Life Without Marty Is Proving to Be a Losing Proposition For Nashville

Life without 2010-2011 co-leading scorer Martin Erat (left) has been daunting so far this season for the Nashville Predators. Erat has missed the last four games, three of which were Nashville losses, and did not accompany the team on its current west coast road swing. Celebrations as depicted here with forward David Legwand have been rare in the early-going this season as the Preds seem to have once again revisited their scoring difficulties of years past (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images).


Maybe
the numbers DO lie sometimes…
I know I like to say that I’m not a numbers guy — and I’m not, believe you me. However the primary reason I say that is because I’m just not all that great at it; I’m slow at doing just about everything, but numbers? Fuggedaboudit. It’s just not my cup ‘o tea. Still, sometimes it’s the only way for me to work through a problem; to make sense of something that’s bugging me in order to make the point that otherwise eludes logic on its own. So I decided to follow a hunch; to crunch some numbers and take the inordinate amount of time required for me to accomplish something like this.

I still may not have proven anything, but I feel a lot better about taking a stand on it now than I did before.

When I decided to write this story, my original assumption was that in going back to last season’s numbers, my point would be easily proven. Surely my immediate assumption would win out and the statistical data would serve to prop up the notion that the Nashville Predators sputtering start — particularly the recent losses of a pair of winnable games at Bridgestone Arena and the debacle in Edmonton on Monday night were proof that they aren’t the same team without forward Marty Erat in the lineup.

And they aren’t…well, kinda.

Erat has missed four of five games to start the 2011-12 season, with the ever-mysterious ‘upper-body injury’ that Head Coach Barry Trotz insists is not related to the back issues that forced the Trebic, Czechoslovakia native to miss 18 games over four multiple-contest absences last season, ranging from two games at the end of the regular campaign, to a whopping nine-game gap smack dab in the middle of it — from late December through mid-January.

Surely my suspicion would be sustained and I’d learn that the Preds suffered much of their wild inconsistency last year during those periods in which Marty was missing. Surely that could be attributed to the 5-on-5 scoring issues so apparent now early this season.

But, no.

To my surprise, I discovered that in amongst the spate of multiple-game outages by a number of key players over the course of 2010-11, Erat’s was probably the most well-absorbed by the team over the long haul.

Nashville’s 44-27-11 record produced 99 points overall out of a possible 164. That calculates to a points-percentage of 60.36% on the season. With Erat in the lineup, they were 34-20-10, garnering 78 points out of 128 for a percentage of 60.93%, so his absence last year did indeed make a difference, but only a slight one and certainly not that of my original intuition.

In fact, for the eighteen games in which Erat was absent from the Predators lineup in 2010-11, Nashville was actually above .500, going 10-7-1, for 21 points out of a possible 36; that’s 58.33% — just 2.6% worse without him than with him.

And we’re talking about the team’s co-leading points-producer here, folks. Erat’s 50 points tied him with Sergei Kostitsyn as one of the primary forces who made the Preds’ offense go last year, despite missing just less than 22% of the season.

So this is one of those situations in which we can pretty much make the numbers say whatever we want them to say. However, it should be noted that the Preds managed their longest winning streak, a six game job, during Erat’s nine-game, mid-season powder to help soften the blow. But the answer to the question of Erat’s importance to the Preds’ success should be obvious. Of course he’s a vital cog in the machine; the only question is, how vital is he? Is the team lost without him? Not by a long shot, although I contend that his absence exposes the Preds in ways that are difficult for them to adjust to, and I believe that the Preds are really feeling that now during his current absence.

Those who have dogged Erat for not having a big enough impact to justify the cap-heavy, seven-year, $4.5 million-per-season contract he’s earned since 2008-09, which still has three years to go beyond this season would say otherwise. For those folks, these comparative numbers I cited might only fuel the fire of their opinion that Preds GM David Poile erred in awarding such a deal to Erat, along with David Legwand’s six-year deal for the same annual cap-hit, which expires one season earlier than Marty’s.

I disagree with that notion.

David pulls a ‘Dale’
First off, what many of the detractors fail to recall is that at the time Erat and Leggy were extended in 2008, the Preds were still reeling from the team’s sale the previous year and the instability that still existed in the new ownership’s attempt to establish itself, particularly in the wake of former investor, Boots Del Biaggio’s financial treachery, which came to the fore that summer. With everything that was going on in the media surrounding the team, it was easy to forget the overall impact that the rapidly expanding salary cap was having around the league.

