One of the more interesting studies of the NHL and player performance done in the last year was by Jonathan Willis at Hockey Or Die! on The Score. He found that there was a significant drop-off in player performance when players in the Southeast Division played opponents from outside of their own division. Specifically, he found that forward production drops by 16.3% when facing opponents from around the league and that overall, players drop by 14%.
Vic Ferarri did this and came up with that same overall drop of fourteen percentage points outside of the division, so I think the numbers have some teeth.
Willis also looked at some of the star players in the division and the effect on their individual player performance and found that even their rates noticeably decline outside of the division. If the Southeast is, indeed, the weaker sister of in the NHL, how should that impact free agency? Should NHL general managers be so quick to throw large amounts of money at players coming from the Southeast? Should Ilya Kovalchuk land Scrooge McDuck's vault?
The list of "impact" players available in free agency in the Southeast this summer is short, so we can look at a couple of cases individually. First up, Ilya Kovalchuk and his quest for an armada, a harem, deeded land and a vast fortune beyond imagination. Is he worth the contract he seeks? He was one of the players that Jonathan looked at in his individual player study and he falls by 7% against the rest of the league. Kovalchuk falls from a 45 goal, 85 point man to a 41 goal, 78 point man. A general manager that is after him for his goal-scoring isn't going to bat an eye at that drop and Kovalchuk will still get his payday.
What about Maxim Afinogenov? Prior to signing with Atlanta this year, his 82 game rates were 19 goals, 48 points. He posted 24 goals and 61 points for the Thrashers in a year described as "a rediscovery". Accounting for a 16% Southeast Effect, Afinogenov's numbers should have been 22 goals and 60 points with the Thrashers. Will everyone's favorite pickup league player be able to turn that Southeast effect into more money during negotiations? It's likely that he will be able to - the "change of scenery" narrative is a powerful one with a rich history.
This also has implications for restricted free agents as well. Nicklas Backstrom just signed a monster contract with the Capitals. We know that Backstrom's numbers fall off precipitously when he's away from Alex Ovechkin, add in the 16.3% SEE and what is Backstrom's true league-wide value? Does it matter considering that he's going to be in the Southeast for the foreseeable majority of that contract? What happens if the division strengthens itself during that deal? And what about trades? Vincent Lecavalier has been the apple of an entire province's eye since he was fourteen years old and every three months or so the Lecavalier to the Canadiens rumors heat up. But a 30 goal, 70 point center is not worth all of the hype. Maybe Lecavalier is one of those exceptions to the rules.
Of course, every rule has an exception and for the SEE, it's Brad Richards. He used a move to the Western Conference to regain his long-lost mojo and post as 91 point season, tying his career high established in the Southeast for the Lightning.
The biggest benefactor of the SEE should be player agents. Players that have struggled, or players that are at the end of their rope should immediately head to the Southeast to see if they can't use the Southeast as a springboard to their next (or last) significant contract. I've got a feeling that this was in the back of Alex Tanguay's mind when he chose to go to Tampa Bay on what was reported as a lesser contract deal than he received elsewhere. Unfortunately for him, things didn't work out and he's back in the free agent market and may end up taking an even smaller contract this off-season.
The rules are not hard and fast, but it's something to consider as free agency begins on July 1st - the effect of the Southeast division on player performance has a significant impact on contract negotiations, whether it's known or not.