The NHL Free Agency period tends to be one of the most expensive routes to building a roster or filling a hole. It serves as a catalyst for bad contracts and salary cap issues due to the willingness to overpay for a player in terms of dollar amount and term most of the time. This period of time during the offseason usually doesn’t work out in favor of the employer, but of course, there are always exceptions and strong signings that end up being favorable for both sides.
The midway mark of the 2020-21 regular season has passed which means it is time to examine how some of the free agents from this past offseason are performing with their new teams. This article will look at the six best and worst free-agent performers so far this season.
Before getting into the best and worst free-agent signings, let’s preface this column with several elements regarding the criteria for the chosen players.
1. A player’s contract was taken into consideration, but was not necessarily the deciding factor. While players like Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, and Taylor Hall have played well for their new team, they were left off because there are players that have provided the same or more value with a significantly smaller contract.
2. The players were chosen with a crucial emphasis on analytics but will take into account other factors too. This was the most important aspect of the selection as analytics can give a very strong look into how a player is impacting their team and providing value. It goes beyond the box stats and can be very informational.
3. There were many worthy candidates for both the best and worst value free agent signings through the midseason mark. There was no certain mold or anything like that. It is also important to note that this article isn’t looking at who the best and worst free-agent signings were, it is strictly examining which players have played the best and worst for their new teams and have provided the most and least value through the midseason. Furthermore, the players are not in order as it is just the best and worst six.
Best Value at Midseason Mark
The Florida Panthers were one of the biggest winners in the offseason with several significant free-agent acquisitions that have been driving forces behind their successful start. They have three of the best six free-agent signings through the midseason mark of the season. The Canadiens, Flames, and Oilers all hold the three remaining spots.
It is interesting that none of these players were considered the biggest fishes in free agency aside from the exception of Tyler Toffoli who was one of the most intriguing options among forwards. The Chris Tanev signing was questionable at the time and Tyson Barrie didn’t exactly appear to be a good fit for the Edmonton Oilers.
|Carter Verhaeghe (F)||Florida Panthers||$1 million x 2 years|
|Anthony Duclair (F)||Florida Panthers||$1.7 million x 1 year|
|Tyler Toffoli (F)||Montreal Canadiens||$4.25 million x 4 years|
|Chris Tanev (D)||Calgary Flames||$4.5 million x 4 years|
|Tyson Barrie (D)||Edmonton Oilers||$3.75 million x 1 year|
|Radko Gudas (D)||Florida Panthers||$2.5 million x 3 years|
Verhaeghe has been a huge factor in the Florida Panthers’ success. After being on pace for 15 goals over an 82-game season in his rookie season in the 2019-20 campaign, the Panthers took a gamble on the young forward. It has turned out to be an unbelievable acquisition.
The 25-year-old forward has notched 15 goals, 13 assists, and 28 points in 35 games. He’s already propelled himself as a top-six forward and has been one of their most impactful players to this point. His 3.06 expected goals for per at 5-on-5 hour rank 5th league-wide with players like Connor Mcdavid and Aleksander Barkov in front of him. It isn’t just his ability to generate scoring chances and high-quality shots, but he increases the Panthers’ rate of scoring at a high rate. His 3.22 goals for per hour at 5-on-5 rank 47th league-wide among forwards which speaks volumes for a player that is one year removed from a sheltered bottom-six role. He is playing like a first-line forward and this will be a huge lift to this team if he continues this trajectory.
Another forward the Panthers acquired through free agency is promising young forward Duclair. The 25-year-old winger has 15 points in 28 games which is an unfair representation of how effective he has been so far this season. Similarly to Verhaeghe, he is manufacturing offense at an elite rate. His 3.17 xGF/60 at 5-on-5 rank 2nd behind just the best player in the NHL in McDavid. It is fair to assume that Duclair has been the victim of some unlucky puck luck and below-average finishing.
The most surprising facet of his game that has overcome a distinct change in the first half of the season is his defensive play. His defense has always been suspect, but he was one of the worst forwards defensively last season and was an outright liability. This season, however, he has been average defensively which is a positive sign for a promising young player.
Toffoli has been a force for the Canadiens and there’s no doubt the Canucks regret moving him. He has 18 goals, nine assists, and 27 points in 30 games. He has been effective on both ends of the ice and really complements their game. His strong shot share is a good indicator of his strong possession game which makes him highly effective. He has provided the Canadiens with immense value and there is no doubt his contract is a bargain.
The analytically-inclined were highly skeptical, rightfully so, about the Tanev four-year contract. His game has declined over the past two seasons and his reputation as a defensive stalwart was no longer accurate. With this being said, his game has grown to a new level and he has flourished with the Flames. He has truly been one of the biggest shockers so far this season.
His 1.58 xGA/60 at 5-on-5 ranks 2nd among defensemen who have played more than 25 games. He leads all NHL defensemen in even-strength defensive goals above replacement. The 31-year-old right-shot defenseman has been the best shut-down defender league-wide this season which makes his contract respectable given another shut-down defender in Jonas Brodin just signed a seven-year extension that pays him $6 million annually.
