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EHM Experiments: The Minnesota Midrange Money Marauders

This week’s Eastside Hockey Manager experiement comes from acasser, who suggested seeing how well would a team of players making about the median cap hit in the NHL do in 2019-20. This post shows how that team did - and how much they beat initial expectations.

Minnesota Wild v New Jersey Devils
Will Butcher is one of the many members of MMMM for this week’s EHM Experiment.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Roster building in today’s National Hockey League often features a number of key players making a significant amount of money, a number of players with future potential on cheaper entry level contracts or bridge deals, and players making various amounts to make up the depth of the roster dependent on what they have done and how long the organization thinks they can contribute. However, one of the People Who Matter, acasser, wondered about a different way. What if you went in the opposite direction and decided to have a 23-man roster of everyone making around the same amount of money in between the salary floor and ceiling for players? We will find out in this week’s Eastside Hockey Manager Experiment.

The Experiment

Put together a 23-man roster of players with cap hits roughly around $3.54 million each and see how they do in the 2019-20 NHL.

The Approach

acasser did not just suggest the idea, but acasser also came up with an entire roster and some thoughts about how the team would perform.

If you want another team concept that would be perfectly dreadful, here’s an idea, and one that we could also cite in the future when certain arguments come up:

The Premise: It’s been an occasional argument here in these spaces about team construction. Is it better to pay a superstar some arbitrarily huge number and fill in a second spot with a minimal-salaried player, or is it better to pay two guys roughly half of that arbitrarily high number?

My Opinion: You’ll almost always do better with the former. So we’ll test it…. by putting together a team that does the latter.

The Team Construction Rule: The Upper Limit is $81.5 million. Maximum roster size is 23 players. Divide the one by the other and you get ~$3.54 million/player. So that’s what we’ll do, put together a team (14F/7D/2G) where every individual player’s cap hit is as close as possible to that $3.54 million while remaining underneath the Upper Limit.

My Hypothesis: It’s going to be a very bad team. Because what do you get for that sort of cap hit these days? You won’t get anybody on an ELC. You won’t get the really good players — either they’re on ELCs or they almost always graduate straight to big money — e.g., Nico Hischier. What you will get a lot of are a bunch of veteran UFA-equivalents who are Bottom Six forwards and Bottom Four defensemen. Or RFA-equivalents on bridge deals or second/third contracts who weren’t good enough for their team to lock them up really long-term. You’ll find the occasional bargain when one of the second group breaks out, but you probably aren’t getting much “bang for your buck” in that price bracket.

Forwards: Tanner PearsonSam ReinhartCal Clutterbuck / Ryan DzingelLars EllerBrett Connolly / Andreas JohnssonAlexander KerfootBryan Rust / Michael Ferland – Vladimir SobotkaJ.T. Compher / Paul ByronBrandon Tanev

Defense: Mattias EkholmTravis Sanheim / Ben ChiarotBrandon Montour / Will ButcherRon Hainsey / Radko Gudas

Goalies: Andrei VasilevskiyJacob Markstrom

My Thoughts: The goaltending is better than I would have thought, because Vasilevskiy fell into that “signed contract, then broke out” category. And you’ve got a couple of young players (Sanheim, Montour, Johnsson) who fall into the bridge deal category while Ryan Dzingel fell into the price bracket by virtue of not having a robust UFA market when he signed.

But it’s probably a bad team, full of too many depth players and passengers and not enough guys who would drive play and carry the others along for the ride. The goaltending might pull this team to respectability, but I wouldn’t wager very much on it.

Thank you to acasser for putting in most of the effort to perform this experiment. This roster is the definition of diverse from a quality standpoint. There are legitimately good players here like Bryan Rust, Mattias Ekholm, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. There are players that are best defined as being in the mid-tier of players in the league relative to their position, such as Lars Eller, Sam Reinhart, and Radko Gudas. There are players who could command bigger dollars in the future such as Brandon Montour and (maybe) Will Butcher. There are some players that are just not that good such as Ron Hainsey and Vladimir Sobotka.

While acasser does not have a lot of confidence in this group, I think they could be competitive. The goaltending alone is great. I’ve demonstrated in past EHM Experiments that even decent goaltending can help a team hang around in the league. Vasilevskiy has been consistently great in my past EHM games, and Markstrom in the latest version of the database is up there. By the way, to best represent how we see these players, I used the latest version of the TheBlueLine database by xECK29x. As with past experiments, I can only call up players if I have to and to maintain the integrity of the roster, I cannot make additions or subtractions to the team.

