In defense of David Desharnais and his contract

Jean-Yves Ahern-US PRESSWIRE

The Canadiens' French Canadian icon has been a punching bag for criticism this season after he couldn't match his sophomore output. But is it entirely warranted, and does the undersized centre have a future with the club?

In my time following the Montreal Canadiens, I don't think I've ever encountered a player that has gone from hero to scapegoat as quickly as diminutive centreman David Desharnais. The success that the 27-year-old has had, even to reach the NHL, is a testament to his hard work and perseverance; refusing to give up after going undrafted following terrific seasons with Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, and then being forced to ply his trade in the ECHL and the AHL, before finally sticking with the big club in the spring of 2011.

That year, Desharnais posted 22 points in 43 games as a 25-year-old rookie, but was largely ineffective - suffering through an injury - in a seven-game playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins. Nobody expected what would come next, either on a team or individual level. With the team in shambles last year, the Quebec native posted 60 points in 81 games, playing on a dominant line with towering wingers Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole. French Canadians loved him, and many dubbed him the first-line centre the team had long awaited.

I'll stop storytime there because chances are if you're reading this you know all that. You likely also know that the lockout-shortened 2013 season was a rude awakening for Desharnais fans, as only 28 points in 48 games, and a less forgivable playoff no-show, marked a disappointing campaign.

To those that understand fancystats, context, and player usage, it wasn't surprising to see him come back to earth this past year, but what shocked me is the mass of hate that has been spewed in his direction. Suddenly, in the tornado of public perception, Desharnais has gone from being a first-line centre to a piece of garbage that not even the worst team in the league would take on. Part of that has to do with his contract, a 4-year, $14 million deal that kicks in this October, averaging out to $3.5 million per season. I will address the contract and its worth coming up, but first it's important to understand who Desharnais is as a player. Let's start with a concept that is critical in understanding the way the National Hockey League works.

Sheltering a Player

Not all minutes are equal. It is something that most hockey fans would probably agree with without really understanding why. One of the reasons why the famous +/- stat is so deceiving is the lack of context, and context is key to the use of "advanced statistics" in hockey. A player can be sheltered in a number of ways, but the three most obvious are as follows:

1. High offensive zone starts

2. Low quality of competition

3. High quality of teammates

Last year, Desharnais started a higher percentage of his post-whistle non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone than everybody on the team except for Scott Gomez. This year, it was all but linemates Brendan Gallagher and Max Pacioretty. He has consistently played with high quality teammates, and he generally faces lower quality opposition, as Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller, and even the fourth line are used to combat the Crosbys, Ovechkins, and Bergerons of the world. By any conceivable measure, David Desharnais is a sheltered player. That's who he is, and considering that he is unlikely to develop much further at 27 years of age, that is likely who he always will be. Let's start with that.

The Production

Once you understand the way in which a player is used, one can apply that context to his production. In the last two seasons, Desharnais is 85th in the league in even-strength points / 60 minutes of ice time - which is a useful measure because it isn't ice-time dependent. At 1.88 points/60, the frenchman doesn't find himself in bad company at all. Just ahead of him at 83rd? Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin. Behind him? Bryan Bickell, whom Canadiens fans were clamoring over prior to free agency, Zach Parise, another beneficiary of high offensive zone starts, and stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Jeff Carter. Now, as I mentioned above, context is important, but when you have a guy who is highly sheltered, you want him to put up points, and while he's no Henrik Sedin (2.39 pts/60) in that department, he's no slouch either. Oh, and unlike Henrik, he's not expected to be a first-line centre, and isn't making $6.1 million per year. Which of course brings us to the contract.

Note: You can find Desharnais' 2011-12 in-depth season review here, and his 2013 half-season review here.

The Contract

Marc Bergevin has been a breath of fresh air for this organization in a lot of ways. While his on-ice impact has definitely been overstated, it's undeniable that he's a better communicator than his predecessors, and amongst some pretty pathetic peers, he stands out as a calm and patient individual, who knows how to build a winning team.

That said, one of his major flaws thus far in his tenure has been his over-eagerness to re-sign impending RFAs and UFAs during the season. The team would likely have been better served waiting on extensions for Peter Budaj and Francis Bouillon, as both are replaceable and not highly-sought-after commodities. While you can't look at Desharnais' extension, also signed during this past season, in quite the same light, it's not unreasonable to group it into that same category of "you probably should have waited". Let's face it, Davey finished the season poorly, and it's not a stretch to say that he could have been had a little cheaper come the offseason - for argument's sake, let's guess a two-year deal at $3 million per. But in the long run, that amount doesn't make a whole lot of difference, and at ages 30 and 31, he's unlikely to have deteriorated all that much from his current playmaking self. CapGeek has a list of comparable contracts to the one Desharnais signed, which you can see here. I only included those signed in 2013.

Screen_shot_2013-07-23_at_11

I will first point out that Desharnais has put up points at a higher rate than anybody on this list except for Matt Cullen - boy is that guy still performing at 36 - but since many of these guys play different roles, I thought I'd come up with a few of my own comparables. In this case, comparables are forwards who last year started at least 60% of their post-whistle non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, played at least 30 games, and scored at least 2 pts/60 mins of ice time.