After growing only $5 million from the first to the second season of its institution following the lockout of 2004-05, the NHL salary cap began a continuing trend of more substantial annual increases as of the 2007-08 season.

With all the payroll that left the building in the wake of previous owner, Craig Leipold’s ‘fire sale,’ at the end of the 2006-07 campaign and a number of contracts due to expire a year later, the summer of 2008 found Poile in a position somewhat similar to that of Florida Panthers GM, Dale Tallon this past offseason; needing to spend a considerable sum of money just to get the Preds to the cap floor for 2008-09, while at the same time following his own the organizational mandate to lock up Nashville’s core players, including defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, along with forwards, Erat, Legwand, and J.P. Dumont, each of whom received long-term contract extensions that summer.

In hindsight, there is no doubt that with the exception of Weber and Suter, Poile overpaid — at least for the times; particularly for Dumont, who was coming off his two most productive seasons as an NHL player, including a career season in 2007-08. However, his game would decline rapidly in subsequent years and that four year, $4 million per season deal would became an absolute millstone around the team’s neck after just its first season. The Preds would eventually buy out the last year of Dumont’s deal this past summer.

Likewise, despite the fact that Legwand was two seasons beyond the lone 50+ point output of his career (a 63-point performance in 2006-07), he was seen as a foundational player, and hey, Poile needed to spend the dough, right? Ironically, after years of being the chief whipping boy among Preds detractors, both from within and without Nashville’s fanbase, Legwand finally seems to be earning that paycheck by virtue of consecutive strong postseason efforts, and now this season, for the first time in years is showing that same offensive intensity to begin the regular season. Going into Tuesday’s NHL action, Legwand currently stands tied for second league lead in points with 8.

So say what you will about whether or not in the grand scheme of things that Poile was a poor steward of the team’s money; just remember the circumstances involved in his getting to the place where he awarded those contracts. And regardless your opinion of Dumont and Legwand, I’ll argue that the dollars invested in Marty Erat’s most expensive of all Predators contracts was money well-spent, particularly in regard to the bozo-crazy money we saw being doled out this past July 1st.

Erat’s seven-year, $31.5 million is the longest and richest contract in Predators history. Its $4.5 million per-season cap hit is also the most daunting, as it was most certainly an all-or-nothing gamble in which David Poile went all-in; if Erat didn’t pan out, that contract made him immovable. And for awhile it appeared as though the latter was the Predators’ unenviable reality. But as with Legwand, the length of Erat’s deal has now caused it to appreciate in value in light of the NHL’s current market economy. What was once overpriced is now, if not a bargain, then at least reasonably affordable.

Digging a little deeper
Looking beyond the team’s performance at relative comparable production numbers reveals that Erat’s cost-to-production ratio is not only good, it’s outstanding.

While it is true that Martin Erat hasn’t become the 60-80-points-per-season scorer many fans (assumed) hoped he’d become, for the consistency he’s displayed over the vast majority of his nine-full NHL seasons, he’s actually a bargain in the current market.

I think it’s important to remember that Erat was a find, not a phenomenon, coming out of Zlin ZPS HC in the Czech Leagues as an 18 year-old in 1998-99. The team selected him in the 7th round (#191 overall) in the NHL Entry that June, and brought him to North America to play Juniors. Erat responded with his high-water mark for goals with 27 markers for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League in 1999-00 — his first full season in Juniors. The Predators were delighted, but they didn’t overreact. Erat continued to craft his game as a consistent, 2-way player with an additional season split between Saskatoon and Red Deer before making the Predators roster out of training camp as a 21-year-old in 2001-02. His rookie totals of 9g/24a/33pts were impressive, but apparently, Trotz wasn’t quite so impressed with his -11 plus/minus ratio that season.

Erat would spend most of the following 2002-03 season in Milwaukee before getting his defensive act together and returning to Nashville as a full-time NHL player in 2003-04, registering full-grown numbers of 16g/33a/49pts along the way.

Marty returned home to his Zlin ZPS HC team in the Czech Republic to play during the lockout season of 2004-05, and since then has been a model of consistency, averaging 19g/33a/52pts per season. Nonetheless there seems to be some kind of nebulous dissatisfaction that Erat’s production isn’t in keeping with his contract.

