One of the great debates for Oiler fans this season was just how well Gilbert Brule performed. Now that the off-season has arrived and it's time for the young man to get paid, the debate around Brule's
lucky break-out season is sure to continue unabated. As it turns out, Brule is eligible for arbitration this year and although it's very likely that Brule will sign a new contract before things get that far - most players do - we've decided that it would still be interesting to do a mock arbitration hearing. If nothing else, it should give the Oilers a free case to use us an idea about what to expect from Brule's next contract if he signs a short-term deal.
The mock arbitration idea came to us from the good folks over at Japers' Rink, who did a mock arbitration hearing for Capitals' defenseman Milan Jurcina a year ago. We also did a mock arbitration last season focused on Denis Grebeshkov. In the following exercise, I (Scott Reynolds) will represent the Edmonton Oilers, Benjamin Massey will play the part of Gilbert Brule's agent (I hear Brule's agent cusses a lot) and Bruce McCurdy will serve as the
impartial arbiter. The whole thing will take place over the next three days. After the jump, Ben and I will present our opening arguments.
Brief Presented By The Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club (Scott Reynolds)
Gilbert Brule is a third or fourth line NHL forward who recently completed his first season with the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL after spending most of the 2008-09 season with their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Brule suffered through several injuries and illnesses this season which, along with a few games as a healthy scratch, limited him to 65 games overall. Throughout his career, Brule has suffered through injuries (a clavicle injury and a broken leg being the two most serious injuries) due to his small stature (5'10'' and 180 lbs.) combined with a physical style of play (his 115 hits were third on the team). These factors continue to put Brule at greater risk of injury than the average NHL player. When Brule was in the lineup he averaged 14:14 of ice time per game which places him in a tie for 10th out of 16 players who played at least 20 games for the Oilers this past season. If we look at only EV ice time, Brule averaged 12:31, 6th out of those same 16 players. This highlights the fact that Brule is used predominantly at even strength.
Brule's (non-)performance on special teams illustrates this point further. Despite playing on a team that finished 26th in the league in penalty killing, the coaching staff did not feel that Brule would be an effective option for killing penalties. Seven out of the 16 regular forwards played at least one minute per game on the penalty kill but Brule was not among them. In 2007-08, then with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Brule was also not entrusted with killing penalties. It would seem, then, that Gilbert Brule has not demonstrated the defensive awareness of most players who are entrusted with penalty-killing. Brule did, however, get an opportunity on the power play. He was one of nine forwards to get at least one minute per game in power play time. However, Brule was the worst power play performer on the team in terms of points per sixty minutes posting an abysmal rate of 1.99 points per sixty minutes. In limited time on the power play with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007-08 (45:45 total ice time), Brule's results were an even worse 1.32 points per sixty minutes. Gilbert Brule has been given an opportunity on the power play by two different coaches on two different teams and both times has been found wanting. Brule is not an effective contributor on the power play.
As a result, Brule ought to be compared to other players whose contribution comes primarily at even strength where Brule actually performed quite well in 2009-10. His 32 even strength points put him in a tie for 113th spot in the league, a very handsome total. There are, however, some factors that suggest this point total may overstate Brule's true ability. For instance, Brule's on-ice shooting percentage at even strength was 9.6% in 2009-10 compared to a league average of 8.7%. It has been demonstrated that this number regresses heavily toward average over time, which makes it unlikely that Brule's higher percentage is a function of skill. The same holds true with Brule's personal shooting percentage. At even strength, Brule scored on 17.0%, far above his career average (9.8% on all shots). Further, Brule scored points on 84.2% of goals compared to an average of about 70% for NHL forwards. Studies have been done which demonstrate that those players who experience high percentage seasons in all of these areas tend to regress in their point production the following season. If we regress Brule's personal shooting percentage to his career average (9.8%) and his on-ice shooting percentage to league average (8.7%) but suppose that he will score points on the same percentage of goals that occur while he is on the ice (in this case, a lofty 84.2%) then we would expect him to have scored 9 goals and 18 assists for 27 points on the season.
