2014 Free Agent Preview: Forwards

It’s almost free-agent season, the time of year when most fans are salivating over all the possible superstars their team might add, while the analytics fans of the world are mostly hoping their GM’s don’t screw up too badly. In celebration of this most joyous terrifying time of year, Puck++ is proud to present our First Annual Puck++ Players for Purchase at a Premium Price Preview™.

Rather than going through every available free-agent though (since in the time it would take me to write up most of them will end up signing), I’m going to focus on 15 forwards and 10 or so defencemen (to be determined when/if I get around to writing part 2) who are likely to garner significant interest, or at least significant media attention.

For each player I’m going to present 3 sets of data: 1) His traditional stats from the last 3 seasons (G, A, Pts., +/-); 2) His xGF20, xGA20 and xGD20 numbers for the last 3 seasons (the details on how these numbers are calculated can be found here and here); and 3) His 5 most comparable players, using xGF20 and xGA20 for the past 3 years. The comparable players are determined by looking at which players had seasons most similar from an xGF20 and xGA20 point of view over the past 3 years. As an aside, if you want a quick cheat sheet to evaluate xGD20 numbers, here are the average numbers based on ice-time in the 2013-2014 season:

Line xGD20
1 0.09
2 0.05
3 0.00
4 -0.05

All salary data quoted below is from CapGeek. All standard stats from HockeyDB. Blame them (or my poor transcription) for any errors.

The Big Names

Thomas Vanek

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 VANEK, THOMAS 38 0.79 0.81 -0.02 20 21 41 -1
20122013 VANEK, THOMAS 13 0.93 0.85 0.09 4 5 9 -5
20132014 VANEK, THOMAS 65 0.86 0.85 0.01 23 36 59 12

Thomas Vanek is one of the most interesting names set to hit the free-agent market on July 1st: on one hand, he’s never had any trouble getting on the scoresheet (he’s a career 0.83 PPG player), while on the other, his advanced stats leave a lot to be desired (below average for a 1st liner by xGD20, and a sub-50% CF% over the last 7 years). Vanek is sure to get a lot of money as one of the premier scorers available, but it will be interesting to see how high the number ends up being, and how many years he winds up with. At 30 years of age he’s not likely to get any better over the course, and while his comparable players are some of the top names in the league one thing to note is that Vanek isn’t actually all that close to any of them, relatively speaking. All of this makes it somewhat difficult to predict how Vanek will perform, or what his actual value is. Given the relative dearth of scorers up for grabs come Tuesday, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t end up with the largest contract of any free agent this offseason, and I’d be just as surprised if whoever signs him doesn’t end up regretting that deal a few years down the line.



Jarome Iginla

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 IGINLA, JAROME 82 0.79 0.87 -0.08 32 35 67 -10
20122013 IGINLA, JAROME 44 0.83 0.76 0.06 14 19 33 -5
20132014 IGINLA, JAROME 78 0.97 0.82 0.15 30 31 61 34

As a 36 year old Jarome Iginla is unlikely to end up with a the same kind of deal that Thomas Vanek will get, but arguably he’s more deserving of it than the Austrian winger. Whereas Vanek has been limited in each of his last few years, Iginla is a workhorse, having played over 70 games in each of his 17 seasons (ignoring the lockout-shortened year, of course). Iggy also show few signs of stopping-he’s increased his xGD20 over the past two years, and was a solid offensive contributor for each team he’s played for. Iginla signed a bonus-heavy deal with the Bruins last year, and while it’s possible he takes a similar deal with a contender again (I have little doubt that he badly wants to win a Cup), I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s able to find a multi-year deal with more guaranteed dollars.



