July 1st is the day unrestricted free agents are allowed to sign with any team. But there are many a bad contract that have been signed, then bought out a year or two later. Deals like these create cap crunches that can cripple a team looking to compete. So how do we avoid bad deals? Well there are usually some red flags that we can look out for to help avoid bad contracts.
Red Flag #1: First thing to look at is player history. If a player has one season in which they score 30 goals, but every other year of their career they scored in the 12-15 range, it’s unlikely they are going to repeat. For example, David Clarkson’s career goal totals before he signed his monster contract with the Leafs were as follows: 9, 17, 11, 12, 30, 15. Notice any outliers? Clarkson had never even hit 20 in any other season, yet the Leafs were expecting, and paying him to be a 30 goal scorer which he simply is not.
Red Flag #2: Shooting percentage. Again, I could use Clarkson as an example, but alas I shall choose Ville Leino. Over the course of his NHL career Ville scored on 11.8% of his shots. The year before he signed his big contract with the Sabres, he scored on 16.2% of his shots, which is around Steven Stamkos territory. Had the Sabres taken note of this, they might not have signed Leino (who by the way, floundered of the KHL into the Swedish league this year for those wondering where he is now)
Red Flag #3: Goals vs assists ratio. If a player has a significantly higher goal total then assist total, this is something to be wary of. Typically players have more assists than goals, so when the opposite is true, it could be a results of getting lucky or maybe a high shooting percentage. Some players are naturally better goal scorers than playmakers, like Ovechkin, but those players are not likely to be found on the open market. This is something to be cautious of.
Red Flag #4: Player age. This one seems like common sense, but if you look at some of the contracts that are signed, it’s clearly not common sense for some GM’s. Brad Richards signed a 9 year contract in New York in 2011, when he was 31. If you’re buying a player’s mid-late 30’s years and hoping he will be the same player as he was when he was 25, you will be sorrily disappointed. July 1st is not a day to pay for past performance.
Red Flag #5: Playing style. Players who block shots, and are more physical are likely to decline faster than ones who do not. For this reason, I would avoid signing Milan Lucic to a long term contract, as his game is very heavy and based on his physicality. This is seen as a benefit to his team, but it won’t when he is on the wrong side of thirty and being paid like a 27 year old.
Red Flag #6: Long term contracts in general. For every good long term UFA signing, there are three bad ones. If you look at recent Stanley Cup winners, they aren’t built on free agency. The Pittsburgh Penguins highest paid UFA signing on their cup winning team was Eric Fehr at $2 million. Other than him, there was young guys like Sheary and Rust, but they make under a million and were signed as prospects. You simply don’t win because of big UFA signings. Unrestricted free agency is a great tool for adding depth, and fillings gaps. But not good for adding core players.
Red Flag #7: Injury history. Stephen Weiss played only 17 games the season before he signed with the Red Wings and had a grand total of 4 points. Weiss played parts of two very injury riddled season with the Wings before he was bought out. If a player is never able to play a whole season, why would you count on them to be able to do so in the future?
Red Flag #8: Quality of linemates. I’m fairly confident if you put me on Crosby’s wing right now, I could pot 20 goals and earn a spot on the World Cup team. If someone plays well only when they have elite linemates, it’s likely they are being propped up by those players, and might not be as good as their raw point totals suggest. I mean, playing with Jake Gardiner this year made Dion Phaneuf tradeable, so yeah.
Red Flag #9: Offensive zone starts. Players who start their shift in the offensive zone more often are more likely to score more. This is a large reason Patrick Kane was able to put up the offensive totals he did this season, Coach Q give him very heavy offensive zone starts. This isn’t to say Kane didn’t have a great year, only that he probably wouldn’t have had as many points as he did if it weren’t for his favourable zone starts.
Red Flag #10: Grit tax. How much value does physicality bring to the team? Probably not as much as you’re going to blow on that player that you’re thinking of. Yes, you know the one. Whether it’s Lucic or Backes or Brouwer, they will all be overpaid because they are big and mean. If you’re looking for gritty players, they can be found cheap without sacrificing cap flexible in order for grit.