The NHL’s Free Agency period is a time where mistakes happen. Teams get overzealous, hoping that a big catch will turn their team’s fortunes. Over the years, the poster child for bad free agent signings has been the New York Rangers, who have shelled out big-money, long-term deals to players like Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Wade Redden, and Brad Richards. In the end, Gomez was traded, Drury retired before the contract finished, and the other two were bought out. Continue reading
Every July 1, NHL General Managers fall over each other to shell out big-ticket deals to mid-ticket players. This has led to countless cap disasters, with recent buy-out victims like Brad Richards, Ed Jovonovski, and Ville Leino being perfect examples. (Though nothing beats the David Clarkson contract in terms of bad value). In general, the biggest overpays tend to be for defencemen and centres, because they’re generally in shortest supply.
What’s worse is that many of these mid-level players are also past their prime. In general, most players peak in their mid-to-late 20’s. But what you’ll find is that most of the free agents are well into their 30’s. In fact, if you like at the UFA list, you’ll see that among the top-20 previous salary earners, only 1 of them (Paul Stastny) is under 30. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any bargains further down the list, but it’s safe to say that there will be more bad contracts given out on Tuesday than good ones. Continue reading
Why goaltenders are approaching first-round extinction
Everyone knows you need a good goalie in order to win games. But what you may not know is that many of today’s star goaltenders weren’t always the cat’s pajamas. In fact, many of them came from relative obscurity.
In the 5-year period from 1997-2001, 14 goalies were drafted in the first round. Apparently this number satisfied some type of equilibrium, because it stayed exactly the same from 2002-2006. Then suddenly things changed. In 2007, not a single goalie was taken in the first round – the first time this had occurred since 1992. Then it happened again in 2009, and again this past year. Collectively, only 4 goalies were drafted in the first round between 2007-2011. Why? Continue reading
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
NOTE: This list is purposely not comprehensive since it does not include players that I believe will either retire (Mark Recchi), or play in Europe (Alex Kovalev, Alex Frolov, Nikolai Zherdev, etc). Players recently departed across the Atlantic include Antti Miettinen (KHL – Russia) and Jeff Tambellini and Rob Niedermayer (Switzerland).
Not much talent left. Hannan used to be a very good shut-down defenceman, but he’s probably more suited to a depth role now. Morrison is still a serviceable 2nd line centre, but he wouldn’t be an upgrade for many teams. McCabe still has a big shot and can help a team on the powerplay. Dumont was a very good winger a few years ago (65 points just 2 years ago), but Nashville bought out his contract a few weeks ago after a miserable 2010-2011 season. He might still get a cheap 1 year deal somewhere, or he might have to go play in Europe to continue his career. Drury may be headed for retirement due to a degenerative knee condition, at nearly 38 years of age, Cory Stillman may also be ready to pack it in. All the others listed are depth forwards and defencemen, and backup goaltenders. I don’t think he’ll land a *one-way deal, but I also listed the pride of Selkirk Mb, Andrew Murray.
*NHL contracts are either one-way or two-way deals. Two-way deals pay different amounts depending on whether a player plays in the AHL or the NHL. For instance, a fairly common deal for an established pro who’s not quite good enough for the NHL, but very good in the AHL is a $525,000 NHL salary, with a $105,000 AHL salary. (Tom Pyatt signed this deal a few days ago)
The only free agents remaining that interest me for the Jets are Brendan Morrison and Freddy Sjostrom. Morrison would be a nice fit at centre and could play on the 2nd or 3rd line, taking some pressure off Alexander Burmistrov. Sjostrom is a reliable checking winger who would play on the 3rd line and the penalty kill.
Why losing today will help the Jets win tomorrow
Many people are asking why the Jets have been so inactive in the free agent market. Is it that no one wants to play in Winnipeg? Are they simply too cheap? Perhaps there’s another explanation. Take a peak at the organizational chart below:
|JETS ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART|
Promising youngsters with Kane, Burmistrov, Little, Bogosian, Pavelec, and a few just entering their prime – Byfuglien, Enstrom, Ladd, Wheeler. Definitely not a playoff roster.