Paul Stastny

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 STASTNY, PAUL 79 0.86 0.80 0.06 21 32 53 -8
20122013 STASTNY, PAUL 40 0.76 0.77 -0.01 9 15 24 -7
20132014 STASTNY, PAUL 71 0.89 0.68 0.20 25 35 60 9

Stastny is another player whose value is tough to read. His raw numbers are good, and as a 6 time 20-goal scorer he’s likely to get a lot of interest, and at only 28 years old, age isn’t as much of a concern as it is for some of the other top names. He’s also posted some decent xGD20 numbers, being a negative player only once over the past 3 years when his shot numbers dipped in the shortened season. With all that said, his comparable players are less than impressive for a player who earned $6.6M last year and is likely looking for a raise. One thing working in the Avs centerman’s favour is that if we extend our analysis back beyond the 2011-2012 season his xGD20 numbers are even more impressive. Over the 4 years prior to that he averaged an xGD20 of 0.10, a solid number for a first liner. Stastny is probably the best bet of this free-agent class, assuming of course that the overall weakness of the group doesn’t drive his price up too high.



Jussi Jokinen

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 JOKINEN, JUSSI 79 0.82 0.76 0.07 12 34 46 -2
20122013 JOKINEN, JUSSI 43 0.81 0.72 0.09 13 9 22 -5
20132014 JOKINEN, JUSSI 81 0.94 0.66 0.28 21 36 57 18

The shootout whiz (is that still true?) hits the free agent market for the second time in his career, after playing the last year and a half with a Penguin team that couldn’t quite get over the top. While I’m sure Pittsburgh would love to retain him (and who wouldn’t, because $3M for a player of his caliber was a steal), I’d guess that Jokinen is due for a raise. While his 2013/14 advanced stats are likely inflated by a Pens team that severely lacked depth behind their top players, Jokinen’s been an extremely consistent performer since the start of the advanced stats era, posting an average xGD20 of 0.09 since 2007-2008. His comparable players are all names that any intelligent GM would love to have on his squad, and unlike Vanek he displays reasonably close numbers to them. Considering the contracts that Ryan Callahan and Marian Gaborik just signed, if a team can pick him up in the $4M cap hit range he’s likely to provide good value over the next 3-4 years.



Matt Moulson

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 MOULSON, MATT 82 0.88 0.79 0.09 36 33 69 1
20122013 MOULSON, MATT 47 0.99 0.75 0.24 15 29 44 -3
20132014 MOULSON, MATT 77 0.81 0.74 0.07 23 28 51 2

Poor Matt Moulson. After starting the year thinking he’d be a key part of an Islanders squad that looked poised to build off their success in the 2012-2013 season,  Moulson was jettisoned after only 11 games and sent to the garbage fire that was the 2013-2014 Buffalo Sabres. Fortunately enough, Moulson was saved by a deadline deal to the Minnesota Wild, where he contributed a solid 13 pts. in 20 regular season games, before sort of disappearing in the playoffs. While he’s only got 397 NHL games under his belt, Moulson’s stats and comparables are all impressive-he appears to be an average to above-average defender (only one year of xGA20 above average) and is definitely a plus scorer. His last two contracts have been inexplicable bargains at $2.45M and $3.13M in cap hits respectively, and Moulsen is certainly due to earn more in the coming years. While he doesn’t necessarily have the same brand name recognition as Thomas Vanek, he’s likely the better pick of the two and will potentially be a better deal as well. He’s certainly a more valuable player than Ryan Callahan (whose xGD20 numbers are really bad, even if you envision him as a 3rd liner), so anything less than what Tampa paid out should be viewed as solid value for the lucky team.



The Value Picks

Benoit Pouliot

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 POULIOT, BENOIT 74 0.87 0.71 0.17 16 16 32 18
20122013 POULIOT, BENOIT 34 0.95 0.72 0.23 8 12 20 15
20132014 POULIOT, BENOIT 80 0.82 0.66 0.16 15 21 36 10

Benoit Pouliot is my pick for the likely steal of the 2014 off-season. He’s an above average shooter who is also a Corsi machine, frequently holding opponents to less attempts than would be expected. While his traditional numbers don’t sit in the same neighbourhood as the big 5 above, his list of comparables is full of similar underrated players who have blossomed into stars over the last few years. At only 27 years of age he’s in the peak of his career, and put in the right situation could be a major contributor right away. Having never earned above $1.8M he’s certain to come cheap, but even at the salary that Clarke MacArthur got last year would be a great value.



