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July 7, 2011
Front Office Focus
The Price Of Becoming Competitive

by Ryan Popilchak

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An incredible amount of effort has been expended in the statistics community over the past decade to come up with better metrics to evaluate players and to evaluate which indicators predict successful teams—from NHL equivalencies to possession stats (e.g. Corsi, Fenwick) to situational stats and finally to historically comparative metrics like Hockey Prospectus' own Goals Versus Threshold (GVT).

Despite all these advances, no one can seem to come up with a model for building a team that is foolproof. We can generally agree that the gap in goaltender talent spreads are tight and that possession stats lead to wins in the long haul, but research proving whether teams need to build through the draft, by signing bargain free agent deals or by emphasizing one position over others is usually more suggestive than definitive.

With this in mind, it makes the extreme team makeover session the Florida Panthers have undergone even more interesting.

General Manger Dale Tallon has taken a tremendous amount of criticism and ridicule for the huge terms he has handed to risky players, but what choice did he have? While many assume that the sole purpose of the signings were to hit the NHL's mandated salary floor, I believe there is more behind Tallon's "madness". The common problem facing many of the league's bottom-dwellers is how they finally turn the corner to being competitive. Tallon appears to be following the model he used in Chicago—sign some quality NHL players to pair with high-end prospects.

In Florida, Tallon already had two very good forwards in Stephen Weiss and David Booth. He also had a few top prospects in Dmitri Kulikov, Jacob Markstrom, Erik Gudbranson, and now, Jonathan Huberdeau.

However, a team that finished with a 34 goal deficit and in 15th place in the Eastern Conference definitely has a lot of holes to fill. Tallon attempted to fill those holes this offseason.

While it would be easy to criticize the value of a few of the deals he handed out this past weekend, the Panthers currently have 20 players under contract and still have $17 million worth of cap space left. In the process, they added a top pairing for the defense and six NHL-level forwards.

Defense

Tallon spent $11.3 million in cap space by adding Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski as his new top defense pairing. I spoke about Campbell's strengths and limitations last week. Jovanovski, on the other hand, is an entirely different style of player. Last year on Phoenix, he started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other Phoenix blueliner (43.1% zone start rate). He also faced second-pairing competition, but had the worst Corsi score (-1.96) of any Coyotes d-man. He has averaged 5.7 GVT over the last three seasons, being worth roughly one win on his own per season.

Campbell and Jovanovski clearly represent big contract risk, given that Campbell is 32 years old and Jovanovski is 35 years old while both are signed at least for the next four years. However, by using both in their best situations, the Panthers have upgraded both offensively and defensively from the blue line.

Forwards

Tallon managed to get Scott Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim to all sign contracts with Florida for a combined $18.6 million in annual cap hit.

Upshall has the potential to slot in at right wing on the top line with Booth and Weiss. He scores at the rate of a top-six forward (1.82 points per 60 minutes of even strength) and is a possession driver with a Relative Corsi of 12.0 on the Blue Jackets last year. Given Upshall's possession skill along with Weiss' and Booth's ability to play stiff competition, this could be the line Florida uses to match up with the opposition's best. Upshall brings an average GVT of 5.7 over the last three seasons.

Tomas Fleischmann isn't worth $4.5 million per season, but has the potential to be a scoring winger on a team that badly needs it. He's got medical concerns to go along with the "inconsistent" tag, but he's averaged 8.2 GVT over the past three seasons while scoring over two points per 60 minutes at even strength. He may need to play sheltered minutes and isn't a great possession player, but he can put points on the board.

Marcel Goc was an interesting pickup. For a cap hit of only $1.7 million, he has contributed 4.9 and 3.6 GVT over the last two seasons. He was an above average possession player last season despite starting only 43% of his shifts in the offensive zone. And scoring 1.9 points per 60 minutes at even strength means he can be counted on to score at even strength.

Kris Versteeg is another player we've covered at Hockey Prospectus through his move from Toronto to Philadelphia. He has averaged 8.9 GVT the last three seasons. Last season, he had a neutral impact on possession but at least scored like a second-line forward. A second line of Fleischmann, Goc and Versteeg could conceivably put some points on the board if the Booth-Weiss-Upshall line take on the more difficult assignments.

In Sean Bergenheim and Tomas Kopecky, Tallon has stocked his third line with wingers who score like second liners and are positive from a possession standpoint. Bergenheim is a stellar possession player (Relative Corsi of 12.0), while playing reasonably difficult minutes. And he still scores like a second-line player at even strength. The real question is whether this was a one-year peak or not. Kopecky is a decent possession player and scorer as well, but was given very soft minutes in Chicago. Neither player warranted their big contracts, but at least they have the potential to continue playing that way or to improve.

With all the signings, the Panthers depth chart at forward likely looks like this through the first three lines:

Booth-Weiss-Upshall
Fleischman-Goc-Versteeg
Bergenheim-Santorelli-Kopecky

Those three lines can provide enough for Florida to compete, while leaving room for players like Gudbranson or Huberdeau to crack the lineup and improve their game against NHL fourth-line competition.

It may have cost the Panthers $18.6 million in cap space to gain approximately 34 GVT, which is incredibly inefficient. However, that may be the cost to lure players to a non-playoff team.

The Verdict

In a division with Winnipeg, Carolina and Tampa Bay, the dream of making the playoffs isn't impossible. While Florida finished last in the conference, they had similar goal differences to Toronto, New Jersey, Winnipeg, Ottawa and the Islanders. Adding eight quality skaters will hopefully make up for the fact that they lost close to 25 goals worth of goaltending when they let Vokoun walk and replaced him with Jose Theodore.

While the Panthers were hardly efficient with the cap dollars they spent, all of the contracts handed out to forwards featured a unique method of managing risk. Given that five of the six forwards acquired were between the ages of 25-27 and had more than three NHL seasons under their belt, their performance level is reasonably predictable. The risk of any of those players being a complete bust is unlikely. Kopecky is the lone forward outside of those parameters, as he's 29 and has less history of performance. Along with the ages of Campbell and Jovanovski, the team definitely took on more risk than an established playoff franchise would.

The Panthers paid their price, but in order to change their fortunes, this may have been a necessary expense. If nothing else, it will be worth watching to see if the blueprint works in climbing back into playoff contention.

Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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