Why I Don't Hate The Johnny Boychuk Contract As Much As I First Thought

I was standing at Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, waiting for my bags, and checked my smartphone to see that hey, Johnny Boychuk signed a contract extension. I didn't have a problem with this, per se; Boychuk's been pretty good this year, and is in his prime, so there's nothing wrong with...wait, he signed for how much?

3 years and $10.08 million?!?

I resisted the temptation to heave my smartphone at the wall.

(I should note that this was more out of a desire to avoid getting to know a Homeland Security officer up close and personal than out of any sense that Peter Chiarelli had made a wise move.)

So, is this deal bad, worse, or Rick DiPietro redux? Or was the initial reaction of the Bruins' fan base (which is to say, it seems, overwhelmingly negative) off base? Let's take a look.

Boychuk is 77th among NHL defensemen in GVT, and 273rd among players (out of 921), with a 3.9 GVT, meaning that he's been worth 3.9 goals over a replacement NHL player. That puts him 3rd among Bruin defensemen, behind Zdeno Chara and Andrew Ference.

Digression for the statistically disinclined: For a fuller understanding of GVT, please read this article, then this one and this one. Long story shorter, it's a way of quantifying a player's value to the team in terms of the number of goals he's worth over a replacement player over the course of a season. It accounts for offense and defense. Thus, to this point in the season, Boychuk is worth about 4 goals more than a guy the Bruins could readily call up from Providence or pick up on waivers, like Andrew Bodnarchuk. For perspective's sake, Zdeno Chara has been worth about 13 goals more than the Bodnarchuks of the world the last couple years, and is roughly on pace to do that again this year. Milan Jurcina and Nick Schultz probably share the dishonor of being the NHL's worst defenseman, having been worth 1.2 goals less than a Bodnarchuk over a nearly full season for both. Really, we should rename this statistic GVB, for Goals Versus Bodnarchuk.

So, statistically, Boychuk is an above-average defenseman. Physically, he's 6'2, 225 pounds, and has a well-earned reputation for physicality (he has 100 hits, third on the team). He's 28, but arguably a young 28, as he wasn't an established NHL regular until age 25 and has just 179 NHL games to his credit. Boychuk passes the "eye test" with flying colors: he's big, has a 100+ mph slapshot, skates well (very well for a man his size) and knows how to use his body. He is not a difficult player to like.

Unfortunately, Boychuk's big flaw is that if he has a million dollar body, he's also the owner of a 10 cent head. Boneheaded mistakes are the gaping hole in an otherwise impressive repertoire of skill and ability. Boychuk almost singlehandedly derailed Boston's Stanley Cup run last year with his poor play in the Conference Finals.

Most of this wasn't a secret to you if you're a regular visitor to this site, and therefore at least 6 or 7 times more intelligent than the average hockey fan. But what's the contract itself mean? What's the context? Happily, we have no shortage of comparables. The six defensemen below all signed contract extensions in the last six weeks, are all roughly in Boychuk's salary neighborhood and between age 26 and 31. Let's line them up in terms of annual salary and their total GVT for this year and the two previous years. By using a three year sample size, we can minimize the importance of a sudden spike or drop in performance.

Player Contract terms 3 year GVT
T. Gleason 4 years/$4.0 million 11.3
J-M Liles 4 years/$3.875 million 20.1
A. Goligoski 4 years/$4.6 million 26.8
F. Beauchemin 3 years/$3.5 million 13.4
J. Gorges 6 years/$3.6 million 12.2
J. Boychuk 3 years/$3.36 million

13.8

Those are five pretty fair comparables, four if you want to exclude Goligoski, who's a bit of an outlier, and Boychuk comes out right in the same neighborhood performance-wise. (Oh, and it looks like the Leafs got a bargain on Liles.)

Side note: I can hear Habs fans screaming now "but Gorges missed over half of last season!" True. But then, Boychuk didn't become a regular until well into the 2009-10 season and missed time last season too. In fact, Gorges has played four more games than Boychuk over this three year stretch.