UPDATE: The Jets acquired RW Eric Fehr shortly after this article was written, filling the “3rd line RW” spot I had held open for an established NHLer. Fehr – a product of Winkler, Mb – is a very talented winger who has been hampered by injuries throughout his career thus far. (Back and shoulder problems.)
Solid defensive depth, but the only d-men that are likely to have significant NHL careers are Postma and Kulda. Klingberg is a big, fast, skilled winger, but the jury is out on whether he has top-6 potential. Maxwell and Mahacek are nearly NHL ready, but neither looks like they’ll ever play in the top-6. The rest will probably never play a full season in the NHL.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, the Jets have acquired Kenndal McArdle – a quick, hard-working forward who has some potential to play in the NHL as a 3rd or 4th liner – and signed Jason Gregoire, a player with top-6 potential. Gregoire is a goal scorer, and about as good a prospect as Klingberg. He is also two years older than Klingberg, and closer to being NHL-ready.
The most problematic segment of all. The only prospect that has any chance of being an impact player is 1st rounder Mark Scheifele. The next best prospect is Russian centre Ivan Telegin, but it’s very difficult to project what (if anything) he might become at the NHL level. The rest are bottom-6 forwards and 3rd pairing D at best.
With a non-playoff roster in the NHL, very few quality prospects in the AHL, and only one high-end junior prospect, Jets management knows exactly what this team needs: high draft picks. That doesn’t mean that the team can’t be competitive in the here and now, but ‘competitive’ would be best defined as playing in tight games rather than piling up wins.
I think I see the strategy. A solid goaltending tandem combined with a good crop of defencemen should keep the games close, providing fans a team that’s good enough to stomach. If the goal was to make the playoffs now, they would have added 3 forwards capable of playing in the top-9; that is the obvious and pressing need. The fact that they haven’t added any quality forwards (Glass is a 4th liner; Rypien is a fringe NHLer) leads me to believe that they’ll try out the Cormier’s, Maxwell’s and Mahacek’s up front and accept a lottery pick this time next summer.
I’m 100% in support of this strategy. Why add some complementary pieces on one or two year contracts just so you can barely sneak into the playoffs? I think it’s crucial that a team finish either in the top 5 or bottom 5 overall. At the beginning of each year, you can usually name about 5 teams that are truly ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, only the bottom 5 teams (often fewer) have a shot at a truly magnificent prospect at the draft. Certainly there’s more room at the top – a team can move from 7th to 1st within a few years with responsible drafting and development. But to go from the middle of the pack to serious contention is extremely difficult.
How come? Well, to win a Stanley Cup, obviously you need to have several excellent players. There are only three ways to acquire players: through draft, trade, or signing. Generally to get a great player in a trade, you need to give up a great (or potentially great) player. There are examples that disprove this, but they are the exception rather than the rule. There are very few top-line forwards, top-pairing defencemen, or elite goalies available in free agency, as teams make resigning these types of players a top priority. For instance, of the douzens of free agents signed this off-season, only one – Brad Richards – is unquestionably an impact player. Furthermore, free agency isn’t a level playing field. For years, even average free agents have been avoiding places like Edmonton, Columbus, Atlanta, Minnesota, Florida, and (until recently) Buffalo in favour of more desirable teams/cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. For a team like the Jets, free agency is not a viable means of acquiring top talent.
