising that he has a good number more blocked shots than Fehr. I am sure the research is out there for how many Ward blocked at even strength and on the powerplay so that I could get a more reasonable comparison, but I don't know where to get those numbers.

Speaking of the powerplay, though, notice that Fehr has seven points on the PP in nearly 19 minutes less ice time than Ward, who scored five points, although they were all goals. Another important distinction is that Ward had the second most ice time per game on the Predators last season, behind only center Mike Fisher. As for points in 10-11, Fehr had 10-10-20 to Ward's 10-19-29. Same amount of goals, less assists, 28 fewer games and with far less ice time.

Now, I understand that Eric Fehr has been injured a decent amount. He has some shoulder issues. He is also young and has one year remaining on his contract. His trade, even with taking Poti off the cap due to retirement or long-term injury reserve, may not be enough to sign Alzner. McPhee has still failed to come to an agreement with Alzner's agent over the course of the season, after all. As far as I can tell, Fehr was replaced with an older, somewhat worse player for more money, while older, comparable or worse wingers were also on the team with only slightly smaller contracts. I see no reason for the team to have ever signed Ward in the first place and put the Capitals in the position they are now in, and were in when they decided to move Fehr. Oh, and they never warned him that he was going to be traded, let alone shopped around.

If you ask me, Fehr should have been on the Caps this year, and playing on the top line. Knuble is 40, people. He isn't exactly the future of the squad on the top line. He's been a great complement to Ovi and Backstrom, but Fehr is putting up the same numbers and is 14 years younger. Watch him rehabilitate over the summer and fall, and get decent ice time with Winnipeg. You'll see what I'm talking about. Same as with Varlamov and Fleischmann. Good luck to those guys. Good luck to the Caps, too, but I think I'd rather see some shift in management and coaching. I open this debate up to the interwebs: Should the team have traded Fehr? Do you think he will play a full, healthy season after returning from his latest shoulder surgery? Who will take over for Knuble if and when he becomes an irrelevant player? Why does Ward get $3 million and Fehr gets traded due to cap issues? I have not understood what McPhee is thinking much of this off-season, so if somebody out there can spell it out for me, please, comment on the article. In the meantime, so long F16, you will be sorely missed.

I know, Bruce. I know.

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