Winnipeg’s roster was pretty much filled out by mid-July with the Wellwood signing, but there might still be one or two more spots up for grabs at forward. A Twitter discussion this morning not only reminded me about how a couple of potential candidates for those jobs were perceived by the public at the end of last season, but had me wondering how grounded that perception was in reality.
I don’t doubt for one second that a poll of Jet fans asking them to choose between Spencer Machacek and Eric Fehr would be won by the younger man in a walk. Machacek finished the year with 9 points in his 13 game cameo, while Fehr tallied 1G and 1A in a season largely scuppered by injury. Fehr’s poor year lead to him not being qualified at 2.2M by Winnipeg, and as of today, he doesn’t have a deal for next season. Machacek’s much cheaper QO was tendered by the club, but he’s also unsigned, since he might well want a one way contract. Again, I’d bet most would prefer signing Machacek over Fehr, even at similar dollars, simply based on the numbers Machacek posted during the run-in to the year.
It’s always worth remembering, however, that differentials in scoring performance between players aren’t exclusively caused by one player simply being better. Circumstances, such as quality of competition or Zone Starts, can all have at least a mild effect on output.
So, how do they match up when we look at Qual. Comp and out-shooting? The Corsi Rel. Quality of Comp. rankings are based on Jet forwards that played at least 10 games:
|Corsi Rel QoC||Cor. Rel||Corsi||ZoneStart|
The numbers from Behind the Net suggest that both men played against roughly analogous 4th line competition during the year, but Fehr is a mile ahead by these metrics, and Machacek’s lousy numbers compiled with the benefit of cushy Zone Starts against soft opposition hint at the reasons why he’s a player that’s spent over 200 games in the AHL with limited NHL exposure.
Since the underlying numbers favour Fehr by a wide margin, how did Machacek manage to outscore him so handily in a short period of time? That’s where something that does more to drive outlier seasons than anything else reared its head.
The one factor that appears to do the most to boost or suppress point totals outside expected ranges is variance, or as it’s more commonly referred to, good old luck. It’s that element of fortune that came up in my back and forth with Cam Charron and Timothy Bonnar, and what compelled me to examine the two gents in question a bit more closely.
In the course of my noting to Cam that Nino Niederreiter had an on-ice EVSH% of 0.84(?!?!?!?!), Tim suggested that Eric Fehr was likely in that same sort of range last season, and that turned out to be so, since Fehr’s on-ice EVSH% was nearly as bad at 2.74%. To flesh things out, when Eric Fehr was on ice at EV last year, the Jets had 146 shots on goal, and scored on precisely 4 of them. That figure was the 6th worst for any NHL forward that played at least 30 games, and struck me at first blush as being utterly out of line with his past performance as a roughly competent 3rd liner with the Capitals.
A quick trip to Behind the Net confimed this in explicit fashion. Fehr’s worst season before last year, 10/11, showed him sporting an on-ice EVSH% of 6.12. That’s a bit low for a top nine forward, but not especially noteworthy, and his other two seasons in Washington showed him at 7.73 and 12.2%. That latter number is really high for a regular player, and is almost certainly as unrepresentative of Fehr’s true talent as the lousy figure he posted in 11/12. I don’t think that an average number in the 7-8% range would be out of line for him in future years, with the caveat that on-ice SH% often fluctuates year to year in the manner that his has in the past.
At any rate, lousy percentages were a large part of Fehr’s underachievement, and his personal SH% was a putrid 3.7. Given that his next-worse season was 8.3%, he’s likely due for a bounce back of some sort when hockey resumes again. His shoulder issues were likely at the heart of his poor individual shooting percentage and would have to be completely cleared up, but presuming he’s healthy, resuming his career as a decent NHLer doesn’t appear too far-fetched.
While Fehr battled injury and terrible luck en route to a horrid season, our other subject rode Fortune like a mule during his month in the bigs. Spencer Machacek’s on-ice EVSH% while with the Jets was a smooth 26.32. By way of comparison, the best figure for a NHL forward that tallied at least 30 games played was posted by Steven Stamkos, at 12.93. The best figure for any player managing 30 games in any season of the Behind the Net era is Derick Brassard’s 15.06% in 2008/09, and Brassard has turned out to be a notable example of a player that was over-valued based on pucks going in at an inflated pace.
At any rate, I’m sure Spencer Machacek is a nice young man, kind to animals and children etc. etc., but there’s no way that he’s twice as good as Steve Stamkos at driving shooting percentages for he and his linemates. I’m absolutely convinced that even a hopelessly mismanaged outfit like Atlanta might have found a roster spot for him along the way if he was any good at all, because cheap young guys that can play are fairly valuable commodities the last time I checked. If last year’s percentage-driven spree was indicative of who Machacek really is as a player, burying him in the AHL would have been equivalent to having a talking frog and ignoring the potential. Even Don Waddell isn’t that dim.
The truth of the matter is that his underlying numbers don’t show him as much more than just another fringe NHLer that had a nice streak, and there’s every possibility that the Jets’ reluctance to sign him by this point of the summer means they see him that way as well. If so, good on them. Machacek will be 24 this year, and to be blunt, if he was anything more than a good AHLer/fringe big-leaguer, it’s quite likely that fact would have been established before his ELC expired.
In terms of a course of action for management, I wouldn’t object to Machacek getting a 2-way deal, since the team isn’t that deep at the AHL level, and if he makes the big team coming out of camp on merit, fine. If not and he’s plucked off waivers, at least he can get some shot at playing elsewhere, and losing him isn’t likely to affect Winnipeg’s future in any meaningful way. There’s not much of a case for a 1-way, though, even accepting the fact that Paul Postma’s deal serves as a potential example suggesting the team doesn’t mind cheap 1-way deals for players that aren’t locks to make the NHL roster.
Fehr might have a tough time getting a deal anywhere this summer, since GMs like flashy boxcar numbers to justify expenditures, but given that Fehr is living in the neighbourhood and probably wouldn’t mind staying close to home, offering him a tryout and a proper chance to make the club might not be a bad idea. As I mentioned, if he’s in reasonable health, his pedigree would lead one to believe that last year was a blip, and that he’s still likely a legitimate NHLer.
A training camp invite would offer him the chance to prove his shoulder’s well, and if it is, the underlying numbers would lead me to believe that he’s quite likely to be a better player than Machacek. It’s also unlikely he’d be get a contract much beyond 700-800K even if things went perfectly at camp, so he’d be exactly the type of cheap player that could add to Winnipeg’s depth within their budgetary constraints.
I’ll never try to make the case that signing either of these guys will be the move that ensures a successful season for the Jets, but general managers in a cap system need to make choices based on probability of potential outcomes, and a mid-market team like the Jets needs to be even more cognizant of what really drives results, since they might be less willing to bury mistakes in St. John’s than some of their more well-heeled brethern.
It’s also clear that Winnipeg doesn’t have the elite players that a few of their division rivals sport, so it seems to me that their best chance to win over the course of a long season is to establish a better overall depth of talent than they iced last year. I doubt that this would be a widely shared view as of this afternoon, but on the off-chance camp starts more or less on time this fall, Eric Fehr could well be a low cost addition that could outplay a cheap contract, and no team can have too many of those guys.