Earlier this week, I talked about how the Winnipeg Jets and Dustin Byfuglien reaching an agreement on a five-year contract extension significantly raised the value of Keith Yandle, both as a rental at the trade deadline and on the free agent market come July. It isn’t just Yandle who’s going to enjoy an increase in value thanks to Big Buff’s new contract, though. Alex Goligoski, who’s been a minute-munching machine for the Dallas Stars over the past few years, is certainly going to be a coveted asset on the open market this summer.
Since the Stars are already pretty thin on defence and they’re gearing up for a long playoff run, it would be absolutely shocking if Goligoski was moved before the deadline on Feb. 29. That said, there’s no guarantee that him and the Stars are going to get a new contract worked out. Not only do they need to be careful with their spending, as Jamie Benn is set to become a UFA in July 2017, but they also have another low-key defensive rock in Jason Demers hitting free agency this summer.
This summer, it’s probably going to come down to one or the other in Dallas with Goligoski and Demers. But which player is the right one to invest in?
Who is Alex Goligoski?
It doesn’t really seem like all that long ago, but back in 2011, the Stars acquired Goligoski from the Pittsburgh Penguins in shocking trade for James Neal and Matt Niskanen. At the time, it looked like an absolute fleece by the Penguins. Neal was just 23 years old and already had a 27 goal season under his belt, and Niskanen didn’t really appear to be all that big of a downgrade on Goligoski. It made some sense, as the Stars had Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson also emerging on the wings, while the Penguins needed a triggerman for Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin and had depth on defence in Kris Letang and Paul Martin, but watching Neal score 40 goals the following season certainly gave Goligoski some added pressure to perform.
Now, nearly five years later, the trade doesn’t look all that lopsided. Neal was sent to the Nashville Predators in a trade for Patric Hornqvist, while Niskanen signed with the Washington Capitals as a free agent a couple of summers ago. In contrast, after somewhat of a slow start, Goligoski has been one of the few shining stars on Dallas’ blue line over the past few years. He’s averaged at least 22 minutes of ice time and 0.40 points per game since joining the Stars, and he’s consistently been a positive possession player regardless of who his partner is and which situations he’s asked to play in.
The most impressive thing about Goligoski is that he almost always makes his linemates possession numbers better when they’re on the ice together. In terms of defensive partners, before finding a steady one in John Klingberg last year, Goligoski played with Stephane Robidas, Philip Larsen, Brenden Dillion, Trevor Daley, and Jordie Benn over his career in Dallas, and in every situation aside from the one with Daley, he made the other player better. For example, in 2011-12, him and Larsen had a 51.3 Corsi For percentage as a pairing. But when they were split up, Larsen’s Corsi dropped to 49.5, while Goligoski’s jumped to 56.4. Same thing with him and Robidas that year. Their Corsi as a pair was 60.1, but when split up, Robidas dropped to 49.6, while Goligoski remained solid at 52.6.
Anyways, long story short, Goligoski has been a damn good player for the Stars. And while he doesn’t produce at an elite level, his possession numbers indicate that the team is much better when he’s on the ice than they are when he isn’t.
Who is Jason Demers?
Like with Goligoski, the Stars acquired Jason Demers via trade. Of course, the deal that sent Brenden Dillion to San Jose in exchange for Demers in 2014 wasn’t as publicized or controversial as the one that netted them Goligoski a few years earlier, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good one.
Since joining the Stars, Demers has an impressive Corsi For percentage of 54.4 over 112 games while playing in primarily defensive assignments. On the other side, after performing well with the Sharks last season and earning a five-year, $16.35 million extension, Dillon has had a pretty rough time this year. Through 52 games, he only has one goal and five assists, and his 48.4 Corsi For percentage ranks last among San Jose’s regular defencemen.
Anyways, this isn’t an article to rag on Brenden Dillon or to suggest that the Stars fleeced them in that trade, it’s mainly to illustrate that Dallas has found themselves an excellent asset in Demers.
Since he’s only been with the Stars for parts of two seasons, there isn’t as much in terms of data to analyze, but with the numbers we do have, his contribution is very apparent. Since joining the Stars, nobody has done a better job in suppressing offence as Demers has, as he ranks at the top of the list in terms of both Corsi Against per hour and Scoring Chances Against per hour at even strength. And, of course, as a result, he’s allowing only 1.96 goals against per 60 minutes at even strength, making him one of the league’s elite at shutting down the opponent.
What are they worth?
That leads us to the important question of what each player will command on their next contract, and consequently, which one is more likely to stick around in Dallas.
I’ll start with Goligoski, who’s obviously the bigger name of the two. Over the past three seasons, Goligoski has produced 0.97 points per hour at even strength, good for 20th among defencemen who have played at least 1500 minutes. In terms of possession, he owns a 53.3 Corsi For percentage, thanks largely to the the 62.95 shot attempts per hour he’s produced over that time. With his production and possession numbers considered, coupled with the fact he’s been a consistent performer who’s performed admirably in different situations while playing top-pairing minutes, you have a very attractive asset in Alex Goligoski. He’s going to be 31 years old at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, meaning this is probably going to be the last time he hits the open market while in his prime. With all that considered, he’s going to be seeking a pretty significant pay raise from his current $4.6 annual salary.
Judging by other defencemen who have signed new contracts recently, there’s no reason he shouldn’t. Last March, Johnny Boychuk, who was 31 at the time, and the Islanders agreed on a seven-year, $6 million annual extension that would essentially take the defenceman to the end of his career. Boychuk makes a pretty nice point of reference for determining what Goligoski should command, as the two of them have produced at a similar rate over the past few seasons and are reaching free agency at a similar age. So unless he decides to take a pretty hefty pay cut to play somewhere, the starting point for Goligoski should be the $42 million over seven years that Boychuk got.
Let’s look at Jason Demers now. Right now, Demers is nearing the end of a two-year, $6.8 million deal that he signed back in San Jose. He’s going to be 28 years old at the beginning of next season, so this is the first time he’s hit unrestricted free agency in his career.
When looking at the Hero Chart posted above, it’s pretty clear that Demers belongs in the same category in terms of value as Goligoski. In fact, judging by these numbers, Demers is arguably the better player. Their production is virtually identical, and while Goligoski has the edge in shot attempts and goals produced, Demers has been better at suppressing opposing shot attempts and goals. The only difference here is that Goligoski has more exposure, as he’s consistently logged more minutes of ice time per game than Demers has. But when you isolate for just this season, Goligoski plays just under two minutes more per game than Demers does, so the difference really isn’t all that significant.
It’s tough to say exactly what Demers will command on his next deal, but it’s pretty reasonable to say that it won’t be as much as Goligoski will considering the former doesn’t have the same experience playing and producing at a top pairing level like the latter does. That said, the underlying numbers suggest that these two players really aren’t that far off. Obviously it would be ideal to sign them both, but if you’re only able to keep one of them, Demers would be the smart choice. While there’s a risk in that he hasn’t yet played in as significant a role as Goligoski, he’s younger and he likely comes at a cheaper price. And that’s important for the Stars, as they’re going to have to start thinking about Jamie Benn’s next contract pretty soon.