Mikhail Grabovski

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 GRABOVSKI, MIKHAIL 74 0.96 0.69 0.27 23 28 51 0
20122013 GRABOVSKI, MIKHAIL 48 0.84 0.78 0.07 9 7 16 -10
20132014 GRABOVSKI, MIKHAIL 58 0.87 0.74 0.14 13 22 35 6

It’s probably not even fair to put Grabo in the values list, since everyone in the advanced stats community has been carrying his water for a few years now. In spite of this, there still seems to be a large contingent of people who want nothing to do with the greatest player in Belarussian history (note I have no idea if this is true). What’s odd though is that his standard stats have been solid throughout his entire career, excluding the shortened season last year. While he’s unlikely to come as cheap as he did this year, I think that his reassuring season with the Caps last year will likely lead to a bit more cash, and a medium-term deal at a minimum. Oh and don’t forget, the Leafs are still paying him, which could drive his cost down for the other clubs in the league.



Milan Michalek

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 MICHALEK, MILAN 77 0.88 0.80 0.09 35 25 60 32
20122013 MICHALEK, MILAN 23 0.97 0.75 0.22 4 10 14 8
20132014 MICHALEK, MILAN 17 0.83 0.80 0.03 22 39 41 -25

Milan Michalek is a tough player to peg in free agency. He’s definitely a plus player, having put up positive xGD20 numbers in each season of his career, and producing at a solid PPG rate over 0.5 throughout his 9 seasons. But he’s viewed as an injury risk although he’s played in more than 77 games 6/9 years, and the consensus seems to be that he’s due for a pay cut, in spite of his salary only taking up $4.3M in cap room last year. Not to beat a dead horse, but Ryan Callahan just got a 6 year deal with a $5.8M cap hit. If Michalek does in fact take a pay cut down below $4M/year there’s no doubt he can provide positive value to whoever ends up with him.



Pierre-Marc Bouchard

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 BOUCHARD, PIERRE-MARC 37 0.89 0.67 0.22 9 13 22 -1
20122013 BOUCHARD, PIERRE-MARC 43 0.78 0.74 0.04 8 12 20 3
20132014 BOUCHARD, PIERRE-MARC 28 0.85 0.78 0.07 4 5 9 -9

The only number you need to know about Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s 2013-2014 is 0.937. That was his PDO for the Islanders last year and a big reason why he didn’t stick in the NHL last year. While there is a big asterisk next to his name due to his concussion history, if Bouchard is healthy enough to play, he’ll be a bargain to pick up for any team needing some forward depth. And while his ice-time has obviously been limited over the last few years, he posted phenomenal numbers prior to 2011-2012, which xGD20 numbers of 0.17, 0.12, and 0.15 in 2007/08, 2008/09 and 2010/11 respectively.



Radim Vrbata

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 VRBATA, RADIM 77 0.86 0.70 0.15 32 27 62 24
20122013 VRBATA, RADIM 34 0.82 0.77 0.05 12 16 28 6
20132014 VRBATA, RADIM 80 0.84 0.74 0.11 20 31 51 -6

As someone who doesn’t actively follow the Phoenix Arizona Coyotes that closely, seeing Vrbata’s numbers surprised me. But ever since he moved to the desert he’s been a productive player, posting positive expected goal differentials in each year except 2010-2011 when his offensive numbers seemed to tank for a season. While he has posted excellent standard stats over the past few years as well, I have a hard time believing that a 33 year old player who’s earned $3M per year for each of the past 6 years will be getting a significant bump this year. At $3M/year he’s a steal again, and if the Coyotes can bring him back at that rate they should do it in a heartbeat. With that being said, GMs love to pay for observed performance and as a 0.73 PPG forward over the past 3 years, Vrbata may get a bit more interest than he did the last time he hit the UFA market.



