In a landscape where teams need to architect their roster with both a salary cap and a salary floor in mind, any GM who can fill a roster spot with a minimum salary player, whether an NHL-ready rookie or a minor league free agent, has a potential leg up on his peers. Rookies can be tricky in that regard, as many of the bluest of the blue-chippers have signing bonuses attached to their contracts which makes them more expensive than their base salaries would otherwise have them appear to be. As a prime example of that phenomenon, look to the Edmonton Oilers, who are playing with each of the last three number one overall draft picks among their forward corps. Taylor Hall has a base salary of only $900 K, but his signing bonus of $2.85 million brings his cap hit up to $3.598 million (including his first year, the lower salary from which lowered his cap hit slightly). The more recent two, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are earning base salaries of $925K. Like Hall, they each have $2.85 million signing bonuses attached, bringing their cap hits up to $3.775 million apiece. Still good investments, but not quite salary steals. The cheapest rookies tend to be the ones from whom the least is expected. Moving to Long Island, Andrew MacDonald was one such rookie, a former sixth round pick who received his first cup of coffee towards the tail end of his second professional season. Unheralded, he played for his base salary only, which was $500,000 in his first prolonged exposure to the NHL. Four seasons later, he is still only earning $575,000.
While the ability to plug rookies into an NHL roster has a lot to do with the luck of the draft and having a good development system in place, the other type of cheap roster filler, minor league free agents, and other castoffs, otherwise known as Freely Available Talent (FAT) requires a more careful approach to professional scouting in order to glean value. As maligned as he sometimes is in both mainstream and analytical circles, Islanders GM Garth Snow has had a penchant for finding gems among the FAT of the league. Two of the team's top three scorers last year, Matt Moulson and P-A Parenteau, were signed as free agents after failing to break through with their previous teams. Moulson was originally drafted in the late rounds by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but never signed, inking with the LA Kings after four successful seasons at Cornell. In three seasons with the Kings organization, Moulson played only 29 games for the Black and Silver, spending the majority of his time lighting it up in the AHL, where he contributed 160 points in 188 games. Since signing as an unrestricted free agent with the Islandersoriginally on a one year deal worth $575,000the Toronto native has blossomed into a bona fide first line winger, with three straight 30-goal seasons and currently scoring at more than a point-per-game clip. His salary has since been made more commensurate with his production, as he will earn a prorated $3 million this season.
Parenteau had a similar backstory to Moulson. Originally a ninth round draft pick by Anaheim, Parenteau spent four full seasons in the AHLwith increased production each year, culminating with 79 points in 68 games in his fourth seasonbefore receiving his first cup of NHL coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks, who had signed him as FAT the previous offseason. Not knowing what they had in hand, Parenteau was next moved to the New York Rangers, who likewise let him continue to produce at the AHL level, giving only 22 NHL games in three seasons. Free once again, the Islanders signed him as a UFA in July 2010. In two full seasons on the Island, the Hull native scored 120 points, providing far more value than should have been expected from the combined salary outlay of $1.85 million over the two years.
Moulson and Parenteau stand as unqualified successes in the world of NHL FAT. Most free talent produces at a rate more in line with their past and their prospect pedigree. That is to say, their production tends to be negligible. Not wanting to rest on those two gold strikes, Snow has made a habit of scouring the rank and file for more unpolished gems. One this year's roster alone, AHL (and otherwise forgotten/ignored by the league's more glamorous teams) free agents and waiver wire additions include Joe Finley, Thomas Hickey, Radek Martinek (not a minor league free agent, but signed in January for not much more than minimal salary), Keith Aucoin, Brian Strait, Eric Boulton (similar to Martinek), the aforementioned Moulson, Michael Grabner (a third success, plucked off the waiver wire from Florida before losing his rookie eligibility), Colin McDonald, and Evgeni Nabokov, more on whom later.
Through 31 games, the above players have accounted for 24.1 of the Islanders' total of 66.4 GVT, or over one third of all value above replacement. Of course, the majority of those contributions have come from Moulson (8.9 GVT) and Grabner (6.2 GVT), and the numbers include the negative "contributions" of Finley (-0.3 GVT), Boulton (-0.6 GVT), and Nabokov (-1.3 GVT), but we should commend Snow from getting so much from so little. Of that group, only Moulson, Grabner, and Nabokov are earning more than $1 million this year.
