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Monday, October 15, 2007

Numbers Game

In last week’s Toronto Sun, Steve Simmons wrote an article about the mess that John Ferguson Jr. has created for himself. He pointed out that the Leafs’ team defence salary (over $16 million) was one of the highest in the league last year, while the team’s goals against/game (3.2 GA/g) was also one of the highest in the league. When a GM invests that kind of money in their defence, they certainly would hope to have a better showing than being ranked 25th overall in GA/g where the Leafs placed last year.

This begs the question: Does spending money on team defence actually buy you a better goals against? Surely, one would expect that defencemen who get paid a higher salary would be better defensively. But is this true in today’s NHL?

I decided to look at each team’s total salary for their top 6 defencemen (according to team depth charts at midseason) last season and compare them to the team’s GA/g. As it turns out, the Leafs’ lack of success on defence despite having the second highest defence salary is not, in fact, an anomaly.

Team Defence Salary - Summary
(Click on image to enlarge)

Team Defence Salary - Detailed
(Click on image to enlarge)

The LA Kings had the highest salary at $17.33 million and they ranked 27th overall in GA/g. In fact, four teams ranked in the top 10 in defence salary (Kings, Coyotes, Bruins and Flyers) were the four worst teams in GA/g rankings. However, the Ducks, Red Wings, Canucks and Stars, who all had salaries that placed them among the top 10 in the league, were among the league leaders in GA/g.

Conversely, only three teams (Predators, Senators and Sharks) that had defence salaries below league average ranked in the top 10 in GA/g.

Noticing a trend? Besides the fact that team defence salary is not an accurate predictor of defensive success, it appears that goaltending, not surprisingly, is a better predictor of GA/g. Goaltending was a weakness for the Kings, Coyotes, Bruins and Flyers all of last year, while the Ducks, Red Wings, Canucks and Stars boast having elite goaltenders. In fact, all of the teams that finished in the top 10 in GA/g received great goaltending last year.

In addition to relying on defense and goaltending, forwards also play a fundamental role in preventing goals. Teams that have forwards who are more committed to backchecking and helping out in the defensive end are obviously going to have better GA/g.

Another reason that a high defence salary is a poor predictor of defensive success is because teams that have young defensive talent do not have to pay their players as much. The Predators, Senators and Sharks all have great young defencemen on their teams. The Sharks, for instance, have four players that make less than $1 million.

So what does a high-priced defence get you in the NHL? In the next "Numbers Game", we will examine each team's offensive output from their defence. As well, we will also try to identify in what stastical categories defencemen who have higher salaries tend to fair better in.

For Illegal Curve, I am Adam Gutkin.

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