Analytics can help identify undervalued NHL players.
Last summer, the Florida Panthers signed unrestricted free agent Jonathan Marchessault to a two-year contract with an average annual cap hit of $750,000. He scored 30 goals, making him arguably the best value contract in the NHL last season.
Marchessault was one of four players Sportsnet identified last June as a good bargain bet in free agency. We used common analytical tools, including deceptively simple ones like scoring rates and on-ice shot differential to try and flag players who had been overlooked.
We’re going to do the same thing again this year. Unfortunately, this year’s free agent class is weaker than 2016, so there are fewer obvious targets, and almost certainly none that will explode the way Marchessault did. Nevertheless, we’ve identified four players who we believe can outperform both their reputations and the contracts they are likely to receive.
After five seasons and 132 games as a full-time NHL goalie, Enroth signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs last year. He played six games and got torched, allowing 18 goals. Suddenly he found himself outside the league, forced to prove once again that he belonged at hockey’s highest level.
We think he does. His work before those six games suggests it, as does his work afterward.
The dark blue line above shows the average performance of the NHL’s 30 starters in each season. The grey line does the same, but for NHL backups. The yellow line representing Enroth moves around a lot, on balance underperforming the typical starter but dramatically overperforming the typical backup. On the whole, Enroth has been well above average as an NHL backup goalie, even at times flirting with starter status.
After being exiled to the AHL in 2016-17, Enroth landed in San Diego. He replaced former Montreal backup Dustin Tokarski as the Gulls’ starting goalie. Tokarski, a usually reliable third-stringer, had posted a wretched .898 save percentage with the team. Enroth improved on that by 38 points, going 14-4-0 with a .936 save percentage to close out the year.
Even so, Enroth’s career is in question right now. Because of that, an opportunistic team might be able to land a No. 1B goalie on the kind of contract more typically given to a No. 3.
He is famous for what he does not do. He is not known as a fluid skater, or as an aggressive hitter. Those two deficiencies lead to highly visible errors, and for a defenceman “highly visible errors” can be a death sentence.
Looking past those awkward moments, though, we find a player who consistently helps his team do good things.
Consider the past two seasons in Buffalo. In an average hour of 5-on-5 play over that span without Franson, the Sabres allowed six more shot attempts than they managed themselves. With Franson on the ice, Buffalo had one more shot than the opposition, a seven-shot swing in all per hour.
Goal differential followed a similar pattern, with the Sabres’ negative goal differential without Franson being sliced in half when the defenceman was on the ice.
This is not an aberration. Even in tough minutes, Franson’s teams tend to be better when he’s on the ice than they are when he’s on the bench. Add in his ability to play on either special team, and he can be a very useful second-pair right shot defenceman, something that is in short supply in free agency.
He is a famous player, one many will already have opinions on, but it’s worth setting those opinions aside for a moment to look at what he’s done as a member of the Colorado Avalanche.
Even a superficial glance yields some points of interest. A 6-foot-3, 210-pound centre very much in the prime of his career (his listed age is 23), Grigorenko has averaged eight goals and 25 points per year in a depth role. He’s killed penalties. Last year he won 58 per cent of his faceoffs.
A slightly deeper look confirms there could be a pretty interesting player here.
Grigorenko’s on-ice shot metrics are an exact match for his team, but his line outperformed in the goal department, thanks mostly to posting a league-average shooting percentage. The Avs’ PK has its best goals-against number when he has been on the ice. Finally, Grigorenko’s 1.47 points/hour at 5-on-5 is a good third-line number or low-end second-line total.
In short, Grigorenko looks a lot like a guy who can survive in a bottom-six role right now. Given his age, draft pedigree, and scoring rate in a limited role, it’s also entirely possible he can grow beyond that.
It’s important to acknowledge that Pouliot was not a good player for the Oilers in 2016-17. It’s also important to note what an aberration that was.
Pouliot has long been pigeonholed as a bottom-six player, and thus limited in terms of how much he played. But on a per-minute basis, he’s always been a highly effective scorer, which can be a sign of a player who has been underappreciated.
Over the seven seasons between 2009 and 2016, Pouliot scored 2.0 points/hour in 5-on-5 situations. That ranks 56th in the NHL over that span, a number a little better than Mats Zuccarello and a little bit worse than Alex Steen.
It’s possible Pouliot’s scoring rate would have dipped with more ice-time, but that’s not what happened in his first two years in Edmonton, the first time in his career he got that opportunity. He scored 1.9 and 2.1 points/hour, respectively, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. He was also on-pace to easily top 20 goals both years when injury made that impossible.
That’s not all. Prior to 2016-17, Pouliot’s on-ice shot metrics were superior to his team’s average for seven consecutive seasons. His on-ice goal numbers were superior to the team average in six of those seven seasons. His teams do a better job of outshooting and outscoring their opponents when he’s out there.
In short, Pouliot delivers genuine offensive punch and has been part of effective two-way lines for virtually his entire NHL career. He definitely deserves a chance to show that last season was a bump in the road, and the team that bets on him could get a very good player for pennies on the dollar.