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Teams with Superstars Are Less Likely to Win

The hoopla over this year’s NHL draft lottery highlights once again the value of an NHL superstar. The New York Rangers won the lottery and thus the “Lafreniere Cup” That is, the Rangers get to make the first selection among this year’s crop of young hockey players. They are expected to choose high-scoring left winger Alexis Lafreniere, reputed to be the best young prospect. The expectation is that this will turn the Rangers into “a contender” a team with a good chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

This highlights the value of the NHL superstar. Every NHL general manager, it seems, wants to build his team around at least one superstar, a “generational player,” a $12 million man.

With a salary cap of $81.5 million and a roster of 23 players for each team, the average NHL player is paid about $3.5 million per season.

NHL forwards are especially evaluated according to offensive production (goals plus assists). So, a player being paid $1 million is counted on to produce only about 10 points a season, a $3 million player is expected to produce about 30 points, a $6 million player should produce 60 points a season, a $9 million player should produce 90 points a season, and a $12 million player, the true superstar, should produce about 120 points.

This often works out in a very general way. Connor McDavid, the NHL’s highest paid player at $12.5 million, produced 116 points in 78 games in the 2018-2019 season. (A full season is 82 games, but McDavid missed 4 games due to injury.) In the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 season, McDavid had 97 points in 64 games, the equivalent of 124 points in an 82-game season.

When down by a goal late in a game, a team’s general manager and coach would surely like to have one or more of these superstars to put onto the ice.

There are two flaws with this approach. The first is that offensive production is only one aspect of determining a forward’s value. We also need to ask: Is the $12 million player twice as good defensively as a $6 million player? The answer is: Not usually. Also, does the $12 million player get injured only half as often?

The other flaw is that hockey is a team game. Because of the salary cap, the more $12 million players a team has, the more $1 million and $2 million players it is likely to have.

I wrote an article on this issue last year, pointing out that of the 12 highest paid players in the league, only five made the playoffs and none made the Stanley Cup final. That is, having a superstar seems to make a team less likely to win.

The results were even more stark in 2019-2020:

• Edmonton oilers had the highest paid player (Connor McDavid). The team finished 12th in the regular season, but lost in the qualifying round and did not make the playoffs.  

• The New York Rangers had the second highest paid player (Artemi Panarin). The team finished 18th in the regular season, was swept in three straight games in the qualifying round, and did not make the playoffs.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs had the third, sixth, and seventh highest paid players (Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner). The team finished 13th in the regular season, but lost in the qualifying round and did not make the playoffs.  

• The San Jose Sharks had the fourth highest paid player (Erik Karlsson). The team finished 29th (out of 31 teams in the league) in the regular season and did not make the playoffs.  

• The Los Angeles Kings had the fifth and eleventh highest paid players (Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar). The team finished 28th in the regular season and did not make the playoffs.  

• The Chicago Blackhawks had the eighth and tenth highest paid players (Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane). The team finished 23rd in the regular season, won its qualifying round in an upset to make the playoffs, but lost in five games in the first round of the playoffs.

• The Montreal Canadiens had the ninth highest paid player (Carey Price). The team finished 24th in the regular season, won its qualifying round in an upset to make the playoffs, but lost in six games in the first round of the playoffs.

• The Buffalo Sabres had the twelfth highest paid player (Jack Eichel). The team finished 25th in the regular season and did not make the playoffs.

• The Florida Panthers had the thirteenth highest paid player (Sergei Bobrovsky). The team finished 15th in the regular season, but lost in the qualifying round and did not make the playoffs.      

The bottom line is that 10 of the 13 highest paid players in the league played on teams that did not make the playoffs, an astounding statistic considering that slightly more than half of the teams currently make the playoffs. The other three highly paid players were on the two teams that had the worst records of all playoff teams. They made the playoffs as a result of unexpected upsets in the qualifying round, but lost in the first round of the playoffs. This means that none of the highest paid players advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs and that together the 13 highest paid players managed to win a grand total of three playoff games.    

There is a lesson here for other teams contemplating declaring their rising young stars to be superstars and offering them salaries of over $10 million. (Obvious examples are the Vancouver Canucks’ Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.) The same lesson applies to teams contemplating signing free agents from other teams to similar contracts. The lesson is—don’t do it. The obvious conclusion is that at least some of the teams mentioned above failed to excel, not in spite of having a superstar, but because of it.

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