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Matt Moulson Arbitration: Comparables?

If I know me (and heavens, if anyone should know me it ought be me, but I wouldn't trust me on that), then I'd bet we'll return to the topic of Matt Moulson's arbitration hearing a time or two. Truth be told, I find arbitration stuff pretty dull, but I know it's very relevant and many fans love it, so here we go: What will Moulson make?

While most arbitration filings do not actually make it to a hearing -- both player and team usually have an interest in not letting that happen -- Moulson's next contract is a pretty big deal because it needs to be handled the right way: You might suppose that since the Islanders have plenty of cap room, Moulson's next deal can't really hurt them. But that is the kind of mistake that teams make and end up regretting as they get better, and all their young contracts come due, and suddenly they're pinching pennies just to fill a 23-man roster. (Or in the case of Chicago, Calgary and Philadelphia, just to carry a roster over from one season to the next.)

In other words, if you overpay or over-commit to a guy based on his peak season and he happens never to live up to that season, you're setting yourself up for a summer or trade deadline down the road where all talk about your team revolves around "but how will they fit everyone in?" or "but which contracts can they unload?" So the ideal for the Isles is to secure Moulson to a short-term deal so he can establish a longer track record (he has one full NHL season, a 30-goal one, at age 26), or to "do the Nielsen" with him and offer longer-term security in exchange for an annual rate that can't hurt them.

In arbitration, one point of evidence is comparable players. Of course, Moulson is a unique case, so finding comparables is a bit of a wilderness exercise.

(Note: We can only hope that fan site report card polls have no bearing on the hearing, otherwise we really screwed the pooch with our fawning community grade of Moulson's 2009-10.)

GP G A P +/- PIM PPG 5-on-5 Rating Rank TOI PPtoi SOG PCT
2009-10 - Matt Moulson 82 30 18 48 -1 16 8 2nd of 14 16:38 3:01 208 14.4

NHL players just don't often score 30 goals in their first full season at age 26. It's weird territory. It's the kind of odd circumstances far more likely to happen to a 9th-round pick like Moulson (i.e., you don't get your shot until later on), so it's the kind of scenario where a guy's value has been questioned throughout his career. And that's the kind of scenario that should give you pause when you're projecting (and paying for) his future performance.

For the comparables game, you can search really wide or you can hone it down really narrow. Think about all the variables that can go into locating a similar player if you're really into this: Beyond points there is average ice time, average PP or PK time, rank on the team's depth chart, and of course age. For this initial post I did a search at Hockey-Reference for players who, between the ages of 25 and 27, had seasons of more than 23 goals (Moulson had 30) and fewer than 60 points (Moulson had 48).

That's a wide berth, but it serves to show that there are many well-compensated NHL wingers who scored 30 goals or fewer at age 26 or 27. Martin Havlat, Scott Hartnell, Chris Kunitz, Thomas Vanek and Alexandre Burrows are some of the names that stick out on that list -- and that represents quite the range of styles, reputation and (as I'll get into) health.

Before we look at some of those, a reminder (or introduction, if you're like me and don't fancy this stuff) of what evidence is admissible at arbitration:

  • The player's "overall performance" including statistics in all previous seasons.
  • Injuries, illnesses and the number of games played.
  • The player's length of service with the team and in the NHL.
  • The player's "overall contribution" to the team's success or failure.
  • The player's "special qualities of leadership or public appeal."
  • The performance and salary of any player alleged to be "comparable" to the player in the dispute.
  • The salary cap and the state of the team's payroll.

Evidence that is not admissible:

  • The salary and performance of a "comparable" player who signed a contract as an unrestricted free agent.
  • Testimonials, video and media reports.
  • The financial state of the team.

Moulson's salary was $575,000 in 2009-10, after the Kings let him walk and the Isles picked him up as a free agent. What do you think it will be in 2010-11 as he re-signs as an RFA? To frame out a rough range, let's look at a few of those wingers who had similar seasons around his age:

Chris Kunitz

#14 / Left Wing / Pittsburgh Penguins



Sep 26, 1979

Cap Hit: $3.725 million

Kunitz is an interesting one because he was more of a "late bloomer" like Moulson: His age 26 season was his first full seasons and was less impresive (19-22-41 in 69 GP, 2005-06) than Moulson's, but his next season (25-35-60 in 81 GP for a Cup winner) was perhaps a little better than the year Moulson just had. Kunitz ultimately became a casualty of the Ducks' cap troubles, after his next contract (as an RFA) bumped him up to $3.6 million territory.