As remarkable as this track record of scouting success is, it is also notable for being extremely skater-heavy, with Nabokov representing than only goalie FAT. One might think that, as a former NHL netminder, with 368 games played across 14 NHL seasons, Snow would have a good eye for goalie talent and would be able to spot the talent from the chaff of AHL and other unmined territories.
Since being named as the General Manager of the Islanders on the day of his retirement in July 2006, the Islanders have used 14 different goaltenders for NHL games. Of the 14, five were acquired as freely available talent, including Nabokov (waivers in 2011, 69 games), Joey MacDonald (UFA in 2007, 51 games), Yann Danis (UFA in 2007, 31 games), Peter Mannino (undrafted college free agent, 2008, three games for NYI) and Nathan Lawson (UFA in 2008, 10 games). Some would argue that Al Montoya should also be judged as a FAT acquisition, seeing as how he was picked up in exchange for a sixth round draft pick after bombing out of both the Rangers and the Coyotes organizations in the nearly seven seasons since being the sixth overall selection of the 2004 draft. If we include Montoya's 51 games for the Islanders, we get just over 40% of the Islanders' games in the Snow era being guarded by goaltenders acquired for nothing or very close to nothing. That figure does not take into account the possibilities that some games were double-counted (one FAT goalie relieving another mid-game), so we can take it with a few grains of salt, but the number is largely accurate across nearly seven seasons.
In between the FAT goalies, Snow gave a 15-year contract extension to former number one overall draft choice Rick DiPietro (175 games), brought in a few proven NHL stoppers in Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron, and gave trials to young drafted goalies Kevin Poulin, Mikko Koskinen, and Anders Nilsson. And through it all, the Islanders only once appeared in the postseason, during Snow's first campaign, helped along by the best season of DiPietro's career (2.58 GAA, .919 save percentage).
Nabokov in particular is an odd case, a FAT by default. After 10 standout seasons manning the pipes for the San Jose Sharks, the former ninth round draft pick decided to return to Russia after the NHL collectively declined to sign the UFA. Unsatisfied with life in his homeland, Nabokov shortly thereafter tried to return to America through a short-term deal with the Detroit Red Wings. As the contract was signed past the date that would be permissible to bring in talent from overseas hockey leagues, Nabby had to pass through waivers before suiting up for the Wings. Finding himself in need of stability in net, Snow claimed the goalie. Apparently incensed, Nabokov refused to report to Long Island, and spent the remainder of the 2010-11 season on the suspended list. As he had failed to report for that season, the league ruled that the contract signed with Detroit in 2010 would be seen as valid for the 2011-12 season. As such, in order to return to the NHL fold, Nabokov played out the entire season for a mere $570,000, a far cry from the $5-6 million he earned in his final few years in San Jose. In the sense that he could have been claimed by any NHL team, Nabokov qualifies as freely available talent for the purposes of the study. On the other hand, his NHL track record was not commensurate with typical FAT.
Like the shoemaker who goes barefoot, Garth Snow has been unable to solve the goaltending puzzle in his reign as GM of the New York Islanders. As good as Nabokov was historically, once he pulled on the Islanders jersey, he performed to the level expected of waiver wire fodder. His 6.2 GVT in 2011-12 was decent, but this season's -1.3 GVT indicates that the slide may have reached its steepest point. Considering the expected inconsistencies among netminders, we would be remiss if we should recommend that Snow spend big on the open market to bring in more established talent to buttress the position until one or more of Poulin, Koskinen, or Nilsson prove ready to shoulder the load. Considering their collective disappointments in their early cameos, we may find that none of them ever measure up to the standards expected of a starting goalie. Perhaps Snow can dip his hand into the undrafted college free agent talent pool, as he did years ago with Peter Mannino. According to our own Corey Pronman, one likely candidate would be Eric Hartzell of Quinnipiac University, a finalist for this year's Hobey Baker Award after stopping 93.4% of shots on his net as a senior. The native of White Bear Lake, Minnesota has good size (6'4") and a sterling track record in the NCAA.
While Snow should be commended for finding functional and better NHL talent where others could not find room on a 23-man roster, he has failed in identifying talent to stand on the blue ice. Even though he has been held back by extreme cash flow problems not of his own making (but who is to say that a few extra home dates in the playoffs would not have increased the coffers), he will likely be judged by his ability to field a competitive roster, and barring a strong close to the season, his Islanders are in danger of a seventh straight season ending early. If Snow comes up wanting, we are not likely to see too many waiver wire additions suiting up in Brooklyn when the franchise moves for the 2015-16 season.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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