Top NHL players really do improve in contract year, statistics show

By Phil Curry and Mark Drummond

With a new NHL season around the corner, we’re bound to hear commentators talking about which players have contracts coming up next season and whether they’ll “step up their play” in order to get that big payday. But does this actually happen?

Martin LaPointe is the poster boy for this phenomenon. For the seasons ending in 1997 through 2000, Lapointe was remarkably consistent.  He scored 16, 15, 16, and 16 goals those years, and earned right around $1,000,000 per for his solid productivity. The next year, 2001, was his “contract year”; after that season Lapointe became an unrestricted free agent.  Mr. Consistency somehow managed to score 27 that season, nearly double his career high in goals, and also managed a career high in assists.  His 57 points was almost 40% higher than his previous best of 41, and a point shy of double his production from two years previous.

Boston stepped up and paid him like a 27 goal-scorer, giving him a 4-year, $20 million contract. You probably already know how this story ends. In the following five seasons Lapointe reverted to the player he was from ’97 to ’00, scoring 17, 8, 15, 14, and 13 goals respectively.

Now, before we start jumping to conclusions about players shamelessly playing their hardest only when they know their paychecks depend on it, let’s keep in mind that all players have year-to-year fluctuations in their productivity, which means if we look at enough guys, some are going to get lucky and have that big year when they most need it. So was LaPointe just lucky, or is his story representative of how players routinely up their game at just the right moment so they can cash in when free agency rolls around?

To find out, we looked at what every NHL forward who signed a new contract during the past 7 seasons did in: (i) the 2 years before his contract year, (ii) his contract year, and (iii) the year after his contract year.

If Lapointe were the norm, we would expect to see a big contract year bookended by less productive years on either side.

A first cut through the data didn’t reveal anything like LaPointe’s story. On average, when a player’s contract expired at any time during our 7 year sample, he continued to have the same points, shots on goal, and hits per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time as he did in the 2 years leading up to his contract year.

That said, this is one of those situations where looking at things in the aggregate can hide some interesting effects within the group. Separating players into 4 quartiles based on their points per 60 minutes (5-on-5) proved to be quite revealing.

The bottom half appears to be mostly players who are in a state of decline. They’re getting steadily worse year after year. The second best quartile’s numbers are roughly the same in the two years leading up to free agency, so once again no real contract year effect for that group – although that group’s productivity did decline significantly in the year after a new contract was signed.

The really interesting group is the top 25%. These players did see a significant increase in their performance in their contract year, but they managed to maintain that performance (or close to it) once their new contract began.

So what does this all mean for a GM negotiating a contract with a forward? If the GM is negotiating with a player who’s not among the league’s top 25% in scoring, and the player’s stats have been declining – he shouldn’t expect that to change.  If a GM is negotiating with a top player, he shouldn’t focus on just the last year. The league’s top line players do seem to somehow step it up in their contract years, but fortunately for most GMs, that performance doesn’t immediately fade the following year either. In the rare situation where a player shoots the lights out in his contract year after an otherwise pedestrian career (i.e. like Martin Lapointe) the GM can be almost certain that the player just got lucky. He should sit back and let somebody else make the mistake of signing him to a big contract.

Lapointe sticks out in older fans’ minds precisely because his story is unusual.

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Rank (Points/60 minutes (5 on 5)) Two Years Before Contract Year Year Before Contract Year Contract Year Year After Contract Year
Bottom 25% 1.3404 1.1314 0.8695 0.5525
26%-50% 1.4955 1.5154 1.3813 1.1823
51%-75% 1.8289 1.7693 1.7570 1.5893
Top 25% 1.9559 1.9166 2.3688 2.2919
All Players 1.6564 1.5841 1.5978 1.4096


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