OZS% = Offensive zone start percentage

Corsi Rel QoC = Average Corsi of on-ice opponents of the player, weighted against their team

PDO = on-ice save percentage + on-ice shooting percentage

Team Player GP OZS% Corsi Rel QoC Corsi Relative PDO PTS/60 Cap Hit (PTS/60)/Cap Hit
Montreal B. Gallagher 44 66 -0.103 16.1 985 2.86 0.900 3.18
Ottawa M. Zibanejad 42 66.1 0.218 1.6 1025 2.04 1.755 1.15
NYI M. Moulson 47 60.9 -0.215 7.4 976 2.37 3.133 0.76
Chicago V. Stalberg 47 63.9 -0.961 3.2 1053 2.10 3.000 0.70
Montreal M. Pacioretty 44 63.6 -0.260 26.7 986 2.86 4.500 0.64
Montreal D. Desharnais 48 61.1 -0.246 16.1 965 2.04 3.500 0.58
NYI J. Tavares 48 61.2 -0.044 10.8 974 2.27 5.000 0.45
Vancouver H. Sedin 48 63.7 1.077 28.7 1035 2.34 6.100 0.38
Vancouver D. Sedin 47 66 0.993 30.7 1022 2.27 6.100 0.37
NYR R. Nash 44 60.1 0.044 13.2 1029 2.77 7.800 0.36
NYR B. Richards 46 63.4 0.116 9.6 1011 2.18 6.667 0.33

A few notes:

  1. Gallagher and Zibanejad are still on their entry-level contracts, so their cap hits are lower.
  2. As you can see, the quality of competition these players face does vary. The Sedins, as a result of being Vancouver's top line, (despite attempts to shelter them) will face tough opponents. As a result, the number at the right is not a be-all, end-all in terms of value, but more just an indication of production in a sheltered role.
  3. Quality of teammates isn't taken into account here, but there are stats that show that Desharnais struggles more when away from Pacioretty, who is a better driver of possession. That said, the two often work well together because Patches will draw attention away from DD who can rip his impressive shot top corner or sneak in for a rebound.
  4. It's interesting to note Desharnais' PDO of 965. In 2011-12, that number was 1,023. The biggest difference? An on-ice save percentage of .919 last year, which fell to .875 in 2013. Nobody is claiming that DD is a great defender, as he's often caught up ice, but this year his goalies also didn't do him or his linemates any favors.
  5. No matter how you frame it, it's clear that Desharnais has produced enough to be worthy of this salary.

Regression

Another concept that is important to grasp in understanding hockey (or any sport) is regression. Yasiel Puig wasn't going to hit .400 forever. Matt Frattin was never going to continue shooting at 40%, and Craig Anderson would not have held a .951 over an entire season. Every player goes on hot and cold streaks; it's the nature of the game. These can result from a boost or loss of confidence, from off-ice issues, or from a variety of other causes. No matter the cause, they happen. I don't like to call them "luck"; they're more "variation". Either way, one of the important uses of regression is in analyzing shooting percentage. The average shooting percentage for an NHL player is approximately 8%. That, however, can range from Sidney Crosby's career 14.9%, all the way down to a guy like John Scott's 1.5% (Note: Jeez is that guy ever bad. Not even sure if I should use that data point since it's such an outlier). Generally even bad NHL players shoot at least 5%, but that's beside the point.

David Desharnais is a career 15.4% shooter. In the last two years, that ranks 11th in the league. Most experts would agree that he won't shoot that well for his career, but it's important to note that DD is both a great shooter...


and a guy that, through solid hockey sense, is able to find himself at the right place at the right time....


and a guy who has pretty good control along the boards, especially for a small player...


That last one isn't as relevant to his shooter percentage, but is more a reminder of the skill that he does have.

Note: Andrew Berkshire has broken down Desharnais' goal-scoring in depth here and here. Take a look.

The Blueprint

One of the reasons I feel that Desharnais takes so much smack is that people have an idea of what a Stanley Cup team should look like, and in their minds that doesn't involve a 5'7" third-line centre. The issue is that people don't realize that talent and the ability to score more goals than you allow is the most important factor in winning a title, not the dimensions or character of each individual player. Intangibles matter, but they are largely overstated by the hockey community. For example, one will often hear absurd statements like "you can't win with a group of 12 Gretzkys". I don't know where this logic comes from - it's likely ingrained in us as North Americans from as far back as World War II, when the dump-and-chase tactic was first employed since many of the most skilled players went oversees, and size and toughness became the best medium for victory, in the absence of anything else.

The fact is, a forward group with 12 players of the talent level of a Gretzky, or a Crosby, or a Giroux, would be the best team in the NHL by far. Traps and shutdown pairings can only take you so far. In the end, talent is the most important thing. GMs don't employ role players - or at least shouldn't - because they're imperative to winning. It's because there isn't enough top-level talent to go around, and in a salary-cap world one team can't afford all the talent there is. All one has to do is look at the 2010 Team Canada Olympic roster to see how that's the case.

There is no blueprint. There is no set number of small players that is too many. You need a balance, but ditching talent for size is always the wrong answer. And Marc Bergevin knows that. It's why he didn't shell out the money for a David Clarkson, or worse, a Douglas Murray. He hasn't traded David Desharnais, not because he's untradeable - he really shouldn't be - but because it would be tough to find a guy who, even in sheltered minutes, could replace his scoring.

David Desharnais is what he is. He is an undersized second or third line forward who, in sheltered and limited minutes, can put up points at a high rate. That's what the team is paying $3.5 million for - or around 5% of the cap - for the next four years. It's a worthwhile investment.


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