The Joy of Roster Building as an Armchair GM

15 May 2020

Simply put: there are a lot of layers to being a sports fan.  On the surface, we enjoy watching athletes engaged in fierce competition and the drama within, but at the same time, many like to look deeper.  For some, that involves a dive into statistics in an attempt to predict future success, but for others like myself it all comes down to roster construction.  My wife once asked me if I fantasized about being a professional athlete, and while the answer was a resounding yes during my childhood, as I've gotten older that dream has shifted to being a general manager.

I truly believe that this idea has led to the rise of fantasy sports in recent years, and the impact it has on fans in their daily life.  People who participate in fantasy sports aren't actually playing the game, they're simply building a team and setting a lineup, then sitting back to watch the real players do their thing.  Football is the perfect sport for fantasy, since each professional team only plays one game a week, and the lineups are easy to set.  In fact, I credit the role of fantasy football for making the NFL the country's most popular league - I can't tell you how many times I've overheard conversations between fans concerning the players on their fantasy team during football season, especially from those who don't have a favorite among the actual NFL teams.

When it comes to fantasy football, the draft is my favorite part of the whole season, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.  We see roster construction being done in real time, with most participants being very optimistic about their team before the glory or anguish of the season has commenced.  This "pre-production" work can take up a lot of time, but I've always found it to be a fun endeavor that reinvigorates my passion as a fan.  So why doesn't this feel this same with my favorite sport?


Given my love of hockey, as well as my continued interest in fantasy football, I've given fantasy hockey a chance but cannot get into it.  Perhaps this is due to the real games being more spread out throughout each week, or maybe it's just because I enjoy all the "pre-production" work and don't care (or are too afraid) to see what happens next.  But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the wonder of roster construction as a hockey fan, and that seed was firmly planted 25 years ago...

A screen I saw far too often in those days
As I mentioned in my Developing a Hockey Fan series, video games played a major role in shaping me into the fan that I am, and the EA Sports NHL franchise led the way.  In the first EA games, I learned about all of the teams and players, but I was not prepared for how the landscape would change with their fourth entry, NHL 95.  For the first time, you could play the role of general manager, engineering trades and even creating new players from scratch.  I rushed to the store to buy the Sega Genesis game as soon as it was released, then proceeded to spend the following weekend playing the game endlessly, first trading a few players to my favorite team (St. Louis Blues) and then creating "Mike DeKalb", the new star right winger for the Blues.

NHL 95 also allowed you to play out an entire season, another excellent addition that only served to take up even more of my time.  I was working part time while living at home and attending the local community college, so virtually every free night and weekend was spent engaging in some intense NHL 95 action.  But as is often the case, life does get in the way as time passes and I slowly drifted away from the game after I moved out of the house.  I was more focused on my studies at film school, while the video game systems improved and became much more complicated.  I still busted out the old Genesis from time to time (those NHL 95 skills certainly didn't go away), but by the time I moved to Los Angeles, the old gaming console would end up spending its days boxed up in the closet.


As the 21st century unfolded, it should come as no surprise that a well-produced website would be the key to driving creativity, thereby stoking the flames of passion I once felt as young man.  Though the use of a video game as a tool to build a fictitious roster was still around and going strong, I once again found myself slightly bored by having to play out the actual games on my newest system, the Xbox 360.  Could I just do the "pre-production" work and leave it at that?  The web developers must have heard my cries...

Enter Matthew Wuest, a hockey journalist who created CapGeek, the groundbreaking site that listed detailed salary information for all of the NHL players.  Fans now had fantastic insight into their favorite team's cap structure and could see if they were headed down a path of success or doom.  I found myself visiting the site on a regular basis, with many reporters and team executives doing the same.  From there, I would use the CapGeek data to visit sites like HFBoards and propose trades to other fans and hear their feedback, based on whether the teams could fit the traded players under their team's overall salary cap.  Matthew Wuest had given people from my generation that grew up with NHL 95 a chance to relive the roster-building dreams from their youth - which is why I was so devastated when both CapGeek closed down in 2015 and Wuest tragically passed away soon afterward.

As a testament to the importance of CapGeek, I vividly remember many websites starting up to try and carry the torch from Wuest's work, with varied results.  I certainly appreciated the attempt, and found myself trying many of them out, but I had trouble feeling the same joy.  The best of these initial sites was General Fanager, which used a similar interface to CapGeek and was devised by a fan who was inspired by Matthew Wuest.  Just as soon as General Fanager became my go-to site for salary cap information, the site's founder, Tom Poraszka, was hired by the Vegas Golden Knights and shut down the site.  Back to square one for me...

Thankfully, this downtime didn't last long as I soon discovered the next great hockey website: CapFriendly, which also grew from the ashes of CapGeek.  It has all of the insightful data and salary information one could expect, while also adding some great interactive features for sports nerds to consume their time.  When the Vegas Golden Knights were preparing to select players in the Expansion Draft, CapFriendly built a marvelous tool that allowed you to create a team of your own right alongside the Vegas executives.  There was also a way to calculate the cost of buying out a player contract, and the site even has a thorough FAQ section dedicated to the complicated nuances of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Most importantly, CapFriendly instituted the "Armchair GM" function, allowing you to build a roster and make trades while trying to remain compliant to the salary cap.