After signing the big extension in the summer of 2008, Erat’s numbers did indeed dip slightly from his previous season’s career effort and I suppose that may have soured some people on Marty’s perceived value. But again, the contract was reasonable then and it’s even more so now. Here’s why:

Salary Comparables for 2010-11 50-point producers, sorted by Cap Hit

Player Name
Team
Age
2010-11 Cap Hit
Notes
Dan Boyle SJ 35 $6,666,667 Cap hit thru 2013-14
Andy McDonald STL 34 $4,700,000 Cap hit thru 2012-13
Martin Erat NSH 30 $4,500,000 Cap hit thru 2014-15
Kris Letang PIT 24 $3,500,000 Cap hit thru 2013-14
Rene Bourque CGY 29 $3,333,333 Cap hit thru 2015-16
Christian Ehrhoff BUF 29 $3,100,000 Current cap hit $4,000,000
thru 2020-21
Mikael Samuelsson
VAN 34 $2,500,000 Cap hit thru 2011-12
Sergei Kostitsyn NSH 24 $550,000 Contract: $2,500,000 thru 2011-1
Salary Cap numbers courtesy capgeek.com

Among those who produced at the same 50-point clip as Erat last season, Marty’s cap hit is the third highest. However it should be noted, that over the course of the careers of the players listed only the top three players have scored 50 points in a season more than twice. Dan Boyle has done it six times, with Andy McDonald and Erat accomplishing the feat four times apiece. Rene Borque and Mikael Samuelsson had their second career 50-points-or better campaign last season, with the balance of the players hitting the milestone for the first time in their careers.

The bottom line is, given his age and history of production, Erat is right in line with the other two, more experienced players, and moreover, when he began his current seven-year run of producing 49 points or better, back in 2003, he was younger (at age 22) than any of the younger 50-point players listed here (including the late-blooming Samuelsson). Additionally, in 2006-07, at age 24, Erat produced his first of two consecutive 57-point seasons while  drawing annual salaries of $1,600,00 and $1,750,00 respectively. Even accounting for the inflation of current NHL contracts, those are Sergei Kostitsyn-like salary numbers in terms of value.

Price-Point
Okay, so you’re thinkin’ I massaged the numbers a little too much before, restricting my comparisons to those who finished with 50 points on the nose?  Okay then, let’s broaden our horizons a bit and take a look at how Erat stacks up with all of his near-contemporaries who finished at the 50-points-or-better mark last season:

Below are the comparables for 50+ point producers in 2010-11, with similar experience and output to Marty Erat. All players listed have completed seven-to-ten NHL seasons with at least three of 50-or-better point-production. I’ve included the players’ average annual points production since the 2004-05 lockout and the highly intriguing statistic of  player cost (cap hit) per point for the 2010-11 season.

Note: For the sake of apples-to-apples comparison, I’m only considering players with 7-10 years of NHL experience (Erat has 9) with at least three seasons of 50 points or better (Erat has 4). Most of these comparable players are on their second veteran contract (as is Erat) and are well-established NHL stars, and I think you’ll agree that for the money, Marty compares well with the group. Don’t forget that Erat missed 18 games last season, so it’s almost guaranteed that his point total would have been higher —perhaps much higher. This is about comparative value and what the Preds are truly getting for their $4.5 million per season compared to the rest of the league.

