On July 1, 2016, the Calgary Flames made a big splash in the free-agent market when they signed right-winger Troy Brouwer to a four-year contract. The deal immediately polarized followers of the club.
Two Camps of Judgement
On one side was the team and a good chunk of the traditional media. This camp pointed at Brouwer’s intangibles and track record. A veteran of over 600 regular season (and nearly 100 playoff) games before he even pulled on a Flames sweater, the thought process was that Brouwer would provide the Flames with leadership, grit and versatility. Moreover, his extensive playoff experience (including a Stanley Cup win with Chicago in 2010) would be invaluable for a young Flames core down the stretch, particularly if they made the postseason.
On the other hand, the analytics community looked at Brouwer’s playing style and roles in his past NHL stops and had some concerns. Brouwer was a key piece in his previous stops, but he was used as a complementary forward rather than being relied upon as somebody that could drive play alongside offensively gifted players. Moreover, while his mentorship of younger players in places like St. Louis was valuable, an argument can be made that the Blues’ young stars were further along in their progressions than Calgary’s emerging core players are now. Finally, the underlying numbers for physical players such as Brouwer tend to fall off a cliff as they age. Tie all of those factors together and signing Brouwer to a big-money, long-term deal seemed like a fairly large risk for the club.
Just past the midway point of the first year of his deal, Brouwer has been a disappointment in Calgary by every measure.
Two Styles of Measurement
In terms of traditional counting statistics, Brouwer has fallen short of expectations. He’s 11th on the club in points and just 16th in even-strength points, an indication that much of his production is reliant on getting power-play time. He’s on pace for fewer than 20 goals and 40 points this season, which would be very disappointing for a player making $4.5 million. Moreover, his lack of production is also reflected in him being just 14th on the club in shots on goal per game. He does, however, lead the Flames in hits.
In terms of analytics, Brouwer has among the worst underlying numbers on the entire Flames roster. Adjusting for ice-time, nobody on the Flames allows more shot attempts against when they’re on the ice. He’s one of the worst defensive players, by this measure, in the entire NHL. He’s Calgary’s 11th-best player at generating shot attempts when he’s on the ice. All of this, combined with his high hit totals, are indications that he spends a lot of time in the defensive zone and playing without the puck. When you take into account the players he’s put with (Calgary’s top offensive weapons) and his high rate of offensive zone starts, Brouwer has really struggled.
In short: Troy Brouwer has been given favourable zone starts, match-ups and strong linemates. But despite all of this, he’s been a relatively unproductive offensive player and a really poor defensive one based on the measures we have available by which to judge him.
The Role of Intangibles
When Brouwer was signed, some of the attributes that general manager Brad Treliving mentioned that were part of his value were “leadership, character and a presence in our dressing room.” It’s completely possible that the Flames feel that his signing was warranted, even in light of his woeful on-ice performance, given that he may have been able to deliver in his off-ice performances in those intangible areas. Unfortunately, the role of intangibles in a player’s value is impossible to capture in any manner of statistics – traditional or advanced. However, if Brouwer can’t deliver on the ice, allocating $4.5 million per season to a player whose contributions are primarily off of the ice represents an incredible inefficiency in salary cap spending – particularly in what’s been frequently declared as a “results-based business.”
For the sake of the team’s short-term competitiveness, the hope is Brouwer can turn things around in the second half. Otherwise, a deal that looked like it would age poorly in its later years may already look like one the Flames should have avoided making.