So, by at least one measure, Boychuk is fairly compensated relative to the market. Peter Chiarelli made the case that the signing was a bit of a bargain for the Bruins, noting that in free agency, Boychuk probably would have gotten more. In this, I believe PC is right on the money. Next year's unrestricted free agent market for defensemen is not particularly strong. If you want to discount Niklas Lidstrom, who will surely either retire from the NHL or sign another one year deal with Detroit, the only A-listers on the market are Ryan Suter and Matt Carle, unless you want to count All-Star Dennis Wideman (wait, what?!?). After that, Boychuk's age, size and skill probably would have put him at the top of a group including Barret Jackman, Pavel Kubina, and Brad Stuart. As it stands, there's an awful lot of money out there for the 2012-13 free agent market, and though the market for forwards is strong, the market for defensemen is not. That's what leads to some guys getting badly overpaid. This is, I suspect, why we've seen so many defensemen in Boychuk's neighborhood come off the market recently.

Another argument against this deal goes something like this: "Of course Boychuk's numbers look good, he's always on the ice with Zdeno Chara!" And that's a fair argument. Boychuk is paired with Chara and it's indisputable that Chara makes his defensive partner look better. But, with that pairing comes expanded responsibility. Maybe he's playing with one of the best defensemen on this planet or any other, but so too is Boychuk facing the best players the opposition has to offer. In fact, Boychuk faces the second toughest opposition of any NHL defenseman. And unlike many other defensemen, Boychuk doesn't have the luxury of power play time to boost his numbers; Boston essentially rotates three defensemen on the power play, and Boychuk ain't one of them. He does, however, log plenty of shorthanded ice time; third among Bruin blue liners and has fared a heck of a lot better than Dennis Seidenberg in that time, and though it should be noted that Seidenberg is the one facing tougher competition on the PK, the difference in relative plus/minus between the two is pretty stark.

So from a performance perspective, and a relative market perspective, this deal is actually quite justifiable. The real question with this deal is, "what about the future?" And that's where I have more of a problem. On the one hand, Chiarelli stuck to his plan of not giving out more than a three year deal. That's a good thing. If Boychuk goes south without warning, or gets hurt, the Bruins can swallow the deal or pawn it off on someone else if they have to. Unfortunately, the problem with sticking to those three year deals is that the player's agent knows you're likely not paying for any downside, and so the annual contract value is higher than it might otherwise be. This is why Chiarelli's contracts always seem to be a little higher on the annual value side.

The Bruins are looking a little snug against the 2012-13 cap. They have 15 players signed and are looking at about $9M in cap space. If you assume that Dougie Hamilton takes Joe Corvo's spot in the lineup, the Bruins have 16 signed and about $7.5M in cap space. True, they do have the ability to put Marc Savard back on LTIR if they're tight against the cap, so it's really more like $11.5M in cap space, but they still want to sign Tuukka Rask, Chris Kelly and the whole third line. If we assume the Bruins spend to the $64.3M cap bringing all those guys back, they're looking at $22.7M in cap room for 2013-14 ($26.7 with Savard on LTIR) and the following players hitting free agency: Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand (all RFA), Ference, Nathan Horton and Tim Thomas (UFA). There are also annual bonuses to consider, and the GM would be wise to leave some cushion against the cap to avoid a bonus penalty, which would force the Bruins to carry that over to next year's cap (something that hamstrung them in 2010-11).

As always, much depends on how much the salary cap goes up, and at an average increase of $3.5M per year, inflation may give Chiarelli an out. And to Chiarelli's credit, some deals that looked questionable at the time have turned out to be pretty favorable to Boston (Ference's contract extension, the Benoit Pouliot signing, and the Kelly trade). This could easily be another. But at some point, the Bruins need to start replacing expensive secondary pieces with young (read: cheap) talent. Maybe Boychuk wasn't the place to start, since the Bruins aren't exactly loaded with defensive depth, but Chiarelli's track record of overpaying secondary forwards leaves ample cause for concern. This practice already cost them Phil Kessel, and only a Vesa Toskala-driven collapse by the Maple Leafs allowed the Bruins to salvage that situation. The big worry is less about the Boychuk contract, and more about whether Chiarelli has learned the right lesson from the Kessel trade: that it's better to lose a secondary player in free agency then a franchise cornerstone.

The jury's still out on that one.

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