Lastly, I picked a team to put the acasser’s roster on. I went with the team currently most associated with being “meh:” Minnesota. This team can be known as the Minnesota Midrange Money Marauders, or MMMM for short. I picked a very generic name as the GM - James Smith - and off we went.

The Experiment Results: The Regular Season

The board in Minnesota expected MMMM to make the playoffs. After a nondescript preseason, the season began. The first three months went a bit better than what acasser expected. By Christmas, the team was on the right side of a very tight playoff race in the Western Conference:

The MMM are on the bubble at Christmas.
The MMM are on the bubble at Christmas.

You can see from the point totals that a good or bad week could lead to a lot of shifts in position. The MMMM went from 12th after the first two weeks to high as fourth in the conference, but settled down here. I was surprised that a 64.5% point percentage would be just seventh, but again, it is a tight race in the West.

As expected, the goaltending was great throughout the better part of the first three months of the season. Vasilevskiy was great as expected and Markstrom eventually performed as well as Vasilevskiy. As expected, Bryan Rust was the best performing skater and led the team in scoring and, somehow, maintained an average rating above 8. That meant Rust was one of the best players in the entire season. What surprised were how effective Andreas Johnsson and Sam Reinhart would perform. They often finished only behind Rust in terms of production and rating. Michael Ferland, Brandon Tanev, and Ryan Dzingel provided excellent depth. On defense, Ekholm, Montour, and Butcher were very good and productive - well ahead of Chiarot, Gudas, and Sanheim. Those three were not bad, but they were not nearly as good as the first three. What I was not surprised were that there were passengers on the squad at depth at forward. Vladimir Sobotka was very bad. Tanner Pearson and J.T. Compher struggled higher up in the lineup. Alex Kerfoot was productive and somehow had an average rating around 6.7. Still, the team was competitive and mostly positive throughout the better part of the first half of the season.

The real challenge was maintaining the lineup due to injuries. No one had an injury last longer than three weeks. But it was a common occurrence that someone was usually out for one to three weeks with something. A skate bite here. A broken toe there. A hamstring pull there. The annoying part was that Vasilevskiy was out for a few times, which meant a call up for 21-year goalie Kaapo Kahonen. Since Minnesota’s schedule was light on back-to-backs, I mostly leaned on Markstrom when that happened.

What was surprising was that when 2020 hit, it was almost as if the team hit a switch. The AI coach, Dean Evason, was just making all of the right moves as the team went 7-3-0 going into the All-Star break. No member of the MMMM made it to that game. I do not think they minded as they were third in the West with a record of 33-16-1. Somehow, the MMMM just never lost pace from then on. The team kept on winning. Vasilevskiy and Markstrom kept being great. Ekholm and Montour racked up assists. Rust, Johnsson, Kerfoot, and Reinhart were frequently on the scoresheet. Even with one or two players being out with some kind of injury, the team just kept getting results.

Amazingly, this team qualified for the playoffs on March 15. They did so at about the same time as St. Louis. Yet, Evason and the squad did not let up. Despite a double injury to Ferland and Compher and a two-game suspension to Brandon Tanev, the team just kept rolling. (Aside: Yes, Tanev got a suspension and Gudas did not all season.) By the end of the season, they surpassed the Blues.

Seriously, the MMM went to the top of the West.
Seriously, the MMM went to the top of the West.

I had zero expectations of this team beyond possibly making the playoffs. They ended up winning 57 games. Amazingly, they did not give up the fewest goals in the league or even the West. This database clearly loves Jordan Binnington. The MMMM did score the most in the West, but not to an incredible level like we have seen with past experiments like the GAR-optimal team or the youngster squad. Here are some end-of-season leader boards to chew on.e

Highest scoring defensemen in the league, two MMMers made top five.
Highest scoring defensemen in the league, two MMMers made top five.

Starting with the defense, Montous and Ekholm finished in the top five among defensemen in terms of goals. Their average ratings of 7.64 and 7.80, respectively, point to how well they played beyond the production. They were two of the better defenders in the entire league and they anchored the blueline throughout the campaign.

