With last summer being dubbed “The Summer of Analytics“, many teams around the NHL began to scoop up experts in statistical analysis left and right. This resulted in most organizations becoming more cognizant of the available statistical data relating to concepts like puck possession and shooting percentages when making personnel decisions.
In my mind, free agency is the area in which a working knowledge of the advanced statistics used in hockey is the most valuable. A player who drives play well relative to his teammates, but may not produce many points is more valuable than many realized prior to last summer.
Anton Stralman, for example, was a huge piece in the run that the New York Rangers made to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. In July, he was rewarded with a five year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is now almost a full calendar year later, and Stralman is now again a major player on a team in the Stanley Cup Final. His play alongside Victor Hedman has been sensational, and this time around he’s garnering far more praise for his efforts than he did as a Ranger a year ago.
So, who will hit the market on July 1st, 2015 that could be next year’s version of Anton Stralman? It’s a thin NHL free agent crop this year, so there probably won’t be a top pairing defenseman there for the taking for under a cap hit of $5 million as Stralman was last July, but glue guys with good underlying numbers can pay dividends for contending teams if spotted and picked up appropriately.
The point of this post is to pay attention to the pending unrestricted who are not getting much hype from the media. Because of this, names like Mike Ribeiro, Justin Williams, Mike Green and Andrej Sekera will not be included. Everybody knows that they’re great NHL players who will contribute heavily wherever they are playing next season.
5. Jiri Tlusty, LW
When it comes to glue guys, there are few who are more effective in the role than Jiri Tlusty. The 27-year-old native of the Czech Republic has made a career out of supporting his team’s star forwards. In the 2013 lockout-shortened season with Carolina, Tlusty found a home on the left side of the Hurricanes’ top line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin. That line was nothing short of tremendous that season, and that was in large part due to Tlusty’s simplistic style that allowed Staal and Semin to play their free-wheeling game while Tlusty always seemed to find the right place to be on the ice.
It was a short season and his shooting percentage was unsustainably high, but it’s worth noting that Tlusty finished fifth in the NHL in goals that season. In addition to his ability to produce at a considerable level with star players, Tlusty is also able to drive play. Split between Carolina and Winnipeg, his +2.96 Corsi Relative rating was good for fifth among pending UFA forwards.
The ideal landing spots for Tlusty would be with any team who could put him with an elite center that has struggled to find a good fit for them. Tlusty’s smart, simple, sound style of play makes him easy to play with. It’s easy to see a good fit in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, alongside Claude Giroux or Sidney Crosby, both of whom have had a revolving door of lackluster talent on their left wings. It also seems possible that Winnipeg will retain the winger’s services, which would be a wise move if they are able to do so.
4. Daniel Winnik, LW
Acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Toronto Maple Leafs around the NHL trading deadline, Winnik carved out a solid bottom six role for himself in the Steel City. When paired with Sidney Crosby, the duo posted a terrific 58% corsi share together. Another factor that may inspire the Penguins to pursue keeping the 30-year-old winger was the success he saw with Brandon Sutter. Sutter has long been seen as a poor possession player, but in the brief time he and Winnik spent together, the two were good for a 58.7% corsi share.
It wasn’t just in the realm of puck possession that Winnik excelled in as a Penguin. He was producing at a desirable offensive clip as well, with nine points in 21 games in the black and gold. If the Penguins feel that he’ll be able to come close to replicating those numbers over a full season, he’ll be well worth keeping around. Good, reliable depth forwards are essential for the team that boasts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, as time and time again they’ve seen good seasons torpedoed by rashes of injuries.
If Winnik and the Penguins elect to part ways, there will certainly be market awaiting him on July 1st. Pretty much any team could theoretically have good use for a player like Winnik. He is an above average bottom six forward who has shown no flashes of becoming a top six forward. That will keep his salary low, and it’s what could potentially make him a better bargain than the aforementioned Tlusty.
3. David Schlemko, LD
Probably the least well-known player on this list, David Schlemko is going to be a very pleasant surprise for whichever team is able to secure his services come July. The 28-year-old journeyman defenseman completed a partial tour of the Western Conference in 2014-2015 as he suited up for Arizona, Dallas, and Calgary at different points in the year.
