The Jason Arnott Trade Wasn't for Nostalgia, but for Offense

Thanks to Kevin and Matt, as well as user Marty's Better #30, for jumping on the big news today.  So much for Saturday being a day off.  I suppose there are no "days off" for a NHL general manager.  The New Jersey Devils traded Matt Halischuk and a second round draft pick in 2011 to the Nashville Predators for Jason Arnott.  The first thought, to me, was that this is the return of Arnott.  Not unlike previous signings in recent years that had the narrative of Bobby Holik, Brian Rolston, and head coach Jacques Lemaire return to New Jersey among others.   Even the headline at the official Devils site exclaims, "Arnott is Back!"  It was the first point and constant theme in Greg Wyshynski's post about the deal at Puck Daddy.  It's all true, but let me provide Lou's quote to Tom Gulitti about the nostalgia factor to point this out:

"That’s in the past," Lamoriello said. "We’re not living in the past. We needed a center and we needed to get bigger and Jason Arnott is still one of the premier power centers in the league."

...

"It gives them tutelage and support. This does a lot for the youth and takes some of the pressure off Travis Zajac. He has a good shot and help us on the power play. It also gives us experience and a player who served as the captain in Nashville."

He's absolutely right. This was not a deal made to "bring the gang back together" or anything like that.   Let me take a step back for a moment.  Gabe Desjardens at the Behind the Net blog commented that this deal could turn out well for New Jersey.  Well, I've looked at Arnott's numbers and compare them to UFA centers who have had a similar amount of ice time.  My results will come after the jump, but let me say this first:

Zach Parise openly wondered whether the Devils will be more offensive back when John MacLean was hired, per Gulitti.  If Arnott can perform like he did in Nashville, then Parise could have some of his hopes come true. (Note: Please set your viewing to "Wide" to see the entire charts.)

 

First, A Few Thoughts About the Deal Itself

While reading through the commentary and comments of Kevin's post, I can certainly understand and agree with some of the concerns about the move. Yes, Arnott fills a glaring need at center.  However, he'll be 36 in October, he's now taking up $4.5 million of the Devils' cap for 2010, and durability has been a big issue with him recent seasons.   How can he possibly justify that contract if it's not unlikely he doesn't even play 70 games? How much more does he have left in the tank?

Both are valid questions. I don't have the answer to the second one, but the first one is simple - he really can't. Truth be told, I don't think a comparison to Rolston is fair because a huge factor - if not the main factor - in the frustration over Rolston is that he's a $5 million/season cap hit for multiple years. If Arnott doesn't work out, we will not be happy, but the damage would only be limited to this season.  

As far as the cost of obtaining Arnott is concened: Matt Halischuk is close to breaking into the NHL, based on his 20 games last season in NJ.  But unless he blossoms drastically, he's likely going to be a checking line winger.  The Devils have checking line wingers in the system; and those kinds of players aren't uncommon within the league or in other drafts.  He's not a bad prospect, but he's not invaluable either. If anything, the 2011 second round pick may come back to haunt NJ; but given the Devils' past drafts in the second round plus where they usually have their picks (end of rounds), I'm not terribly worried about it.  

This is a short term deal that could benefit the Devils in a big way at best or hurt them for only one season at worst. And by then, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique, or someone entirely different could be ready to step in regardless.  Based on the advanced statistics on Arnott last season alone, I'm leaning towards this deal benefiting New Jersey.

Comparing Jason Arnott to UFA Centers with Similar Ice Time

Back in the end of May, I've had a series of posts about the unrestricted free agent centers available. I categorized them by their time on ice per 60 from last season and looked at their faceoff percentage, goals versus threshold value, and even strength on-ice/off-ice statistics and on-ice impact from Behind the Net.  Given that Arnott is a center, let's see whether he was worth getting instead of a different UFA center.

Jason Arnott had a TOI/60 of 14.67. This would put him in the same group of UFA centers as Patrick Marleau, Tomas Plekanec, and Matt Lombardi.  Centers who have had a TOI/60 of 13 or better; centers who get significant ice time. 7 centers fit into this category, the following charts have been updated to include Arnott's numbers in comparison with the UFAs.  Hence, the titles have not been changed.

Arnott vs. UFAs - Faceoffs

Arnott_vs_ufas_faceoffs_09-10_medium

In terms of faceoffs (original numbers from NHL.com), Arnott did not do well last season compared to the other UFA centers.  All 7 did better than Arnott and this is a bit of a concern. Going back the last four seasons, Arnott's faceoff percentage went from 50.6 to 48.7 to 50.6 to 48.8 in this past season.  Maybe he'll go up this season?

My main takeaway here is that if Arnott puts up a winning percentage of 50% on draws, then we should be pleased because he's not all that successful on taking faceoffs.

Arnott vs. UFAs - 2009-10 Goals Versus Threshold

Looking at 2009-10 GVT of the UFA centers, Arnott's injury-shortened season actually had him finish in the top 10 among all UFA centers regardless of TOI/60 designations.  I will say that Rob Niedermayer isn't on this chart because his GVT (2.9) was too low to be considered for comparison. 

Arnott_vs_ufas_gvt_09-10

Given that Arnott's Total GVT/game was approximately 0.11, missing 19 regular season games undercut his GVT.  If he maintained that same rate and played 82 games, he'd finish with approximately 9.37 GVT, right below the top significant UFA centers of Prospal, Koivu, Plekanec, and Marleau.  That's not a bad contribution at all.  Nothing that separates him from the very best, but does indicate that he'd contribute more than Eric Belanger, Matthew Lombardi, and Olli Jokinen.