It is for the above reasons that I have set my target for comparable players as those who scored something between Brule's actual totals (0.49 EV points per game) and his projected totals based on regressed percentages (0.42 EV points per game). I have also limited my sample to players who achieved these totals between the age of 22 and 24 who scored fewer than 10 power play points and signed either a one or two year contract after their platform season:
In terms of even strength offence, Brule compares well to these players and the range of contracts represented here are instructive in providing a possible minimum and maximum for Brule. However, there is more to each of these players than their offense and when other factors are taken into consideration, Brule's performance looks considerably weaker:
Gilbert Brule's performance is one of the weakest in each category. Brule's even strength goal differential per sixty minutes is the worst in the group and unlike three of the comparables, he doesn't play a role killing penalties. He also drew fewer penalties than all of the other players in the group relative to the number he took by a substantial margin. He starts in the offensive zone more often than all of the comparables with the exception of Ryan Callahan but when each of the comparables is compared to his teammates, we see that Brule is being used in a higher percentage of his team's offensive situations. His quality of competition (I've averaged the three measures used by Gabe Desjardins, weighting each equally) is in the middle of the group but he was also afforded the best teammates. I think these numbers make it clear that Gilbert Brule is inferior to the other members of his group. This point is emphasized further when looking at their career numbers up to and including the platform year of each player:
Again, Gilbert Brule performs poorly relative to the comparison group. He finishes last in every category at the NHL level with the exception of games played. At the AHL level, two of the other players in the comparison group are much better offensively and all of the players are better in terms of +/-. These low career numbers may serve as a further warning that Brule's offensive output in 2009-10 was partly a function of luck.
Gilbert Brule is clearly the least accomplished player in the comparison group, both in his platform year and in his professional career as a whole. Nonetheless, the Edmonton Oilers remain interested in seeing if this player's performance in 2009-10 is a step toward a bright future or a lucky blip in an otherwise underwhelming career. As such, we are prepared to offer Gilbert Brule a 41% raise on his contract from last season which would make his contract for the upcoming season $1.125 million dollars. This offer is the same percentage increase given to Tyler Kennedy ($550,000 to $775,000), one of the members of the comparison group, and puts Brule nicely on par with the contract given to Daniel Paille, another member of the comparison group. We think that Brule compares best with Paille out of all of the players in the group both in terms of style of play and in their career performance, especially when AHL performance is taken into consideration. We feel this offer is very generous considering Brule falls short of all of the players in the group in areas other than scoring in the platform year.
Brief Presented on behalf of Goodness, Light, Freedom, Truth and Gilbert Brule (Benjamin Massey)
Ladies and gentlemen of the Copper & Blue, I am come here today to make the case why Gilbert Brule deserves an extensive (and expensive) award in arbitration.
Mr. Brule has gotten a rather bad rap over the years. Drafted so early, brought up to the NHL even earlier, and his famous struggles to post results with the Columbus Blue Jackets - his is a story of heart and determination. At last, in the 2009-10 season, he proved himself as an NHL contributor, banging in seventeen goals on an awful hockey club without even posting a conspicuously obscene shooting percentage. It was a tremendous achievement for young Gilbert who, lest we forget, in spite of all his travails and all his experience is still only twenty-three years old. And it would be disgusting, my friends, if people like Scott were to rob Gilbert of his rightful contract after all he has done to earn it.
Brule is the simplest of all NHL players: an even-strength specialist who has never made his bones either killing penalties or on the power play. Some would hold this against Brule, as of course a player who can contribute on special teams is more valuable than an equivalent player who can't, but being associated with Edmonton's deplorable special teams unit is hardly a positive and it at least allows us to get a good grasp on Brule's even-strength contributions. A versatile player, Brule came into the NHL at centre but has predominantly played on the wing, particularly right wing, since coming to the Oilers in a trade for the erratic Raffi Torres. He also saw some centre with the Springfield Falcons in the 2008-09 season. Bagging seventeen goals and twenty assists in 2009-10, Brule came close to doubling his career highs in both categories. Those tempted by blanket accusations about "sustainability" may be lured into condemning Brule based on this alone. However, to do so is to commit a grave disservice to a good person and a good player who has overcome more adversity than most first-round picks and become a contributing NHL player.
What Gilbert Brule brings to the Oilers are a combination of abilities, all in short supply on this roster. He is a versatile and valuable even strength player on a team where too many of its players are sinkholes at even strength. He has played with a wide variety of linemates and achieved as much success as anybody in Edmonton could last year. He can take faceoffs or work the wing, when necessary. His pestering makes him difficult for other teams to play against or keep their composure with, and as a result he draws more penalties than usual for a player at his position while taking just thirty-eight minutes in penalties himself. These are the sorts of skills that help teams win hockey games, and they are the sorts of skills that should see Brule rewarded for his all-round ability instead of being dogged by statistics read too narrowly.
