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What We Learned: NHL free agent blues for Backes, Brouwer

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

The NHL is getting smarter every year. Despite that, some bad free agent decisions get made every summer. 

How many times has it happened that a strong playoff performance by an otherwise just-OK player results in too many dollars for entirely too many years?

Yes, too many. You can be very, very certain that it's going to happen again.

Two guys who certainly seem to fall into the category of “pending UFAs whose playoff performances are going to get them straight-up paid” are the big goal-scorers for the Blues. David Backes and Troy Brouwer both have seven goals in this postseason, tied with Vladimir Tarasenko and Logan Couture for fourth in the league. The latter two are guys whose career-long performance shows they can contribute at a high level.

Backes and Brouwer, not so much. Greg recently highlighted both Blues forwards as guys who are going to cash in as a result of the playoffs. Not that anyone thinks they're going to pull something in the range of even Couture's $6 million a season, but these are two players you're going to want to be very careful about signing. Travis Yost had a good breakdown of why David Backes should give potential suitors pause this summer. I see Brouwer as being very much in the same category.

Not salary-wise, obviously. There's a clear differentiation between how Backes — a proven leader and strong two-way player — is perceived in the hockey world at large. Most people wouldn't blink at someone giving him a sizable raise from his current cap hit of $4.5 million. Now, given that he's 32 and clearly trending downward at this point in his career (as most 32-year-olds are) I'd be dubious that any raise will end up being “worth it” sooner than later, but guys still get paid for past performance and it would be tough to say that there weren't at least a few seasons in the last few years in which Backes contributed more bang for the buck than the average comparable player.

A smart GM probably wouldn't give him, say $6 million AAV for four years, let alone a Ryan Kesler contract, but there are some executives out there who will be just desperate enough for what Backes provides that the evidence at hand won't matter. He's a gritty leader who plays the full 200 feet and, as a bonus, scored a lot in the postseason. That gets a guy paid, full stop.

Brouwer is a more interesting case, though. Backes has a semi-legitimate claim to getting paid. He's Olympian, All-Star, and frequent top-five Selke vote-getter who's scoring in the playoffs and will generally get you at least 50 points, historically speaking. That's a very valuable thing to have around in theory, but time catches up with us all and so on. How much longer Backes can be the idealized version of himself is very much up for debate.

But what, then, is the idealized version of Troy Brouwer? Never an all-star, never received a single vote for any award, never a captain and a guy whose best statistical output doesn't match Backes' worst. Despite that, he's scoring a bunch in the playoffs and is, like Backes, seen as a gritty two-way guy. One can therefore reasonably expect that this postseason gets him a raise that is not commensurate with his actual value.

We have plenty of evidence to show why he might not even be worth what he's paid right now.

Take, for example, this new visualization from Carolyn Wilke. It compares a player's performance with other players in their cap hit range (as a percentage of the overall cap). The last “band” into which Brouwer falls is his current contract, and you can clearly see that he underperforms in comparison with the average player in the league who carries a similar cap hit:

That can be a little hard to read, but the message should be clear: Brouwer's teams get more heavily out-chanced when he's on the ice than when he's off, he doesn't score as much as similarly compensated players, and he doesn't generate enough chances of his own.

Part of that is because he's used in a defensive role, which is going to depress his ability to score goals and create chances. But part of that is also that he's probably not good enough to be used in the way he has been for the last three seasons.

All the 5-on-5 data over his current contract — the last three seasons, at an AAV of about $3.67 million — suggests he's roughly a lower-end third-line performer. And that's fine. If that comes with 35-plus points, you probably take the current contract as-is. Doesn't mean he's bad or anything, it just means that anyone who probably leaves you with better options for power play time and so on.

His coaches, for whatever reason, haven't really found those options; he's played more than half of all his team's power play time over the last three seasons, and it was only this year that Ken Hitchcock started to reel things in after Washington really let him run wild on the man advantage (close to 65 percent of their PP minutes!). Even with Hitchcock reducing Brouwer's power play time, he still scored seven of his 18 goals on the man advantage, with three more going into empty nets.

A guy logging as many minutes as he does at 5-on-5 shouldn't be scoring just eight goals over the full 82 games and then expect to get paid based on playoff performance. In fact, eight goals at full-strength this past season was tied for 10th-fewest in the entire league among all 116 forwards playing at least 1,000 minutes. He scored roughly the same number of goals per 60 minutes as Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Cody Eakin this season, and unlike those two his numbers are more likely to decline.

Like Backes, Brouwer isn't getting any younger. He'll be 31 in August, and guys who play his type of game generally do not age well. It would be one thing to overpay him slightly, but any raise above and beyond what he already makes is going to be tough for a team to justify. He seems to have peaked in or prior to the lockout-shortened year, in his age-26 season (surprise surprise), and that's getting to be a while ago now.

