No, not the wrinkles of Shea Weber’s face. He’s only 32, give the guy a break.
Lately, there have been some rumblings about the possibility of the Maple Leafs acquiring Shea Weber from the Montreal Canadiens. The reality of it is pretty complicated and unlikely to happen (the Leafs don’t have a P.K. Subban to offer up, or a GM dumb enough to do so), so let’s temper expectations with that to start.
It’s a very intriguing concept, because the Leafs desperately need an upgrade in the right side of the top 4 from Hainsey and Zaitsev. Neither are having the impact that Shea Weber is having for the Canadians. But at the same time, neither carry the contract that a Shea Weber does. How does a team manage to balance the value of the upgrade versus the cost of the cap hit?
A suggestion: make it a direct upgrade.
Nikita Zaitsev vs. Shea Weber
Weber is very interesting as a player, because at the same time that Corsi-type statistics were becoming popular, Weber was showing a serious decline in those stats, while the popular opinion remained that he was an elite defenseman. Since that time, in the last 3 or 4 years, Weber has been on the uptick in those stats, and has re-established himself as a true #1 defenseman in the mind of most analysts.
Regarding Zaitsev, in his short NHL career, he has been straggling the edge of being a top 4 defenseman. In these one and a half seasons, Weber has been unquestionably better. Here’s a summary of the numbers to look over:
|Player||TOI||P1/60||GS/60||CF%||Rel CF%||xGF%||Rel xGF%||iP+/-||PDO||ZSR||CF% QoT||TOI% QoC|
Some items here are actually very similar. The zone starts and quality of competition faced, the PDO, the time on ice; it’s apparent Zaitsev has played a very similar role for the Leafs as Weber has for the Canadians. However, in that role, the results have been different, as one would expect. Their primary point production has been similar, but otherwise it’s clear Weber is outperforming Zaitsev in Corsi, Expected Goals, Game Score, and penalty differential. It’s interesting that both are having a relatively negative impact in CF%, but that’s to be somewhat expected with the context stats shown at the end of the table. The two items that are worth circling in that table are Game Score/60, where Weber is nearly double that of Zaitsev, and penalty differential, where Weber is also a negative impact, but less than half as bad as Zaitsev is. If you’ve never encountered Game Score — the NHL version invented by Dom Luszczyszyn — before, take some time to read about it here.
Anyway, Weber is better than Zaistev right now. That should surprise no one. How long will that last, though?
Weber’s Age + Contract Term
As mentioned above, Weber is 32. Here’s a look at EvolvingWild’s study on Aging Curves using DTMAboutHeart’s Wins Above Replacement model. This model is not shown here, because the data is no longer publicly available, but from when it was available, it showed solid potential as a WAR metric for hockey.
We can see that it is much harder to predict an aging curve for defensemen, but we can see a shaky-but-generally-linear decline from age 25 to age 40. In an attempt to avoid just shrugging at this, here’s Shea Weber’s Game Score/60 over the years:
What is aging even? This season, Weber is actually outperforming his 2008-2011 seasons where he was widely regarded as one of the top defensemen in the league.
If Weber were to see a steady 0.25 GS/60 decline over the next 4 years, he’d still be better than he was through his rough stretch in 2012-14, which is pretty encouraging. Unfortunately, at that point, he’d still have another 4 years on his deal. Assuming at some point in the deal he goes the way of Stephane Robidas/Chris Pronger, the question is how much of that 8 year term will stay on the salary cap. Maybe they can get away with 5 or 6 playing years before shutting him down, maybe the league cracks down and they are forced to pay and play him the full 8 remaining years. Either way, the last year Weber plays will be a shell of who Weber is now, and that’s something to be concerned about.
Weber’s contract carries a $7.857143M cap hit, because the contract term being super long wasn’t enough, the cap hit number had to be super long as well.
There’s no question Montreal would have to retain some money to make this work. If the Leafs send Zaitsev, they’d be taking on an extra ~$3.3M on the cap for 6 years, after which point Weber probably quietly disappears to a farm somewhere. The maximum Montreal can retain right now is 50% of Weber’s cap hit, which would be ~$3.9M. Starting the next year of Weber’s deal, though, the actual salary drops to just $6M, meaning at that point Montreal could only retain a maximum of $3M. So to save yourself some cap hit, if you’re going to do this, make sure you do this within this contract year, and maybe you can get them to take on the extra $3.3M instead.
To get Montreal to retain half would add a significant amount of asset cost for the Leafs to send the Habs, and it’s hard to say if that’s worth it.
We already mentioned sending Zaitsev in exchange for Weber, because surely Bergevin is dumb enough to be convinced that Zaitsev is a sprite young defenseman still getting his feet wet in the NHL, which is exactly what Montreal thinks they need. However, even with that contract, for retaining about $3.3M on what is right now #1 defenseman for them, you’ll have to give up some future value.
I wonder if something as simple as packaging Zaitsev with a combo of one of Toronto’s young, fringe RWs (least to most trade-valuable that I’d be willing to send would be Soshnikov/Leivo/Brown) and one B+ prospect like Dmytro Timashov, Andrew Nielsen, or Yegor Korshkov could be enough for Montreal. Normally, these kinds of “take all this stuff for your one good thing”, EASPORTS-type trades wouldn’t work in reality, but perhaps in the case of Montreal likely trying to stock assets, and probably overvaluing Zaitsev, this would be possible. Personally, this would be the extent of what I’d send to Montreal in exchange for a ~$4.5M Shea Weber. So, in the end, we could see something like:
|To TOR||To MTL|
(40% retained by MTL)
Remember when judging this attempt at crafting a trade proposal that it hinges on Montreal overvaluing Zaitsev. I am well aware the Leafs are probably (unless Weber were to fall of a cliff in the next year or two) coming away with a win on this proposed trade, especially with the large amount of retained salary.
With exchanging Zaitsev for a 40%-off Shea Weber, the Leafs aren’t sacrificing their financial future all that much. What they’re giving up is ability a few years down the road, when Zaitsev will still be about at the level he is now and Weber has significantly declined, in exchange for ability right now where Weber is a significant upgrade on Zaitsev. Given what the Leafs are expecting in terms of ability to compete, upgrading right now is a good route to go, though maybe with how much a Weber acquisition affects the future, perhaps he’s the wrong upgrade to get.
At the end of the day, the Leafs likely will not be able to find a version of this deal that makes sense for both sides. If the Leafs did make the exchange, it would shock me nearly to the extent that the original Subban-Weber swap did. But, it’s fun to dream and explore these things anyway.