Well, here I was just minding my own business watching international shipping traffic for a few weeks when hockey twitter had to go and blow up over the Jeff Skinner trade.
There’s been plenty of hot takes on both sides of this trade, but most are focusing solely on the relative values of the players and picks involved in the deal. But the interesting part to me is how the decision context affected the deal. Because the contextual factors and each team’s respective situations are actually more important than the relative value of the assets when it comes to maximizing value to either team. Understanding the decision-space is critical to understanding not just this deal, but any deal.
So let’s put the superficial assessments aside and look a little deeper at how and why this deal might have made sense.First, full disclosure here: my initial reaction, much like many others, was to fall back on the notion that, according to lore, the team that gets the best player wins the trade. Under this rubric, the Sabres clearly came out ahead. The other side of the deal was Cliff Pu, and some magic beans, so that’s a no-brainer.
Speaking of no-brainers, I see that the Flames finally got out of their brainless 2016 free agent signing:
If only some of the other disastrous free agent signings from that summer could be rid of as easily…but I digress.
As I was saying, Jeff Skinner is clearly the best piece being moved in this deal and will certainly give Buffalo a boost to their forward depth. As a result, there weren’t many criticizing Buffalo for making this deal. Most of the criticism was directed at the Hurricanes for giving up a guy that clearly has a nose for the net: Skinner had put up three 30+ goal seasons over his eight years with the Canes, including 37 just two years ago.
The knock on Skinner, however, is that he is horrible in his own end. And this is where most of the debate has raged: to some, you only give up a player that can score like that if you can get a king’s ransom, and to others, the Canes were lucky to get what they did because his defensive liabilities wipe out his offensive contribution.
In essence, the debate over the utility of this trade for both teams devolved into the value of Jeff Skinner in absolute terms. Within these bounds, the this debate is not only esoteric, but it is devoid of all contextual factors. To paraphrase and old saying, Skinner may or may not be good on paper, but trades aren’t made on paper.
The key to understanding this trade, and whether it made sense from Carolina’s perspective, revolves around two key contextual factors:
- Skinner was headed toward free agency after next season, and
- Carolina maybe be on the verge of making the playoffs, but they are not in a position to make a serious run.
Under these premises, the key question to consider from a decision perspective is, “what’s the marginal value of Jeff Skinner over the next year?” This should be evaluated both in terms of what he can contribute to the team, perhaps giving them a push into the playoffs, as well as the residual value of trading him at next year’s deadline.
It’s that marginal value that needs to be compared to the assets extracted from the Sabres to assess whether the Hurricanes actually came out ahead. And this is the same process that should always be used to evaluate trades independently for each team involved.
So with these contextual factors in mind, the Hurricanes had to choose between three options:
- Move him before the season starts,
- Keep him and move him at the trade deadline, or
- Keep him and try to sign him to an extension anyway.
Let’s start with the last one and work our way back.
It is pretty clear that the Hurricanes had decided that Skinner’s days with the team were numbered. Waddell has mentioned numerous times that he had had no discussions with Skinner this offseason regarding a potential contract extension. And he as much as admitted that the team was not going to be able re-sign him:
“I think it came back to, that as an organization, we felt he was coming into the last year of his contract and probably there was a good chance he would leave as a free agent.”
Waddell doesn’t come right out and say it, but I think the inference is pretty clear that they would not be willing to pay close to what Skinner would command on the open market. It’s difficult to make comparisons, but Mark Stone, who has never hit 30 goals, was just awarded $7.35 million by an arbitrator. It’s fair to assume Skinner would be looking north of $8 million per season on a long-term UFA deal.
Ultimately, the Hurricanes decided the value Skinner brought to the team was not worth the $55-$65 million commitment it would take to keep him. It’s here that the debates over Skinner’s net contribution to a hockey team have some merit, but only if placed in that context. Arguing about Skinner’s absolute value in isolation, or even in relation to the basket of assets Buffalo gave up in return, is purely an academic exercise.