That leaves the draft. The draft is the best – some say the only way – to build a team. When you look at great teams, generally their core (best) players were drafted and developed by the organization:
Pittsburgh – Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, Letang, Orpik
Detroit – Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom, Kronwall
Chicago – Toews, Kane, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson (though not Sharp)
Washington – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson, Alzner
Vancouver – Sedin, Sedin, Kesler, *Burrows, Raymond, Edler, Bieksa
Buffalo – Miller, Myers, Vanek, Roy, Ennis, Stafford, Pominville
*Burrows was signed and developed by Vancouver alone – basically akin to drafting
There are small exceptions. The two best players Boston Bruins from this past year are Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, both of whom were signed through free agency. However, Thomas was not an elite goalie when he was signed. In fact, no one (probably including the Bruins) expected him to be anything more than a good backup, otherwise there would have been intense competition for his services. Also, four of their five most important forwards were drafted – Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Lucic. (Horton came over in a trade). San Jose is another. Their best player – Joe Thornton – was acquired from the Bruins in one of the most lopsided deals of the decade. They also acquired their top defenceman (Boyle), a top sniper (Heatley, who has since become Havlat), and a top D (Burns) through trade, and their goalie (Niemi) through free agency. However, it is worth mentioning that in order to make those trades, they needed to give up once high draft picks, including Marco Sturm (21st overall, 1996), Brad Stuart (3rd overall in 1998), Milan Michalek (6th overall, 2003), Devin Setoguchi (8th overall, 2005), Ty Wishart (16th overall, 2006), and Charlie Coyle (28th overall, 2010). So although these deals break the mould, good drafting still played a large role. (LA is a similar story – a team who drafted a few core pieces in Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, etc, but used other important draft prospects to acquire talent, i.e Schenn and Simmonds for Mike Richards).
First round talents are essential. Everyone knows that Detroit pulled Datsyuk and Zetterberg from the depths of obscurity, but this is rare. Of the top-30 point producers in the NHL last year, 5 of them were 1st overall picks, 4 went 2nd overall, 3 went 3rd overall, and another 11 were first round picks. Far more dumbfounding is the following stat: of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL last year, ONLY ONE (Patrick Sharp) was not drafted in the first round. (The previous year, only 2 of the top 19 were drafted past the first round.). Goal scoring doesn’t tell the whole story, but with second assists filling scoresheets on an all-too-regular basis, goal totals are probably the single best statistical expression of talent. And acquiring talent on draft day operates like money in a pyramid scheme – most of it goes to the top.
As the summer goes on, I’ll be looking at other draft related topics. One thing I’m particularly interested in is a nature-nurture style debate – are good hockey players drafted, or developed? It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, but you can learn a bit if you look at opposite sides of the spectrum: failed 1st round picks, and glorious late round gems. Is there anything common to the groups? Absolutely. For now I’ll say this: the top four scorers drafted furthest from the first round were developed by just two teams.
F: Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer (from Chi), Jeff Halpern
D: Roman Hamrlik
G: Tomas Vokoun
1st and 2nd round picks in 2012 (Colorado)
Out: 2011 1st round pick (to Chicago), Semeon Varlamov (Colorado)
A very good defensive group got even better with the addition of Roman Hamrlik, who many think was Montreal’s best defenceman last year. Up front, Joel Ward provides them exactly what they need – a big, gritty, two-way winger who saves his best for playoffs. Troy Brouwer is a top-6 forward with good size and some grit, while Jeff Halpern is a solid veteran who will make small but important contributions in the bottom-6.
But the crowning jewel for Caps GM George McPhee is the cloak and dagger artistry he displayed with his goaltending. McPhee dealt young Russian netminder Semeon Varlamov to Colorado in exchange for first and second round picks in next year’s draft – the first of which will almost certainly be in the top 15, and even has the potential to be a lottery pick (top-5). Meanwhile, he managed to sign veteran Czech netminder Tomas Vokoun, giving them a bonafide #1 goaltender, and a mentor to young Czech goalie Michal Neuvirth. While a conference rival like Philadelphia blew up their roster to sign Ilya Bryzgalov to a mamoth 9 year, $51M deal, Washington managed to get an equally good goalie on a 1 year, $1.5M deal, and an early first round pick to boot. The man is a magician. His team, elite.
F: Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik, Joel Armia (2011 1st round pick)
D: Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff Continue reading
(Note: I’ll keep this on a permanent page and will update the list frequently when we get closer to July 1)
Here’s the 2011 UFA crop. It’s extremely weak on forwards, but pretty loaded with defencemen. I’ve included salary expectations, which is a hybrid between how I think the market will view them, and what I personally think their value is. I’ve also included a small list of players who may be facing retirement, as well as those who may be playing overseas next year. Continue reading