Note: The statisitcs cited in this article are all taken prior to the Devils game versus the Ottawa Senators on 12th April, but after the Devils game versus the Boston Bruins on 10th April. All common statistics, unless otherwise cited, come from NHL.com. All advanced statistics, unless otherwise cited, come from Behind The Net. All salary numbers come from Capgeek.
As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the Devils will have the option to buy out a single player this off-season (and another player next off-season) without the buyout counting against the team's cap space. This special buyout is intended to help teams manage to get under next season's lowered salary cap which has been set at $64.3M.
The Devils cap situation for next season is actually pretty good. The team has 14 players committed to the NHL roster with $26.1M in cap space to spend on several key players. The Devils could, however, buy out one of those 14 players in order to free up even more cap space to address the issues that face the team this offseason.
Taking a look at the 14 players signed for the 2013-14 season, we can split them into a few different groups and isolate the ones who are candidates to be bought out. The first group includes only two players, Stephen Gionta and Adam Larsson. These are players on two-way contracts for next season. Since they can be sent to Albany there's no reason to buy them out. The next group consists of Johan Hedberg, Mark Fayne, Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier and Krys Barch. These guys all make less than $2M. While I'm not going to rule out a buyout completely, since Eric Boulton was in the same category, I will say confidently that there's no reason to use a compliance buyout on them. Removing $500k from our cap hit is a negligible benefit.
We're left then with seven players to look at for potential buyouts. Right off the bat I will eliminate three players for what I hope are obvious reasons. Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk are the current and future face of this franchise and a buyout would be extremely unlikely. Additionally, Travis Zajac is signed through 2021, and a buyout would be a very expensive and lengthy ordeal. For performance reasons I'm also going to rule out Andy Greene. While the buyout would be economical, losing our best defenseman seems like a bad idea.
This leaves us with three defensemen to discuss a buyout for. The first is Bryce Salvador, the current captain, who is signed for two more seasons and is due $6.5M. The second is the injury prone Henrik Tallinder who has one year left at $3.375M. Either buyout would be understandable, but there is a bigger fish to fry. Last, and possibly least, is Anton Volchenkov, the A-Train, who has three more seasons on his contract and is still owed $12.75M by the organization over that time period.
Why did we sign Anton Volchenkov to a 6-Year contract worth $25.5M anyways? Well at the time it seemed like a really good idea. In the summer of 2010 the Devils tried to resign a very talented 29 year old defenseman named Paul Martin. Martin was a consistently good puck-moving defenseman who suffered an unfortunate injury in the 2009-10 season which ended up causing him to miss the Olympics in Vancouver. That offseason he decided to leave for Pittsburgh.
This left a big hole on the blue-line for the Devils. Andy Greene had a break-out year with 37 points that season, but the supporting cast of Mike Mottau, Bryce Salvador and Colin White left much to be desired. Paul Martin and Mike Mottau both departed that summer (Mottau was not re-signed by the Devils and eventually landed in Long Island) and took their 22 minutes of TOI/G with them. The Devils were left with Greene, Salvador and White.
Lou needed to make a move to replace those lost minutes and did so by signing two big-minute defenders. The first was Henrik Tallinder who departed Buffalo where he averaged 20:36 a night while mentoring the promising Tyler Myers. The second was Anton Volchenkov who departed Ottawa where he averaged 20:41 a night on the league's 8th best penalty killing unit.
Tallinder and Volchenkov had an immediate impact under John MacLean and Jacques Lemaire in 2010-11. With Colin White's game declining and Bryce Salvador out for the year with a concussion, it fell to Tallinder and Volchenkov to pick up the slack. Although Volchenkov only played in 57 games due to injury, he still averaged 18:06 TOI including 2:08 on the PK. Both numbers were good for fourth on the team among defensemen.
