After the rush of free agency signings pass in the first week of July, plenty of recent NHL regulars are left standing, as in a surreal game of professional musical chairs. By mid-July, most teams have a pretty good idea of what they expect their opening day rosters to look like, barring perhaps the identity of the fourth line LW, or the seventh D-man. Many good, proven, NHL-caliber players are left on the outside looking in, wondering if they will be able to continue to play the game they love, the only profession they have ever known, come October.
Some players panic early and sign on in Europe, as was the case this past summer with Rob Niedermayer, who signed with HC Lugano of the Swiss League on July 2, or Alexander Frolov, who returned to his native Russia, to sign for Avangard Omsk, before the free agency period even began. Other players hold out hope, as many teams find themselves in a bind as the summer wears on. Whether a defenseman is proving too slow to return from a serious injury, or a young forward does not yet look ready to take a regular role in the NHL, jobs can magically appear from nothing. Today's analysis will focus on a few key players who have had to wait to find a team this offseason.
Signed D Chris Campoli to a one-year contract worth $1.75 million (Sep. 26, 2011)
After pulling in $1.4 million last season, split between the Ottawa Senators and the Chicago Blackhawks, Campoli was slated to become a restricted free agent. Most RFAs are able to come to terms independently, without going through an arduous arbitration process. On occasion, unable to find a common ground, an arbitrator makes a decision on the worth of the player in question. Once in a while, the team disagrees with the arbitrator's decision so fervently, that they elect to completely cut ties with the player, rather than pay him what he has been valued at. In Campoli's case, the Toronto native was awarded a salary of $2.5 million by the arbitrator, a raise of nearly 80% on his salary of 2010-11, a season that most advanced statistics saw as flawed.
In some respects, it was his best season, with a GVT of 6.8 representing a career high. Much of his value could be attributed to his defensive play, as 4.6 defensive GVT illustrated a trend that had gone upwards for the second year in a row, starting at 1.7 between the Senators and the Islanders in 2008-09, and up to 3.8 in Ottawa in 2009-10 before last year's bump. On the other hand, his offensive play has also degraded, with his offensive GVT of 2.2 a downturn from the 4.3 offensive GVT that caused the Senators to surrender a first round draft pick* to the Islanders to acquire the mobile blueliner in February 2009.
*Officially, Campoli was shipped to the Canadian capital along with C Mike Comrie, in exchange for C Dean MacAmmond and a first rounder. That pick, originally belonging to the San Jose Sharks, changed hands five times, before the Anaheim Ducks used it to select Kyle Palmieri from the USNTDP.
Much of Campoli's dwindling offensive production came from diminishing time spent on the man-advantage. As a 23-year-old calling Long Island home in 2007-08, Ted Nolan entrusted the former seventh round draft pick with 3:57 PPTOI per game. That dropped to 2:39 PPTOI per game in 2008-09 combined with the Islanders and Senators. In 2009-10, his time playing the point had dropped further, to 2:01 PPTOI per game. Finally, last year between the Senators and the Blackhawks, Campoli played only 1:15 per game with the man advantage. His reduced power play time has also been reflected by his horrid Corsi rates on the man advantage over the past four seasons, all solidly in the red.
So what role will Campoli play for the Canadiens? Although Habs' GM Pierre Gauthier insisted that star defenseman Andrei Markov is finally healthy, signs indicate that that is not the case as Markov has yet to play in a preseason game. Young stud blueliner P.K. Subban should still be ahead of Campoli on the depth chart, as are the stay-at-home pair of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges (recently recovered from a serious injury of his own). Veteran Jaroslav Spacek is assured a role. Also fighting for a spot on the NHL roster are a duo of European imports in Russian Alexei Yemelin, ranked second in Corey Pronman's Top 10 series, and the Swiss tyro, Rafael Diaz. While both have impressed in training camp, head coach Jacques Martin has stated that they still have adjustments to make to the North American game, as neither has yet to play either in the North American amateur ranks, nor the AHL. With the offseason departures of James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik, over seven combined minutes per game manning the point have opened up. Some will be taken by Markov when he is finally healthy. Others will be occupied by Campoli. Considering that Yemelin and Diaz will have to play regular minutes, as does 23-year-old Yannick Weber, they are all likely to play in the AHL once Markov is healthy, while Jeff Woywitka seems the most likely to win the job of seventh defenseman.
