Scouring the upcoming free agent class for some potential UFA bargains

Pass it to Bulis

The Canucks have gotten themselves into trouble in free agency over the last few years. Loui Eriksson is the big one, a $6 million albatross that still has three more years left on his contract as he’s sunk to the fourth line, but with Eriksson are more minor missteps like Jay Beagle, Tim Schaller, and Matt Bartkowski.

This isn’t unusual: GMs around the NHL make their biggest mistakes in the free agent frenzy, frequently overpaying players and landing themselves in salary cap trouble. The Oilers certainly regret signing Milan Lucic and the Flames can’t be happy that James Neal is signed for four more years.

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Yet, there are bargains to be found in free agency. It’s just sometimes difficult to see who those bargains are going to be. One way, would be to use a contract projection model and see which projected contracts don’t fit a player’s real value.

We’ve talked about the contract projections from Evolving Hockey before, when we looked at their projection for Brock Boeser. While the original projection was a 7-year deal worth ~$7.4 million, revisions to the model have dropped that number down to around $7 million. We’ll see where that number actually lands when Boeser re-signs: My guess is it will land closer to the original $7.4 million projection.

Jeremy Crowe, a data and video analyst for the Mississauga Steelheads in the OHL, added an interesting wrinkle to the contract projections. He combined the projections with Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) statistic.

 

 

What is GAR? It’s a concept borrowed from baseball and adapted to hockey that attempts to assess a player’s value compared to a replacement-level player, ie. a player readily available on waivers or in the AHL.

I spoke to Josh and Luke Younggren, the twins behind Evolving Hockey, about their GAR model last year in a discussion about Quality of Competition. They use regression in their model to account for contextual factors like usage and teammates.

Elias Pettersson was a beast last season in GAR and its close relative, Wins Above Replacement (WAR). He finished the season with 15.7 GAR, good for 33rd in the NHL, and well above the next best Canuck, Brock Boeser, who had 8.9 GAR. The league leader in GAR last season was Sidney Crosby, at 24.9.

GAR doesn’t perfectly capture a player’s value to his team — no statistic can — but it’s a good starting point. So, combining GAR with contract projections can show us which players might be overvalued and, more intriguingly, which players might be undervalued.

For example, Erik Karlsson is at the top of the defenceman chart, as ranked by projected cap hit. He’s the biggest target among UFA defencemen and will fetch a premium price. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a team pony up around $10 million per year for Karlsson on a 7-year contract (only the Sharks can offer him eight years).

What might be surprising is that his GAR suggests that is just the right price for Karlsson: neither an overpayment nor an underpayment. If injury concerns cause that number to drop, perhaps Karlsson could even be considered a bargain.

Who are the defencemen to stay away from? Ron Hainsey and Jordie Benn look like mid-range defencemen to avoid; neither is outright terrible, but not worth the likely contract they’ll receive. If you’re looking to sign a bargain on a near-league-minimum salary, you should probably steer clear of Bogdan Kiselevich and Jaycob Megna.

You might notice that some defencemen don’t show up on this list at all, like Tyler Myers, Brooks Orpik, or Luke Schenn. That’s because those defencemen have had a negative GAR over the last couple seasons, suggesting they have a detrimental effect on their team. While Hainsey, Benn, Kiselevich, and Megna may not be great value, they have at least had a positive impact over the last couple seasons.

In other words, a player like Myers should be avoided at almost all costs, particularly the high ones. Schenn is only palatable as a 6th or 7th defenceman on a league-minimum salary, and there are likely better players available to fill that role.

There are some intriguing defencemen that might be undervalued, however. Over the past couple seasons, Jake Gardiner has provided a similar GAR to Erik Karlsson, but he won’t get paid like Karlsson. Given his less-than-stellar reputation in the defensive zone, Gardiner might not be the most popular signing, but if he can be signed for under $7 million, he’d be good value on the left side for the Canucks, particularly if they have trouble re-signing Alex Edler.

If the Canucks are looking for an experienced veteran on defence, Ben Lovejoy or Dan Girardi would make sense at around $1.5 million for one year. They’re both right-handed shots, so maybe they could slot in above Schenn or Alex Biega. Personally, I’m not sold on either one, but that’s for a deeper dive at another time.

Digging deeper for some real bargains, we get to Carl Gunnarsson. On this list of UFA defencemen, he actually has the third-highest GAR over the last two seasons, behind just Karlsson and Gardiner. And yet, he’s projected to receive a one-year contract worth ~$730k.