Last season, under Pete DeBoer, things changed a bit. Colin White was bought out and Mark Fayne was promoted to full-time NHL duty alongside recently drafted rookie Adam Larsson. Volchenkov became the go-to guy for killing penalties alongside Bryce Salvador but his role at even strength diminished. Despite playing 72 games he saw his time given to youngsters Fayne, Larsson and Taormina. Volchenkov finished 8th on the team in ES TOI/G with 14:50. This was a massive drop-off from the 17:03 he averaged with Ottawa in 2009-10.
This season the trend has continued. While DeBoer continues to give Volchenkov a significant amount of time on the PK (2:50/G), he is also giving that time to Mark Fayne (2:31) and Andy Greene (2:21) and even Adam Larsson (1:07). Where A-Train was once relied on for killing penalties, he is now part of a defensive committee. His even strength TOI has fallen even further down to 13:02, over two minutes less than Henrik Tallinder and Peter Harrold. It is clear that Volchenkov has lost the confidence of the coaching staff as his shifts per game and ES TOI/G are both last on the team among defenders.
The Ugly - Shot Blocking
I don't want to rely solely on TOI as a metric for grading Volchenkov, however useful it may be. Though TOI is often regarded as a universal way to judge a player I don't want to short-change other measures by which we can grade Volchenkov's usefulness to the Devils.
For example, one category in which Volchenkov has excelled in the past is shot blocking. This is often attributed as one of the reasons the Devils keep opponent's shot totals lower while Volchenkov is on the ice. In his first season as a Devil, Volchenkov was second on the team with 106 blocked shots but only played in 57 games! Given a full season he would surely blow away Andy Greene's 157. Last season A-Train put up 125 blocks in 72 games. A slight decline, but still good enough for best on the team (though Greene was limited to only 56 games).
This season tells a different story as Volchenkov only has 42 blocked shots through 33 games played. Adam Larsson has 43 with four less games played and Salvador and Greene lead the team with 79 and 59 respectively. Where Volchenkov was once a leader for the Devils he is now only average. Even Marek Zidlicky had 35 blocked shots in 40 games, close to the same pace as Volchenkov.
The Uglier - Corsi On (4v5 Situations)
Let's take a look at an advanced stat that highlights Volchenkov's PK abilities. Specifically his On-Ice Corsi in 4-on-5 situations. This is the total differential of Corsi Events per 60 minutes while A-Train is killing penalties. To give you a baseline, a value of -60 would mean that if Volchenkov is on the ice for 60 seconds of a penalty kill, the opposing power play should be held to only one attempted shot (including goals, saves, missed shots and blocked shots). That would be quite good. In 2010-11 Volchenkov had a -59.7, second on the team behind Andy Greene's -57.86. Among all NHL defenders with at least 40 GP that season Volchenkov had the 22nd best 4v5 On-Ice Corsi. He was a penalty killing machine.
Last season this number began to slip a little and dropped to -67.22. This means a little over one Corsi event per minute while Volchenkov is killing penalties. What's a bit more interesting is that this was only good enough for fourth on the team, behind Larsson, Greeene and Salvador. Also, he was only marginally better than Mark Fayne's -68.45. Volchenkov dropped to 50th in the NHL. Still respectable, but no longer top dog for killing penalties.
This season's numbers are no better and are comparably worse than the rest of the team. Volchenkov has a -66.25 On-Ice Corsi while killing penalties this season, but that's only good enough for 4th on the team again (not counting Zidlicky) among players with at least 20 games played. Greene has an outstanding -48.28 and Larsson and Fayne are both in the -50 range. Across the NHL Greene is 19th overall, Larsson is 22nd, Fayne is 24th and Volchenkov is way down at 55th. Salvador is even worse at 75th overall with a -71.76, but we're not talking about the captain.
The Ugliest - Relative Corsi (4v5 Situations)
Corsi Relative is an evaluation of of a player's On-Ice Corsi less a player's Off-Ice Corsi. Looking at the Penalty Kill situations again, a positive number means that the team is giving up less Corsi events when a player is on the ice vs off the ice. A negative number means the team is giving up more Corsi events than when a player is off the ice. If this number is negative for a player, they likely shouldn't be killing as many penalties.
