I apologize for talking about hockey on what is a Pittsburgh Pirates blog. That said, hockey is the sport that I played all the way up through high school while I stopped playing baseball at an early age. I still think that I have a very good understanding of baseball, but hockey is the sport that I understand the most from a player’s perspective. It’s also a sport where numbers tell you almost nothing.
Numbers mean something in baseball because a lot of variables can be stripped away (e.g. FIP stripping away defense’s impact on pitchers) or are static (e.g. park effects [you could argue that weather changes the park effect, but you get my point]). In hockey, people are given different roles, and play with and against different players in that role. For instance, if you play with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, then you should get more points than if you play with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. That is for multiple reasons. The first, and obvious, reason is that Malkin and Neal are better offensive players than Cooke and Kennedy. The second reason, which I think is often overlooked, is that a line with Malkin and Neal will play against a team’s shutdown line, which means they won’t be called upon to defend very often. A line with Cooke and Kennedy will be a shutdown line, and will be defending most of the time they are on the ice, because they will be playing against the other team’s biggest scorers. Therefore, I believe that while statistics are useful in hockey, they need much more contextual information to be used than in baseball. It changes the way I evaluate things.
With all that said, this post is designed to examine the trades of Jordan Staal and Zbynek Michalek. Staal was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth pick in the 2012 draft, which became defenseman Derrick Pouliot. Staal has been an outstanding third-line, two way center for the Penguins since he came into the league. He scored around 50 points per 82 games for most of his career while playing largely in a shutdown role. The last few seasons he has had a chance, with Sidney Crosby’s injuries, to play a more offensive role as a second-line center. He made good on his opportunity, scoring 25 goals and 25 assists in just 62 games. He showed that he can be a scoring threat as a number two center.
He was never going to play that role on this team with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster. However, he was going to be payed as if he was filling that role, making him much more expensive. Additionally, the Penguins have durability issues at center. Malkin has played in 67, 43, and 75 games over the last three seasons. Crosby has played in 81, 41, and 22. Staal has played in 82, 42, and 62. They might be able to afford having two highly paid and injury prone centers, but probably not three. Even if they had been able to afford this, Staal had been offered a contract and turned it down. It seems unlikely that he would have signed, given that “wanting to play a bigger role” and “I may have never played with Eric” otherwise have been cited as reasons for his departure. The Penguins would have had Staal, who is a great player and would make any team better, for one more year.
In return, they got some valuable pieces. Brandon Sutter is a two-way center who is durable and kills penalties. In my opinion, he is Jordan Staal lite. He will play a shutdown role as a third line center and kill penalties. He will not score as much as Staal, but he has been in the league for less time, so his offensive game could improve, and he is much cheaper, which I will get into later. They also got a young defenseman out of Boston College, Dumoulin, and a talented offensive defenseman who gets rave reviews for his work on the power play, Pouliot. These are all useful pieces, and Sutter actively excites me. In a vacuum, this trade probably makes the Penguins a little worse in the short term, but not by much.
Zbynek Michalek was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for defenseman Harrison Ruopp, goalie Marc Cheverie, and third round pick (81st pick) which turned into center Oskar Sundqvist. Michalek has been a good defensive defenseman for the Penguins. He plays a lot of minutes responsibly, blocks shots, and kills penalties. In exchange for Michalek, the Penguins received Ruopp, a middling prospect, Cheverie, also an adequate prospect, and Sundqvist, who is described as a two-way center with offensive upside, but is a long way from the NHL. This trade, in a vacuum, makes the Penguins significantly worse in the short term.
That said, these trades did not take place in a vacuum. Jordan Staal’s 2012 salary is slated to be $4.5 million. Sutter’s salary is $1.3 million. Even accounting for AHL/ECHL salaries for the other pieces, this deal frees up $3 million for the Penguins. Michalek’s salary is $4 million. In total, these deals save the Penguins around $7 million in 2012.
This is not about the money, it’s about cap room. For context, Crosby and Malkin each have an $8.7 million salary. This year’s free agent class may be the best one that I can remember. Players that could become available include: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Shane Doan, Alexander Semin, Ray Whitney, Olli Jokinen, Matt Carle, Ryan Smyth, P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, Dennis Wideman, Brad Stuart, and Paul Gaustad. Trading Staal and Michalek allows the Penguins to be aggressive in getting one or more of these players. In a vacuum, each deal looks like the Penguins are selling their future for future talent and organizational depth. Together, and in context, it looks like they are trying to improve their team in the immediate future and, in doing so, have gotten prospects who could be useful down the road. I think that these were great moves for the Penguins.
Now, how does this relate to the Pirates? I think that the Penguins represent the model that the Pirates have to follow to be popular in Pittsburgh again. I remember when the Penguins were as bad, or worse than, the Pirates. Nobody went to games, nobody knew who the players were, and nobody cared about them. Now, the Penguins are huge in Pittsburgh. I hate fairweather fans as much as anybody, but this is how the Pirates have to expand their audience. They have to have success (playoffs every year for three or four years), have marketable stars (Crosby, Fleury, Malkin, Staal, Letang), and accomodate fans who aren’t well-versed in the sport.
The Penguins can get away with these trades now because they’ve built up goodwill and fan support over the last half decade. The response to trading a beloved figure (Staal) and an important piece (Michalek) has generally been, from what I can tell, that the Penguins must have a plan. If the Pirates had traded Neil Walker (a beloved figure) and Charlie Morton (an important piece) in the off-season, it would have been bemoaned as more disastrous bungling by the Pirates front office. Huntington has never shied away from these decisions, which I applaud him for, but it still presents a PR problem for the Pirates. If the Pirates can become successful, however, this will stop.