Buyer Beware

Brian Boyle

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 BOYLE, BRIAN 82 0.75 0.76 0.00 11 15 26 2
20122013 BOYLE, BRIAN 38 0.72 0.77 -0.05 2 3 5 -13
20132014 BOYLE, BRIAN 82 0.60 0.81 -0.21 6 12 18 1

Brian Boyle apparently wants a bigger role which is why he’s willing to leave the Stanley Cup runner-ups and test the free agent waters this summer. While Boyle likely believes (and he’s probably right) that there are teams looking for the stereotypical big power forward, the issue with Boyle is that he’s not that great of a hockey player. As a 4th liner, he may be able to get by, although this year he was left behind by a more-talented group of players, posting a career worst xGD20 of -0.21. Despite this atrocious number, Boyle was a +1 overall last year, meaning that while his xGD20 isn’t likely to stay that low next year, his +/- number was likely more luck than skill. NHL Execs still value +/-, and Boyle will likely get a deal that’s more than agreeable to him, as a lot of teams are willing to pay a premium for a player with a run to the finals under his belt. With all that being said take a look at his comparables below and tell me if you think the odds of him living up to a deal of more than $2.5M (which I think Boyle will likely get) are very good at all.



Shawn Thornton

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 THORNTON, SHAWN 81 0.55 0.72 -0.17 5 8 13 -7
20122013 THORNTON, SHAWN 45 0.56 0.77 -0.21 3 4 7 1
20132014 THORNTON, SHAWN 64 0.56 0.74 -0.18 5 3 8 3

I probably don’t have to write anything for most people to know that signing Shawn Thornton is a bad idea, what was shocking to me was how bad Thornton has actually been from an xGD20 point of view. To post a number below -0.15 is bad enough as it is, but to do it 3 seasons in a row is indefensible for an everyday player. What’s more shocking though is that he’ll likely find a team, and get a multi-year deal above the league minimum. Everything I wrote above about teams valuing Cup experience applies again here, although I think the fact that he’s 36 will likely keep the number from being too outrageous.



Dave Bolland

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 BOLLAND, DAVE 76 0.68 0.80 -0.12 19 18 37 0
20122013 BOLLAND, DAVE 35 0.55 0.90 -0.35 7 7 14 -7
20132014 BOLLAND, DAVE 23 0.75 0.70 0.05 8 4 12 -1

Dave Bolland has asked for a contract that is essentially Marian Gaborik’s contract. Dave Bolland is not Marian Gaborik. While I’m very impressed that the Leafs haven’t gone ahead and inked the pride of Mimco for the first number he threw out, the fact remains that he’s likely to get a deal that’s worth far more than a player who has been a net negative every season deserves. This is again where the comparables come in handy: do any of the players below deserve a $5M deal? Would anyone be contemplating giving him a deal above $2M per year without his Cup rings?



Olli Jokinen

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 JOKINEN, OLLI 82 0.72 0.81 -0.09 23 38 61 -12
20122013 JOKINEN, OLLI 45 0.76 0.78 -0.02 7 7 14 -19
20132014 JOKINEN, OLLI 82 0.75 0.77 -0.02 18 25 43 -8

If Radim Vrbata surprised me how good his numbers were, Olli Jokinen was the exact opposite-he’s posted consistently mediocre xGD20 numbers over the past few years, and at 35 years old he’s unlikely to get much better over the past few years. Of everyone on the “Buyer Beware” list, Jokinen is likely the most palatable option assuming you’re not going to be relying on him for top 6 minutes. With better players out there at lower cap hits, however, Jokinen should really be viewed as a last resort in the event that cheaper players are unavailable or a suitable internal replacement can’t be found.



Mason Raymond

Season Player GP xGF20 xGA20 xGD20 G A Pts +/-
20112012 RAYMOND, MASON 55 0.796815 0.847224 -0.05041 10 10 20 4
20122013 RAYMOND, MASON 46 0.764672 0.818381 -0.05371 10 12 22 2
20132014 RAYMOND, MASON 82 0.810888 0.768055 0.042833 19 26 45 -7

I don’t actually think that Raymond is a bad player by any means-he’s been nearly an even xGD20 player over the last few years, and has some decent comparables below. The potential pitfall I see is that teams may ignore his mediocre play before last season, and choose to focus only on his relatively strong play on a weak Leafs team. While his salary history will likely prevent him from getting anything too outrageous in term or dollar value, it’s not hard to see someone paying above market value thinking they’re getting the next MacArthur or Grabovski-esque steal.


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