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February 4, 2011
Front Office Focus
Free Agent Finds and Fumbles

by Ryan Popilchak

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With the trade deadline not too far away, each team's position of buyer or seller can largely be traced back to the moves they made in the offseason to improve their team. With 50 games in the bank, it seems like a good time to evaluate some of this summer's best and worst signings. Obviously, evaluating a player on a multi-year contract after only 50 games is hardly the most complete measure of value. That said, it will give us a glimpse of which signings look the most promising at this point.

First and foremost, I didn't include Ilya Kovalchuk in the study. Anyone who follows the league knows he started out in a big funk and is climbing back to respectability at this point. If you really want to know what I thought of his impact when he signed, just check out my analysis of his contract.

As for the rest of the field, the players evaluated all had a three-year average GVT of 4.0 or higher. This was done to ensure that we were looking at established NHL players, although the value of 4.0 was somewhat arbitrary. Comparing each player's 2010-11 GVT (prorated for a full season) to his three-year average, we can see which players have thrived in their new surroundings and which ones have stumbled. All GVT figures and underlying stats were as of January 31st.

The Best

Among the summer's free agents, the top GVT jumpers were Jordan Leopold, Toni Lydman, and Alex Tanguay.

D Jordan Leopold, Buffalo Sabres

Jordan Leopold is currently in the middle of a stellar season with Buffalo. He has a GVT of 8.4 at this point in the season and projects to beat his three-year average by over 7.0 GVT. A player who projected as a second pairing defenseman in Buffalo, he currently is ranked tenth in the entire NHL. With a cap hit of $3M through the 2012-13 season, he's looking like a free agent steal. He looks that way right now, but I just don't see that production continuing.

At the age of 30, it's unlikely that Leopold is just now having a career year, but it's not out of the question. He has 10 goals and 27 points and is on pace to beat his career best of 33 points. His PDO of 987 would suggest that he's likely to get a few more bounces go his way and his results could turn out even better.

However, Leopold is currently an average possession player (Corsi = 0) and worse than his teammates (Corsi Rel = -3.1). This is despite playing some fairly easy ice time. His zone start rate of 57.1% is a gift from the coaches, while five other Sabres defensemen have it worse. Most telling, however, is that he has a -0.18 Relative Plus-Minus, meaning his team is better at even strength when he's on the bench. While he's a solid point scorer, I have to believe his defensive GVT will drop significantly.

D Toni Lydman, Anaheim Ducks

Toni Lydman signed with the Anaheim Ducks this summer on a three year deal with a cap hit of $3M per year, the exact same cap hit as Leopold. Lydman's current GVT of 8.1 puts him at 13th among NHL defensemen and on pace to beat his 3-year average by 6.5 GVT this season.

Lydman is playing drastically different ice time than Jordan Leopold though. He is facing the hardest competition among the Ducks d-men (1.778 Corsi Rel QoC) and the worst zone starts (42.0%) as well. Despite being thrown to the bottom of the canyon at the start of every shift, Lydman has been a much better possession player than his teammates (9.4 Corsi Rel) and his results on the ice have been much better as well (Relative Plus-Minus of 2.38). If he keeps this up, Lydman could be the king of the HLI for defensemen this season.

There is one reason to believe that Lydman could fall off this torrid pace to some extent. His PDO is an extremely high 1047 and with regression to 1000 a strong likelihood, his Relative Plus-Minus should fall somewhat. Despite benefiting from a few bounces, the rest of his underlying numbers are incredible.

LW Alex Tanguay, Calgary Flames

When I looked at the free agent moves for the Flames this off-season, I really liked the Tanguay signing. On the other hand, I didn't lambaste the Jokinen signing as much as I could have, which I'm regretting now.

Tanguay currently has a GVT of 7.6 and is scoring at a rate of 2.38 points per 60 minutes. His GVT pace is enough to beat his three-year average by five goals this season. More than anything, it signals that he had a poor year in Tampa last season, but it was an anomaly, not the norm.

Tanguay is facing top competition (Corsi Rel is third among forwards) but he has had the benefit of starting 56.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That said, he's been a positive possession player (3.14 Corsi) and on the results end (0.26 Relative Plus-Minus). Both his career history and his PDO point to this being a relatively standard year for the winger. At a salary of $1.7M, the Flames may have grabbed the best-valued free agent of the summer. Unfortunately though, they only signed him to a one-year deal.

The Worst

This summer's worst performing free agents relative to their GVT over the last three years contains two goalies and two skaters:

G Chris Mason, Atlanta Thrashers and G Dan Ellis, Tampa Bay Lightning

Both Chris Mason and Dan Ellis have identical -7.9 GVTs thus far this season and are on pace to underperform their three-year averages by over 17 goals. In Mason's case, he has played poorly in limited ice time, and has been replaced by the younger Andrej Pavelec.

In Ellis' case, he's never recovered from being bashed on Twitter and embarrassed by Linus Omark in the shootout. While I'm mostly joking, his save percentage was 0.897 before the Omark debacle and it's 0.887 now. Spin-o-ramas are devastating to a goalie's confidence. Make a mental note.

The two skaters who have truly disappointed are Sergei Gonchar and Olli Jokinen:

D Sergei Gonchar, Ottawa Senators

Sergei Gonchar's current GVT of 2.7 puts him on pace to be more than seven goals worse than his three-year average. He's currently playing second pairing difficulty (third among d-men in Corsi Rel QoC and third in Zone Starts), but is only producing at a rate of 0.27 points per 60 minutes of even-strength time.

While his results could be expected to drop when leaving an elite team like the Penguins to play for Ottawa, he's even underperforming when compared to his new squad. Both his possession rates (-2.4 Corsi Rel) and results (-0.23 Relative Plus-Minus) are underwater.

At a cap hit of $5.5M through the 2012-13 season, the Senators better hope that Gonchar figures out what is ailing his game.

C Olli Jokinen, Calgary Flames

The man that Flames fans love to hate is not giving them any reason to change their mind. "Joker", as he's affectionately known, currently sports a meager 1.7 GVT that could end up a full seven goals lower than his average over the last three years.

For the season, he's facing second line competition (sixth in Corsi Rel QoC, fifth in Zone Starts) but only scoring at a third line rate. His 1.36 points per 60 minutes is ninth among Flames forwards. With possession rates that disappoint (-9.1 Corsi Rel) and results that match (-1.16 Relative Plus-Minus), it appears that $3M per year for this season and next has been a complete waste.

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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