One third of the way into the 2013-14 season, which players have been the best free agent signings? Ageless veteran Jaromir Jagr is doing it again, Valtteri Filppula has been the lone star among the high risk deals, Vancouver is one of the teams to find great value in the bargain bin, and Dustin Penner has perhaps been the greatest coup of all.
For me, cap efficiency charts are the tool of choice when evaluating free agent deals at a high level like this. At the quickest of glances, they can paint a reasonably accurate picture of how players are performing relative to their deals, and by how much.
After explaining what these cap efficiency charts are all about, we will take a look at this past summer’s free agents, breaking down the best of the high-priced deals, the mid-level signings, and the best bargain-priced contracts.
How is cap efficiency measured?
Hockey’s 3-1-1 rule states that every three goals gets you one point in the standings, and costs about one million dollars. So for every million dollars of cap space a team invests in a certain player (above league minimum), they should either be increasing their team’s scoring by three goals, reducing opposing goal scoring by three goals, or some combination of the two.
We can approximate a player’s overall contributions using Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), which is a high-level estimate of their value in terms of goals relative to that of a replacement-level player.
Keep in mind that catch-all statistics like GVT aren’t perfect. While they are capable of providing a good overview of a player or team, we still need to dig in with other types of analysis to get an exact reading. Indeed, the use of estimates like these is one of the most controversial issues in the field of hockey analytics today.
Cap efficiency chart for notable 2013 free agent signings
What does all this mean? Each player’s cap hit (in millions, and including bonuses) is on the horizontal axis, and their individual contributions are on the vertical axis, as measured by GVT.
Instead of the bubbles seen in the Hockey Prospectus 2013-14 annual, we are saving some space by using single points for each free agent, with a line showing where the breakeven level resides. The line goes right through veterans Brendan Morrow, Boyd Gordon, and Derek Roy, clearly showing the boundary separating the value contracts from the others.
There are only 15 players north of the line, and 27 below the line. Add in veteran goaltenders Nikolai Khabibulin and Evgeni Nabokov, who are well below the bottom of this graph, and there is basically a two-to-one ratio between free agents below the line and those above it. That makes sense, since we know that free agents aren’t exactly the most cost-efficient roster additions.
The riskiest types of deals are the long-term contracts of at least four or five years that carry a cap hit in the $5 million neighborhood, which have recently been awarded to 30-year-old potential first-line forwards.
For these deals, the chances of success are generally about one in five. Last year, there were five such deals signed after July 5th (not counting Nathan Horton’s). Of them, Filppula’s is the only one that could be considered a success so far.
There is no question that these deals are risky, but sometimes teams have to take risks in order to be competitive. It is hard to predict which ones will work out and which ones won’t. And of course, Filppula will have to keep this up for another four seasons.
That is one of the reasons Jaromir Jagr’s contract holds more appeal, given that it is a low-risk, one-year contract, and actually for far less than Jarome Iginla and Daniel Alfredsson’s single-year offerings.
Even at longer terms, mid-range deals with cap hits at or below Jagr’s can sometimes offer the same type of reward, but for much less risk.
Although the odds of a big impact are somewhat less, it is safer to make more mid-level free agent deals around $3 million, give or take.
Right now, it looks like Marek Zidlicky, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, and even Matt Cooke were all good mid-range signings. All of them are low-risk deals, with the first two being single-year terms, and the latter on two- and three-year terms, respectively.
The obvious star of the mid-range deals is Dustin Penner, who has been the most useful free agent (other than Filppula) having signed for just $2 million. In this case, it is actually unfortunate that Anaheim only locked him down for a single season.
Several teams used free agency as a cost-effective way to improve their depth. Rooting around the bargain bin, Vancouver found a pair of low-priced gems in Mike Santorelli and Brad Richardson.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis wasn’t alone. Florida picked up their leading scorer Brad Boyes, and Toronto scored a coup with Mason Raymond. Phoenix landed an effective backup goalie in Thomas Greiss, and San Jose re-signed veteran penalty-killing defenseman Scott Hannan for a song. Even Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams and Colorado’s Andre Benoit were also good value signings.
Of all these low-cost signings, only Adams and Richardson were for more than a single season. With only those two exceptions each of these teams could have tried again next summer if the deals hadn’t worked out.
Free agency is a risky way to improve a team, but sometimes teams have to take calculated risks in order to be competitive. Cap efficiency charts are a great way to tell which teams have had the best luck with their signings, and at the quickest of glances.
Valtteri Filppula defied the odds by giving Tampa Bay a great return on one of the riskiest types of deals, while New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr is notable for demonstrating how veteran scoring can sometimes be acquired at minimal risk.
The king of free agent signings could be Anaheim’s Dustin Penner, who actually didn’t cost much more than the seven or eight bargain signings, two of which went to Vancouver. It is obviously too early to officially declare this offseason’s winners, but those four teams are off to big leads.
Rob Vollman is one of the founding authors of Hockey Prospectus, long-time contributor at ESPN Insider, an author of all four of our annuals, and the creator of all of the great charts you find in Hockey Prospectus 2013-14.
Follow Rob on Twitter at @robvollmanNHL.