The MMM goaltenders were fantastic in the regular season.
The MMM goaltenders were fantastic in the regular season.

The goaltenders were expected to be a strength for the team and they absolutely were. Markstrom and Vasilevskiy finished right in the top ten for save percentage at 91.9% and 91.8%, respectively. While they were not on the amazing level that Binnington was, they were each better than the majority of the league. They were an excellent tandem.

As for forwards, Bryan Rust ended up fifth in overall scoring with 43 goals and 41 assists. The achievement is in the average rating:

The MMM was well represented in average rating in the league.
The MMM was well represented in average rating in the league.

Somehow, Rust was arguably the best player in the league. He amazingly had the same amount of production as Ovechkin and he just edged him in terms of rating. I knew Rust did well in real life by GAR, but this is astounding. Equally astounding were how Markstrom cracked the top ten an dhow Brett Connolly and Andreas Johnsson were nearly above an eight average rating. Johnsson was stunning all season long. Connolly soared in the second half of the season. Their contributions helped ensure that the MMM was as good as they were. As did Vasilevskiy’s 7.83 (tied for 29th) and Ekholm’s 7.8 (tied for 33rd).

Of course, there were other contributors that did not make the list of the top fifty players in the entire NHL in terms of average rating:

The MMM players by average rating.
The MMM players by average rating.

While they did not make the top fifty in the league, Reinhart, Montour, and Ferland were wonderful. Montour often played alongside Ekholm, Reinhart was typically on the top line, whereas Ferland was typically on the third line. The team received very good seasons out of others like Will Butcher (the team’s #4 defenseman by ice time), Dzingel (bottom six forward), and Tanev (also a bottom six forward). As a whole, the blueline performed very well with only Ron Hainsey - who is retiring after this season - performing below a seven average. And he was the team’s #7 defenseman, so there was not much harm done. Unfortunately, this meant there were more passengers at forward. Eller and Kerfoot at least produced quite a bit and Pearson put up 16 goals in a mostly fourth line role. However, they had a lot of ‘6’s night after night and the AI coach eventually reduced their role as the season went on. Cal Clutterbuck and Sobokta ended up being scratches more often than not. If the team had more centers, then maybe Byron or Compher would have ended up seeing some games from the suites.

Still, the top half of this roster carried the bottom half to achieve a regular season record that was beyond my expectations and definitely acasser’s. Would they continue to excel? Spoiler: Yes.

The Experiment Results: The Playoffs

The MMMM drew Colorado in the first round. From a larger perspective, it looked like the MMMM smashed the Avs in five games. Up close, it was, well, closer. The MMMM held on to win Game 1, 3-2. Game 2 saw a similar holding on to a one-goal lead, when the Avs scored a shorty to make it 4-3. But they held on for those seven plus minutes that felt a lot longer than seven plus minutes. Game 3 was the one the MMMM lost, 3-5 in Denver. Game 4 was dramatic and extensive as it went to double overtime. In the 85th minute, Paul Byron was the hero and put the MMMM one game away to the second round. Game 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota was not close at all; they steamrolled Colorado in a 5-0 win. A good what-if comes to mind. What if the Avs won Game 4 in overtime? They did not, so the MMMM moved on to the second round.

They were to play St. Louis in the second round. The Blues beat them 3-1-0 in the season series, but only outscored them 10-9. As they had Binnington and the MMMM had a healthy Vasilevskiy, it was expected this series would be a tight affair. It absolutely was. Game 1 ended 56 seconds into the second overtime when Reinhart scored for a 4-3 win. Game 2 saw St. Louis take revenge with Perron scoring in the first overtime to take that one 3-2. In Game 3, the MMMM went up 3-1 going into the third, St. Louis pulled within one with about three minutes left, and they had to hang on against a late charge for a 3-2 win. Game 4 was the only one decided by more than one goal; it was decided by two. It was a 3-1 win for the MMMM. The series decider was back in St. Paul and it was another game requiring overtime. Ferland scored eleven minutes into the first overtime for a 2-1 win and to send the MMMM to the Western Conference Finals.