That’s a combination of limited ice time and even more limited scoring. Over the last two seasons, Gunnarsson has just 16 points in 88 games, and he was sixth in average ice time among defencemen for the St. Louis Blues this season. He’s a third-pairing, stay-at-home defenceman, and that type of player doesn’t usually make a lot of money.

Carl Gunnarsson Luke Schenn RAPM chart - May 24, 2019

Here’s the thing: Gunnarsson is pretty dang effective in the defensive zone. If you’re going to have a third-pairing, stay-at-home guy, you could do a lot worse. He was better last season, when he had the eight-lowest rate of goals against among all NHL defenceman, than he was this season, but he was still decent.

You can see his defensive impact (and complete lack of offence) in his heat maps from Hockey Viz. He can also be a very effective penalty killer.

carl gunnarsson heat map - May 24, 2019

Gunnarsson seems like a good candidate to sign to a cheap contract as insurance if young defencemen like Olli Juolevi, Ashton Sautner, Josh Teves, or Brogan Rafferty aren’t ready for full-time NHL duty. With Derrick Pouliot going to free agency, adding a veteran on the left side for depth makes some sense.

It’s also worth noting that Gunnarsson has played on the right side at times for the Blues, so he provides some versatility.

Then there are the forwards.

Once again, there are some forwards not on this list because they’ve had a negative GAR over the past two seasons: Wayne Simmonds, Marcus Johansson, Derick Brassard, and Valtteri Filppula, among others.

There are some definite players to avoid: Alex Chiasson, Patrick Maroon, and Brian Boyle look unlikely to be worth their next contracts. Brock Nelson has already re-signed with the New York Islanders, and his $6 million contract looks like a pretty significant overpay considering he already looked a little overvalued at a projected ~$4.5 million.

Then we get to the potentially undervalued players. Gustav Nyquist and Micheal Ferland look like moderate value signings at their projected contracts. Ferland has been linked to the Canucks already and the concern is less with the player himself than with the possibility that the Canucks might overpay: around $4 million per year makes sense; over $5 million does not.

The real potential bargains are further down the list. Ryan Biech at The Athletic already identified Joonas Donskoi as a potential player of interest for the Canucks, so seeing him pop up as one of the bigger undervalued players reaffirms that suggestion. He could be a good option as a second-line winger with his ability to push puck possession.

Personally, I find Carl Hagelin intriguing. If Evolving Hockey’s projection of a three-year, ~$2.4 million contract is at all reflective of what Hagelin will actually receive in free agency, the Canucks should definitely be interested.

The trouble is, Hagelin’s contract probably won’t be that cheap. He made $4 million on his last contract and will likely get similar offers in free agency. The Capitals certainly seem interested in bringing Hagelin back.

It’s understandable, as Hagelin is a two-way force of nature. While he doesn’t rack up points, he drives possession like few other wingers. The combination of his speed and savvy defensive play make him one of the better defensive forwards in the NHL and also make him a useful penalty killer.

You can see his impact in his heat maps from Hockey Viz, that show just how little the opposition accomplishes when he is on the ice. He’s not a great finisher, but the Canucks could use a little more puck possession and Hagelin could easily slot in on the second or third line.

Carl Hagelin heatmap - May 24, 2019

Less exciting, but still a bargain, would be Garnet Hathaway, who would represent an upgrade on the likes of Tim Schaller, Ryan Spooner, and Tyler Motte in the bottom six. Hathaway is a tough, gritty player, whose moderately decent two-way play at even-strength is overshadowed by his excellent penalty killing.

Over the last two seasons, just four forwards have been on the penalty kill for a lower rate of unblocked shots against than Hathaway. In other words, when he’s on the ice while shorthanded, the opposition gets very few scoring chances. As a result, opposing penalty kills have averaged just 4.34 goals per hour with Hathaway on the ice over the past two season, the sixth-lowest rate among forwards in that time.

I don’t really want to see the Canucks add more veteran bottom-six forwards at the expense of opportunities for their rookies. They could, however, add someone like Hathaway on a cheaper contract and look to move players like Schaller, Spooner, and Motte, or maybe even try to trade Markus Granlund.

As much as the Canucks have a glut of bottom-six wingers, that doesn’t mean upgrading the fourth line isn’t a worthwhile endeavour. The Canucks need improvement throughout the lineup. While the Canucks need top-six help more, Hathaway could make sense on a bargain contract.

If the Canucks are looking for elite talent at defence and forward, Erik Karlsson and Artemi Panarin look like they’ll give you value equivalent to their contract. If they sign elsewhere (which seems very likely), the Canucks need to be careful. There are bargains to be had in free agency, but pursuing players like Tyler Myers and Wayne Simmonds could be a costly mistake.
 

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