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NHL Free Agency: Five UFAs who could provide value

The dust has settled on free agent frenzy and many of the best players on the board are now off it.

But there are always some stragglers, players who are quite good at their craft who haven’t signed with a team just yet. Whether it be term, money, or doubt, or a combination of all three, several players remain ready to be plucked off the board.

Below is a list of five players who would provide teams with solid players. Not all of these players come out of the bargain bin, but all would make teams better in the right environment. Some have been left out entirely, guys like Joe Thornton who is probably only going to re-sign in San Jose, or Patrick Marleau, who seems to only have one team in mind. Ditto for Niklas Kronwall.

Honorable mentions: Derrick Brassard

5. Patrick Maroon

Ah, yes. The prototypical “room guy.” The one who plays the role of a hype beast and can also bring it on the ice. Maroon is that guy. He was a centerpiece of the St. Louis Blues’ Stanley Cup run, combining timely on-ice contributions with off-ice stuff that equally important, according to his teammates. He’s been a pretty decent possession player over the course of his career and puts up some OK points. He’s reliable. He boosts his team’s morale. He’s a perfect fit for St. Louis in that he’s the hometown guy, but not a perfect fit given the salary cap.

4. Ryan Dzingel

Dzingel is coming off a season where he recorded career highs in goals (26), assists (32) and points (56) but has yet to be signed by a team. Perhaps recency bias is playing some part in that. He didn’t exactly light the world on fire once traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets from Ottawa at the deadline. For a player who averages a little over a half-point per game, he was around that with 12 points in 21 regular season games. He was basically invisible in the playoffs, however, scoring just once in nine games. His possession numbers don’t jump off the page, but he played on a very bad Senators team. He hovered around 50 percent on a good Senators team from a couple of years ago.

Evolving Wild’s salary projection has him signing a four-year deal worth $4.25 per annum. Dzingel’s issue, at this point, is that teams who might want him may not be able to pay that. Still, teams like Chicago and Edmonton could certainly use a top-six guy like that with a little finagling.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

3. Micheal Ferland

Ferland is an interesting player, one who still combines a physical game with one is also tailored to the modern way of playing. In short, he’s an increasingly rare specimen that possesses the puck well, scores goals and will take your head off if afforded the opportunity. Ferland’s knocks are his durability. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule. And he can be inconsistent. He had 11 goals by the third week of November last season and then went 11 games without one. He closed out the regular season without scoring in the final 17 games he played. He then went goalless in the playoffs — seven games — and was also injured for a time as the Hurricanes marched to the Eastern Conference Final. Much like Dzingel, recency bias could be playing a part here. Evolving Wild has him making $4.1 million per year over a four-year deal. It’d not outlandish money, but there’s some risk attached to it.

2. Justin Williams

The 37-year-old isn’t getting any younger, but even at his age, he’s still producing 20-goal and 50-point seasons with relative ease. If you’re looking for durability, he’s your man having missed just three games in the past six years. If you’re looking for leadership, he’s got that, too. He’s a three-time Stanley Cup winner and has a Conn Smythe Trophy bearing his name. His possession numbers are incredible as well — elite over the past two years, including a 57.89 CF% last season. Since 2007 (as far back as Natural Stat Trick goes, Williams has never had a season below 50 percent.) Nearly 1,250 games into his NHL tenure, Williams isn’t aging the same way many do.

Evolving Wild’s metric has Williams signing a three-year contract worth just shy of $6 million a season. It seems absurd for a man of his age, but the numbers don’t lie. He puts up Kevin Hayes points and possession numbers rivaled by few others, boosting his teammates along the way. It works in Carolina and it seems as if Williams is Hurricanes or retirement at this point.

1. Jake Gardiner

Yes, there’s a top-four defenseman still on the list of UFAs yet to have a deal. That ugly playoff game from a couple years back became old news when the Maple Leafs were without Gardiner for 20 games last season. His absence showed that they missed him and his 50-point capabilities and 50-point defensemen earn many millions of dollars in today’s NHL. Perhaps that’s holding up proceedings. It shouldn’t be. Over the past three seasons, Gardiner has only become a better defenseman. His goals above replacement during that span is ninth in the league in all situations at 35.6 (fifth at even strength)

There are many more graphs and other things that show that Gardiner is a solid player. He’s looking for $7 million a season, according to reports. It’s probably a sticking point that shouldn’t be, but cash-strapped teams like the Winnipeg Jets, who might otherwise be interested in replacing Jacob Trouba with a player that’s showed just as well, are priced out unless they commit to some serious (and further) roster surgery. Perhaps the New Jersey Devils should make a play. Already having traded for P.K. Subban, Gardiner would only make that backend more formidable.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Gardiner makes any team better; Hayes takes Flyers to another level

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Here’s a list of the five strangest signings yet in free agency. (The Hockey News)

• Don Cherry isn’t finished yet. (CBC.ca)

Jake Gardiner will make any team’s backend better. (TSN.ca)