Mere appeals to emotion, I know, are not an argument. So let's look at the facts. Last season, Gilbert Brule scored 17 goals and added 20 assists, both career highs by a wide margin. His 0.57 points per game is his best since his rookie season. And much of the difference came in that he's shooting more, recording .6 shots per game more than his average in Columbus, rather than through obscene accuracy. It is true that Brule's 14% shooting is a significant jump on his career high, but it is not an Andrew Cogliano-esque inherently unsustainable number. Brule scored 87 career goals in the Western Hockey League with similar or slightly superior shooting. Just because it's a career high does not mean it's not a sign of things to come. Playing the fourth line on an awful Columbus team and being yanked around the lineup by a series of incompetent coaches and desperate general managers, or a brief callup with Edmonton in 2008-09, are not the best environments in which to judge a young player's true talent. In a very real sense 2009-10 was Gilbert's rookie campaign, or, at least, the first season in which he was able to play with the stability that almost all of his fellow professionals enjoy on a day-to-day basis.
His QUALTEAM was on the higher end of average for the Oilers. His QUALCOMP was on the lower end of average. Nobody is suggesting that Gilbert is blowing the barn doors off against the toughest players in the National Hockey League. But he contributed on a team desperately short on contributors. He did not outscore but he came as close to doing it as any regular forward not named Dustin Penner.
Comparables are tricky for a player like Brule on account of what he does beyond scoring and the somewhat unusual pestering role he plays for someone of his offense. The Oilers actually have a fairly close one themselves, however, in offensive terms. Brule's season compares positively to Robert Nilsson's breakout 2007-08 which fetched Mini-Magic a $2 million per year extension. Moving to the Eastern Conference, Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers fetched a $2.3 million per year extension for picking up 40 points in 2008-09. Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski got a long-term deal as a restricted free agent paying $2.9 million per season just because he scooped a remarkably-close-to-Brule 0.62 points per game on a significantly better team with significantly more ice time and, particularly, more ice time on the power play. These players were all undersized forwards and restricted free agents on mediocre teams with the same approximate levels of production, although none of them where even close to as bad as the 2009-10 Oilers.
Grabovski's $2.9 million would appear to be the upper bound. But the other things Nilsson, Callahan, and Grabovski have in common, besides production, size, and paydays as restricted free agents, as that they are each pudding-soft players who are complete non-entities in their own zone. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of a softer player in the National Hockey League than Mikhail Grabovski, and as we know Robert Nilsson's nickname is not a compliment. Brule, on the other hand, has some sandpaper in his game. He's not a big-hitting bone-crushing kill machine but he's a pest. An irritant. Somebody who can irritate the other team into doing something it'll regret. Some of those sorts of guys come on slow. At age twenty-three, Sean Avery had only 28 points with the Los Angeles Kings, for example. Something this intangible may not be worth a lot in his contract, but it's worth something. Nobody can compare Ryan Callahan and Gilbert Brule and say that even if they get the same number of points (and Brule will get more) they'd be equally valuable players. Anybody would take Brule just because he makes opposing players a bit worse.
Ultimately, when it comes to Brule's comparables we're left with getting as close as we can based on the numbers and then adjusting the resulting salary on his style of play, which will please nobody. Unfortunately, an arbitration hearing is a rather subjective art, and the best we can hope to achieve is relative fairness.
Gilbert Brule is an odd duck to draw up an arbitration case for. Although his high-calibre even strength offense speaks for itself, he gets less time on special teams than many of his contemporaries. In addition, many of his skills do not show up in easily-separated terms on the number charts. Brule benefited this season from career highs in every major statistical category, but if one is not drawn in by his unfortunate and rather uncontrollable early days in Columbus there's no reason to believe he can't sustain them.
For this reason, it seems to me that a fair contract for Gilbert Brule, based on comparisons to similar or inferior players also in restricted free agency and bearing in mind his positively idiosyncratic style of play, would be $2.7 million for the 2010-11 season.
Note to Readers
Ben and I will have "official" rebuttals tomorrow but let us know in the comments what you found convincing, what you didn't and what you think a fair salary for Gilbert Brule might be.