Player Name
Team
Age
2010-11
Cap Hit
2010-11
Points
Avg Pts
Since
05-06
Notes
2010-11 Player Cap Hit Per
Point
Dustin Brown LAK 26 $3,175,000 57 50.00 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $55,701
Nathan Horton BOS 26 $4,000,000 53 54.33 Cap hit thru 2012-13 $75,471
Brad Boyes BUF 29 $4,000,000 41 58.16 Cap hit thru 2011-12 $97,560
Martin Erat NSH 30 $4,500,000 50 52.00 Cap hit thru 2014-15 $90,000
Erik Cole MTL 32 $4,500,000 52 46.83 Cap hit thru 2014-15 $86,538
Martin Havlat SJ 30 $5,000,000 54 48.83 Cap hit thru 2014-15 $92,592
Jason Pominville BUF 28 $5,300,000 52 60.50 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $101,923
Patrice Bergeron BOS 26 $5,000,000 57 49.66 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $87,719
Tomas Plekanec MTL 28 $5,000,000 57 51.83 Cap hit thru 2015-16 $87,719
Ilya Kovalchuk NJ 28 $6,666,667 60 83.83 Cap hit thru 2024-25 $111,111
Pavel Datsyuk DET 33 $6,700,000 59 82.83 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $113,559
Jason Spezza OTT 28 $7,000,000 57 76.00 Cap hit thru 2014-15 $122,807
Dany Heatley MIN 30 $7,500,000 64 84.66 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $117,187
Rick Nash CBJ 27 $7,800,000 66 65.33 Cap hit thru 2017-18 $118,181
Patrick Sharp CHI 29 $3,900,000 71 50.16 Cap hit thru 2011-12; then $5,900,000 thru 2016-17 $54,929
Eric Staal CAR 26 $8,250,000 76 78.83 Cap hit thru 2015-16 $108,552
Brad Richards NYR 31 $7,800,000 77 73.16 10-11 Cap hit expired; new $6,666,667 hit thru 2019-20 $101,298
Hank Zetterberg DET 31 $6,083,333 80 78.00 Cap hit thru 2020-21 $76,041
Henrik Sedin VAN 31 $6,100,000 94 86.66 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $64,893
Daniel Sedin VAN 31 $6,100,000 104 83.33 Cap hit thru 2013-14 $58,653
Salary Cap numbers courtesy capgeek.com

Interesting stuff, huh? In terms of actual cost-per production, I suppose it’s only natural that the best-of-the-best players would also be the most economical, as Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin’s sizable cap hit of $6.1 million still yields a relatively miniscule cost-per-point at $58,653 by virtue of his league-leading 104 points last season, while Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash’s 66-point performance cost his team more than twice as much given Nash’s gargantuan $7.8 million cap hit, which doesn’t expire until 2018. Ouch.

And the only reason I even include the Nashs, Sedins, Spezzas, and Staals of the world —all of whom were top-five picks in the draft and really aren’t comparables with Martin Erat in terms of expected production, is to show by way of contrast, the true value of today’s top upper-‘middle aged’ NHL veterans via how much they cost their teams in the salary cap.

And while Erat is not at the top of the ladder in terms of cost-per-point when compared with some of the league’s top stars, he most definitely in the conversation with players of similar age and/or experience like Erik Cole, Martin Havlat, and Brad Boyes; all players whom any Preds fan would love to see wearing the Gold and Blue. And just as it’s perhaps a bit unfair to compare Erat to Dany Heatley, Hank Zetterberg, or even Patrick Sharp (who was far and away the best value points-per-cap-hit on the list, but who will also be getting much more expensive after this season), Erat holds his ground well even when compared to a number of other slightly younger guns in this group, most of whom have played in the NHL their entire professional career.

Take Dustin Brown for example; a #13 overall pick by the L.A. Kings, Brown has never spent a day in the AHL during a normal NHL season. He is four years younger than Erat, but has amassed 305 points over seven full seasons. And because he’s still on his initial veteran contract — like Erat, dating all the way back to 2008 — he’s still a tremendous value at $3.175 million a season.

Nonetheless, even though Brown finished with 57 points last season, he still trails Marty in average points per season for his career. When his current contract expires in 2014-15, Brown will be cashing in big time, the same season that Erat will finally finish out his current $4.5 million deal. It was once thought that following his current contract, Erat would never receive anything close to it again in his career. Maybe, but given the NHL’s current pay scale, it’s not at all unlikely that someone would throw the same kind of money at Marty in a couple of years; perhaps even more if his production remains consistent.

So you can sit there and draw conclusions about whether or not Erat has and/or will live up to his paycheck until you’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is pretty simple; last season’s success without him aside,  the Predators are a better team with Erat in the lineup than they are without him. And when he’s missing, generally speaking, so is the offense. In the eight losses the team suffered without Erat on the ice last season, they scored an average of 1.75 goals per game.

Oh, and in the three losses without him already this year? Again, 1.75 goals per game. Even with Pekka between the pipes, that’s not gonna cut it, folks.

Erat’s penchant for upper body injuries — even if they’re not associated with the back issues largely considered the culprit for his absence last season — are a cause for concern, to be sure. However, at this point, there is no clear-cut candidate to step up and replace his output.

