If you’re a team looking to add quality defencemen or solidify your goaltending, this summer’s Unrestricted Free Agent market has plenty of interesting options available. In terms of forwards, not so much. Solid goaltenders and defencemen headline this year’s market of players seeking significant paydays, while the options for high quality, impact forwards are few and far between. That being said, there’s always a handful of solid depth options available, and this year is no different. Unfortunately, since the crop of forwards this year is relatively thin, somebody is probably going to end up overpaying for a forward who simply isn’t as good as their contract will justify.
After the jump, I’ll take a look at some of the interesting names on the market, and which ones are actually going to be worth the dollars that they’re likely going to command. Long story short, this probably isn’t the best summer to empty your pockets for free agent forwards.
Vermette was one of the biggest names available at this year’s Trade Deadline, and it’s safe to say he hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations the Blackhawks had when they acquired him. In 19 games before the playoffs, Vermette had a difficult time in Chicago, scoring no goals and three assists. He maintained a similar Corsi For percentage in that span to the one he had in Arizona, but his Corsi relative to his teammates dropped significantly. All in all, his subpar performance in a small time frame with the Hawks really shouldn’t alter how teams perceive him based on his career performance. Vermette’s last deal, $18.75 mil over five years, was signed when he was 27 years old coming off the best season of his career with the Blue Jackets. While he hasn’t managed to produce the 27 goals he scored before earning that deal, Vermette has consistently been a solid producer and decent possession player despite getting pretty heavy defensive zone starts. That being said, his game has declined somewhat over the years with the Coyotes, but that could also be a symptom of playing on a really bad team. Due to the market being fairly thin, Vermette is going to be looking at a pay raise from his $3.75 million cap hit this summer. He probably won’t be worth as much as he commands, but hey, it’s free agency. Teams who are interested in his services should be looking to sign him to a shorter term deal at a higher cap hit rather than a longer, cheaper deal. His game is likely going to continue to trend downwards, so signing him for anything more than three or four years is a pretty big risk.
St. Louis’ game has fallen off a cliff since joining the Rangers at last year’s trade deadline. In 74 games with the Rangers this year, St. Louis had a Corsi For percentage of 47.6 at even strength, which was the lowest in relation to his teammates of his career since the league started tracking this stuff. His 162 even strength shot attempts this year is also significantly below his usual mark, considering in the 48 game lockout shortened season back in 2013, he managed 134. Despite all that, St. Louis is still a serviceable player, if he’s signed to a sweetheart deal. He still managed to score 22 goals, with 16 of them coming at even strength this season. He’s coming off a deal he signed in 2011 with the Lightning that paid him $22.5 million over four years, giving him a cap hit of $5.625 million. He’s turning 40 this summer so his game is obviously going to continue to slide. Still, he can be a valuable offensive producer on a cheap, one or two year contract for a team that’s on the brink of winning with cap space to spare.
In the 2011 offseason, Joel Ward cashed in on a really good playoff performance. This summer, he’s probably going to do it again. Back in 2011, Ward scored seven goals in 12 playoff games with the Predators and was offered a deal that paid him $12 million over four years. He was pretty bad at the beginning of the deal, but then made it worth Washington’s while in the last two seasons, scoring a combined 43 goals while playing in all 164 possible games. Like I said, Ward is likely going to cash in on another good postseason with the Caps. Ward’s even strength Corsi For percentage went from 50 per cent in the regular season to 57.5 per cent in the playoffs despite the fact he saw a slight decrease in offensive zone starts. Ward has been a pretty solid player throughout his career. He’s always around 50 per cent in terms of Corsi For and he always manages to produce at even strength. In his one really bad year with the Caps, he scored six goals due in part to him having a career low in both PDO and shooting percentage. That being said, Ward is going to be turning 35 in December, so while he’ll certainly be effective on a short term deal, giving him any more than three years could turn ugly. Joel Ward at his current $3 million cap hit over two or three years would be ideal, but I expect somebody will throe more money at him, because that’s just what teams do, and it won’t be worth it.
Speaking of cashing in on a big playoff performance, Justin Williams is hitting the open market this summer. I’m sure he’s wishing this happened a year earlier, though, since he was just coming off of a Conn Smythe performance with the Kings. Regardless, Justin Williams is going to get paid this summer, and the team doing so won’t be making an awful decision. His team has the puck way more than their opponents do when he’s on the ice, in fact, the lowest Corsi For percentage at even strength he’s had since joining the Kings was 56.4 per cent. This also isn’t just due to him being on a good team. Since his first full season with the Kings in 2009-10, Williams has been a possession player in relation to his teammates despite making pretty heavy defensive zone starts. Obviously his game is going to deteriorate as he gets older, since he’s 33, and he’ll likely suffer a little bit from not being on the Kings, unless he completely falls off a cliff, he’s going to be a, above average player who can produce and drive possession. I’m sure somebody is going to offer him something like $4.5 million over four years, and it actually won’t be terrible. I mean, there are a lot of guys out there who won’t be worth the money they’re being paid, because that’s free agency, but Williams may actually be worth it, because even if his peripheral stats take a step back, he’s still well above the average NHL player.