My dream was now a reality, as I have visited CapFriendly nearly every day since I learned of its existence.  I've even created a shortcut link to the site as an app on my phone!  It's the perfect place to answer those random hockey-related questions in my brain: How many years until Sidney Crosby is a free agent?  Do the Toronto Maple Leafs have enough cap space to trade for an expensive defenseman?  How much would the Calgary Flames have to pay, in both salary and cap hit, if they bought out Milan Lucic?  And with the NHL shutting down in the recent wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I've found myself on the site even more, creating various trades and free agent scenarios in my head to pass the time, and my newest activity would be a perfect way to highlight the website that I love so much...


I've been a longtime fan (and sometimes guest) of the terrific Puck Podcast, and on their May 5 episode a listener made a suggestion to the hosts that sounded like a great task for me to undertake as well.  The mission was to create a team with the following guidelines:

- 23 players (12 forwards, 6 defenseman, 2 goalies, 3 healthy scratches)
- No more than 3 players on their Entry Level Contract (ELC)
- $81.5 million salary cap, matching the current cap amount from the 2019-20 NHL season

All of my prior experience with the "Armchair GM" function on CapFriendly had been reserved for re-building specific teams within the NHL, so this would be first opportunity to create one from scratch, which the site recommends for those who play fantasy hockey.  My initial plan was simple, as I would build my team by showcasing the value of good players on cheap contracts - but when I was finished, the team had a measly cap hit of $65.75 million, leaving me with nearly $16 million in cap space.  I immediately began tweaking the roster, this time substituting some of the cheaper contracts for those belonging to higher-profile players in an attempt to make the team stronger with more depth.  The result is as follows:

In assembling this roster, I noticed several points that the real NHL GM's should take to heart:

11 of the 23 players were selected in the first round of the Entry Draft, while others (Stone, Fast, Kuemper) were late-round picks that blossomed over time.  15 of the 23 players are still on the team that drafted them.
This is often referenced in the salary cap era, and I specifically chose to pick a center, winger and defenseman with my three allotted picks.  Barzal has already played in two All-Star Games, while Makar has a great shot at winning the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year this season.
Too many GM's get into trouble by overpaying for players toiling on their fourth line or bottom defensive pair.  Players like Martinook, Fast and Toews - as well as all three of my "healthy scratches" - provide great depth as well as cap relief.
Eight players have been traded, with six being moved at the trade deadline.  Stone was acquired as a pending UFA in exchange for draft picks and prospects, while Sanford was a prospect included in a deal for a pending UFA.  Pionk was acquired in an offseason trade for Jacob Trouba and has subsequently outperformed him (at less than half the salary) in their first seasons with their new teams.  DeMelo was acquired as a prospect in an offseason trade for Erik Karlsson, then was later moved as a pending UFA at the trade deadline in exchange for draft picks.
10 of the 12 highest-paid players are on their second contracts with the team that drafted them.  All of them are seemingly underpaid, especially MacKinnon and Pietrangelo (who will absolutely cash in as a UFA at the end of this season).
Only Eric Staal (3 years at $3.5 million per season with Minnesota in 2016; 2 years at $3.25 million per season with Minnesota in 2019) and Darcy Kuemper (one year at $650,000 with Los Angeles in 2017, then traded that same season and re-signed with Arizona) have signed as unrestricted free agents on July 1.  If I build this roster next season, I may have to swap out Pietrangelo for the $5.4 million cap hit of Seth Jones.
While I do admit to being somewhat concerned by the amount of money given to Mark Stone, he is widely recognized as one of the best all-around players and locker room leaders in the entire league.  It is also wise to spend huge on a number one defenseman or a young number one goaltender, as both Roman Josi and Andrei Vasilevskiy have large extensions that kick in next season.  That being said...
As much as I respect his talent and value on his current contract, I would not have Vasilevskiy on my team after next season, as his $9.5 million cap hit could be used for help at other positions.  Many of the recent Stanley Cup winning teams have had inexpensive options in net (Matt Murray, Jordan Binnington), while the league's higher-priced goalies (Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Sergei Bobrovsky) have rarely come to close to claiming a championship.


So yeah, I'm a HUGE sports nerd.  I take great pleasure and joy in building fictitious hockey rosters, and discussing the validity of trade proposals online.  Of course, I owe a huge debt to the amazing CapFriendly, as I've had great interactions with the site's founder Dominik, who has been nice enough to respond rather quickly whenever I've submitted a question.  I highly recommend visiting CapFriendly, but only if you're prepared to spend countless hours combing through all of the available data and partaking in the wonderful interactive features.  Don't say I didn't warn you!

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