One major constant between all top teams in the salary capped National Hockey League is depth. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, and New York Rangers have deep rosters that can contribute from top to bottom. Having a reliable fourth forward line or third defensive pairing can have a huge impact on the team’s success in the course of a full season. Similarly, an unreliable fourth line that consistently turns the puck over and gets trapped in their defensive zone will have a substantial negative impact to the team in the long run.
There are still a number of unrestricted free agents (UFAs) that have statistically proven to have a positive impact on their team. Since a majority of the league’s money is already tied up in existing contracts and the free agent’s contract options may be limited, teams looking to fill a spot can acquire a proven role player for a discount. While they won’t be counted on to produce big numbers, these players will find success playing in a secondary role.
One perfect example is the Pittsburgh Penguins recent signing of forward Matt Cullen to a one year deal worth $800,000. Cullen has great possession statistics which rank higher than his ice time. Cullen gives Pittsburgh options as he can play both wing and center along with helping out the powerplay and penalty kill. Cullen has a career 54% faceoff winning percentage which helps drive possession in his team’s favor.
I’ve highlighted three free agents (2 F, 1 D) that could immediately improve a team’s depth and included the cap hit of their last contract to give an approximate starting negotiating price for the player’s services.
Brenden Morrow – F ($1,550,000)
Morrow was a reliable member of Tampa Bay’s fourth line last season but it was apparent he wasn’t going to be resigned after the Lightning signed a younger Erik Condra on July 1st and his most consistent linemates, Brian Boyle & JT Brown, were still under contract. The former two-time 30 goal scorer can still contribute at 36 years old. Morrow has transitioned well from a scoring role to a grinding role. Morrow also brings a lot of experience that includes two Stanley Cup Final appearances (‘00 with Dallas, ‘15 with Tampa Bay) and representing Canada at a handful of tournaments.
Morrow outperformed his ice time in almost every category on his HERO Chart since 2012-2013. Morrow has averaged the time on ice (TOI) per game of a fourth line player while a majority of his production categories were that of a second or third line player. Even though his CF/60 was ranked below his ice time, he still posted a positive CF% as his CA/60 was ranked very high.
Morrow’s advanced statistics showed a constant positive impact this past season. In 70 games for Tampa Bay, Morrow had a 52.1% CF% and a 1.3% CF%Rel while only starting 23.66% of all 5v5 faceoffs in the offensive zone. Morrow’s goaltenders saved the puck slightly better with him on the ice than off (0.1% Sv%Rel). To further prove the strength of Morrow’s defensive game, his 44.70 CA/60 was ranked 11th in the entire league (of qualifying players with 500+ TOI) and his –6.99 CA/60Rel was ranked 15th in the league (a negative CA/60Rel is actually a positive number as he’s giving up seven less Corsi events per 60 minutes of ice time than his teammates).
Brad Boyes – F ($2,625,000)
Similar to Morrow, Boyes is a former two-time 30 goal scorer (including 43 goals in ‘07-‘08 with St. Louis) that has changed his game as he’s gotten older. Boyes For the past six seasons, Boyes has steadily been a point per every two game player. Boyes would fit in perfectly on a team’s third line with the potential to move up into the top-six if an injury or trade came up.
While Boyes has the ice time of a high second liner over the past three seasons, he was regulated down to the third line this past season after Florida acquired Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils. None of Boyes’ production rankings really stand out in either direction on his HERO chart. None of his metrics quite reach the level of his ice time but they aren’t far off from the comparative values.
Boyes really stands out in his possession statistics relative to his teammates. This past season he posted possession statistics of 58.3% GF%, 9.7% GF%Rel, 51.6% CF%, 0.2% CF%Rel, 52.9% SCF%, 2.0% SCF%Rel, 51.6% HSCF%, 0.9% HSCF%Rel, all of which are positive values. Boyes tightened up his defensive game this past season allowing only 48.89 CA/60 which was ranked 67th in the league (this may seem weak compared to Morrow but he’s in the top 88% percentile (563 qualifying players with 500+ TOI in 2014-2015)). As Travis Yost pointed out, he is one of only 45 forwards with a positive Scoring Chances For Percentage Relative to his teammates (SCF%Rel) for each of the past five seasons.
Boyes would be a low risk signing as he’s still producing consistently and has strong possession numbers to back it up, but it is very likely that he’ll have to take a huge pay cut or sign a professional try-out (PTO) and fight for a roster spot.
David Schlemko – D ($1,187,500)
Schlemko, 28, was twice put on waivers and claimed last season (1/3 by Dallas & 3/1 by Calgary) and but found a home on Calgary’s bottom pairing playing in 19 of 20 regular season games and all of Calgary’s 11 playoff games. He averaged approximately 15 TOI per game (average workload for a depth defenseman) and was given more responsibility after Calgary’s captain and star defenseman Mark Giordano went down with an injury.
Looking at Schlemko’s HERO Chart, his impact on linemates Corsi & Goals are off the charts compared to his ice time (his ice time seems to be skewed as he was injured during the 2013-2014 season). He may not be producing individually, but he’s clearly having a positive impact when he’s on the ice. It is very possible Schlemko, a mobile puck-moving defensemen, is making the first breakout pass and not getting rewarded for his efforts on the score sheet.
Schlemko has very strong possession statistics to back up the above chart. In 55 games (combined regular season and playoffs) this season, he posted a 50.1% CF%. This is very average, but what really sets him apart from other players is his relative possession statistics. Arizona and Calgary (which totaled 50 of Schlemko’s 55 games played) were two of the worst possession teams in the league this season, but they were much stronger with Schlemko on the ice. He posted a 12.1% GF%Rel, a 4.5% CF%Rel, a 3.4% SCF%Rel, and a 5.3% HSCF%Rel. He also posted a 2.2% Sv%Rel. Even in the playoffs for Calgary, he posted strong possession numbers in both rounds.
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