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Evaluating the Brayden Schenn trade

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Just a year after locking him up to a lucrative contract extension, the Flyers traded Brayden Schenn. Was it the right move?

Kate Frese Photography

On a night that saw the Philadelphia Flyers add Nolan Patrick to their organization with the No. 2 overall selection, it would have been very easy for general manager Ron Hextall to simply collect his winnings from the table and go to bed. But befitting a draft that saw Las Vegas make its first amateur selections, Hextall clearly had no interest in calling it an early night. With the first round coming to close, he flipped Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera, the 27th overall selection in this draft, and a future first rounder.

The move came out of nowhere. There were no credible rumblings that Schenn was being shopped, and the Flyers aren’t dealing with salary cap issues. Schenn may be coming off an especially ineffective season at 5-on-5, but he remained fantastic on the power play, and was second on the team in goals with 25. He did not need to be moved.

But Hextall still pulled the trigger. In return, he received Lehtera, a 29-year old forward coming off his worst NHL scoring season, and two first round picks. The first of those was used immediately following the trade, as Hextall selected center Morgan Frost. The latter pick is a conditional 2018 selection — it comes with top-10 protection next year, but in that case, the Flyers would receive a first rounder and a third rounder.

It’s certainly a haul in terms of picks, but both sides are taking risks here. St. Louis is gambling that Schenn’s power play prowess will carry over to a new system, while Philadelphia is both hoping for a Lehtera bounceback and that a new player can step into Schenn’s old role on PP1 and provide a close approximation of his production. Still, even though the Philadelphia end of the deal isn’t without risk, it remains solid value and even has the potential to be a major win as well.

Lehtera is nothing special

No one should be expecting Jori Lehtera to “replace” Brayden Schenn’s on-ice production. That’s obvious just by looking at the trade itself, as the Blues had to add two first-rounders in order to even things out, but also by the numbers, which don’t paint an especially pretty picture of Lehtera.

His initial path to the NHL was a bit unorthodox. Drafted by St. Louis in 2008 as a 20-year old, Lehtera eventually found his way to the KHL and played there for four seasons, establishing himself as a slightly-below-point-per-game player. He finally joined the Blues at age-26, and posted a solid rookie season of 44 points in 75 games. That earned him a three-year, $14.1 million extension that would kick in at the start of the 2016-17 season.

Unfortunately for the Blues, Lehtera has yet to match those numbers from his rookie season. He dropped to 34 points in 79 games in Year 2, and 22 points in 64 games last year. The result was a contract that St. Louis was desperate to get off their books.

A deeper dive into the numbers doesn’t hint at an especially impressive player. Over three NHL seasons, Lehtera’s Points/60 rate at 5v5 is 1.57, which is passable middle-six caliber. But that’s dragged up by his strong 2.02 in his rookie year. Last season, it dropped all the way to 1.17. Combine that with a decreased role on St. Louis’ power play, and it’s not difficult to understand why Lehtera’s raw scoring numbers fell off a cliff last year.

As for his play-driving abilities at 5v5, they seem passable at first glance. In his three NHL seasons, Lehtera has posted Corsi For% RelTM marks of -0.3%, +0.8% and -1.4% — not stellar, but not disastrous either. However, those metrics do not fully account for one key factor. Lehtera has essentially been joined at the hip to superstar winger Vladimir Tarasenko, which likely has served to dramatically inflate his play-driving metrics.

Lehtera With and Without Tarasenko

Situation 5v5 Minutes Corsi For %
Situation 5v5 Minutes Corsi For %
Lehtera and Tarasenko Together 1912 52.90%
Tarasenko away from Lehtera 1455 54.30%
Lehtera away from Tarasenko 838 49.60%

Lehtera has spent a whopping 69.5% of his 5v5 minutes over the past three years alongside Tarasenko, and without him, Lehtera is a nothing-special Corsi player. It is fair to note that in the shifts away from Tarasenko, Lehtera was used in a more defensive role (44.2% offensive zone start percentage with Tarasenko, 26.6% away from him), and that probably accounts for some of the discrepancy, but not all of it. My guess is that away from a play-driving stud, Lehtera might be a minor liability from a Corsi standpoint.

