The Leafs are a team that is not ready to be competitive. However, like last season they may explore the free agency market for some potential steals to flip at the deadline for picks and prospects. One name you’ll notice absent from this list is Steven Stamkos, for a number of reasons. First of all, I still believe he is likely to re-sign in Tampa. But also his decline in shot generation since the absence of Martin St. Louis and since breaking his leg is concerning for a player signing a 7 year deal. Finally his likely $10 million dollar price tag does not align with the Leafs rebuild schedule. Sorry Steven, but the timing is all wrong.
The first thing I looked at was even strength primary points per 60 (5v5 P1/60). I chose 5v5 P1/60 for a number of reasons. Primary points are better predictors of future success, as they indicate a player is either scoring or directly setting up a goal, it helps eliminate players being propped up by high scoring linemates. With P1/60 being a rate stat, it gives us a better idea of how productive a player is in the minutes he is receiving. For example, Troy Brouwer put up 38 points in 82 games this past season, which sounds like a pretty solid second line guy. But when we take a closer look, his scoring rate (1.44 points/60) was closer to that of a third/fourth liner than of a true top six winger. Whereas a player like Jonathan Drouin, who was criticized all throughout his rookie year, and into this season for being a player who doesn’t contribute enough offensively, was scoring at a rate of about half a point per 60 more then Brouwer. This is shocking when you consider their points per game rate were identical (both sitting at 0.48). What’s more impressive about Jonathan Drouin is nearly all of his points were both even strength and primary points. Brouwer on the other hand had only 25 even strength points, as a lot of his points came on the powerplay. Powerplay points have less value than even strength points because they are easier to come by, the majority of the game is played at even strength and often times powerplay points are the result of an effective system and not necessarily a reflection of a player’s own ability. We can tell from this that Drouin is much more efficient offensively and should be getting more ice time, while Brouwer should be on the bench more often. Since we’re signing to trade here, I thought offensive production was a good place to start because nothing drives up a player’s value like a flashy offensive total.
My next critera was Relative Corsi For per 60 (Rel.CF/60). This stat shows the amount of shot attempts a team has when a player is on the ice per 60 minutes, compared to his teammates. Because teams massively misevaluate player’s defensive contributions, I decided to use this stat instead of CF% which compares the amount of shot attempts for vs shot attempts against while a player is on the ice. I’m Solely looking at offensive contributions here. If a team is shooting more when a player is on the ice, it’s likely more goals are going in.
The third thing I looked at was how a player shoots. A lot can be learned from a player’s shooting percentage compared to his career average. If a player is constantly shooting at around 8.5% his entire career and has a season of 13.2% in which he scores a bunch of goals, the safe bet is that one year is an outlier (The Maple Leafs learned this the hard way with David Clarkson, who’s stats I just used for the example). A much safer way to predict future goals is shot volume. A player has little control on his shooting percentage. Sure, he can choose the distance at which he shoots, but in general it’s out of his control. He can control how often he shoots though. A player with high shot generation and an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage can be recipe for a steal in free agency.
The main purpose of the first three criteria was to sort through the large sample of available free agents. It gives us a good idea of how much a player contributes offensively. The ideal player for us is one who did well in all of these stats (obviously) but did not put up gaudy offensive totals. Lee Stempniak is a good example of this. He fared well in these metrics during the 2014-2015 season and went on to be a steal for the Devils and was flipped for picks at the deadline. The advantage to being a bad team is that it gives you more room to try experiments, and see what works. If a cheap free agent doesn’t pan out, you’re no worse off than you were before.
Forwards Who Fit The Bill
After checking out the list of eligible forwards who matched up with what I was looking for, I came up with an interesting list of candidates along with my best estimate as to what they might make on their next contracts. For our purposes, we’re only looking for players who will accept a one year deal, so obviously anyone who wouldn’t, could be removed from the list.
|Player (Forwards)||Estimated Cap Hit (2016-2017)|
(*Bennett is RFA, though it is rumoured he will not receive a qualifying offer from the Penguins)
Versteeg was far and away the best player on my list in terms of Corsi For. His teams took just over 10 more shot attempts per 60 while he was on the ice. He produces offense at a solid second line rate. Versteeg however is not an unknown commodity. In fact over his last six seasons, he’s played for six teams. He still does not receive the credit he deserves and could really rack up the points if given the minutes. When the Hurricanes traded Versteeg to the Kings at the deadline they received Valentin Zykov, a talented yet unproven rookie pro playing in the AHL, and a conditional 5th round pick. There’s no reason to expect the Maple Leafs couldn’t get back a similar return, or more for a player that was won two Stanley Cups. He must “know how to win” as old school hockey guys would put it. His asking price might be a bit more then the Leafs are looking to spend, and he might be looking for more long term stability given how often he’s been moved, but he certainly should be a player of interest for the Leafs.
Matthias is a player Leafs fans should already be familiar with given he was a Leaf until the trade deadline. Matthias wasn’t the strongest at getting his teammates to generate scoring chances this season, but that’s not to say he is without value. Matthias’ goal scoring rate was well into first line territory and his primary point production was significantly higher than anyone else on the list. As I mentioned earlier, nothing drives a player’s value like a big offensive total, especially one that includes 20+ goals which Matthias definitely has the potential to reach. He thrived under more minutes with the Avalanche and might be willing to return to the Leafs, much like Daniel Winnik. Shawn has proven he is at worst a valuable third line centre, and has the size a playoff team would like to add. For anything around the $2-2.5 million mark, he’d be a good buy.
Sam Gagner is sort of the anti-Matthias in terms of the metrics I looked for. Very good possession player, not so great offensive production. Sam gets overlooked at times because he is a relatively small player, and he never quite matched the expectations he set after a rookie season that saw him post 49 points in 79 games with the Oilers as an 18 year old. One of the most impressive things about Gagner is that while he is only 26 years old, he just completed his 9th NHL season. Gagner had a tough season with the Flyers that saw him as a frequent healthy scratch and he even spent some time in the AHL. I took a shot in the dark with my estimate of his salary, because he really could go for anything between league minimum up to the $2,000,000 range. When there is uncertainty like that, there is often a chance for a team to reap the rewards, as the NHL in general is a very risk averse league.
Beau Bennett is probably the most intriguing of the names on my list. He was a first round pick in 2010, but is the only player in the NHL that even Joffrey Lupul could call injury prone. After returning from injury at one point this season, Bennett was injured in his first shift back on the ice. While he hasn’t exactly been brilliant when he has played, he has proven he is an NHL player. He produces at around a third line rate, and is decent at generating scoring chances. He is still young enough (24) that there’s room for him to grow, but we’re getting towards the “he is what he is” stage of his career. If he could manage to stay healthy for a full year he’d probably chalk up 25-30 points, and for below $1,000,000 he is worth the risk. Bennett was recently traded to the New Jersey Devils, who did not tender a qualifying offer, which means Bennett is able to become UFA July 1st, but still could sign with the Devils.
If there’s one thing teams love to overpay for at the trade deadline, it’s cheap depth scoring (looking at you Penguins and Blackhawks). Picking up talented players for cheap is not necessarily easy but there are definitely options out there. Any advantage in a salary cap league is one that needs to be exploited and effective use of free agency can’t be understated. However it’s important for teams not to get caught up in the flash of a superstar goal scorer, and derail their rebuild. The Leafs are bad right now, and it’s exactly where the need to be.