Wow, Shawn Horcoff’s deal is finally over. He was paid $33 million over six years, giving him a cap hit of $5.5 million. Horcoff at $5.5 is awful value. Horcoff at $2.5 million isn’t bad at all. Obviously he was plagued by the fact he was overpaid on an awful Edmonton team all those years, but his underlying stats suggest that he’s a pretty solid depth player. His team doesn’t really produce much offence when he’s on the ice, but the other team doesn’t either. Since having him minutes chopped down in Dallas, Horcoff has maintained a respectable 50.7 Corsi For percentage at even strength while making a fair amount of his starts in the defensive zone. He’s 36 years old, so his game isn’t going to get any better, but he probably has another couple of years left in the tank as a solid depth option at a cheap price.
Remember when the Washington Capitals traded Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat? Wow, that was terrible. Now you can have him for free! Well, at least damn near next to nothing after the way he’s been producing over the past few seasons. He was a pretty good possession player in Nashville who made a bunch of defensive zone starts, then he went to Washington where his peripheral stats took a slight him, but his production fell off a cliff. It’s difficult to explain why he was so unsuccessful in Washington, because he didn’t have a low PDO or anything, any his Corsi For percentage wasn’t that far below his career average. Anyways, he went on to Arizona, and his possession peripherals went back up, but the scoring didn’t. He had a positive Corsi For percentage with the Coyotes that was great in relation to his teammates, and he made a boatload of defensive zone starts, but he only managed to score 11 goals in 86 games. Judging by his underlying stats, Erat is a really good player to take a risk on. Like i said, he’ll command almost nothing on the market so it’s a risk that certainly won’t end up hurting anybody. Even if he isn’t producing, he’s a solid possession player who can play tough assignments.
The Predators have said that re-signing Mike Fisher and Mike Ribeiro are two of their biggest offseason priorities. Nashville certainly has the cap to keep both of them around, but it’s difficult to say how high they’re willing to go with them. Fisher is coming to the end of a two year deal that paid him $8.4 million, and in those two years he had a couple of his most successful seasons in terms of offensive production in his career. His peripheral stats had a bit of a spike this year, as he put up the best even strength Corsi For percentage of his career. This is partially because his team took a big step forward, but there’s also some individual merit there too as he put up one of the best relative Corsi For percentages in his career last year. He’s been really consistent since joining the Predators, and his game actually took a step forward last year. It’s reasonable to assume he’ll take a step back to his career norms, but if that’s the case, he’s worth what he’s making right now for another two or three years. If he’s looking for a huge payday off of a good season, though, whoever gives it to him is going to get burned.
Ribeiro signed a one year “show me” contract with the Predators last summer after being bought out by the Arizona Coyotes. He had a much better season with the Predators on his “save my career” deal than he did after signing a big deal in Arizona, but his season with the Coyotes actually wasn’t that awful. His 52.8 in 2013-14 Corsi For percentage at even strength was the best of his career since the 2008-09 season in which he scored 78 points, and it was good in relation to his teammates. This year he took a step forward, like Fisher, partially because he was on a better team, but he also had far and away the biggest positive margin of Corsi For relative to his teammates in his career. He’s consistently started more shifts in the defensive zone than the offensive zone through his career, the one thing that seems to fluctuate is his shooting percentage which is all over the grid. If you’re paying for Mike Ribeiro, you’re going to get a player who can drive possession and put up some solid production numbers. He’s definitely worth the gamble, especially if it’s at a shorter term for more money.
Speaking of “save my career deals,” Brad Richards is having a pretty decent playoff run with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s another guy who, like Ribeiro, was bought out last season and found himself a nice home on a good team, and will likely get a nice contract in the offseason because of it. He actually wasn’t that bad with the Rangers. He had a ~54 Corsi For percentage at even strength in both 2012-13 and 2013-14, a figure he’s matched again this season with the Hawks. He has good peripheral stats and he’s been strong in relation to his teammates. His goal scoring production has been poor the last couple seasons, largely because his shooting percentage has been 7.7 and 6.0 respectively. Those numbers are really bad, but they actually aren’t that far off his career average of 8.8. Regardless, he isn’t going to be commanding much on the free agent market because his 12 goals and 25 assists on a strong Blackhawks team isn’t all that impressive, but he would make a really nice buy low candidate.
See a common trend here? Players in free agency are generally worth it you’re able to sign them at a high price for a shorter term. Groundbreaking! This is difficult though, because players are looking for the longer term because they realize there’s a decent chance their game is going to deteriorate as they get older. If that’s the case, teams are best to walk away from most of these guys, and try a cheaper option, because signing a depth forward, which most of the available UFA forwards are to a big cap hit for more than two years is going to really sting when their game falls off a cliff. This isn’t the summer is go nuts on forwards, because the market is thin enough than Antoine Vermette seems like a superstar.