How to Build a Contender – Part 3: Cap Management

Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

In the first post of this latest ‘How to build a contender’ series, we provided an intro to War-on-ice’s new Goals Above Replacement (GAR) statistic, and in Part 2, we looked at the impact of player aging on player and team performance over time

What we found in Part 1 was that GAR correlates very highly with goal differential and team points, and that the majority of teams that made the conference finals over the past five years scored very highly in terms of GAR. Putting this all together, if you’re trying to build a contender, what you’re really trying to do is put together a collection of players who are capable of achieve a very high team GAR. 

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Because the goal of any organization should be to build a Stanley Cup winner, in Part 3 of our series, I thought I’d take a closer look into the roster composition of teams who had made it to at least the conference finals in the last five full seasons. 

Scarcity of Elite Talent

As previously discussed, successful teams typically have high cumulative team GAR, so I was curious what the breakdown would be of the players by GAR bands, in order to understand just how rare it is to have an individual player who accounts for a high individual GAR number. 

In order to investigate this, I looked at all player seasons from 2009-10 to 2014-15 (lockout year excluded, and aggregated all individual player seasons by GAR band (4,323 individual player seasons):

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gar bands

For simplicity I’ve decided to separate player by 5 GAR increments, which is admittedly arbitrary, but seems to be a reasonably match the distribution of the players.

As we can see, there is a very small percentage of the NHLer population who were able to achieve a single season of over 15 GAR (5.9%), and even less who achieved over 20 GAR in a single season (2.4%). This doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. There are a small number of stars in the league, whose contribution to their teams is far higher than the average NHLer (64% of NHLers had a GAR between -5 and +5). 

Roster Composition

While we can see that generally teams who don’t hit the 107 GAR threshold rarely contend for the cup, I thought it would be interesting to look a the team composition of contenders versus non-contenders (the 26 teams that did not make the conference finals) and the 2015-16 Vancouver Canucks roster (note: I’ve used 2014-15 player GAR totals for Vancouver for simplicity): 

roster comp by gar

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Interestingly, virtually every team who has made it to the conference finals in the last 5 years had both a over 20 GAR elite player, and at least one 15-20 GAR star to complement them. 

Even many non-contender teams had the benefit of an elite over 20 GAR player and/or a 15-20 GAR star, but as we can see, the Canucks don’t have a player in either of these categories, based on their 2014-15 data. Again, this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. 

With the Sedins in the twilight of their careers, it is imperative that management restock the pipeline with players who could conceivably mature into over 15 and over 20 GAR roles. 

In terms of the Canucks, both Henrik and Daniel had achieved over 20 GAR seasons, Daniel in 2010-11 and Henrik in 2011-12, but those days are behind them. Last year, Daniel managing a 4.6 GAR, while Henrik was 11.9. Interestingly, the second Canuck to hit the 10-15 GAR plateau last year was none other than Alex Burrows, who has managed 5 over 10 GAR seasons over what has been a remarkable career, including an elite level 21 GAR year achieved in 2008-09. 

Salary Allocation by GAR Band

contender salary band

I thought it would be interesting to how contenders allocate their payroll versus the 2015-16 Canucks roster. On the bright side, it was interesting to note that on average, every contender (i.e. a team which made the conference finals) had roughly 5% of their cap allocated to their own “Sbisa” contracts (players will less than negative 5 GAR), but the more glaring issue is the the fact that a cap team like Vancouver doesn’t have cap space allocated to elite talent. 

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Now, it’s important to note the table above is a bit skewed because the Canucks don’t currently have any elite players (i.e. >15 GAR), so by extension they have a higher proportion of their salary allocated to lower GAR bands. 

That said, the Canucks are a cap team, so its a bit disappointing that they have 51% of their cap allocated to low GAR bands (minus 5 to plus 5). That said, we can see that across the board, teams are allocating their precious salary cap inefficiently: 

salary vs gar 0910 to 1415

We can see that skaters above the baseline are providing value (measured by GAR) in excess of their AAV. We can think of these as either the really smart contract signings, but also the younger players still on their entry level contracts. The early Blackhawk cup winners benefited hugely from the low AAV allocated to a young Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for example. The players below the line are those who are not providing value relative to their paycheck, but this is driven in part by market driven rates for older players who are not cost controlled under their ELCs. In short, as a result of both inefficient signings and the current CBA structure, the allocation of salary cap in today’s NHL is not efficient, but this isn’t actually new news. 

Looking to next summer, the Canucks have roughly 25% percent of their current year cap is allocated to player who are not under contract for 2016-17, so they have some flexibility to allocate their cap more efficiently going forward. 