• The growing number of high-end, American draft picks is no fluke. (Seattle Times)

• All of those moves by the Toronto Maple Leafs have taken the team a step back. (Yahoo Sports)

• How Joe Pavelski became the face of San Jose. (Fear the Fin)

• The future is bright in the Big Apple. (BlueSeat Blogs)

Kevin Hayes can take the Philadelphia Flyers to another level. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Do the Edmonton Oilers still have a shot of bringing in a UFA? (Oilers Nation)

• Vegas and mystery team talking to ECHL club about affiliation. (The Journal Gazette)

• Arizona hoping Phil the Thrill will do what Phil the Thrill does: score. (NHL.com)

• The Chicago Blackhawks have improved, but is it enough? (Featurd)

• How could Pavelski, Perry and Gurianov change Dallas’ look up front? (Sportsday Dallas)

• Flames GM Treliving calculating equations with impending contracts for Tkachuk, Rittich, Bennett. (Calgary Sun)

Mitch Marner, from a pure hockey perspective. (FanSided)

• Color of Hockey: Miley launches coaching career with Junior Hurricanes. (NHL.com)

• Welcome to the Golden Age of American hockey talent. (ESPN)

• Five Ducks who will make a comeback in 2019-20. (FanSided)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs ace salary cap tests, but Marner challenge remains

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The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this offseason with possibly the toughest to-do list of any NHL team, and while the biggest challenge still awaits in signing RFA star Mitch Marner, GM Kyle Dubas deserves at least a B+ for his efforts.

You can bump Dubas & Co. up to an A depending upon taste, and certainly if you’re grading on a curve in considering that every other NHL team was well aware of Toronto’s predicament. Some teams managed to exploit those issues for their own gains, while some still managed to sucker themselves. Either way, mostly strong work so far.

Thursday presented the latest round of moves surrounding that pivotal Marner push, as the Maple Leafs signed Alex Kerfoot to a sensible extension and … meh, at least only signed Cody Ceci for one year? (Not trying, at least outwardly, to merely flip Ceci again and seek a cheaper alternative puzzles me, but maybe Toronto has internal data that argues that Ceci is better than people realize?)

While Nazem Kadri was a better luxury, getting Kerfoot at just $3.5M per year, with some term, is pretty nifty by my eyes. Maybe those eyes have been re-adjusted by the Montreal Canadiens giving marginal defenseman Ben Chiarot that same $3.5M AAV, but I’d wager that Kerfoot will at least be as valuable as his cap hit, if not deliver as a nice bargain.

It fits in wonderfully well with two very reasonable re-signings from earlier this summer, as the Maple Leafs took Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson off the docket, getting cost certainty and also avoiding the threat of other teams trying to poach them. For all the talk of Marner possibly signing an offer sheet, the bigger worry might be that an opposing team would instead make it uncomfortable for Toronto to keep mid-level, useful young players. Instead, Dubas got them re-signed, and likely at below market value, even if you take RFA statuses into account.

Good stuff.

Dubas wasn’t flawless in his efforts to get rid of those Marleau and Zaitsev problems, although I imagine that it wasn’t especially easy to find takers to alleviate those concerns.

The Carolina Hurricanes traded for Marleau and eventually bought the veteran out, essentially paying close to $4M to buy Toronto’s first-round pick. If you want an idea of how smart I thought Carolina was, I postulated that rebuilding teams should use that trade as something of a blueprint: basically, take a bribe of picks and prospects to relieve contenders of their Marleau-lite problems.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That’s a fairly hefty price for Toronto to pay, especially since contending teams could conceivably take care of some of the strain of top-heavy contracts by getting quality (or just stopgap) production from players on entry-level contracts.

Luckily for Dubas, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to burn another first-rounder to get rid of Zaitsev’s lengthy, challenging contract. Instead, he was able to package Zaitsev in a deal for Ceci, who will cost the same $4.5M AAV in 2019-20, with the difference being that Ceci’s deal lasts for one year, while Zaitsev’s albatross hangs around through 2023-24. It’s true that the Maple Leafs also had to part with Connor Brown in that trade, but, overall, that’s a comically Maple Leafs-friendly deal, considering how toxic Zaitsev’s contract is.

(The Senators not getting a higher-level return for taking on Zaitsev is, well, a nice reminder that, as much as that team’s plight stems from owner Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion’s also made some rough judgment calls in recent years.)

Time will tell if that blockbuster Kadri – Kerfoot – Tyson Barrie etc. trade ends up being a win, loss, or draw for Toronto, but as of this moment, it’s a bold and sensible example of two teams addressing weaknesses from areas of strength. Maybe Barrie has some flaws, but he’s a drastic upgrade at right-handed defense, Toronto’s biggest area of weakness. If it truly was time for the Leafs to part with Kadri, then that trade was really shrewd.

