The Price of Juice

With the Jackets looking at another long offseason, and strong indications that the team's makeup will change dramatically over the offseason after a year of "minor adjustments" failed to produce a successful result, many fans have begun lining up on either side of Swedish winger Kristian Huselius - currently the franchise's second highest paid player behind Rick Nash, and making $4,750,000 next year, with a contract that expires after the 2011-2012 season.

So, as fans debate if the team needs his scoring more than they need to free up salary, perhaps it's worth looking at how he got here, and the way he compares to his peers around the league?

A Brief History:

Part of GM Scott Howson's first season of unrestricted free agency, Huselius was brought in along with Mike Commodore in an attempt to add more scoring punch and veteran experience - plus replace the previous scoring talents of Nikolai Zherdev - and in his first season, appeared to be a resounding success with 21 goals and 35 assists in 74 games, plus a goal and an assist in the team's first playoff appearance. 

The next year, though the team suffered, Juice seemed to find a bit of extra motivation, scoring 23 goals and registering 40 assists. It was his third best points total in his pro career, and many expected him to continue to improve.

In the 2010-2011 season, however, Huselius has suffered multiple injury problems, including a wrist injury and high ankle sprain that have combined to take him out of the lineup for over half the regular season.

Even in the 35 games he has appeared in, however, there were problems. Though he has 12 goals on the year, 5 of them on the power play, 1/4 of that total came in a single game. More disturbingly, for a player who made his name as a playmaker, he only has 9 assists on the year, far below the norm. If the season ended today, it would be the first time since his rookie year with the Florida Panthers that he collected less assists than goals, and the first time in his NHL career that he had less than 10 assists in a season. Even accounting for injury, Huselius was heading for a 49 point season - a drop that would represent his second worst season since the NHL lockout.

Perhaps it is simply an off year.

Perhaps it's a matter of adjustment into Scott Arniel's system.

Or perhaps, like his peers, he's simply starting to slow down a bit. 

One factor that few fans have discussed, even when they bring up his contract, is that Juice is 32 this season.

Between injury, the salary cap, and the simple rigors of the 82 game season, the age of 32 seems to be the tipping point for many NHL players.

At the left wing position, there are 10 32 year olds in the NHL who have played more than 10 games this season. From the ages of 33-35? 11 wingers total (including teammate Ethan Moreau and former Jacket Jody Shelley), two of which were put on unconditional waivers and bought out this season.

From the ages of 36-40? Again, 10, the oldest of which is former Jacket Ray Whitney, age 39.

It's not impossible to be an older player in the NHL and still be successful - again, see Whitney, who has 54 points for the Coyotes this season - but it is increasingly rare to be a top six impact player as you get older, particularly with younger players pushing not only in terms of production, but lower salaries and cap hits that look quite attractive to an NHL GM.

Of that group of 32 and over Wingers, only four are 50+ point players - Patrick Marleau (32), Alex Tanguay (32), Ray Whitney (39), and Patrik Elias (35). Brendan Morrow (32) is knocking on the door with 49, and seems likely to join in, and Chris Kunitz (32) and Ryan Smyth (35) are within striking distance (45 and 44 points, respectively), but the numbers begin to drop sharply after that. 

If Kristian Huselius returns next season, the numbers already say that he's facing an uphill climb to be as successful as he was in his first two years as a Jacket, and it's statistically extremely unlikely for him to match his career high total of 77 points as a Calgary Flame - and that's before we consider what the lingering aftereffects of injury might mean.

Powerful?

One area where many hope that Huselius would turn things around would be the power play - serving as the triggerman or making setups with the man advantage. It's a decent theory, but do the numbers back it up?

2008-2009: 5 PPG, 9 PPA

2009-2010: 8 PPG, 15 PPA

2010-2011: 5 PPG, 2 PPA

There's no doubt that Huselius makes the Jackets' power play more effective. In a good year, over a third of his production came on the power play, and even in a fairly "average" year, he still put up 14 points, good for third on the team with the man advantage.

But on the other hand, let's compare him to two wingers who were the closest in salaries in his "top" season as a Jacket - Patrick Sharp and Alexander Semin.

Sharp, making $750,000 less, had slightly higher total production (25G, 41A), scored 4 goals and 12 assists on the power play, and was a +24 to Huselius' -4.

Semin, on the other hand, made $250,000 more than Huselius, brought in 84 points (40G, 44A), and rocked the red lamp for 8 power play goals (the same as Huselius) and 19 assists. He also finished with a +37.

Were these players on better teams than the Jackets? Yes, they were. But Sharp also did not play on his team's top line, yet still made almost as much of an impact - and though both are younger players, Sharp isn't that much younger - 30, rather than Juice's 32.

It's a situation where Huselius doesn't stack up poorly, but he doesn't really stand out as much as you might hope for that paycheck. 

Defensive Mindset:

Speaking of stacking up poorly, perhaps it's fair to bring up the biggest complaint about Huselius outside of his paycheck - the perception of his play being "weak" defensively.