Barrie is another surprising player this season. It appears he has reclaimed his elite offensive game that has been missing for a long time. Not only does he have 32 points in 35 games – almost a point-per-game pace – but his offensive underlying numbers are some of the best of his career. His 3.85 GF/60 at 5-on-5 rank 2nd behind teammate Darnell Nurse. While Barrie has been elite offensively this season at even-strength and on the power play alike, his defensive game is suspect which shouldn’t come as any surprise. His 2.6 xGA/60 at 5-on-5 is the 19th worst mark among NHL defensemen. He has been so stellar offensively that it has outweighed his defensive game.
Gudas was another phenomenal acquisition by Bill Zito. He may only have five points this season, but his impact is evident and he has been a driving force behind the formidable Panthers this season.
Gudas has been a strong two-way defenseman this season that doesn’t everything right. His 3.34 GF/60 at 5-on-5 ranks 12th among all defensemen which speaks volumes. He increases the Panthers’ rate of scoring at a considerable rate while being very respectable defensively. He has arguably been their best defenseman at even-strength as a result of his strong play at both ends of the ice.
Worst Value at Midseason Mark
There is a trend when it comes to the worst value this season from the free-agent class from this past season. Three starting goalies make the cut and further prove the inconsistency of goaltending at the NHL level. It is truly unpredictable which is why goalie contracts have to be made with the utmost precision as it can prove to be detrimental.
Three forwards made the list and a key trend is that they are all on poor teams this season. While this may serve as an excuse for poor play by some, the reality is that there are a ton of impactful players on bad teams, which makes this excuse a lazy one.
|Jakob Markstrom (G)||Calgary Flames||$6 million x 6 years|
|Matt Murray (G)||Ottawa Senators||$6.25 million x 4 years|
|Thomas Greiss (G)||Detroit Red Wings||$3.6 million x 2 years|
|Cody Eakin (F)||Buffalo Sabres||$2.25 million x 2 years|
|Evgenii Dadonov (F)||Ottawa Senators||$5 million x 3 years|
|Mattias Janmark (F)||Chicago Blackhawks||$2.25 million x 1 year|
After having a Vezina caliber season in the 2019-20 campaign, Markstrom has taken a step back. Whether it’s just a bad start or last season was more of an outlier, he has had a poor first half of the season. He has allowed 6.22 more goals than expected based on the quality of the shots he has faced. His -3.75 goals saved above average and .904 save percentage don’t look any better either. This will be interesting to monitor as he signed a six-year contract which makes this problematic if it continues.
Murray’s numbers have been declining for a while now which makes the trade and four-year contract alike very questionable. It is amazing how much his reputation has caused people to look over his poor numbers. This never made sense and now the Senators are stuck with one of the worst goaltenders in the league over the past several seasons.
He has allowed 19.30 more goals than expected which is the 3rd worst mark in the league. Likewise, his -16.00 GSAA ranks 2nd to last and his .880 save percentage is beyond poor. At this point, he shouldn’t be a starting goalie for any team. The question is whether the 26-year-old netminder can find his game and excel at the NHL level which has yet to be seen.
As hilarious as this sounds, the Detroit Red Wings could be winning a lot more hockey games with a different goaltender. They could actually be a half decent team with a quality goalie between the pipes. He has allowed 19.12 more goals than expected which is the 2nd worst mark in the league behind Carter Hart. Likewise, his -10.73 GSAA ranks 2nd to last behind Hart. The 35-year-old has a .885 save percentage. Jonathan Bernier has actually had an average season which displays a goaltender can have a respectable season on one of the worst teams in the NHL.
Eakin has four points in 32 games with the Buffalo Sabres. The 29-year-old has struggled and his underlying numbers are extremely poor. This isn’t very surprising given his underlying numbers have never even been average including his stint with the Vegas Golden Knights where he scored 22 goals in the 2017-18 season.
Another Ottawa Senator to make the list is forward Dadonov. He has just 12 points in 36 games this season and hasn’t been an effective offensive contributor as the Senators hoped for when they signed him to a three-year deal. The biggest concern surrounding his game is his defensive play. His 2.64 xGA/60 at 5-on-5 is the 23rd worst mark among all NHL forwards. The issue is that he offers little to no offensive value to nullify his defensive game.
In terms of point production, Janmark has been a quality offensive contributor and a decent addition. Eight of his 18 points have come on the power play where he has been a quality offensive producer. The issue is that he has been a poor player at 5-on-5 and his minimal time on the man advantage doesn’t make up for it whatsoever.
He has had a tough time on both sides of the ice this season and hasn’t provided the Blackhawks with any value. This comes as a surprise as he’s been a strong defensive forward over the past two seasons with the Dallas Stars. He definitely hasn’t flourished in a larger role he has had with the Blackhawks.
Free agency is always a questionable time and it is usually a toss-up in the end whether the contract was fair or not. The free-agent class this past offseason was strong and it is surprising that the biggest grabs didn’t appear on the best value list. It will be interesting to monitor over the remainder of the season as it is just past the halfway mark and a lot can change from now to the end of the season.
(All Data Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey-Reference & CapFriendly; all data as of March 28th and players ranked with a minimum of 250 minutes played this season)
Aaron Heckmann covers the Wild for The Hockey Writers & Zone Coverage. His data-driven articles are focused on solving problems, telling stories, and discovering unique storylines. Find him on Twitter @aaron_heckmann.