For the fourth and final part of our look at UFAs for next season, we will check-in on the players available who would be considered the elite of the UFA class. These are the established top-line players who can be considered tier one. Any references to WAR (wins above replacement) are from www.evolving-hockey.com calculations on the stat. Evolving Wild has an algorithm for free agent players’ projected salaries (excluding goalies) on a Google spreadsheet which I’ve used below.
Skinner is one of the youngest UFAs of this season’s class, having just turned 27 on May 16th. One thing jumps out at teams interested in him: he scored 40 goals in 2018-2019. Evolving Wild has him projected to sign an eight-year deal for an AAV of $8.5 million, after an expiring contract of six years at $5.725 million AAV. There are a few concerns for any team looking to sign Skinner for that kind of term and money, with one being his last quarter where he slumped to four goals and four assists in 21 games. He might be in line for some shooting percentage regression as he was at 14.9% this past year which was well above his career average of 10.7%. His IPP dropped to 58.9 in his one year in Buffalo from above 75 his last two seasons in Carolina. The IPP dropping is not a huge concern as Skinner played with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart for the most part and this is more a testament to their puck distribution skills than Skinner falling off at any level. He might not be as sheltered signing with a new team (he had 66% OZ starts in Buffalo) and his IPP might increase a little in a situation where he is forced to drive the play. But as we saw in Carolina, when his IPP was higher it didn`t necessarily translate to more points. It will be interesting to see if $8 million AAV over eight years is the going rate for a 30 to 35-goal-scoring winger who tops out at 60-65 points.
Panarin tops Evolving Wild’s contract projections with an estimated eight-year contract at $11.4 million AAV. This would put him at number two in the NHL behind Connor McDavid at $12.5 million AAV. Not bad for an undrafted free agent signing out of Russia at the age of 23! Panarin clearly drove the play with an IPP above 79 for the past two years as well as being durable and consistent over his four seasons in the NHL. He had his career-high 87 points last season in 79 games and added 11 points in 10 playoff games, and he has never been below 74 points in four seasons. He led Columbus in CF% the past two seasons even when adjusted for OZ starts. He is a first-line winger on any NHL team. Panarin will turn 28 after the first month of next season and is relatively young in terms of games played as he played in the KHL for five seasons where he maxed out at 54 games in a season. He is a perimeter player (14 hits and 17 blocks last season) who plays an offensive-oriented game. If Panarin signs a seven or eight-year deal he should provide strong value for five or six of those seasons at the very least. It’s just difficult to put him at number two in the league in terms of salary.
Duchene will turn 29 halfway through next season and will be entering his 11th season in the NHL. He is the top center available as a UFA and many teams would love to add him. Duchene matched his career high in points with 70 in the regular season and added 10 points in 10 games in the playoffs. His WAR in 2018-2019 was 2.9 and his projected contract is six years at $7 million AAV. The only problem with Duchene going forward is that this might be the top of his production curve. Teams will be hoping they get the 70-point Duchene for at least three or four years of the contract that they sign him for. Reality has him as a 55 to-65 point center who provides adequate production for the power play and even strength TOI he is afforded.
Karlsson will turn 29 before July 1st free agency and is projected to sign for eight years at $10 million AAV. There are a lot of questions about his ongoing health and whether he is already older than his years. His WAR was 3.2 in a year where he missed 29 games through injury. It is a very good sign that he has played in every playoff game thus far, and has played fairly well. Any team looking to sign him will be taking a gamble and overpaying for the length of the deal but will be focusing on the next three or four seasons of hopefully prime production. Anything after that will be gravy. A team could conceivably add the game’s top defenceman (arguably) for nothing more than money and that is the temptation for a lot of teams who have nothing close to Karlsson on their back end. Even when healthy, Karlsson is showing signs of not being the player he was, as he has battled injuries and other personal issues over the past two years. He should be a great addition to any team that signs him as even on one leg he has put together 62 points in 71 games (2017-2018) and 45 points in 53 games (2018-2019).
Brobovsky had a prior contract of $7.425 million AAV over four years. His WAR of 3.5 in 2018-2019 was the lowest it’s been since 2015-2016, which is an indication of how well he played the prior two seasons. He still won at least 37 games in the regular season for the third year in a row and had a save percentage of 0.913. I had profiled Brobovsky in a Frozen Tools Forensics column at the end of March 2019 and opined that he might find it easier outside of Columbus as they give up a fair amount of high danger chances and a shorter average for distance of shots. I also stated that he is a lock for 30-plus wins for the next three to five years. I have no doubt that Bobrovsky will still be a starter in the NHL in five or six years and should be able to match or exceed his previous AAV with a term of five to seven years.
We can expect to see salaries from $7 to 11 million in AAV for this group. As strange as this might sound, some of these contracts will be less risky than the tier two to four ones that we previously looked at. Evaluating 30 UFA players over the past few weeks has been eye-opening, to say the least. I’ll be continuing into the next few weeks with RFA players for next season. Thanks for reading.
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