Lehtera also rarely shoots the puck. Again, some of this may be due to playing alongside a bonafide sniper, but his 6.38 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5v5 ranked him 372nd in the NHL among forwards with at least 400 minutes last season — fifth from the bottom. It makes sense to pair him with a high-volume shooter, except the Flyers don’t have many of those on their current roster, which raises the question of linemate fit.

Basically, Jori Lehtera has the statistical profile of a middle-sixer, but that comes with the caveat that his numbers are likely inflated due to his time alongside Vladimir Tarasenko. In addition, his point scoring rates are trending downwards. I’d expect Lehtera to produce like a decent bottom-sixer moving forward, which is obviously not what a team wants from a player with a $4.7 million cap hit.

Schenn and Lehtera’s respective values

Of course, Brayden Schenn is no stud at 5v5, either. In fact, even with Lehtera having a down statistical season, he still basically matched Schenn in rate scoring and easily bested him in play-driving.

2016-17 Schenn vs. Lehtera

Player Points/60 Score-Adjusted Corsi For % Score-Adjusted Corsi Rel CF% RelTM
Player Points/60 Score-Adjusted Corsi For % Score-Adjusted Corsi Rel CF% RelTM
Brayden Schenn 1.20 48.03% -4.57% -4.1%
Jori Lehtera 1.17 50.60% +1.03% -0.3%

Even accounting for the fact that Schenn didn’t play with anyone as good as Tarasenko (even if Schenn’s most frequent linemates included Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux), Lehtera has a measurable advantage in on-ice outcomes. To be fair to Schenn, he had never been this poor at play-driving in the past, even if it wasn’t ever a strength of his game. Still, Lehtera provided more 5v5 value than Schenn this past season, and it’s tough to see him as a major downgrade at even strength. It’s possible that Lehtera could be a minor improvement there.

But even strength isn’t where Brayden Schenn provides the bulk of his value. That comes on the power play. Last year, Schenn scored 17 PP goals, and has delivered three straight seasons with a 5v4 Points/60 over 4.0. In fact, Schenn easily made up the gap in value added between himself and Lehtera solely through his power play production, according to the Goals Above Replacement model from DTMAboutHeart. While the model placed Lehtera’s 2016-17 even strength value at 2.4 goals over replacement and Schenn’s at 0.1 goals, Schenn racks up four GAR just via power play impact. Lehtera, on the other hand, checks in at 3.7 Goals Above Replacement on the whole, well behind Schenn’s 5.8 GAR.

It’s very possible that Lehtera and Schenn are basically a wash moving forward in terms of 5v5 value. I’m even open to the possibility that Lehtera will be better in that situation, even though I wonder how much of his past “value” was a product of Tarasenko. However, Schenn remains the more valuable player due to his power play prowess. St. Louis absolutely got the better forward in this deal.

Trade was still good for Philadelphia

If Friday’s trade was a one-for-one deal in the vein of Hextall’s Hartnell-for-Umberger swap, it would have been objectively a bad trade for Philadelphia. But considering the other portion of the deal, it’s clear that both parties realized that Schenn’s on-ice value currently outweighs that of Lehtera. That’s why the Blues threw in two first round picks.

Draft picks are basically weighted lottery tickets, with the likelihood of a win going up the higher in the draft they land. Two first round picks goes a long way in terms of making up the gap between Schenn and Lehtera.

But did it make up enough value? We already know that one of the picks was the 27th overall selection (used on Morgan Frost), and the second of the two will likely fall somewhere in the 16-24 range, as the Blues are a probable playoff team but no one’s idea of a true Cup contender.

Using Scott Cullen’s recent evaluation of the NHL success of players taken at each slot between 1990 and 2013, we can at least get a general idea of reasonable expectations for those picks. The 27th pick has played at least 100 NHL games in 62.5% of cases, and has turned into a truly valuable player (top-6 forward, top-4 defenseman, starting goalie) 16.7% of the time. As for picks falling in the 16-24 range, they “hit” as 100+ game regulars about 66% of the time, and become truly valuable pieces at about a one-in-four rate.

So these picks aren’t sure things. But don’t forget that in the salary cap era, good young players under cheap team control are probably the most desirable commodity, aside from franchise-changing superstars. That’s why amassing tons of lottery tickets tends to be the best route — it increases your chance of unearthing one of those money-savers. It’s also why the general consensus in that statistical community is that trading down to acquire more picks is usually the “smarter” move, at least in terms of value.

