The Best and Worst of Early NHL Free Agency (7/4/17)

By Frank Brank @realfrankbrank
NHL free agency has begun and teams are beginning to show their priorities. Nashville, who nearly grabbed the Stanley Cup, are big players in the market along with Chicago and St. Louis. A few East edge contenders, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Montreal, have also been spending, but not in productive measures. There's still a long way to go through free agency, but let's look at the best and worst moves thus far.

All stats are courtesy of HockeyAnalysis.

The Bad

Patrick Marleau to Toronto (3 years, $6.25M AAV)
Marleau is a veteran who has consistently been a great player, averaging 0.72 points per game over his lengthy career. He has played in all 164 games over the last two years, compiled 1.31 points per 60 minutes of ice time at even strength, and scored the third most goals on the Sharks behind two studs, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns. If we dig a little deeper, though, the Sharks had a 50.9 GF% with Marleau on the ice, their exact team average. In fact, when Marleau's linemates were not playing with him, they held a 53.2 GF%. It is a similar story when looking at possession metrics. Marleau was slightly below the Sharks' team average in CF% and his linemates played slightly better when he was not playing with them. This is not to suggest Marleau is a bad player by any means because he certainly isn't. He produced at the rate of a decent second-liner last season, but this signing was a bit too much money and too much commitment for a player who will be 38 before the season and signed through his 24th NHL season. Add in the fact that the final year of Marleau's deal comes in a year where the Leafs will likely be looking to re-sign Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Jake Gardiner, and this move simply doesn't make a ton of sense. Yes, the Leafs are in a position to win now, but they would have been better suited to spending that $6.25-million elsewhere.

Dmitry Kulikov to Winnipeg (3 years, $4.3M AAV)
Kulikov is only 26-years-old, but his decline is stunning. Granted, Kulikov played for Buffalo last season and was only active in 47 games, but his production has been on a small decline since the 2011-2012 season. Kulikov posted a 32.0 GF% last season, while his linemates were at 47.5%. In the previous season with Florida, it wasn't pretty either as he compiled a 50.6 GF% compared to a 58.8% of his linemates. Earlier in his career, Kulikov was a productive player, in that he consistently out-performed his teammates and linemates. However, the production has slumped, badly, and the Jets overpaid for someone who has shown to be on the decline for a while now, registered as a replacement level player for the past two seasons. Kulikov's age suggests that there's still time to turn things around, but this is an outragegous price for a player of his current calibre.

Dan Girardi to Tampa Bay (2 years, $3M AAM)
Tampa Bay has rolled in with the worst signing thus far. Girardi is 33, has declined badly, and doesn't pass the anayltical or eye test at this point in his career. Girardi has played a solid Rangers team for some time and hasn't been productive in years. Over the last two seasons, he's consistently performed worse than his teammates in both goal scoring and possession metrics. Since 2015, the Rangers compiled a 42.9 CF% while Girardi was on the ice; about 5.5% worse than the team average in that time and more than 7% worse than his linemates when playing without him. It would be shocking if Girardi had gotten $3M for one season then along two. Similarly to Kulikov above, Girardi has played at a replacement level for the better part of three years, so to see him ink a multi-year deal worth $6-million was certainly a shocker.

The Good

Scott Hartnell to Nashville (1 year, $1M AAV)
Scott Hartnell is 35-years-old and isn't the same player that he once was, but Nashville got a great deal considering the minimum amount of risk involved for a plus player. For a team that has had injury concerns in their offensive unit, Nashville gets a winger that has been extremely durable, playing in 157 games over the last two seasons. Over those two seasons, Hartnell has been 1.3% better possession-wise than his teammates which converted to a 2% bump in GF% compared to his teammates and linemates while he was off the ice. The low-risk buy for the Predators is well worth it with Hartnell's durability. Even if he does run into injury concerns, the Preds don't have much to lose since they won't be out $3M+ next season against the salary cap for comparable players. Great move for Nashville.

Beau Bennett to St. Louis (1 year, $0.7M AAV)
No one expected Beau Bennett to get much out of free agency this off season. He spent most of his time injured and bouncing back and forth to the NHL for Pittsburgh. Last season, though, Bennett's talent and health finally matched. He still missed some time but was able to play in 65 games in which the Devils recorded a 48.6 GF% while he was on the ice; 1.3% more than their team average. Bennett also led New Jersey at 53.3 CF%, one of only four players that were above 50%. Bennett recorded 1.26 points per 60 minutes last year while out-possessing the Devils' team average by 7.4%. The winger fits in perfectly with St. Louis. The Blues will get a huge discount because of Bennett's health as it's somewhat shocking a team didn't give out at least $1M for his upside. At the end of the day, Bennett isn't going to turn into a superstar but he is a great piece for only $700,000.

Patrick Sharp to Chicago (1 year, $1M AAV)
The Blackhawks are bringing back a familiar face in Patrick Sharp, who helped them raise three Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015. Sharp will get $800k with $200k in a games played incentive. Thus, if the 35 year old doesn't reach the threshold of games played that he agreed to, he'll lose out on a small chunk of cash. In his last two seasons with Dallas, Sharp finished only second behind Tyler Seguin in CF% and boosted his linemates 2.3% in possession while on the ice. Unfortunately, the possession didn't lead to as many goals as Dallas would have liked, but Chicago will gladly take the discount considering their salary cap concerns. If Sharp can stay on the ice, he'll be a big plus to the Blackhawks considering his shot production talent. Sharp is still a legimiate second-line player at this point in his career, and at a price tag of just $1-million, that's well worth it for Chicago.