The MMMM’s opponents were seventh-seeded Nashville. They upset #2 Edmonton in a seven game series and took down Anaheim in a similarly-to-the-MMMM tight series to Anaheim in five games. The season series was split at 2-2-1, so Nashville had a shot on paper. On the simulated ice, they tried but the MMMM would prevail. The MMMM blew a two goal lead in the third period for the visitors to force overtime. Fortunately for the Minnesota fans, Connolly converted a power play to make it a 4-3 win to start the series. Game 2 was far more comfortable: a 3-0 shutout led by Vasilevskiy, Byron, Reinhart, and an empty netter from Rust. When the series went to Tenneessee, Game 3 became another long affair. The MMMM were up 2-0 early in the second. The Preds made it 2-1 by the end of the period and 2-2 by the end of regulation. Game 3 needed two overtimes and it was decided once again by Connolly scoring a PPG. The 3-2 win put the MMMM on the brink of playing for the greatest trophy in professional sports. In Game 4, the Preds went up early but the MMMM responded with two quick goals. In the second period, they went up 3-1 only for Nashville to pull within one near the halfway mark of regulation. Minnesota, especially Vasilevskiy, needed to ward off a Nashville team that would do anything for a goal. But the MMMM successfully warded them off and put the game away with two empty netters. The 5-3 win secured their trip to the Finals.

Over the in East, Pittsburgh went from strength to strength. They were the top ranked team in the East. They avoided an upset by the Isles in a seven game series. They put down Our Hated Rivals in six games. They too swept their Conference Finals opponent, Montreal. On paper, this had the makings for a great series. The top two teams in each conference. They each went 1-1 against each other in the season. Vasilevskiy vs. Murray. Rust vs. Crosby. Ekholm vs. Letang. The matchups were tantalizing.

Then the MMM squashed the Penguins like a common mosquito in Game 1.

Always a good time to have your biggest blowout win in the playoffs in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final.
Always a good time to have your biggest blowout win in the playoffs in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final.

Rust’s hat trick thrilled the Minnesota supporters. They had a feeling it would be a great night when Compher scored and loved it when Pearson added his mark. A tone was set. It continued into Game 2. It took until 49 minutes into regulation for the Penguins to put one past Vasilevskiy. At that point, the MMMM were up 3-0. While the Pens pulled within one late to make it interesting, that only lasted for about two minutes. At that point, Kerfoot scored a PPG to make it 4-2 and put Minnesota ever closer to the Cup. Game 3 in Pittsburgh was a closer, tenser game. The Penguins struck first and even tied it up in the second period at 2-2. However, Connolly provided the difference maker in the third period and Vasilevskiy shut any hopes of an equalizer thereafter. The MMMM were one game away from a huge sweep and an unexpected Stanley Cup. Game 4 was a battle. Minnesota had to chase the game in each period. Pittsburgh scored first in each period and the MMMM needed to find a way to equalize. Pearson did so shortly after Dumoulin’s PPG in the first period. Rust scored about three minutes after Guentzel made it 2-1. Connolly made it 3-3 with over five minutes left in regulation after Zucker’s early score in the third. Yet again, the MMMM were forced into overtime. It would be a short overtime, though. Hartman took an elbowing call at 61:41. At 62:02, or 21 seconds later, Kerfoot beat Murray to give Minnesota the 4-3 win and the Stanley Cup.

The MMM won the Cup! Really! On back-to-back sweeps! Really!
The MMM won the Cup! Really! On back-to-back sweeps! Really!

Yes, the MMMM went 16-2 in their run to the Stanley Cup. Seven of their eighteen games went to overtime and they won six of them. They had just as many games won by more than one goal and only three of those were by more than two. Almost as impressive was that there were few injuries. The run on minor injuries mostly ceased.

The MMM players by average rating in the playoffs.
The MMM players by average rating in the playoffs.

Vasilevskiy played the entire postseason and he was great with a 92.2% save percentage and two shutouts. Rust had the most goals and points with 12 and 24, respectively, for the team and ultimately the entire league in the postseason. Connolly was massive with four huge game winners out of eight scored. Johnsson, Ekholm, and Reinhart continued to be great as they were in the season. Kerfoot played a little better but his production was just as massive. There were some surprising cameos from Ron Hainsey (2 games) and Cal Clutterbuck (7 games), where they did quite well. Only Compher and Pearson really struggled in the postseason, but they had their individual moments. You cannot complain much about a team that went 16-2 for a championship. They were fantastic. AI Dean Evason was wonderful. As a result, this team shattered any expectations I had. Surely, there would be more trophies at the NHL Awards ceremony.