Take Michael Schuckers’ draft value chart, for example. The 27th pick has a value of 291 points, and the 16-24 pick range goes from 413 points (at 16) to 308 points (at 24). Combine the two, and you end up in the 599-704 point range in terms of draft value acquired — somewhere between the sixth and ninth overall picks.

And this is where the Flyers’ current situation comes into play. The heart of this deal is an assumption from Hextall that the short term downgrade from Schenn to Lehtera is outweighed by the long-term value of two additional first round picks. If the Flyers were in the hunt for a Stanley Cup title, this wouldn’t be a smart move to make, as maximizing on-ice value in the here and now wins out in those situations. But no one is realistically expecting a team that missed the playoffs last season and will be breaking in between three and six rookies to be a title contender in 2017-18.

Maybe, if everything breaks right, the Flyers go full Leafs next year and hit 2018-19 as a trendy pick to take the next step into title contention. In that scenario, they probably miss Schenn. But general managers can’t deal in “maybes.” At this stage of the Flyers’ retooling process, they need cost-controlled assets with upside more than anything else. That’s why, in the moment, it’s hard to fault Hextall for turning Brayden Schenn into two first round picks.

How the Flyers really win this trade

Some have stated in the aftermath of the deal that they’ll withhold judgment until they see how the two first round picks develop. While I understand the thought process, I tend to avoid that line of thinking when it comes to evaluating trades. To me, what is more relevant is the expected value of those picks, since a prospect’s development path is so unpredictable. If the two first round picks don’t pan out, that means that Ron Hextall made bad picks, not a bad trade.

There is one way that the Flyers could truly win big on this trade, and it’s not even related to any of the assets involved in the actual trade. It all goes back to Brayden Schenn’s on-ice value. We’ve already determined that Schenn and Lehtera’s even strength value is fairly similar, and that the main reason Schenn has been a more valuable player is because he’s been fantastic on the power play.

But the thing about power play value is that it is, first and foremost, dependent upon receiving the role in the first place. Schenn added about four Goals Above Replacement solely from his power play production last season per DTM’s model. But it’s unfair to just strip four GAR off the top of Philadelphia’s projected totals for 2017-18. Someone is going to get the minutes that Schenn had on PP1, and it’s probably going to be a player who either played on the Flyers’ incredibly weak PP2 last season (which provided almost no PP value to the team) or wasn’t on the roster at all.

The safe assumption is that the player who takes over Schenn’s role in the slot won’t be as effective there as Schenn was. After all, Schenn finished tied for the league-lead in PP goals — it’s tough production to replace. But what if the new addition can?

Let’s imagine a scenario where Lehtera basically reproduces Schenn’s expected 5v5 production — slightly negative in terms of play-driving relative to his teammates, and somewhere in the 1.3-1.6 Points/60 range in scoring. And then, the Flyers slide a new player into Schenn’s role on PP1 who immediately excels, due to natural ability and the fact that Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Shayne Gostisbehere have created an environment where it is relatively easy for a skilled triggerman to rack up points in the slot.

In this thought experiment, you’re left with a Flyers team that doesn’t feel the loss of Brayden Schenn in terms of value added, and picked up two first-round picks for their trouble. That’s the true best-case scenario here: that a main driver of the trade is that the Flyers’ coaching staff feels that they have another player who can slide into Schenn’s power play role and basically replicate his production.

Let’s assume that the new coach Kris Knoblauch plans to keep the current 1-3-1 formation in place for PP1, with Giroux running things from the left half-boards. In that setup, the man in the slot is preferably a left-handed shot, since he can rip one-timers from Giroux passes just a bit quicker than a righty can. Unfortunately, this “requirement” rules out talented options like Travis Konecny, Nolan Patrick and Jordan Weal, all of whom would seem like good fits from a skillset standpoint.

But the Flyers aren’t lacking for lefty-shot forwards. Sean Couturier, Michael Raffl, Valtteri Filppula, Lehtera, Jakub Voracek and Oskar Lindblom all fit the bill as scoring forwards who shoot left. Personally, I’d immediately rule out Filppula and Lehtera, since both are pass-first players. Sean Couturier has consistently struggled on PP2, and seems most at home below the faceoff dots, so I’d hesitate to give him the role either, though I wouldn’t be opposed to a test run.