Speaking of shrewd, I quite enjoy some of the low-risk, medium-reward moves by Toronto. Jason Spezza‘s $7.5M cap hit made things downright awkward at times in Dallas last season, but at $750K, Spezza could be a sneaky-steal. Nick Shore’s an under-the-radar analytics darling, too, to the point that I was surprised that he had to sign in the KHL last season. (Too under the radar, I guess.)

It’s a little tricky to estimate precisely how much cap space the Maple Leafs have left for Marner, as you can see from this Cap Friendly tweet.

With Nathan Horton‘s looming $5.3M LTIR trip, that would put the Maple Leafs over $9M, with some wiggle room with other roster spots (again, see this thread to get an idea of some of the complications).

Toronto being where they are still leaves them vulnerable to an offer sheet on Marner, with these two compensation ranges (via the NHL) being the most relevant:

More than $8,454,871 to $10,568,589 — two first-round picks, one second-round pick and one third-round pick

More than $10,568,589 — four first-round picks (can be spread over five-year period)

Each offer sheet possibility would be interesting. An offer right under that $10,568,589 mark would at least make things a little uncomfortable. If a team wanted to push things into the stratosphere, they could also go well over $10.57M.

Under most circumstances, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to match a Marner offer sheet, yet that doesn’t mean that another team wouldn’t want to really put Toronto in a tough spot.

Theoretically, at least. It’s also plausible that teams a) don’t want to waste their time if an offer sheet wouldn’t work, b) winced at the reaction Marc Bergevin received, c) fear retribution if their big-ticket guys become eligible for offer sheets, or d) all of the above.

Overall, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Dubas. They’ve mostly walked that tightrope with skill, and could really settle this offseason if Marner just wants to hash things out.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see at least some lane to put Toronto in an uncomfortable spot, as the other dominoes have mostly fallen. Could a team try to push the salary up above that $10.57M mark, which might mean that Toronto would have to trade a nice player such as Zach Hyman ($2.25M) to make the pieces fit? Could a team go very high AAV for three years, so Marner’s deal would overlap with possibly needing to give Frederik Andersen a raise, as the goalie’s team-friendly $5M cap hit dissolves after 2020-21?

The Maple Leafs eased concerns about other players by getting Kapanen and Johnsson locked down, so if there’s any chance Marner just wants to get this over with, I’d be inclined to hammer a deal out.

***

Even in the unlikely event that Marner signs for the same cap hit as Sebastian Aho, the trio of Marner + Auston Matthews + John Tavares costs well over $30M ($22.634M for Matthews and Tavares alone).

That statement should neatly summarize the notion that, chances are, the Maple Leafs will struggle with salary cap headaches for the duration of their window of contention, if not longer.

As we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins, it’s difficult to avoid making mistakes, although Toronto will surely hope to avoid trading Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin-type gaffes, or … doing whatever it is the Penguins think they’re doing right now.

We won’t get the Maple Leafs’ full grade until we see how they handle the final exam that is the Marner situation, but judging by this summer school salary structure session, they’ve been honor students so far.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Maple Leafs ink Kerfoot, Ceci to extensions

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Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has done a great job of creating cap space for his team, and it’s allowed him to re-sign a pair of trade acquisitions in Alex Kerfoot and Cody Ceci.

Per TSN’s Darren Dreger, Kerfoot has inked a four-year, $14 million extension ($3.5 million AAV) with the club and Ceci has signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Before these two deals were handed out, the Leafs had just over $11 million in cap space. Once these two contracts are made official, they’ll be down to roughly $3.765 million in cap space.

Kerfoot is expected to serve as the third line center for the Leafs heading into this year. Last year, that spot was occupied by Nazem Kadri, who made $4.5 million per year, so there’s a $1 million savings there. As for Ceci, he’ll serve as a replacement for Nikita Zaitsev, who was also making $4.5 million but on a long-term contract. So even though there’s no cap relief this year, there could be some coming in the near future.

The Leafs, of course, still have one more player they need to re-sign and he’s going to be expensive too. So what kind of money to they have left over for Mitch Marner?

We mentioned the $3.765 million in cap space they currently have, but that number will increase once they put Nathan Horton‘s $5.3 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve. That puts them back close $9 million in available cap space.

Including Kerfoot and Marner, Toronto has 14 forwards under contract. They’ll likely be sending at least one of those extra bodies down to the minors, which means another $700,000 could be coming off the books. They also have eight defenseman on the roster, so they can opt to carry seven guys if they wanted to.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So let’s recap the cap situation:

The Leafs currently have $3.765 million available to spend. They’ll put Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million hit on LTIR ($9.065 million in available space after that move is made). They can also send two players making roughly $700,000 each to the AHL without them counting on the cap. That would give them $10.465 million in available funds to spend on Marner. Will that be enough? No one can say for sure, but it’s in the ball park.

The team will look different when it hits the ice next year, but we always knew that was going to be the case because of the salaries they already had on the books. Dubas has done a good job of improving the roster as a whole while leaving himself some money to play with to make sure he could bring back key parts, too.

Now they just have to iron a contract out with Marner.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.