As the NHL off-season winds down and the 2015-16 season winds up, news of free-agent contracts with significant term and/or money is being supplanted by news of Professional Tryout Offers (PTOs) being inked.
There are only 540 full-time NHL spots available for skaters, and as new talent enters the league veterans are bound to be squeezed out. This results in added pressure on fringe skaters heading into their mid-30s and that increased downward pressure on the unrestricted free agent market means NHL teams go bargain-bin shopping—and can find some surprisingly valuable talent.
If we look at the UFAs who have either already agreed to PTOs or are likely heading there, we see a substantial number of useful performers. Looking back at their scoring rate (points per 60), possession impacts for and against (dCF, dCA, and combined dCorsi Impacts) and goals above replacement (GAR, via War-On-Ice.com) over the past three seasons offers a sense of which are likely to provide value to NHL clubs:
The most interesting aspect of the players signing PTOs this late in the off-season is how many of them contributed well above replacement level the past two or three years. As of this writing, Jiri Tlusty, Sean Bergenheim and Lee Stempniak all remain without a contract. They have been positive-impact skaters for the majority of their careers and none is particularly long in the tooth.
Tlusty is a first-round pick who has a remarkably similar history to his countryman and new Calgary Flame Michael Frolik. The two played together at Kladno prior to being taken 10th (Frolik) and 13th (Tlusty) overall in the 2006 NHL Draft. Tlusty averages more offensive production (1.93 pts/60 for Tlusty vs. 1.68 for Frolik), has a higher average GAR (8.18 vs. 4.75) and has averaged more time on ice (16.33 mins/gp vs. 16.14) the past three seasons. They also both finished 2014-15 with the Winnipeg Jets, Tlusty in a limited bottom-six role and Frolik as a second-line centre.
The advantages for Frolik stem from perceptions of past play and usage, largely focused around his defensive possession impacts and his contribution to a Stanley Cup-winning team in Chicago. Frolik signed a five-year contract with the Flames at a cap hit of $4.3 million. Tlusty can’t land a contract of any substance, but his camp staunchly believes in his value, to the point that he has reportedly rejected five NHL PTOs and has offers he is considering in the KHL.
Bergenheim has bounced around for much of his NHL career, having skated for the Islanders, Lightning, Panthers and Wild. He has always been a very effective possession skater and his underlying numbers speak to excellent ability on the forecheck and decent offensive skill.
In the comparison listed above, it should be noted that Bergenheim only skated in two of the previous three seasons after missing the lockout year due to an injury. His possession impacts are among the best of any NHLer, ranking 12th among active forwards across the past eight years in total dCorsi Impact. Perhaps his closest comparable in many regards would be another name on the PTO list, David Booth (10th), who has struggled to find a team.
Bergenheim has also carried the burden of some abysmal goaltending luck. During his tenure in Florida, every Panthers goaltender except for Al Montoya saw a significant decline in their 5v5 save percentage with Bergenheim on the ice. But earlier in his career, Dwayne Roloson in Tampa and Rick DiPietro on the Isle had significant increases in save percentage with him on the ice.
The reality is that tiny samples of goaltending performance with varied players on the ice are subject to wild, random swings in observable outcomes. Bergenheim has just been victimized more than anyone would reasonably expect—to the tune of a .908 on-ice save percentage at 5v5 during his time in Florida.
Of the 14 NHL goalies he has played in front of at at 5v5, five improved with him on the ice while eight got worse. Dan Ellis played behind him on two different teams, and got better in one season and worse in another. Bergenheim will be a useful piece wherever he ends up. The real question is whether the team he plays for realizes it.
In recent years, Daniel Winnik, Mike Santorelli, Mason Raymond, Brad Boyes (this seems to be a consistent pattern for him), Tom Gilbert and Damien Brunner have signed PTOs and gone on to productive seasons. Many of them have translated that success into multi-year contracts with other teams.
Bargain shopping leads to contract steals that can help float a franchise up against the cap. The question becomes which of this year’s PTOs will be steals, and which will be busts?