The Experiment Results: The NHL Awards

There were not. These were the only members of the MMMM that appeared at the NHL Awards show:

  • King Clancy Memorial Trophy: Rust (runners-up: Ovechkin, Binnington)
  • Lady Byng Memorial Trophy: Lindholm (runners-up: Rust, Reinhart)
  • GM of the Year: James Smith (runners-up: Rutherford, Armstrong)
  • Jack Adams Award: Dean Evason (runners-up: Sullivan, Berube)
  • Conn Smythe Trophy: Rust (runners-up: Vasilevskiy, Connolly)
  • NHL First All-Star Team: Ekholm

That’s it. I would have expected to see Ekholm to at least be a finalist for the Norris and Rust be a finalist for the Pearson or Hart. Ekholm was the only member of the MMMM that made a league all-star team and he was not a finalist for the Norris. Rust had the best average rating in the NHL - which is what gets you the King Clancy in EHM - and finished fifth in points. He deserved some consideration for most valuable player. At least the GM, who did not much more than tell the coach which lines should be offensive and tell the coach to make the lines, and the coach got rewarded for their efforts. Despite the fact that the MMMM had a 120-point season and won over 50 games, the in-game writers and deciders did not think most of them were worthy of individual accolades. It is what it is.

Experiment Conclusions

I think it is fair to say that this team was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I knew acasser was not expecting much out of the selected. I thought they would be competitive. I had no reason to think they would be this successful in the game. Sure, the goaltending was expected to be great and they were. But the skaters had maybe three sure-fire top-six forwards on paper. And I wondered who was going to take on heavy minutes on defense. It turned out that the AI coaching and there were players who could be effective in big roles. Rust, I figured, could do so based on my past experiences in the game with him. But Ekholm-Montour being a 26-minute per game pairing and playing rock solid hockey? Butcher-Sanheim being an effective second pairing? Johnsson and Connolly putting up 30+ goal seasons? Tanev, Kerfoot, and Reinhart each putting up over 20 goals and 40 points? Dzingel and Ferland joining Tanev as being really, really good bottom-six forwards? Pearson and Kerfoot outproducing their not-so-good average ratings? The AI coach figuring out quickly that Clutterbuck, a winger, is a better option at center in a pinch than Sobotka? My answers to all of those would have been no before the experiment. Yet, this all happened.

I can agree that in real life, the team would probably not perform as well. There are differences in skillsets that may clash. And more serious injuries would have really undercut them. I was unlucky at how often there was an injury, but I was lucky that none of them last longer than three weeks in the game. I can also agree that if we were to repeat this experiment next season, the roster would be very different. The goaltenders would be totally different as Vasilevskiy’s extension kicks in 2020-21 and Markstrom is currently a pending unrestricted free agent who stands to get paid really well. Reinhart, Gudas, and Montour are pending restricted free agents. Plus, there could be other mid-salary players selected based on how they perform next season that may or may not be replicated in the game. I can agree that, for the most part, this squad had plenty of fortune in its favor.

But the game does demonstrate that it is possible to put together a roster of players making around the league median in terms of cap hit and have that roster be competitive. I do not think they would win 55 games and a Cup in just 18 playoff games. I do think they would not be scrubs. I do also think that making such a roster would be difficult, if not impossible in the current environment. Every team is drafting players and trying to get the most out of them while they are on their ELCs. And rewarding said players and/or acquiring bigger name players often means huge raises beyond the median. Unless a team is strongly committed to this approach, there will be some players making more than most of the roster - usually the most important players - and some young players looking to make their money for the future. Nevertheless, this experiment shows that it is not necessarily a path for mediocrity or worse. And it also shows that something successful in pro hockey can be built in Minnesota.

The Next Experiment?

Thank you again to acasser for suggesting the Midrange Money Roster that I have renamed for this post to be the Minnesota Midrange Money Merauders. The team performed far better than expectations.

Now I want to know what you want to see next. The floor is open for suggestions for EHM experiments. If there are none, then I’ll come up with a surprise for next week. Please leave your suggestions in the comments. Also, feel free to share your reaction to this week’s EHM Experiment. Did you expect the MMMM to do so well? Who surprised you on the roster?Thank you for reading.