Looking at the three best UFA signings in the Western Conference, as well as two more with potential upside…
Free Agents (Part 1)
The free agent season marks a brief period when NHL general managers overpay players who are way past their prime for far too much term. Whether the contracts themselves are good only matter for those in salary cap leagues so for the purposes of this column and the next one the bulk of the analysis will be of the situation the player is entering as opposed to the nature of the contract.
Teddy Purcell – Signed with Los Angeles
Los Angeles lost a top six winger, Milan Lucic, and their prize deadline acquisition, Kris Versteeg, to free agency. Lucic signed with Edmonton and Versteeg did not exactly light the league afire in his short time with the Kings. The Kings had limited funds available under the cap and were able to sign a legitimate top six winger despite their current cap situation. Purcell is routinely at least a half point per game forward with the capability of producing more. He showed that potential in Tampa early in his career and again in brief stints in Edmonton while on a line with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl. Despite the potential for more do not read too much into Purcell’s 11 points in 15 games while in Florida as it was based on what would have been a career high shooting percentage and a PDO of 102. That pace would see him better Lucic’s point totals from last season which is unlikely but he is a good bet to get one of the three open wing spots in the top six, as Dustin Brown, Marian Gaborik and Tanner Pearson are the best remaining options.
The impediment to Purcell breaking 50 points is that the Kings generally run with a pretty tight five on their top power play unit, a major change from their even strength lines in a blender philosophy. Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin look to be staples on the top power play unit. Tyler Toffoli is the only other forward to get more than 100 minutes on the power play last season, and Gaborik averaged two minutes per game on the power play when he was healthy. As the Kings do not have a ton of higher end offensive depth Purcell it would be very surprising if Purcell did not see significant minutes on the second unit. As Purcell has never been overly dependent on power play production getting second unit power play time will not hurt Purcell at all. The boon for Purcell is at even strength where this season figures to be the best linemates he has consistently had over a season, meaning either on Kopitar’s line or Carter’s.
Milan Lucic –Signed with Edmonton
Lucic has a shot to be the big winner amongst this year’s free agent crop. He is all but guaranteed a spot in the top six and has a decent shot at a spot on Connor McDavid’s line. With Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot both returning the spot on McDavid’s line may have to wait but the Oilers are not for good offensive centers, although this will be the biggest test yet of Draisaitl’s mettle as an NHL center. Lucic has a history of having a positive effect on his linemates’ possession and as such there is reason to believe that he would similar effects on which ever line he ends up playing on next season. While Lucic could be great if he plays with McDavid he will be fine no matter which line he plays on at even strength. Where this trade will help Lucic a lot is on the power play where it is hard to see him repeating last year’s measly eight points. While Lucic has never been a huge power play producer, being the net front presence on this power play screams potential break out.
Lucic should have no problem at least matching last season’s point totals, as his shot rate should return to their previous levels playing on an event happy team like the Oilers. That would more than make up for any decline in his shooting percentage, although it is not uncommon for Lucic to hover between a shooting percentage of 15 and 16%. The nature of the shots that Lucic takes enables him to run with a higher shooting percentage than the average player with a similar number of shots. The combination of an elevated shot rate and his normally high shooting percentage could see Lucic hit 25 goals once again, especially with any power play succes.
Brian Campbell – Signed with Chicago
Campbell passed up more money in Florida to return home to Chicago which may not be a boon for Campbell but it will help out the Chicago defense, especially the specific defenseman with whom he partners. Campbell has a tremendous effect on whom ever he partners with, he has the ability to turn the flow of play around and drive it forward for his team. Look at his two most common defense partners last year in Florida. Ekblad without Campbell was on for one fewer goal per 60 minutes at even strength and went from Florida taking 56% of the shots when with Campbell to 46% without him. Erik Gudbranson was on for half a goal more per 60 minutes when with Campbell and saw a similar drop in the run of play as Ekblad. Given that Duncan Keith played with Niklas Hjalmarsson most of last season it seems likely that Campbell will be paired with Brent Seabrook. With Keith and Hjalmarsson taking the bulk of the tough defensive minutes this could open the door for the Hawks to run with two dominant pairings. Seabrook slipped last year and the Hawks only took 47.5% of the shots when he was on the ice, down from 52.3% and 56.8% the previous two years respectively when he skated with Keith. Seabrook was also on the ice for an extra goal per 60 minutes at even strength when the Hawks had the run of play when he was on the ice. With Seabrook typically being involved in 30% of the goals scored when he is on the ice that amounts to an extra eight to 10 points at even strength for Seabrook next year.
This signing is not as good of a signing for Campbell as it is for Seabrook and the Hawks in general. Campbell figures to lose a lot of power play time as he and Ekblad led the Panthers in power play time last year. Meanwhile Keith and Seabrook were fixtures on one of the league’s top power plays and figure to remain there but a second power play unit featuring Campbell, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and others figures to be almost as potent as the Hawks’ first unit. Thus do not expect Campbell to get a big boost to his production but everyone else should see a positive effect with Seabrook and the second unit being the primary beneficiaries.
Patrick Wiercioch – Signed with Colorado
The Colorado Avalanche overhauled their defense corps this offseason with Nick Holden and Zach Redmond finding new homes and Fedor Tyutin and Wiercioch coming in. Of the two new arrivals via free agency Wiercioch is the one that holds potential for a break out fantasy hockey season. Wiercioch showed 40 point potential three years ago with the Senators in limited ice time. While that was partially based on elevated contributions to his team’s offense his fortunes turned as the team seemed to sour on him even as his minutes increased, although his power play time fell through the floor this past season. That may be the most surprising aspect to Wiercioch’s fall from grace in Ottawa as he has routinely been involved in more than 60% of the goals scored when he has been on the power play. Should the Avs go to two defensemen on each power play unit Wiercioch would be the natural choice for that opening. The Avs are still very shallow on the backend with only Nikita Zadorov being a realistic challenger to Wiercioch and Gelinas being the de facto seventh defensemen. If ever there was an opportunity for Wiercioch to regain his foothold in the NHL this is it, 20 points is very doable, with his ability 30 is realistic and with any significant power play time he has a shot at 40.
Eric Staal – Signed with Minnesota
The Wild have already made it public that the arrival of Staal means that Mikael Granlund will move to the wing. As such this will be the ultimate test of just how far Staal has slipped down the aging curve. The Wild have ample forward depth, which means that no matter which line Staal plays on he will have quality linemates. The most likely linemates seem to be Zach Parise and Granlund. Erik Haula, Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter formed a formidable checking line late last season while Mikko Koivu, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle also had success as a line. That being said a new coach could throw the lines into disarray. New coach Bruce Boudreau’s knack for creating offensive powerhouses bodes well for Staal but he has not been on the ice for much more than two goals per 60 minutes at even strength in two years. Other than 2012/13 he has not been on the ice for even close to three goals per 60 minutes at even strength in six years. If three goals or more per 60 minutes at even strength is the mark of a top offensive line than it has been years since Staal has been on anything better than a decent line. As such it would foolish to expect him to rebound unless one of his linemates carries the line akin to what Patrick Kane does for Artem Anisimov. This is the best case scenario for an Eric Staal rebound although it is unlikely that he gets much power play time.