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Total Team GAR by Bands

total by gar band

It’s plain to see that the 2015-16 Canucks roster aligns slightly lower, in terms of overall GAR, than the non-contender teams, even before accounting for the impact of aging. 

The most glaring holes are in the >20 GAR and 15-20 GAR buckets. Again, this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know – if the Canucks are to compete for a Stanley Cup in the future, these are the holes in their prospect pipeline that they’ll need to fill. They’re also the hardest holes to fill… 

Others in this Series


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  • Double Dees

    Good morning!

    Oilers rule!

    Canucks drool like old grandpas eating porridge from a straw.

    That’s how old and slow ur team is….

    But never fear the sedins will bring the cup home, right?? Not.

    The window is closed shut with super duper krazy glue.

    • Locust

      It must be so weird to be an oilers fan. Excited and talking smack every summer but by mid-November you’re cheering for another number 1 pick.

      I don’t envy that but I don’t pity you either ’cause you’ve got a bad attitude and you’re a broken record. Go cheer for your team while you still can!

      Summer will be over soon and then what are you gonna do? Fail for Nail? Tank for Taylor? McSuck for McDavid? Hahahahaha wow, nevermind, I get why you’re so angry. Yeah man, enjoy our lean years we’ll be good again soon. As for your team… well, you’ll always have the entry draft 😀

      • Double Dees

        And who do u have? Lol

        The same bad contracts year after year…aren’t u sick of the sedins bro? Higgins? Burrows? Haha.

        Where are u going? And then after they leave….

        Brandon sutter will be ur #1 center!!! Haha. Are u kidding me?

        Ur hilarious.

        Dude the Canucks suck. They can’t do anything. Look what the flames proved.

        “But at least we made the playoffs!” Ull say…. Sad really.

        Ur team has no future and when the oilers do something, which will happen before the Canucks, I’m happy to say that you’ll be thinking of me. :).

        • Mantastic

          Sick of the Sedins, are you crazy? I get it man, the oilers suck. And considering your hilarious attitude I’m going to assume they’ve sucked throughout your entire life! And that’s lame, the Islanders have always been my NHL East team and they have mostly sucked for my entire life too. When I first became a Canuck fan they were awful too.

          I can also appreciate feeling insignificant in this big world but writing weird senseless rants on a blog that isn’t actually a part of the Canucks organization in an attempt to… get me to think of you if the Oilers are ever successful?

          “Ur team has no future and when the oilers do something, which will happen before the Canucks, I’m happy to say that you’ll be thinking of me. :).”
          That’s weird and sad. Haha its also not going to happen ’cause I’m a grown up and message boards aren’t a big deal to me. That said, I just don’t get what you’re doing on here every single day. Sad? Angry? What’s up buttercup? No respect at the office?

          I guess you can keep venting on here but you’re making yourself seem mentally disturbed.

          The Sedins are legend. That is all.

          • Mantastic

            “The Sedins are legend. That is all.”

            Regular season legends?

            Everyone in the league except Canuck fans knows how legend the sisters are… at punching Marchand’s glove with their face.

    • Double Dees

      Technically if it wasn’t for Burrows lucky goal on a rolling puck there would have been no SCF. But whatever chance they had, Mike Gillis didn’t bother keeping or got rid of all their key assets a year after the finals. The Canucks by unbiased accounts had no window of opportunity, not even a pet door.

      AV said they had special team. Yeah, special…as in special olympics.LOL But hey, I don’t mean to begrudge any one in the special olympics because unlike the Canucks, the people competing in the special olympics try hard and actually show up when it counts. LOL

      • Double Dees

        Dude the last paragraph actually made me laugh. Haha. Like I actually lol.

        All they use is the “u must live in ur mothers basement” joke. So original!

        But hey atleast they got the sedins, right?

        • Mantastic

          I can’t think of any better players to stand at center ice come 50 years to celebrate ZILCH.

          In fact, I’m betting the Sedins would rather punch Marchand’s glove with their faces instead. They may be heartless when it comes to leadership but they can’t be that masochistic.

          When you watch the SCF and see a rat like Marchand bully your supposed captain around with not even one push back by anyone, you know deep in your heart you don’t deserve the SC, let alone an empty dirty roll up to win cup you find on Granville Street.

          If you ever watch Kitchen Nightmares, every episode has the same formula. Gordon Ramsay comes in a tastes the awful food, tells the owner its crap. The owners are delusional and combative. Then during dinner service the sh%it hits the fan and the owners break down and beg Ramsay to help them. After they relaunch the resto it’s almost always a happy ending.