Toto, I don’t think we’re in the preseason anymore…
Teams have already begun clamping down on rookie Craig Smith, making it more difficult for him to find time and space with the puck and rendering him virtually invisible during the current losing streak. But even with that, the entire team has seemed out of whack as compared to the preseason, when Nashville scored a hearty 3.375 goals per game.

That was then; this is now.

The general disarray with which Nashville’s five-on-five game has become mired has Barry Trotz fuming. Once their overriding advantage, the Preds’ even strength game has been often disjointed and tentative from the outset this season — characteristics that in years past were reserved only for their power play. The good new, however, is that now it seems that the PP is back on track. Still, the even strength scoring has to become consistent once again, and without Martin Erat in the lineup, that may not be a rapidly forthcoming situation.

However, there is some relief in the offing that could provide a considerable shot in the arm for the Preds woeful offense. Forward Mike Fisher is reportedly close to returning from offseason shoulder surgery, and could be back in the lineup as early as next week. An even earlier return prognosis could be applied to defenseman Frankie Bouillon, wh0 might not be much help in scoring goals, but certainly might help mitigate the team’s recent third period defensive lapses which directly led to eventual losses against Edmonton and New Jersey. Bouillon accompanied the team on the roadtrip to get a little more contact in, skating with the team, than he could have on his own in Nashville. He say’s that he’s “close.”

And, potentially, in the best news of all, Trotz has said on more than one occasion that Erat could possibly return from his current north-of-the-border malady and join the team on the road later in the week — while the team is still north of the border. In all but one of Erat’s outtages last season, his first game back was accompanied by a Preds win. Here’s hoping that when Marty returns, history repeating itself will be a pleasant exercise for the Preds this time around.

 

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finis

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4 Responses to “Life Without Marty Is Proving to Be a Losing Proposition For Nashville”

  1. Dirk Hoag October 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    Your point about the contract value is an interesting one. I think part of the poor perception there is that the economic crisis hit shortly after Erat & Legwand signed their contracts, which played a big role in the NHL’s salary level basically holding still for a couple years, rather than rising by 5-10% as has been typical otherwise. If overall salaries had kept going up, those contracts wouldn’t look quite as large as they still do by comparison.

    • AJ in Nashville October 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm #

      That’s a good point, Dirk, but even with that, I don’t think anyone can say with conviction three years later that Erat is stealing the Preds money. Leggy might be a tougher case to argue, but his contributions are no less important to the team’s success and I think he too is now well worth the contract, particularly if his offensive output stays even close to being on pace with how it’s started out and we see a continued, more determined approach from him offensively.

      Thanks for chiming in! :)

  2. Jeremy Sargent October 20, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Great article…took some time and the effort was rewarding. Not having Erat and Fisher in the lineup causes plenty of matchup problems. We don’t have our top offensive players on the ice, so the other team can square in on the others causing the havoc we are seeing now. I would also like Trotz to evolve his game plan a little and change up the dump-and-chase method when it’s not working. One of the ways this can happen is when Erat or Fisher get back on the ice, both have zero problem of bringing the puck into the zone themselves.

    Great read…keep up the awesome work. ;)

    • AJ in Nashville October 21, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

      I’m humbled, Jeremy, thank you!

      I think you nailed the issue when you mentioned matchups. Erat is not easily denied the puck; he plays smart and always seems to be in position, either to deliver a pass that his teammates can get wood on or find a quiet zone from which to take the shot himself. You can’t teach that, and because he’s neither flashy nor draws attention to himself, Erat’s value is at times overlooked. But in reality, he’s vital to the Preds offensive chemistry. And I REALLY like your observation about his ability to bring the puck into the offensive zone without having to dump and chase all the time; that’s a huge part of his value. However, I believe the reason that Trotz employs that tactic so often is because we have so few players who really CAN handle the puck in traffic like Erat can. But as you say, once Fish and Marty are back, that won’t be quite the issue it is now, but it definitely IS a problem. You could just see how knowing what the Preds would do played into the hands of both Phoenix and NJ, who had their Dmen breaking back early in anticipation of Nashville dumping the puck, and most of the time, beating them to it as a result.

      Nice insight and thanks again for the kind words! I think you and Kris do a great job at The Predatorial, so you keep up YOUR awesome work as well!

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