But as a reality check, let’s take a quick, back-of-the-napkin approach to valuing Skinner’s contribution. According to Manny Elk’s calculation of wins-above-replacement, available at corsica.hockey, Skinner was worth 2 WAR last season and has averaged about 1.5 WAR per 82 games over his career to date. So what’s a win worth in today’s NHL? Well, back in 2014, Patrick D. at Fear the Fin calculated that a standings point was worth about $1.24 million over a replacement level team. Given salary escalation since then, let’s assume it is now up to $1.5 million per point, or $3 million for a win. This would value Skinner’s contribution of two wins-above-replacement level last year at about $6 million above a replacement level salary.
But that’s Skinner at his peak. If we assume his aging curve on the way down will be symmetrical to what it was on the way up, his expected value would be about 1.5 WAR per season over an eight year deal. Let’s also account for salary cap inflation of the value of a win and assume it will average $3.5 million over those eight years. That would value Skinner at about $5.25 million per season, which is considerably less than the $7-8 million AAV he would be looking for as an unrestricted free agent.
All this to say that the Hurricanes likely did their own valuation of Jeff Skinner’s future contribution and decided it would not be worth the investment.
This brings us to the second option, which would be to keep Skinner for this season hoping he might give the team a push over the hump and get back into the playoffs. Setting aside the risk of injury, or that he has a disastrous season and tarnishes his trade value, if his contribution was enough to push them into playoff contention, how could Carolina turn around and trade him at the deadline? Sure, there’s going to be some monetary value to the franchise to get back into the playoffs and bring in some playoff revenue, but is Jeff Skinner going to put them in contention for the Stanley Cup next year?
The answer is surely no.
Which means the only value in keeping him is the chance to get the playoff revenue from 2-6 home dates, which is not an insignificant thing, especially to a new owner. But is that worth the risk of injury or poor performance hurting his trade value? Or the fact you would be severely limiting your potential trade partners to teams that are buying at the deadline, think he’s a fit, have assets you’re interested in, and that he’s willing to waive a NMC for.
Once Carolina decided that Option 3 was off the table and that they were going to move on from Skinner, all of these factors together would likely have led them to decide it best to deal him sooner rather than later.
That brings us to Option 1, trade him now when the potential trade partners are as broad as possible and try to maximize the return. According to the local reporters, who presumably have good access to the organization:
The Hurricanes had been trying to trade Skinner since the end of the season without success and, as recently as Wednesday afternoon, had reconciled themselves to opening training camp on Sept. 13 with Skinner in the lineup. But as the field of teams chasing Skinner narrowed, the Hurricanes decided late Wednesday to move ahead with Buffalo’s offer.
This tells us that Waddell had indeed been trying to move Skinner for months, but he clearly was not just jumping at the first offer that came along. He was even ready to hold on to him and consider Option 2, as discussed above, if need be.
But at some point, what the Canes could get for him now would outweigh what they might get for him at the deadline, discounted by the risks in waiting. And it’s this sort of calculus that was clearly going on in Carolina’s front office:
“You go back the last couple of months, this is the longest I’ve worked on a one-player deal, because we just never felt like we were getting value.”
So if you take Waddell at face value, there was clearly a threshold they needed to cross before he would make a deal. Given the amount of time put into trying to cross that threshold, it is very likely they explored every potential trade partner to gauge interest in Skinner. And sure enough, just a month after the season was over, Waddell confirmed that he was doing just that:
“[Skinner and Faulk] are guys certainly that people have called about. I talked to almost every general manager, that we’re looking to make some changes, so certainly when other teams are calling, they usually want to call about your better players.”
Was this the best possible value that the Hurricanes could have gotten for Skinner this summer? There’s really no way to answer that. But it is apparent that they made a concerted effort to maximize the value and after digging into this trade and evaluating it in terms of the context surrounding the decision, I’m convinced this was indeed the best deal on the table.
Whether other teams should have been willing to offer more for a scorer of Skinner’s talent is another question. One that will only be answered by how he performs with Sabres and whether he lives up to the value of his next contract. But if the Canes weren’t offered more, and there’s no reason to believe they were, then this deal was in their best interest and does more to add incremental value to the franchise going forward than if they have kept him.
The onus is now on them to ensure those magic beans grow into beanstalks.