The 10 best analytics signings of 2017 NHL free agency

Daren Millard, Nick Kypreos, Doug MacLean and Elliotte Friedman recap some of the big signings from a busy July 1st.

Whether it was due to a weak crop of free agents or unexpectedly low growth in the NHL salary cap, there hasn’t been much ridiculous spending in NHL free agency in 2017. Most teams that were active did well for themselves, securing quality players at reasonable cap hits.

After digging into the numbers, the following 10 deals are our favourites.

C Martin Hanzal, Dallas Stars: Three years, $4.75 million cap hit
Hanzal is a capable scorer at 5-on-5, with a point production rate better than the average second-liner over each of the past four seasons. What makes him special, though, is he can play tough matchups and be his team’s primary defensive zone centre while still contributing offence. In each of the past 10 years, his team has done a better job of out-shooting its opponents when he’s on the ice as opposed to being on the bench.

C Sam Gagner, Vancouver Canucks: Three years, $3.15 million cap hit
The first of three Canucks on this list isn’t the same kind of two-way threat Hanzal is, but brings value in a specific role. Gagner hit 50 points this past season despite limited minutes, in large part thanks to his work as the right-shot finisher on the Blue Jackets power play. He’s only 27 years old and is capable of anchoring a secondary scoring line and playing a large role on the man advantage.

RW Ales Hemsky, Montreal Canadiens; LW Scott Hartnell, Nashville Predators; LW Mike Cammalleri, Los Angeles Kings: One year, $1 million cap hit for all
If this list wasn’t capped at 10 names, Benoit Pouliot and Patrick Sharp would have warranted inclusion here, as they also signed one-year deals at almost the identical price point. Pouliot and Sharp are reclamation candidates, though, something which isn’t really true of the three players who did make this list. All three of these wingers had solid seasons and somehow still found themselves signing one-year deals at fourth-line dollar figures.

All are very reasonable bets to play top-six roles at even-strength, because all have been at least above-average second-line forwards over the past three seasons when it comes to 5-on-5 scoring rates:

Hartnell is the most remarkable player on this list. Over the past three seasons, in an average shift at 5-on-5, he has been more likely to pick up a point than such players as Ryan Getzlaf, Blake Wheeler and Johnny Gaudreau.

Despite a lack of ice-time relative to other top even-strength scorers, Hartnell ranks 43rd in even-strength points (115) over the past three seasons, just a little better than the average first-line forward (with 30 teams in the NHL, there are 90 first-line forwards).

Hartnell hasn’t visibly deteriorated with age, either. No other Blue Jackets forward was more likely to pick up a point during an even-strength shift this past season.

Hemsky and Cammalleri aren’t at that level, but both are respectable top-six forwards and add a power play dimension that Hartnell lacks. Hemsky is particularly notable for having started more shifts in the defensive than offensive zone in each of the past two seasons; he retained his scoring despite playing mostly on a checking line in Dallas. Cammalleri, meanwhile, is only one season removed from scoring 38 points in 42 games.

RD Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers: Four years, $6.65 million cap hit
Shattenkirk was probably the best player available on the free agent market, though a lukewarm post-deadline performance with Washington may have soured some teams on him. Nevertheless, New York landed Shattenkirk at a very reasonable price point and most importantly only committed four years, meaning that Shattenkirk will only be 32 when this deal ends.

Shattenkirk is a brilliant offensive player, and the best power play defenceman in the NHL today. Over the past three years, he’s averaged 6.8 points/hour in 5-on-4 situations, putting him head-and-shoulders above the NHL’s second-best defenceman over that span (Victor Hedman, 5.2 points/hour).

LD Michael del Zotto, Vancouver Canucks: Two years, $3 million cap hit
Two years ago, del Zotto was playing 23 minutes per game as the top defenceman on a Philadelphia Flyers team that made the playoffs. This year he regressed, but was still a competent second-pair guy with decent shot metrics and puck-moving ability. His offensive totals have been hurt by not being a top power play option in Philadelphia, but he’s shown in the past he’s capable of contributing on the man advantage, too.

LD Patrick Wiercioch, Vancouver Canucks: One year, $650,000 cap hit
Wiercioch was lost in the misery that was the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche, but he’s still 6-foot-5 and only 26 years old. Most importantly, between 2010 and 2016, his team scored 54 per cent of the goals and took 53 per cent of the shots when he was on the ice. That’s a nice gamble at the NHL’s minimum wage.

G Steve Mason, Winnipeg Jets: Two years, $4.1 million cap hit
There is an element of risk to the Mason contract in that the veteran goaltender had his worst season in ages this past season, delivering a sub-average campaign for an NHL starter. Over the three seasons prior to 2016-17, however, his .935 save percentage at 5-on-5 was among the best totals in the league, ranking just behind Carey Price’s .939. The Jets got a legitimate NHL starter without breaking the bank or offering much term.

G Brian Elliott, Philadelphia Flyers: Two years, $2.75 million cap hit
Elliott is probably an even better bet than Mason due to his reduced cap hit. It’s hard to know how much four bad playoff games with Calgary cost him in free agency, but it must have been a lot. Over the past four seasons, his .931 save percentage at 5-on-5 is tied with Chicago’s Corey Crawford and New Jersey’s Cory Schneider. That’s great company to be keeping.


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