Despite playing for two teams that missed the playoffs and a Calgary Flames squad that was miserable in terms of possession, Schlemko came out of the season in the black with a 50.1% corsi share. Further, Schlemko comes out looking great according to war-on-ice.com’s high danger scoring chance data.
With Schlemko on the ice this season, his teams controlled 49.3% of high danger scoring chances. Compared to the 44.3% mark that came with Schlemko off the ice, it seems probable that there’s something to this guy as a player that teams looking for depth defensemen could benefit from. It isn’t just a one season thing either, as in 48 games last year the Coyotes controlled 53.8% of high danger scoring chances with Schlemko on the ice compared to 43.3% with Schlemko off the ice.
That’s not too bad for a guy whose cap hit has never exceeded $1,187,500.
The Flames would be wise to find a way to bring Schlemko back. Contrary to popular opinion, that defense is a mess beyond the stellar play of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. If they choose to let him go into July 1st unsigned, however, Schlemko could emerge as a legitimate NHL #4/5 type option on a playoff team’s defense, and almost nobody is talking about him.
2. Matt Beleskey, LW
Talk about a player driving up their stock with a great playoff showing. Beleskey just barely qualifies as “under the radar” when it comes to July’s free agency period these days, and the versatile 26-year-old Canadian winger has almost certainly priced himself out of the range that the Anaheim Ducks would be willing to fork over to keep him.
Beleskey is under the radar both for the right reasons and for the wrong ones. Some of the underlying numbers for him stick out in a positive way, but others raise some huge red flags. I’ll start out with why he would make a good pickup for a team seeking forward depth.
Beleskey brings a lot of the things that any hockey fan can appreciate. For the old-fashioned fan, Beleskey is a throwback player in many ways. His 19 fights over the last four years show him to be a passionate player who is willing to drop the gloves to defend his teammates. He isn’t huge, but he’s a physical guy who gets in aggressively on the forecheck and can lay solid hits on puck carriers. According to war-on-ice, he threw out 147 hits this year while taking just 72.
For the more analytically-inclined group of fans, Beleskey also excels when it comes to puck possession. His corsi relative rating this year was an astoundingly good +4.34%. To give you an idea of what kind of company that puts him in when it comes to territorial play, that’s a better corsi relative than what was produced by Ryan O’Reilly, Zach Parise, Ondrej Palat, and Jonathan Toews this season.
On the other hand, there certainly are a few things to be wary of when it comes to Beleskey’s statistical profile. Unfortunately, he’s a huge candidate for major regression in offensive output next season. His shooting percentage this season was 15.2%, which is way above his career mark of 9.9%. A correction in his shooting percentage could mean that his goal numbers will drop significantly next season. This sets him up to potentially be a massive disappointment to whichever team he signs with.
It will be interesting to see the term and money given to Beleskey in his next contract. It will be even more interesting to see if he’s able to grow into it and live up to it.
1. Cody Franson, RD
Franson’s right-handed shot combined with his defensive reliability and offensive production made him the second most sought after defenseman at the NHL trade deadline behind Andrej Sekera. There’s a reason that the Nashville Predators were willing to part with a first round pick to acquire him from Toronto along with forward Mike Santorelli.
But Franson was not an ideal fit in the Music City, and that fact seems to guarantee that the 27-year-old defender will be available come July 1st. He was stuck behind fellow righties Shea Weber and Seth Jones as a Predator, and he’ll be looking to sign with a team that can guarantee him the top four role that he deserves.
As he was at the trade deadline, he’ll be one of the most sought after defensemen in NHL free agency as well. His +1.72 corsi relative shows him to be a reasonably reliable possession player, and his 17 even strength points are the third most among UFA defensemen. His shooting percentage was very low, coming in at 2.38, so whoever signs him can probably expect a few more goals next season out of the offensive defenseman as well.
For any teams who miss out on Green, Sekera, or Paul Martin, Cody Franson is almost assuredly the next closest thing to a guaranteed top four defenseman that will be on the market. He’s also younger than any of those three, and he’s likely to come cheaper than them as well.
So there you have it, those are five pending free agents who seem to be smart targets for teams looking for bargains on July 1st. Let me know in the comments who else you think your team would be wise to go get in free agency. Thanks for reading.