Photo by “Rhys A.” via Wikimedia Commons
I had a great question from a good friend of mine, a Flyers fan, after the fervor died down from yesterday’s Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger and 4th round pick swap. He asked me:
“From what I’m getting from the advanced stats guys, it appears that the Blue Jackets robbed the Flyers blind yesterday by getting Hartnell for Umberger (a guy they were going to compliance buyout anyhow).
Is Umberger really this bad?”
The short answer is that Umberger is not very good; his With-or-Without-Yous (or WOWYs; where you compare Corsi when a player is with and without a teammate on the ice) suggest that nobody plays better with him than others, outside of maybe Ryan Johansen. Now, some of that is due to zone starts, as Umberger has been saddled with a lot of time in his own zone. Even so, three years of possession in your end 55%+ of the time is a little too consistent in its futility. I’d expect at least one year there where that figure lowered to 51 or 52% if he was showing some defensive abilities. He’s still an average player in the faceoff dot, but his offensive contributions are shrinking, and at 32 it’s hard to see them recovering much. Blue Jackets beat reporter Aaron Portzline noted the Jackets were contemplating buying him out of his $4.6m/year cap hit contract, which was moving into modified no-trade clause (NTC; player can specify a list of teams he’d be willing to be traded to) years.
The longer answer is that yes, Umberger is not good, but this trade is much more complicated than a player-for-player, or player-for-player-and-a-pick swap. A trade presumably always looks good enough from both sides’ perspectives in order to happen, so what were the incentives for Ron Hextall? Jarmo Kekalainen?
To understand, you have to go back to August 2012, when then-GM Paul Holmgren decided to give 30-year old Hartnell a 6-year deal with an annual $4.75m cap hit and a no-move clause (NMC; Hartnell can reject any trade or demotion). Hextall was assistant GM in Los Angeles at the time; while Hartnell was turning 32 in April 2014, the Flyers were moving to promote Holmgren out of the GM position and hand the reins to Hextall. As the Flyers ended their season early, Hextall began to prepare for the team he envisioned for next season. This included wanting to become faster – and Hartnell was on the outside looking in on that vision.
If a GM is going to commit to that kind of approach, all of a sudden the Hartnell contract becomes a big problem. Even initially it was a problem because it was a long-term commitment by a team that was already feeling the bite of the cuffs of the Ilya Bryzgalov and Daniel Briere contracts (in less than a year, both players received compliance buyouts). Now it was a much larger issue because the Flyers have almost zero leverage if they make it clear they want to deal. Both Hextall and the prospective teams have to know who Hartnell is willing to go to, and teams do not like taking on 5-year NMC contracts on 32-year olds, even if they have the cap room. Vancouver just learned that lesson with Roberto Luongo. Vancouver was lucky enough to find a team Luongo liked that was well under the cap in the Florida Panthers, who had some questionable young assets they were willing to offload – but that took years to find.
You also have a problem regarding Hartnell’s value, which is already low. Do you continue to look for suitors, and drop him off that top line alongside Giroux and Voracek in 2014-15? Do you expect better numbers for Hartnell in that scenario, whether it’s alongside Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds, or worse, on the 3rd line where he spent part of 2013-14? By waiting another year, you potentially scrap the positive value of a 52-point season, add a year to the player’s age, and further indicate that the demand is very low. What’s more, the likelihood that Hartnell improves on last season is almost non-existent. Hartnell’s shooting percentage was low last year, but he’ll lose shot volume by moving away from 1st line TOI with a possession-wizard duo towards 2nd line TOI with two shoot-first forwards. That will offset most, if not all, of his potential shooting percentage regression. Maybe a shift to set-up guy could help, but he’s never been that kind of player. So there were a lot of signs pointing to Hartnell as an asset that needed to be moved sooner rather than later.
So Hextall is selling, and Kekalainen sees an opportunity to trade relatively few assets to add forward depth. He calls up Hextall, and talks personally to Hartnell to convince Hartnell that the Blue Jackets want him, and see him playing an important role on the team. It works, and now you have Hextall in a place he might not find himself again: willing trade partner for a big NMC contract, and player is approving. Why would he take Umberger and a 4th rounder, though? Isn’t he taking on a bad contract for a bad contract?
What Hextall is essentially doing is making the most of a bad situation. He’s committed to the “Hartnell is not going to get better, and doesn’t fit my vision of a successful Flyers squad,” and ideally he’d like to get prospects and cap space. If he had leverage, he could probably get it; instead, he gets a contract that’s bad but not as difficult to get out of, and a 4th round pick. He goes from NMC to a modified NTC, which affords him more leverage if he can convince a team that Umberger is a good defensive flex option (he can play either center or wing) within a year. He also gets a far better buyout scenario, should he need to go that route. Per Cap Geek’s awesome buyout calculator, if you decide to buyout either player after a dismal 2014-15, you essentially incur a $1.5m cap hit for the next four years in Umberger’s case, or take on $1.2m cap hits for two years, a $1.7m cap hit on the 3rd year, a $3.2m cap hit on the 4th year, and $1.5m cap hits for the ensuing four years in Hartnell’s case. If you get an average year from either, Umberger might be trade-able, Hartnell doesn’t get any more appealing and might even go down in value. If you get a good year from either, Umberger becomes trade-able, and Hartnell holds pat (remember, he’s coming off a good season).
On a player-to-player, analytical level, the trade looks bad…even if I were to rightly point out that Hartnell undoubtedly benefited from playing with Giroux and Voracek, as well as his very high zone-start percentage (58.7%) – and that Umberger has consistently been saddled with poor zone-start percentages (47% over the last 3 years). The 4th round lottery ticket Kekalainen threw Hextall’s way at least gives Hextall a shot at adding a prospect, a slightly better contract scenario grants Hextall a few better outs than Hartnell’s contract, and there’s a slim possibility that Umberger can transform himself into a defensive center with a bit of trade value. That’s about as rosy a picture you can paint here, if you’re looking strictly at who was swapped. But focusing on a “bad trade” obscures the bad contract behind it, part of what should be an enduring symbol of the tenure of Paul Holmgren, General Manager.