          The difference between the Canucks and kitchen nightmares is that the Canucks and their “fans” have been stuck on the denial combative blame everyone else stage for the last 47 years. Right now even a fake ass American terror shooting operation at rogers arena couldn’t blow up this team.

  • Double Dees

    The aggregate measure of GAR vis-a-vis elite talent is an interesting one.

    I’m curious though – would this model account for “player synergy”? Here’s what I mean:

    – what would Burrows’s GAR be playing with two average stiffs… versus what’s his GAR when playing with two freak of nature twins?

    – what would defencemen #6’s GAR be playing with Sbisa… versus playing with an actual NHLer?

    – what will Crosby’s GAR be if he plays with Kessel, versus with his regular stiffs?

    I understand how things average out in the long run, but linemates usually last a full season unless something goes mega wrong.

    If I’m totally missing the point let me know. But interpreting the stats in context is an interesting problem.

  • Double Dees

    As you’ve pointed out, >+15 GAR is the current Canucks weakness. Have you done an analysis of the source of these players? Burrows aside, I would assume high draft position is the only way to get a hold of these players. The number of times that players of this caliber are traded would be low I assume (Bruins aside).

  • Fred-65

    Team composition is interesting.Vcr has a number of what I would call -A/+B prosects. Which in the future will keep he them as a top 10 team but not good enough to likely win the Cup but also good enough to ensure they don’t draft an elite pick

    • Double Dees

      Finally, someone who speaks the real truth!


      This is exactly the Canucks problem. They just don’t get it.

      But I disagree with being a top 10 team…more like 15-25th

      • Double Dees

        My brain is telling me not to feed the trolls, but the rest of me is screaming “Are Edmonton Oiler fans out trolling other teams in the ANTICIPATION of being good!?! Really? REALLY??”

        If ten years of living in a dumpster doesn’t teach you a little humility, clearly nothing will.

        • Double Dees

          Like u said, we will be good. Real good.

          And, if losing 10 yrs after we made the scf results in getting the next superstar in the NHL, then so be it. Yes, the oilers were in the dumps but all that is forgotten as soon as we won Connor mcdavid.

          Tell me, the Canucks are 5 yrs removed from there run to the scf. ..

          What the hell have the Canucks done???

          That’s what I thought. NOTHING.

          Ohhh sorry ur gonna say regular season wins…means nothing. Playoffs?? Hhahaha 3-12 is ur record.


  • Double Dees

    Great reading, Money Puck.

    “Because the goal of any organization should be to build a Stanley Cup winner”

    Here’s one of the issues, as CA writers have pointed out, it seems like the Canucks don’t think the Vancouver market can stomach a full rebuild and 2-3 years of full-on sucking (or 10 in the case of Edmonton). That’s why we hear from management that making the playoffs every year is the goal.

    “Looking to next summer, the Canucks have roughly 25% percent of their current year cap is allocated to player who are not under contract for 2016-17, so they have some flexibility to allocate their cap more efficiently going forward.”

    Here’s the other issue. Will Linden and Benning (and Weisbrod) be able to allocate cap efficiently? Or will they make more signings like Sbisa, Dorsett, Miller, and Sutter? I guess the Tanev and Weber signings should give us some hope.

    • Mantastic

      Here’s the other issue. Will Linden and Benning (and Weisbrod) be able to allocate cap efficiently? Or will they make more signings like Sbisa, Dorsett, Miller, and Sutter? I guess the Tanev and Weber signings should give us some hope.

      Dorsett,Miller and Sbisa can be traded at any time.
      Sutter is in the prime of his career and has a full NTC for the first three years of his five year contract.
      You have to overpay sometimes. That is what every team is faced with. Burrows is making $4.5 million and has a full NTC at 34 years of age with 18 goals scored.
      Vrbata gets a measly $500k more than Burrows and was a top 10 NHL scorer most of the year with almost double the points Alex scored.
      Everybody screams bloody blue murder about Sbisa but nobody ever says what a great contract signing Vrbata was.

      • Mantastic

        Actually just about everyone was lauding the Vrbata signing as one of the best in the NHL (and one of Benning’s brightest moments and making the later Dorsett/Sbisa signings all the more puzzling) until he disappeared late in the season.

