I know that the first round of the playoffs are only beginning, but I can promise you that NHL general managers have been doing their homework and have a plan for the multitude of acquisition possibilities in the postseason. Between trades, pick-ups, and the draft coming up, it really is the busiest time of the year for front offices across the league. It is the most exciting time for the fans outside of the games themselves. In this series, I wanted to cover just the unrestricted free agent market and some moves I would like to see. Keep in mind these are not predictions of the future, but rather interesting scenarios I could see possibly happening.
- Darcy Kuemper to the Avalanche
When we look at the season that Colorado had, there were definitely more than a handful of issues that put them at the bottom of the league. While one player will not fix everything wrong with the current state of the team, I wanted to see if they could improve upon something that is currently plaguing the team in the goals against column. Goaltending. Their highest paid goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, only sported a .898 save percentage when he was healthy this year and, as of right now, he is recovering from a groin injury. Something drastic needs to happen if Colorado are expecting to win more games in 2017-18. Now they could by all means use their early draft pick to collect an amazing netminder to remedy this, but I think their opportunity is better spent on the offense. Grabbing a young prospect is going to help the team more than something as unpredictable as a goalie prospect. Right now, I think that Colorado should look to the Minnesota Wild for a strong solution.
With the Wild having huge cap hits like Niederreiter and Granlund becoming restricted free agents after this season, there is not a lot of open money to go around in Minnesota, assuming they want to keep these huge impact players around. Should the Wild make a deep playoff run, I expect these two to ask for a well deserved raise. If the Wild realize that they cannot easily afford a huge back end investment after this, I think the Avalanche should make a play for Minnesota goalie Darcy Kuemper. They can negotiate a reasonable cap hit, and with Avs backup Jeremy Smith an unrestricted free agent after this season as well, things could line up perfectly here. Smith’s $675K USD cap hit is a much better bargain than Kuemper’s $1.25MIL, but let’s see if the Wild are getting what they are paying for in a direct comparison to Jeremy Smith.
Looking at the stats, save percentage for games started have Smith at .884 and Kuemper at .909. Not the most impressive numbers for starters, but that insurance edge is what we are looking for here. In games started, Kuemper faces a 53.54% Corsi Against* (blocked and unblocked shot attempts against). When compared to Smith facing 50.22% we can see that Kuemper is rising to an even tougher challenge with better results. Building this team up will take time, and I believe this is a worthwhile and reasonable place to start. The risk of doubling what you’re paying for a backup goalie is a not easy to jump on, but when things are as bad as they are, it should be considered. Colorado may not be be anyone’s ideal destination, but hypotheticals are fun, right?
*The reason I am using Corsi rather than just shots on goal here is to show the difference in team possession the goalie faced on the nights represented. Blocked or not, the goalie had to work to track the puck.
- Sam Gagner stays in Columbus
I do not believe anyone that says that the success the Columbus Blue Jackets had this year was expected. New players and a new coach have all contributed to one of the biggest comeback stories the league saw this season. I have outlined much of this in my article about Zach Werenski. While Werenski has contributed to the impressive power play we saw in Ohio, Forward Sam Gagner (pronounced GONE-yay) has quietly been crushing it in 5v5 play. The Blue Jackets got Gagner on the cheaper side after his sliding performances in Philadelphia and Arizona. Only a $650K cap hit for the team, Gagner has more than proven that he is able to elevate the 3rd and 4th lines to exceptional play, and in the toughest division in the league, depth is a necessary trait for every team. If Columbus hopes to repeat success from this season, they need to keep the players making a difference.
Thanks to images provided by www.hockeyviz.com, we can take a better look at a visual representation of the impactful numbers Gagner is producing.
What we are basically looking at in the left graph is the contribution of possession metrics provided. The blue square representing Gagner show us that compared to the team average, opposing teams take fewer shots AND Columbus takes more shots while he is on the ice (hence the proximity to the corner marked “Good”). On the right, we see that the team average for scoring goals vs goals allowed is much higher than the NHL average, but Gagner is still contributing above even that level. This can be better understood by seeing where Gagner takes the majority of his shots.
This heat map tells the story. Shots are almost always taken only feet away from the goal. It is the job of someone in the center position to occupy the front of the net and create scoring chances, and that is exactly what we are seeing Gagner accomplish.
As far as money goes, I would expect to see Gagner asking for an increase in pay. He has made much more money in past years where he was producing similar numbers, so it is to be expected that getting back to his good scoring levels will drive up his price for a new contract. Still a relatively young player at 27 years old, I think he is worth the investment from Columbus, within reason. Columbus has a lot of decisions to make over the next 2 years, but personally, I would like to see one made that keeps an important part of the depth at home.
In Part 2, we will take a look at more players in the UFA mix and try and figure out where in the world TJ Oshie should go. Right after I watch my bracket predictions fall apart.
All other stats acquired from www.hockeyreference.com
Photo credit: Minnesota Hockey Magazine