Scott Hartnell

#19 / Left Wing / Philadelphia Flyers



Apr 18, 1982

Cap Hit: $4.2 million

In contrast to Kunitz, Hartnell -- who just turned 28 this spring (and thus completed his age 27 season) -- has been in the league since age 18. If you've forgotten, he was part of Nashville's slow expansion build and became a regular for them right away in 2000-01. Consequently, Hartnell did not hit the 30-goal plateau until ... yep, age 26 (30-30-60 in 82 GP, 2008-09), when he was already on his third contract and making the big bucks.

Hartnell was putting up 20+ goal, 40-point range seasons before that third contract, yet was able to go from just over $1 million salaries to a contract with a $4.2 million average salary. Despite being a high draft pick, you could also call Hartnell a late bloomer of sorts who had the financially lucrative good fortune to learn (and make money) on the job in the NHL. To be clear, there is also a physical/fighting side to Hartnell's game that is missing in Moulson's.


Alexandre Burrows

#14 / Left Wing / Vancouver Canucks



Apr 11, 1981

Cap Hit: $2 million

Fret not, though: It's not just $4 million guys who can be thrown into this conversation. In fact, a closer one might be Burrows, a late bloomer whose first full season (2006-07) came at age 25 and produced a paltry 9 points in 82 games. Burrows picked up after that thanks to the Performance Enhancing Situation known as "playing with the Sedins," and he scored 28 goals and 51 points in his age 27 season, the last season on his entry level deal.

I don't know whether "ability to dive relentlessly and whine to refs" is admissible evidence in arbitration, but in normal negotiations Burrows pulled a still healthy raise from near-league minimum to $2 million. If you use the Sedins to water down Burrows' achievements, you could use playing with friend and frequent linemate John Tavares as cause to water down Moulson's. (Note: You'd probably be wrong, but we won't tell the arbitrator that.)


Thomas Vanek

#26 / Left Wing / Buffalo Sabres



Jan 19, 1984

Cap Hit: $7.142 million

Before you choke, obviously Vanek has no business on Moulson's comparable list: He was a 5th overall pick who came into the league scoring at age 22, and his salary is so exorbitant in part because he is one of the few examples of NHL GMs breaking "the code" and chasing other teams' RFAs. (The result shows that all signing an RFA offer sheet does is piss your colleagues off and inflate salaries. Maybe that code isn't so bad after all.)

Regardless, I threw Vanek on here for grins because one of his seasons (2009-10) showed up on that search: His age 26 season featured fewer goals than Moulson's (albeit in 11 fewer games) and just five more points. Looked at in that way, the Isles got a hell of a bang for about 1/12th of Vanek's salary.

(Another point worth recalling in all contract valuations: Last year represented Vanek's production low point since his rookie year -- while it could very conceivably be Moulson's peak.)

Like Vanek, Havlat's name does not belong here: His name turned up on that primitive search because his age 25 season (2006-07) was similar in counting numbers (25-32-57) to Moulson's age 26, but with one massive caveat: The oft-injured Havlat pulled that off in only 56 games.


'What ... would you say ... you do here?'

Again, looking at that list (which I limited to the 25-27 age range) shows how hard it will be to peg Moulson's value and production after just one real season of NHL data. Moulson's AHL numbers have been good, but so many other players who score like he did at this age have been in the league longer and have even scored at that rate at younger ages. (Take Joffrey Lupul, who had a 28-goal, 53-point season at age 22 and converted that into a $2.7 million average salary on his second contract, then a $4.25 million average on his next one.) If it got to arbitration, I'd pay to see the briefs and hear the arguments (and hopefully, not see Salo tears).

Such players have also been through the RFA process multiple times with the same team without being told to walk, as opposed to Moulson who was never signed by the Penguins and allowed to walk as an RFA by the Kings.

This isn't intended to be an authoritative list -- far from it. Rather, it's a conversation starter and attempt to show what some guys with Moulson's age and (one season) production made as RFAs. Moulson deserves to get paid for showing he's capable of a 30-goal season, but the Islanders need to be careful to avoid paying him as if he's capable of that every year. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't, but he doesn't have the track record yet. Which is why arbitration, with the exception of the hurt feelings, could be productive: It could produce a one- or two-year deal that allows Moulson to revisit things on the open market after his resume is longer. But hopefully both sides find middle ground before then.

To reiterate, these cases usually don't go to a hearing, and if they do it's usually in late July or early August. But in the meantime, what do you expect Moulson will earn (whether it goes to an arbitration hearing or not)? Who do you think his true comparables are?