Frozen Tools Forensics: Looking to Free Agency – Part 2

by Grant Campbell on May 3, 2019

For part two of four in our look at UFAs for next season, we will look at the players available who would be considered above replacement value and established top-six forwards or defensemen (Tier 3). Any reference to WAR (wins above replacement) are from Evolving-Hockey calculations on the stat.

Part 1 (Tier 4)

Tier 3

Jordie Benn

Benn is coming off arguably his best season to date, playing 81 games and scoring five goals and 17 assists, while playing on the first unit PK much of the year in Montreal. His expiring contract was three years at $1.1 million AAV and he is looking at a significant raise either with the Canadiens or with another team in the ballpark of $2 to 2.5 million over three years. His WAR of 1.9 last year is the second highest in this Tier 3 group profiled. He’s a third-pairing d-man who averages about 18 minutes per game with limited offensive upside, who had offensive zone starts 50.19% of the time. At 31 years of age, his contract comparables are Robert Bortuzzo, John Moore, and Ben Lovejoy. Both Moore and Lovejoy signed for $2.6 to 2.7 million AAV multi-year deals, while Bortuzzo re-upped for a three-year deal at $1.375 million AAV.

Ben Chiarot

Chiarot is becoming a UFA at the age of 27 and should be in demand and improve upon his $1.4 million AAV from his two-year expiring contract. He is coming off career highs in games played, goals, assists, penalty minutes, shots on goal, and shot blocks. He should be in the same ballpark as Jordie Benn since they have similar stats and traits. His best contract comparable is Brayden McNabb, who signed a four-year deal at an AAV of $2.5 million with Vegas after their Stanley Cup run in 2018. Chiarot doesn’t have the same playoff success to cash in on, so it would be surprising if he got more than McNabb.

Brett Connolly

Connolly had an excellent season with 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points in 81 games, all career highs. He is a young UFA at 26 years old and has an expiring $1.5 million AAV over two years with Washington. He is hoping for a raise, and the best comparable could be Riley Nash, who signed with Columbus for three years and an AAV of $2.75 million. However, Nash’s contract should be a warning to potential suitors for Connolly, as Nash had a poor regular season (three goals in 78 games) before picking it up a little in the playoffs with three points in seven games.

Ryan Dzingel

There is an argument to be made to have Dzingel in our tier two of free agents, but his underlying numbers are not as good as his 26 goals and 56 points in 78 games (split between Ottawa and Columbus) might suggest. He is a fairly sheltered forward who had 53.99% of his starts in the OZ and finished the year with a CF% of 44.76. Playing with Matt Duchene over 42% of the time might have inflated his points a little and he seems to struggle without him, as evidenced by zero points in the playoffs so far and his comparison stats with or without Duchene. It’s surprising that he only had a WAR of 0.1 in 21 games in Columbus and 0.7 in 57 games in Ottawa. Dzingel will be looking to match or exceed the RFA two-year $4 million AAV deal signed by Vladislav Namestnikov after his 48-point campaign in 2017-2018. Any team will be overpaying if they meet or exceed Namestnikov’s contract.

Joonas Donskoi

At 27 years of age, Donskoi will be a UFA for the first time and has proven to be a consistent 35 to 40-point player on the third line, while earning $1.9 million over the past two seasons. He is a defensively responsible third-line winger who is not overly physical and has a floor and ceiling very close together. His salary comparables are Tobias Rieder and Riley Sheahan, who both signed one-year deals for 2018-2019 after not being qualified the summer before. Donskoi has similar career stats but should be able to get a multi-year deal between $2.5 and 3 million AAV.

Marcus Johansson

Johansson has the highest expiring salary AAV of anyone in this tier at $4.58 million over three years. The year after signing it with Washington, he had a career high of 58 points and was looking full value for it. Unfortunately for him, he was traded in the off season of 2017 to New Jersey and was injured for most of his first season there, playing only 29 games in 2017-2018. Going into his contract year, he managed 30 points in 58 games split between Boston and New Jersey.  Unless he has a fantastic playoff with Boston, he will be hard pressed to get even close to the money he is getting now. He might have to settle on a one-year deal and hope to re-enter free agency after what he hopes will be a strong season next year.

Richard Panik

Panik signed a two-year contract after 2016-2017 for $2.8 million AAV, where he managed 22 goals and 22 assists in 75 games with Chicago; he struggled shortly thereafter and was subsequently traded to Arizona halfway through the first season of the contract. He has had back-to-back seasons of 14 goals and 35 and 33 points respectively, and last season had a WAR of 1.1. He is a solid third-line winger who has decent possession numbers (CF% 50.9 this season and 55.34 the year before) and a ceiling of 35-40 points and 15-20 goals. Conceivably a team might sign him for a multi-year deal with an AAV above $3 million, but surely there are cheaper options.

All the players profiled above should get contracts between $2-4 million AAV and anything above that could be an overpayment by the signing team. As we all know, however, NHL GMs like to spend on July 1!