        I don’t know though, I feel like it’s not the end of the world to stock the bottom end of the lineup with decent and hardworking players, if not particularly skilled ones, while waiting for the young talent to develop. We’ve seen the effect of going the opposite route (Oilers) just throwing rookies to the wolves and seeing how they do without any real backup or plan. I have never been a fan of either the full tank (which is a shaky strategy at best — what if you have a top pick in a weak draft versus a generational one?) — or spending too much on middling players. But the more I think about this off-season the less crazy Benning seems to me; it’s one thing if spending money on bottom six players stops you from landing a big FA fish. But the reality is the true superstars or emerging ones are rarely available, most get locked up longterm far before they hit the market. The real danger is in losing your own young talent because you are overpaying your bottom players. If we start having to sacrifice a Virtanen or Horvat if they turn into really talented NHLers because we have a Sbisa that it’s going to be a problem.

        If we had contracts like Clarkson or Bolland I’d be a lot more worried but that doesn’t seem to be what Benning is getting us into.

    • Locust

      Interesting read.

      About the whole hope thing: Tanev and Weber were both on the team when JB and TL took over. Sbisa, Dorsett, Miller and Sutter were all guys that JB clearly valued very highly to go out, acquire them in a trade, and sign them to min. 3 year extensions. The Tanev signing was a tap-in; if you can’t/are not willing to make that deal, you shouldn’t be anywhere close to an NHL front office. Yannick Weber was already here and was impressive – it was a good job to retain him and was good to see, but it pales in comparison to all of the mind-numbingly bad signings.

    • Locust

      Gutting a team to try and accumulate top picks has got to be the most unsportsmanlike thing an owner can do. And with a gutted team there’s no longer a guarantee that you’ll get the best pick, or that you will win the Cup X years later.

      An owner probably makes much more money through higher ticket prices, merchandise sales and playoff revenue by squeaking into the playoffs each year and winning a series or 2 every other year than he does by following the Edmonton model.

  • Double Dees

    Just wanted to post a positive comment to balance out all the troll posts that will inevitably follow. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece, and keep up the great work.

  • Double Dees

    Do u also factor in the fact that NO prime time free agents will want to play in Van? It’s just the reality…messier, sundin were only here for the $$&.

    No prospects that are attractive enough for FA to want to sign.


    • andyg

      So here is the difference between the Canucks and the Oil.

      We find undrafted jems like Tanev and Kennis and make players of them. The Oil take some of the best prospects in the league and turn them into average nhl players. Average at best. I feel sorry for McDavid.

      I don’t see any high caliber talent lining up to sign with you guys and never will. It will take another 10 years to get rid of the stench of losing. 🙂

  • Double Dees

    “tell me something we don’t already know”
    I appreciate the time you put into this but seriously all I take from this article is that you like making graphs.

  • Double Dees

    It would be very interesting to combine PCS and GAR together as a way to predict the expected future GAR of prospects based on which cohorts they belong to. I expect this would only help PCS fit even more naturally into the kind of analysis you’re doing in this series.

    Are there currently any plans to do this @moneypuck? Or is the data we have on prospects just too limited for there to be any hope of developing a model like this with any real predictive value?

  • Brent

    These have been interesting, although depressing, articles. Thanks for this. Lets hope for some surprising GAR’s coming out of the farm.

    Or maybe Sbisa gets run over by a garbage truck?

  • andyg

    Double Dees does not have to keep thousands of people employed and risk losing his franchise due to incompetence. All he has to do is hide in his Moms basement,troll Canucks fans and keep saying how great his Coilers are.
    Hardly the real world,but then again his Coil have shown him that living off of others is totally acceptable behaviour.

  • Locust

    Like this analysis, proves again that the Sedins are top tier players and deserve the accolades (no matter what the trolls think, imagine how much they hate facts!).

    As for Burrows, it is what it is, he wont be here when we re ready to contend again but what he brings/shows to the up and coming young players is something hard to put a price on. That was never a piece that the Oilers or Flames ever had and the decades of ineptitude showed it.

    Good article.

  • Double Dees

    I’m mcLovin all the positive feedback!

    However not a single Cancuks bandwagon junkie can actually tell me with some sort of intelligence this:

    What exactly are the Canucks doing and what exactly is their direction?

    I know, this way:


    • Mantastic

      Isn’t it obvious? We’re planning on using the Edmonton model.
      Be an absolutely terrible joke of a bottom feeding team for 10 years collecting first overall picks and getting lucky with a generational player. Then after that we’ll head over to oiler nation to troll you guys even though at the end of the day we still haven’t done anything worth mentioning in the last decade.

  • Double Dees

    And just to get the record straight, it was poor management that drove the oilers down to the bottom. I’ll be the first to admit it.

    Well, it’s nice to see the Canucks following the same footsteps with “poor management.” We shall see yall at the bottom!!!

    And by the way a top 5 pick ain’t so bad cuz it’ll be something to cheer about.