Philadelphia Dilemma

In Hockey on December 26, 2009 at 7:51 pm
Carter or Richards?
In late November, I wrote about Vesa Toskala’s magic glove, which has an amazing ability to force oncoming pucks to swerve past, finding twine instead of leather.
Since then, the nominative starting goalie for the Leafs, Jonas “Gustavsson the Polar Bear from Central Park” (I’ll call him Monster once he proves it in the NHL) underwent a second heart ablation surgery, forcing Toskala to take up the starting reins once more. In eight subsequent appearances, Toskala went 4-3-0, stopping 173 shots and failing to stop 25, for tidy .874 save percentage, at least somewhat proving my point. He seemed to be making me look bad in his first two starts after Gustavsson went down, with strong starts at home against the Thrashers the Islanders and after a mediocre appearance against the Bruins, another strong start against the Washington Alexanders, before he struggled mightily against the Coyotes and then tanked in Buffalo, stopping only 6 of 10 (if you haven’t seen the Lydman goal, click here) before giving way to a returning Gustavsson.
On December 7th, I profiled the surprisingly surging Thrashers. That very night they were beaten by the aforementioned Toskala 5-2. Since writing the article, they have endured more negative speculation concerning the future home of Ilya Kovaluchuk and played nine games including the stinker in Toronto. They only managed to pick up 7 points in that span, being outscored 35-28. Their playoff chances have thus taken a big hit, as they now sit a single point ahead of the 10th in conference ranked Panthers.
So I’m 1 out of 2 so far. Putting my credibility to the test, I will now explore the surprisingly bad Philadelphia Flyers. Although they have only been outscored by 5 on the season, they sit 13th in the East, tied on points with the Leafs (although with 2 games to play on them). They were the first (and thus far, only) team to fire their head coach, as they replaced John Stevens, in his 4th year at the helm, with 2005-06 Stanley Cup winner Peter Laviolette, a coach generally regarded as very good, in spite of his failure to lead the Hurricanes back to the Playoffs in the 2 full seasons he was in charge after their one shot at glory.
Laviolette’s honeymoon has been turbulent, with the Flyers only picking up 7 points in their first 11 games under his watch, including embarrassing performances against the Capitals and against the Penguins. It’s too early to give up on a new coach, and much more speculation has been focused on shaking up the roster. Some of the names being bandied about, particularly Daniel Breire and Simon Gagne, would seem to have little trade value, as they both have bloated contracts and lengthy injury rap sheets.
More speculation seems justifiably placed in the possibilities incorporated in the trades of either captain Mike Richards and former 46-goal scorer, Jeff Carter, who is currently on pace for a disappointing follow-up season with only 27 goals. So who would they be better off trading?
First the commitments:
-Richards is locked up until 2020/21 with a cap hit of 5.75million. This includes three upcoming seasons with salaries of $7 million and more, and two ‘winding-down’ years of $3 million each at the contract’s tail-end.
-Jeff Carter will receive $5.5 million next season, and then will get some leverage as an unrestricted free agent.
-Both players are 24 years old. Both have excellent pedigree, sa the Flyers took both in the bountiful 1st round of 2003’s NHL entry draft, Carter 12th overall and Richards taken 24th.
-Prior to this season, the two young veterans have put up similar career numbers – 121 goals and 239 points in 334 games for Carter and 90 goals and 243 points in 317 games for Richards. Carter is more a physical specimen at 6-3′, 200 (Richards stands only 5-11′, though solid at 195lbs). Richards wears a big “C” on his chest.
-Puck Prospectus, in their preseason Vukota rankings had both players as projected to have stellar seasons, with Richards projected to score 79 points with a goals-versus-threshold score (measuring overall ice contributions) of 17.1 (11th in the NHL) and Carter to contribute 76 points and a goals-versus-threshold mark of 16.7 (12th in the league).
Both have thus far disappointed. Trying to look behind the numbers, I can only report that the locker-room has been widely reported to be divided, between some younger players following in the example of their youthful captain, while others taking the reins from future Hall of Famer, Chris Pronger, acquired on draft day last June from the Anaheim Ducks. Pronger has publicly stated that the team is Richards’ but few would be surprised to see that change now.
Focusing on the numbers, I turn to Gabriel Desjardins’ very helpful Behind the Net. One interesting stat is relative +/-, a solid improvement on raw +/-, as this measures the player’s contributions as compared to his team as a whole. Has struggled mightily here this year, currently sitting at -0.94. Richards is decent at +0.8.
One possible explanation for this discrepancy is in their teammates while they are each on the ice. As both are centres, they don’t often play together. As such, Richards gets a quality of teammate score of 0.313 (very few players get a score of 0.5). Carter’s linemates are much more mediocre, compiling a score of 0.027. Richards plays with an up-and-comer like Claude Giroux, while Carter represents promise when playing with Scott Hartnell and Briere.
These numbers tell me that what Richards has thus-far achieved on the ice in 2009-10, has been achieved with the best help a Flyer can get. Carter’s struggles, in comparison, have come under much tougher circumstances.
Looking at more basic numbers, I want to focus for a moment on shooting percentage. everything I know about shooting percentage (and granted, it isn’t much) tells me that shooting percentage will regress to the mean. Forwards with good skill will score approximately 10-12% of the time and defensemen will sound the horn 3-6% of the time. This was illustrated to great effect by Dallas Stars centre Mike Ribeiro, who lit the lamp on over 25% of his shots in 2007-08, and then tumble to a far more pedestrian 13.5% the following season.
My point now? Richards scored on 12.6% of his shots last year, and sits at 13.9% now. He is scoring at, or very close, to the rate we would expect of him.
On the other hand, Carter has gone from scoring 46 goals last year on 13.5% pf his shots, to 12 goals while succeeding on only 7.5% of his shots. Unless Carter is hiding some arm injury, sapping him of his strength, we can expect his success rate to rise.
There are no doubt many other factors that may go into any potential trade scenarios. Differing scouting reports both internal and external. Public opinion about players as civic institutions. The following opinion is merely the best guess given the snapshots we have observed. If Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren can get a decent return for Mike Richards, he should. Maybe something can be worked out with Tampa, from where countless rumours about the future of franchise icon, Vincent Lecavalier, have spewed. Perhaps Richards could be packaged with Simon Gagne (contract expiring after next season) for Lecavalier and the disappointing duo of Lukas Krajicek and Alex Tanguay*. Like Richards, Lecavalier is locked up long-term, with his contract expiring after earning $1M in the 2019/20 season, while Krajicek and Tanguay will be let free after this year.
* As far as cap hits go, that would send a commitment of $11.702M to Philadelphia and $11M to Tampa.

This would not give the Flyers the solid goaltending they need and have been sorely lacking since Ray Emery tore an abdominal muscle, but it might help balance out the roster and allow Laviolette to re-mould the team’s on-ice leadership muddle.
  1. I prefer Jonas the Whale.

  2. Carter was very hot from Oct-Dec last season. Look at his Jan-Apr numbers and compare to the rest of his career.

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