Arnott vs. UFAs - 5-on-5 On-Ice/Off-Ice Stats & Impact

The on-ice/off-ice stats at even strength from Behind the Net is where Arnott's value really shines.  On the numbers alone, you can see plenty to like about Arnott.

Arnott_vs_ufas_on-ice_5-on-5_stats

From this chart, I reached my main conclusion - Arnott's major impact for Nashville last season was offense. The on-ice GF/60 and SF/60 were great; when he stepped on the ice both stats improved greatly; and his on-ice Corsi is great. Only Lombardi and Marleau did better than Arnott in terms of GF/60; but Arnott was better than all 7 UFA centers (and all 23 that I looked at overall) in terms of SF/60.   Getting more shots on net is definitely important to get a more potent offense, and in spite of a shortened season, Arnott surely played some large role in that.

Where Arnott does not look good is on the GA/60 and SA/60 stats.  When he came onto the ice, Nashville yielded more goals and more shots against.  Not exactly a desirable trait, but at least the offense improved as dramatically.

Amazingly, despite not having positive impact on defense, Barry Trotz still put him out for as many defensive zone faceoffs as offensive ones.  Ergo, his on-ice Corsi wasn't adjusted at all and that compares extremely well to the others.  It's why I'm not terribly concerned about his poor on-ice impact on defense.  Generally, when he's out there, his team has possession of the puck and is taking shooting attempts well more often than attempts going the other way.

Just to hammer home the point, here's how Arnott's numbers ranked among all 136 centers at Behind the Net.

Arnott_vs_ufas_on-ice_5-on-5_ranks

This is a huge reason why the deal was done and why I think Devils fans should be pleased.  Not that he's a former Devil.  Not that he scored one of the most important goals in franchise history.  Not that he's big, though it certainly is nice that the Devils have a 6'5", 219 lbs. center.   Arnott boosted the offense in Nashville in a big way, comparable to some of the top centers in the NHL, last season.  If he can do that here, even at a little less magnitude, this trade would be well worth it.

Jason Arnott Can Take the Weaker Minutes

One more thing I noticed from Behind the Net further justifies Lou's quote that Arnott will take off some of the pressure off of Travis Zajac.  Remember that Derek Zona found Zajac to have played high quality of competition for the last two years and outscoring them by a wide margin.   As great as that is, this means the second line center would be facing weaker minutes. Ideally, you'd want this player to be doing well against said weaker competition. 

According to Behind the Net, only two centers had a TOI/60 higher than 14 last season: Arnott and David Legwand. Here are their scoring numbers and you can see that Arnott faced far weaker competition than Legwand, but managed to get outscored less.  In fact, Arnott only suffered one more goal against than goals scored by his own team, whilst providing such a positive impact to his team's GF/60 and SF/60.   Not perfect, but certainly indicative that he's a second line center.  That he had so much ice time tells me that Trotz certainly felt he could play that much.

Should he play on the second line in New Jersey, he'll likely have the defensively responsible Patrik Elias on his left and a right winger - be it Jamie Langenbrunner, Dainius Zubrus, or David Clarkson - who knows all too well that all Devils backcheck well.   My point is that expect that total number of on-ice goals against to drop for Arnott.  If he does impact the offense in a positive fashion as a Devil, then I don't see how he wouldn't be outscoring the weaker minutes.  This would, in due time, force opposing defenses to key on the second line more; reducing some of the pressure on Parise and Zajac - proving a part of Lou's logic in making the trade.

Conclusions

Ultimately, not everything is great about Arnott.   He's not a lock to play most of the season based on his recent injury history.  He's not so great at faceoffs.  It seems he doesn't help the defense too much, based on his poor on-ice defensive impact.  And for all we know, Arnott could be declining right this very season.  Is he far and away better than all of the UFA centers? No.

Yet, just in this past season, Arnott contributed quite a bit to Nashville; and the team was far more prolific in possessing the puck, taking shots, and scoring goals when he was on the ice.  Moreso than most, if not all, of the UFA centers available this summer.  All against weaker minutes than Legwand, further backing up assertions that he'd be the second line center.  No wonder reaction on the Nashville side is mixed: Arnott was/is a useful player.

Not to mention this makes the summer a little clearer for New Jersey.  I highly doubt Ilya Kovalchuk will be signed here now that the Devils have even less cap space available. But that's OK.  Lou can simply re-sign Paul Martin, get a replacement for Mike Mottau, get a checking line center of sorts (Josefson/Henrique can always be used on the bottom six, the FA would be on the other line) and a back-up goaltender all for less than the $11.44 available.  That's the summer and I'd feel good about that.

Still, based on the underlying numbers, I can see why Lou pulled the trigger to add $4.5 million to his cap. It wasn't because Arnott was a Devil; it's because he boosted Nashville's offense and fit the need for a second line center than most of the pending unrestricted free agents available.  That should excite Devils fans, if only for a little bit.

Your Turn

Time to let me know what you think.   Do you agree with the analysis? Was something unclear? Are you still not convinced that this was a good deal, and if not, why?  If you have been convinced that this was a good deal, what really changed your mind?   Or perhaps this reinforces your opinion that this was a good deal? Whatever it is, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

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