New York Islanders
Signed D Steve Staios to a one-year contract for $800,000, with a cap hit of $1.6 million, due to an additional $800,000 in performance bonuses (Sep. 30, 2011)
Two weeks earlier, Staios, a veteran of 936 NHL regular season games, was brought into the Islanders camp on a tryout basis. Although as grizzled as could be, the Hamilton, Ontario native has only three seasons on his resume with a GVT score above 5.5, the last of which occurred in 2005-06. The 4.0 GVT he provided the Calgary Flames last year in only 39 games was his best contribution since 2006-07.
Staios was expected to provide competition to youngsters like Calvin De Haan, Ty Wishart, and Dylan Reese. Wishart and Reese have already (somewhat surprisingly) been cut loose, both men passing through waivers on their way to Bridgeport of the AHL. De Haan, along with fellow blueline prospects Matt Donovan and Aaron Ness, have all more recently been assigned to the AHL, each of the trio needing to get their professional feet wet at the lower level before seriously fighting for an NHL role. Wishart and Reese both played extensively in the NHL last seasonReese contributed at replacement level, while Wishart added 1.7 GVT to the Islanders coffers in only 20 games. Prorated to a full season, 7.0 GVT would have placed Wishart third among Islanders' blueliners, behind only Travis Hamonic (8.0 GVT) and Andrew MacDonald (7.5 GVT).
Already 38 years old, Staios cannot be expected to improve upon his ability to contribute to a winning team, something which has eluded him throughout much of his career. He has only found himself reaching in the playoffs three times in an NHL career spanning back to 1995-96. Only once, with the 2005-06 Oilers, did Staios play past the first round. His teams have tended more to the cellar-dwelling variety than postseason challengers. On a team like the Islanders, many would rightly think that Staios is setting himself up for another early summer. So on such a rebuilding team, why would the Islanders keep a promising youngster like Ty Wishart down on the farm? VUKOTA projects 2.1 GVT from Staios this season in 42.6 games (0.05 GVT/game). For the 23-year-old Wishart, a former first round pick, this site's highly vaunted projection system expects 2.3 GVT in only 33.6 games (0.07 GVT/game). The focus here is on Wishart, as he seems the most NHL-ready of all of the recently demoted Islander blue line youth, in terms of prospect pedigree, professional experience, and past success (if limited) at the NHL level.
The thinking likely comes from two tracks. First, with the Isles going into the season with plenty of other youngsters on the blue line, including the aforementioned Hamonic (21) and MacDonald (25), the team may want more experience, presumptively meaning increased stability, in their defensive corps, hoping to make life easier on their goalies, none of whom (Al Montoya, Rick DiPietro, and Evgeni Nabokov) have had much recent sustained success in the NHL. There could be some in the organizational brain trust who felt that going with rookies for 96 total games on the blue line last year may have contributed to the team's 27th-ranked GAA (3.15). However, while Staios is certainly as grizzled as you might want your veterans to be, he is one of only four Islanders' defenders over the age of 30. Whether it is Wishart, or Reese, or De Haan, or anyone else, the Islanders must expect to have frequent need of their farm system to cover for the inevitable injuries that will waylay their elder statesmen throughout the upcoming season.
The second reason has more to do with expected roles than potential skills. While the Long Island men were poor in terms of goals allowed last season, they were surprisingly effective on the penalty kill, finishing 12th in the league in kill rate at 83.2%. Two critical pieces from last year's penalty kill squad, Radek Martinek (2:36 SHTOI per game) and Bruno Gervais (1:25 SHTOI per game) have left the organization. In three of his first four preseason appearances, Staios was asked to play shorthanded for more than four minutes (bearing in mind that the Isles are a poorly disciplined team). Many of the young blueliners recently sent down are more noted for their offensive potential than their own-zone awareness, particularly De Haan and Donovan. At this stage in his career, Staios is no more than a third-pairing defender on a non-playoff team. That is exactly the role he will occupy for the Islanders. In as much as the above two reasons may mitigate the decision to keep the veteran, it is still a poor one, with at best, marginal short-term upside, and at worst, significant long-term downside, as ready players are not afforded the best stage to grow their game.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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