Examining the risks of a long-term Bobby Ryan contract

The biggest risk in the Bobby Ryan contract might be something that nobody has paid much attention to.

Bobby Ryan is going to get paid a handsome sum of money within the next year, and for the most part, Ottawa fans are hoping that the Senators are the ones fortunate enough to give him this money.

In fact, the main conversation around the Bobby Ryan negotiations has not been about what he should be paid, but whether he'll even want to stay with Ottawa and whether the original trade for Bobby Ryan was worth the hefty price.

Whether a player is worth signing to a big-money, long-term contract is, of course, a key part of the puzzle. A 7 or 8 year commitment involves a significant amount of risk, particularly when that contract will end when the player is 34 or 35 years old. This piece, like most I write, began with a quick note to myself about how I wanted to structure the piece. This is that note:

Premise of article – Bobby Ryan will be overpaid for two reasons: (1) Ottawa is not a desirable place for him, (2) Bobby Ryan’s reputation exceeds his value.

I think Part 1 is true. Bobby Ryan has clearly embraced Ottawa so far, but he's only been there for a year and has more attractive options available to him in terms of better teams, warmer climates, and more active nightlifes. You may disagree, and if you do, just remember that there are also hockey fans in Winnipeg who also cannot fathom why an NHL player might find other cities more attractive. I think that based on this alone, you have to expect that if Ryan signs with the Senators, there won't be any hometown discount or exceptional value -- you're really just hoping to get a fair deal.

Part 2 of the above note is what I'll focus on, because in my gut, this is what I initially felt: that Bobby Ryan is a very good hockey player, but his star power and reputation would cause the Senators to give him more money than he is actually worth.

This line of thinking was caused by a few chunks of information that I vaguely remembered:

  1. His possession numbers are fairly poor: the only Senators forwards he did better than in Corsi For% and Corsi Rel% were Colin Greening, Chris Neil, and Zack Smith, meaning he was worse at both than much maligned Milan Michalek. His linemates Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris were 1st and 4th among forwards, respectively, suggesting he was a drag on the line;
  2. He didn't make Team USA;
  3. His WOWY (with or without you) numbers from Anaheim indicated that his stats on that team were greatly influenced by playing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry; and
  4. His goal and point totals have been trending downwards since a career high of 71 points in 2010-11.

In order to back up my gut feeling, I looked for more objective evidence that proved my point. The problem? That evidence was somewhat hard to come by. After looking at more evidence, or simply examining each piece critically, most of these points can be addressed:

  1. His poor possession play is offset by the fact that he is an elite shooter (17th in shooting percentage among forwards who have played more than 300 games since he entered NHL) and has a very high rate of shots on goal (28th among forwards in shots per game under same conditions as above);
  2. He didn't make Team USA because he skates sleepy, and Keith Yandle didn't make the team either, so the whole thing was kind of silly if you really think about it;
  3. The same WOWY numbers show that while he derived a great benefit from playing with Getzlaf and Perry, Getzlaf and Perry also did better with Ryan than without him, and Ryan improved the performance of most of his teammates; and
  4. A lot of that is just due to the fact that 2012-13 was shortened by lockout and his 2013-14 season was shortened by injury. In fact, his points per 60 minutes (2.44) last year was his best in the past three seasons, despite playing through part of it with a hernia. Here are a couple of graphs from HockeyAnalysis.com showing both zone-adjusted point production and zone-adjusted possession metrics which illustrate that he's simply going through the standard ebbs and flows of any player:

After reviewing all of this, most of my fears appeared resolved, and I realized that my initial thought was incorrect -- Bobby Ryan's reputation as an elite player is well deserved. After all, this is a guy who is 25th in the league in goals per game since entering the league, ahead of notables like Daniel Sedin, Taylor Hall, Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn, and Anze Kopitar. Goals are the hardest thing to come by in the NHL, and Ryan scores a lot of them. He's a valuable asset for any hockey club.

Oddly enough, the biggest risk with Bobby Ryan's upcoming contract might be something I briefly mentioned above that nobody's talking about: his sports hernia surgery. Although sports hernia surgery is fairly common in the NHL, Senators fans know from experience that the last time a prolific goal scorer from a California team had sports hernia surgery, he never lived up to expectations with the Senators and his decline was staggering.

Cheechoo's downfall is an exceptional case, but the Senators have reason to beware -- a 2013 study of NHLers who underwent sports hernia surgery found those with seven or more seasons of play experienced significant decreases in productivity, even relative to the control group (ie: accounting for the fact that players without hernia surgery decrease in productivity as they get older). On the other hand, NHLers who played 6 or fewer seasons did not have a noticeable decline after surgery.

How many seasons has Ryan played? Exactly seven.

The study is not bulletproof, and it explicitly lists a number of weaknesses -- medical science is constantly evolving so treatments may now be better, there are a number of different types of treatments, and different doctors will have different impacts. Bobby Ryan is also right on that seven year threshold, and perhaps the greatest declines were from players in the NHL much older than 27 -- after all, most players with seven years experience in the NHL would be older than 27. But despite all of these justifications for how the results may be skewed, it is undoubtedly one of those risk factors that the Senators must take into account when offering Ryan a contract.

This puts the Senators in an unenviable situation -- here's a bonafide star player who will rightfully be asking for the long term, big money contract he's earned with his play thus far. The Senators know they can't afford to let him walk as UFA and lose him for nothing, and they're certainly aware that other teams will pay exorbitant amounts of money for Ryan's services if he makes it to July 1st. However, when faced with evidence that the surgery he's just undergone will likely detrimentally affect his performance over time, over and above the standard decline expected due to age, how much do you factor this into your offers? Or do you simply ignore it, and if his play deteriorates faster than you anticipated, try to unload him as soon as you start to notice the diminishing returns?

I'm not sure there's ever a black-and-white answer in offering contracts to a star player recovering from injury, but if there is, let's hope the Senators have it.

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