The three most intriguing options to me are Raffl, Voracek and (especially) Lindblom. Raffl isn’t generally viewed as a scorer, but no Flyers regular has a higher Goals/60 rate at 5v5 over the past four seasons than Raffl and his 0.76 rate, which isn’t far off from players like Toews (0.77), Gaudreau (0.78) and Carter (0.79) over that same time period. While Raffl isn’t much of a distributor, he’s been a pretty solid goal scorer in his NHL career and has plus hockey sense, which is key for the slot role. He’s at least worth a look.

Voracek is obviously already on PP1, but he currently plays the right side on the half-boards. He doesn’t have the greatest one-timer, and he’s struggled to score goals on the power play over the past two seasons (3.85% shooting percentage at 5v4). But the benefit to moving Voracek to the slot is that someone else can easily move onto the right side, even a righty shot like Konecny or Patrick. If the goal is to stack as much high-end talent onto PP1, this would be an intriguing way to do it. They could even move to a 3F/2D setup and add Provorov to the mix, though I wouldn’t recommend that path.

Lindblom, however, is the really fun option. He played all over the power play formation in Sweden but he does have experience in the slot role (as well as netfront), and he projects to be a similar “high hockey-IQ” type player as Raffl, but with more offensive upside. Obviously, he still needs to make the Flyers out of camp in September (which is far from a sure thing), but at least in theory, he could be a solid fit in Schenn’s spot.

In the end, this is still a good trade for the Flyers even if Schenn’s replacement in the slot is merely decent. But if they can immediately replace the bulk of his production through a “next man up” philosophy, then the trade becomes a stroke of genius by Ron Hextall.

Best and worst-case scenarios

Brayden Schenn is absolutely a player with value in the NHL. While it was easy to focus on his struggles at 5v5, which reached epic proportions in 2016-17, he found a home as a major weapon on one of the league’s best power play units, and consistently improved there each year.

The big question regarding that production is whether it is easily replaceable. Critics of Schenn often pointed to the fact that Scott Hartnell succeeded in the same role as well, implying that the other pieces on the unit (particularly Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds) were the truly indispensable ones while the slot man was more a fortunate beneficiary of all that talent. Others argued that the Flyers simply found two players who were both very good at a difficult task, and that Schenn’s goal scoring ability from the middle of the ice should not overlooked.

By trading Schenn for Jori Lehtera and two first rounders, Ron Hextall is essentially putting this argument to the test. Since Lehtera’s 5v5 play has been fairly comparable to Schenn, Hextall is receiving two first rounders for the loss of Schenn’s PP prowess. And to be sure, that could be a big loss in the short-term. The Flyers were horrific at 5v5 scoring this past season, racking up a large portion of their goals in other situations. If they cannot adequately replace Schenn on PP1 and its effectiveness tails off dramatically as a result, they’ll need to improve at even strength to make up for it, and it’s questionable whether they can considering their personnel.

But the upshot is that if they do have an in-house replacement with the necessary skillset to flourish in that role, or if it truly does turn out that anyone can succeed there as long as Giroux is feeding him perfect passes, then the Flyers just made a brilliant trade. They picked up two first rounders that essentially combine to value out as a sixth-to-ninth overall pick, and didn’t miss a beat in the short term when it comes to on-ice performance.

The worst-case scenario is that the Flyers’ power play took a major short-term hit during a period in which Cup hopes were dim at best. The most likely result is that the power play takes a slight dip, but the future value added by the two first rounders makes this a good trade for Philadelphia. And the best-case scenario is that the PP doesn’t miss a beat with a new face, Lehtera replicates Schenn’s 5v5 value, and Hextall picked up two firsts basically for free.

With the downside acceptable and the ideal upside legitimately possible, it’s easy to understand why Ron Hextall jumped at this deal. Just be sure to keep an eye on who takes Schenn’s power play role at camp, as that will be pivotal towards understanding the final grade of Friday’s trade.

All statistics courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, NaturalStatTrick, or Sean Tierney’s public Tableau.