Because the league is getting smarter, there will be no Ville Leino contract. No one will give him a Dave Bolland deal. The overpayment will probably be a lot more modest in both term and dollars. But given the way the cap is moving (barely), and how much more efficiently teams are finding ways to spend money (much), even giving Brouwer an extra year or an extra $1 million would be worrisome. If his cap hit clears $4 million and he gets more than two or three years, it won't be the worst contract in the league, but it still won't be a good one.

It's great for the Blues that he's scoring in the playoffs. He's a big reason they've gotten this far. But if there's anyone willing to pay him based on that, well, you know what they say about who is soon parted with his money.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Finally, the Ducks add a potentially high-end young defenseman. They've really been hurting for those lately.

Arizona Coyotes: Having an AHL team in Tucson is a pretty good deal for the Coyotes. It's a two-hour drive as opposed to a five-hour flight. Saves a lot of money on call-ups. 

Boston Bruins: The Bruins may have to wait another year to get the compensatory second-round pick Edmonton owes them from signing Peter Chiarelli. Fun.

Buffalo Sabres: Can you believe a kid from the WHL is named “Brycen?” Of course you can.

Calgary Flames: Sean Monahan doesn't want a bridge deal. However, the two sides haven't really made a lot of progress either way, which seems crazy to me but hey whatever.

Carolina Hurricanes: Well I mean, they shouldn't want Cam Ward back. Because he's not good any more.

Chicago: Good luck improving that defense with that cap situation. Chicago's in a real tough spot on the back end. Again, that's the price of success.

Colorado Avalanche: I still can't imagine why they'd trade one of their few good defensemen, but here we are.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus is apparently considering just LTIR-ing David Clarkson forever. This trade is working out great.

Dallas Stars: The “this” in this scenario should be, “Getting a real goalie.”

Detroit Red Wings: These guys really have their fingers on the pulse here. The Wings are dropping off? Wow!

Edmonton Oilers: Benoit Pouliot was hurt for a good chunk of the season. Still a good player when he's healthy, but that's not often any more. Too bad.

Florida Panthers: New logo and jerseys out June 2, but you already know what they look like.

Los Angeles Kings: Man, the Kings could only be so lucky as to have Dallas sign Milan Lucic for a ton of money this summer. Two years from now whatever deal he gets probably doesn't look very good.

Minnesota Wild: If Bruce Boudreau can't make Jason Pominville effective in attack again, probably no one can.

Montreal Canadiens: I mean, yes, but...

Nashville Predators: The Preds believe they will keep improving with this group. They also need to upgrade a few spots in the lineup.

New Jersey Devils: How do the Devils have it set up so only like 11 guys are on their payroll for next season right now? That never happens. So yeah, lots to consider apparently.

New York Islanders: Having the cap space and actually being able to sign a guy are two very different things.

New York Rangers: Jeff Gorton sitting around his office like, “But what if we got even more bad defensemen?”

Ottawa Senators: How many people on this list should the Senators actually target? Like, three?

Philadelphia Flyers: Yeah, the Flyers probably don't trade up. What's the point if everyone's a project after, say, No. 5?

NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Justin Schultz #4 of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks to pass in the third period against the New Jersey Devils on March 6, 2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New Jersey Devils 6-1. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Penguins: This overstates things a bit, but yeah, Justin Schultz has been perfectly fine for the Penguins. Not great, not bad. That's fine.

San Jose Sharks: Yeah, great call here. Hahaha.

St. Louis Blues: Sharks in six though.

Tampa Bay Lightning: This is an interesting behind-the-behind-the-scenes look at how organizations work away from the ice.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Hmm yes Mike Babcock is good.

Vancouver Canucks: Hoo boy, come on guys.

Washington Capitals: The Hershey Bears continue to be very, very good. They're currently up 2-0 on a young, super-talented Marlies team.

Winnipeg Jets: Bless this boy. He's so fun already.

Play of the Weekend

Oh my.

Gold Star Award

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) deflects a shot next to San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton (19) during the third period in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals Saturday, May 21, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. St. Louis won 6-3. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Good time to be a goalie. Every one has been used so far in the Conference Finals! All eight of them! That's wild. Can't imagine it happens too often.

Minus of the Weekend

San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones (31) deflects a shot from St. Louis Blues' Robby Fabbri (15) as Sharks' Brent Burns (88) helps defend during the first period in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Western Conference finals Saturday, May 21, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Of course that means pretty much every goalie has laid an egg at some point in their series. But hey, that's hockey. Right? Right. I guess.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “turnagainoutlaw” is really reaching.

Calgary trades F Sam Bennett, 2016 6 OA (Nylander), Oliver Kylington

for 2016 1 OA (Laine)

Signoff

My director's telling me not to talk to you any more.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)

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