Huselius has certainly had issues with turnovers and bad passes, but that's something that it's difficult to single him out for compared to the rest of the squad around him. Instead, again, let's look at him both in terms of his peers at his position in terms of skill, and in terms of his age.

Players 32+:

Name:                    Age                Points    Salary                 +/-

C. Kunitz

32

45

3,800,000

18

M. Cooke

33

30

2,150,000

14

R. Fedotenko

32

22

1,800,000

11

S. Thornton

34

18

825,000

7

M. Sturm

33

6

3,500,000

6

C. Stillman

38

34

3,500,000

5

M. Darche

34

21

500,000

5

S. Sullivan

37

22

3,750,000

4

R. Whitney

39

54

3,000,000

1

R. Smyth

35

44

5,500,000

1

E. Boulton

35

8

650,000

0

J. Shelley

35

4

1,200,000

0

S. Samsonov

33

36

2,800,000

0

J. Ruutu

36

12

1,300,000

-2

B. Morrow

32

49

4,100,000

-2

N. Hagman

32

27

3,000,000

-2

T. Gillies

32

1

500,000

-2

T. Holmstrom

38

32

2,250,000

-3

P. Schaefer

34

2

600,000

-3

A. Tanguay

32

58

2,500,000

-5

R. Malone

32

34

6,000,000

-6

A. Brunette

38

42

2,500,000

-7

P. Elias

35

53

5,000,000

-7

B. Rolston

38

29

5,000,000

-8

J. Blake

38

28

3,000,000

-8

P. Marleau

32

64

6,900,000

-8

E. Moreau

36

6

1,750,000

-9

J. Sim

34

4

650,000

-10

J. Chimera

32

23

1,875,000

-11

F. Modin

37

10

800,000

-14

K. Huselius

32

21

4,750,000

-16

Since you'll (fairly) say that this year's struggles weren't representative of Huselius' performance, good or bad, here's a look at the top 30 Left Wings from 2009-2010 - again, his best as a Jacket.

2009-2010:

Player

PTS

"+/-"

Salary

Age

A. Ovechkin

109

45

9,000,000

25

D. Sedin

85

36

6,100,000

30

A. Semin

84

36

5,000,000

26

A. Burrows

67

34

2,000,000

29

P.Sharp

66

24

4,000,000

29

Z. Parise

82

24

3,000,000

26

P. Marleau

83

21

6,300,000

31

W. Wolski

65

21

3,100,000

24

P. Elias

48

18

6,000,000

34

H. Zetterberg

70

12

7,400,000

30

I. Kovalchuk

85

10

7,500,000

27

T. Vanek

53

9

6,400,000

26

T. Fleischmann

51

9

725,000

26

R. Smyth

53

8

6,500,000

34

M. Cammalleri

50

7

5,000,000

28

R. Bourque

58

7

1,400,000

29

J. Jokinen

65

3

1,500,000

27

S. Sullivan

51

2

3,750,000

36

R. Clowe

57

0

3,500,000

28

M. Raymond

53

0

760,000

25

A. Frolov

51

-1

4,000,000

28

A. Ponikarovsky

50

-1

2,500,000

30

M. Moulson

48

-1

575,000

27

K. Huselius

63

-4

4,750,000

31

L. Eriksson

71

-4

1,700,000

25

A. Brunette

61

-5

2,500,000

36

J. Neal

55

-5

720,000

23

R. Whitney

58

-6

3,550,000

38

R. Malone

47

-8

6,000,000

31

R. Umberger

55

-16

3,500,000

28

 

Admittedly, he's a bit better this way, but even in a top season for offensive production, he was still not only a defensive liability for his team, but compared to many of his peers, including nearly every player asked to fill the same top line role - and the second highest paid out of those who finished with negative defensive numbers.

Value For Value

It's almost certain that Scott Howson had to offer more than Huselius' "market value" to get him to sign in Columbus, and because of that, it's why the expectations sit perhaps a bit heavier than they do on R.J. Umberger, Antoine Vermette, or a younger player like Jake Voracek. If the Jackets were paying $3,500,000-$4,000,000, the salary range of Chris Kuntiz, Corey Stillman, or Brendan Morrow, it would be easier to say that the team gets fair value from him. But at his current salary, you're paying borderline "All Star" prices for talent thatI think it's fair to call good, but not elite. 

Even worse, for a team like the Jackets who spend near the cap, but still have financial constraints, that overpayment might be the difference between journeyman player and Christian Ehrhoff, or placing hopes on an untested AHL forward in the checking role instead of, say, Joel Ward.

If the Jackets did make the decision to move Huselius, getting a player with performance equal to his cap hit is unlikely, but it certainly seems possible that the team might be looking to simply get a player of similar on-ice value, and turn the salary discrepancy into a player at free agency.

Kristian Huselius has, when healthy, been a good contributor for this team, and I respect him for what he has done. But in the context of his peers, his contemporaries, and the future ahead, he simply isn't a good contract, and that may be a reason to look for another option this offseason.

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