In 2010-11 Volchenkov had a -0.9 value. This was less an evaluation of Volchenkov and more a result of how strong Andy Greene was at killing penalties that season (12.5 Relative Corsi). Volchenkov was still one of the most valuable penalty killers on the team. Among defenders with at least 40 games played and averaging at least 2 minutes per 60 in 4v5 situations, Volchenkov was 38th in the league. Definitely a top penalty killer.
In case you haven't noticed the trend yet, this number dropped for Volchenkov in 2011-12, all the way down to -16.6. Not only was Volchenkov less effective on the PK (as evidenced by his drop in Corsi on, shown above) but he was less effective relative to his teammates as well. He dropped to 75th overall in the NHL for the same scenario he was 38th in the prior season.
This season Volchenkov has improved to a -8.1 but he's still third on the team behind Andy Greene and Mark Fayne. He's 50th overall in the NHL (20+ GP, 2:00+ TOI/60) but that's only average when it comes to killing penalties. He is no longer the dominant force he was when the Devils signed him to a six-year deal.
It's time to wrap this up. Before I do I want to address an obvious question some of you will have, which is that Volchenkov faces tougher competition as an elite penalty killer and therfore his numbers will suffer. This logic makes sense but unfortunately the evidence does not support it. Using Corsi QoC and Corsi Rel QoC as a metric, we can see that in 2010-11 Volchenkov faced the second toughest competition while killing penalties (behind Colin White). Last season Volchenkov hands down faced the toughest competition on the PK and his numbers definitely dropped.
This season however, Volchenkov's penalty killing prowess has not recovered but he faces the same level of competition as everyone else on the team. Let's comapre Volchenkov to Andy Greene. Volchenkov's Corsi QoC is 76.845 and Greene's is 79.746, so they face relatively the same level of competition. Their Corsi Rel QoC is also similar with a -2.088 for Volchenkov and a -2.813 for Greene. However, Volchenkov's On-Ice Corsi is a -66.25 while Greene's is a -48.28 and their Corsi Relative are even farther apart with a -8.1 for Volchenkov and an impressive 18.7 for Greene.
What I've gleaned from the stats is the following: Volchenkov was brought to New Jersey in the wake of a blue-line shake-up to be an elite shut-down defenseman. He was given a long-term contract worth a significant amount of money to do so. He was at the time, and today remains, the highest paid defenseman on the team. When he was brought in his numbers lived up to the expectations, but over time they have dwindled. He is no longer the premiere shut-down defender in the NHL that he once was and is not even the best shut-down defender on the Devils despite having the highest salary.
What to Do?
Volchenkov is simply failing to live up to his expectations which are quite lofty. In order to give A-Train the time on ice he spends killing penalties every night, Coach DeBoer limits his minutes at even strength. The result is an overpaid defenseman who the coaches are not able to rely on consistently. His minutes could easily be given to Mark Fayne or Adam Larsson who have proven they can handle the same competition and produce better results.
I suspect that over the next four games, given Volchenkov's suspension, we'll get to see exactly how much the team will miss A-Train from the lineup. I suspect it won't be very much.
The contract remains a burden for both Volchenkov and the Devils and both parties would be better off if it was bought out. Volchenkov is a perfectly serviceable bottom pairing defenseman and can handle killing penalties against secondary units for short periods of time. He no longer has the ability to be the elite shut-down defender that he was in Ottawa, and likely never will be again.
The Devils have a lot of options this off-season and a lot of holes to fill. Hopefully Lou will give the team a little more cap flexibility and budget flexibility by buying out Anton Volchenkov and letting him get a fresh start elsewhere.
Now I want to know your thoughts? Have I done Volchenkov an injustice, or is my analysis on-track? If my analysis is accurate or otherwise, do you think a buyout would be appropriate for Volchenkov? Why or why not? Should Lou buy out another player or just let the window of opportunity pass?