Grading eight 2018 UFA signings with one year of hindsight


Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares (91) celebrates after scoring. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The wild frenzy of NHL free agency on July 1 has passed. We’ve assigned winners, losers and broken down the ramifications of these contracts against the salary cap. There are still some quality players out there on the open market, including Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel, Micheal Ferland — and even Joe Thornton. Sebastian Aho was the first big-ticket RFA off the board, and he came down via an offer sheet, so maybe there are more fireworks to follow in that corner of the market.

We have our initial opinions on how these contracts will work out, but we won’t know for sure how wise any of them were until this time next year. So while analysis and opinion pour in about the 2019 UFAs, it’s also a great time to recall some of the most notable deals given out to last summer’s class and revisit how those have worked out so far.

To do this, we’re just looking at UFAs who signed from July 1 on. So Drew Doughty re-signing an eight-year deal with Los Angeles one year before he became a UFA won’t show up here, nor will Mike Green’s contract, which was signed one day before he hit the market.

With one year in the books, we look back at 2018 and grade some of the contracts given out to UFAs.

1. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs: Seven years, $11 million AAV

A player of Tavares’ caliber so rarely hits the UFA market in their prime years, so it’ll be hard for this one to ever get a poor grade. Tavares landed in Toronto and posted career-highs in goals (47) and points (88), had the second-most ice time among all Leafs forwards (19:05 per game) and the most on the power play (2:36). His winger, Mitch Marner, is a standalone talent, but it’s no coincidence that he also had a career-best season, finishing as the team’s leading scorer with 94 points, a 25-point jump.

With Tavares and Auston Matthews, Toronto has one of the best one-two punches down the middle, the most important position to load up on in the NHL today. Tavares will turn 29 in September and only has 31 playoff games played in his 10-year career, so he should still have plenty of mileage left. RFA Matthews followed months later with an even bigger AAV on his contract extension. Speculation persists that Marner could approach a Tavares-like cap hit, and UFA winger Artemi Panarin just got more to go to the New York Rangers (and amid reports he took less to do it). Each year the cap goes up, Tavares’ contract comes with a little more value. This one will always grade well.

Signing grade: A+

2. James van Riemsdyk, Philadelphia Flyers: Five years, $7 million AAV

JVR was 29 at the time of the signing, and as the best left winger available on last summer’s market, it was an immediate win for Philadelphia that they were able to keep the term to five years instead of the maximum seven. And there are a few more layers that made this a very nice play by former GM Ron Hextall.

Consider that Evander Kane, two years younger with lower goal and point totals, re-signed with San Jose ahead of hitting UFA for the same cap hit at JVR, but for seven years. Kane also got a modified no-trade clause attached to his deal, which allows him to make a list of just three teams to which he’d accept a deal. JVR has no such trade protection, so the Flyers would be able to freely move him anywhere if they choose.

JVR missed some time in Year 1 with the Flyers, playing in just 66 games, but he scored goals and produced points at a rate just shy of his career-bests. Kane played nine more games than JVR in Year 1 of their deals and ended up with three more goals and eight more points.

Despite the missed time, JVR was third on the Flyers in even-strength goals and tied for first in power-play markers. The Flyers should be better next season and with a new coaching staff, their PP could very well improve over its 17.1 per cent success rate (23rd in the league). JVR would be the primary beneficiary of that, and if all goes according to plan, his first 40-goal season is not out of reach.

Anders Lee was a comparable signing from the 2019 UFA class, re-upping with the Islanders for seven years with the same $7 million cap hit, and full trade protection in the first five years. JVR’s deal is a great one for Philadelphia.

Signing grade: A

3. David Perron, St. Louis Blues: Four years, $4 million AAV

Part of the St. Louis Blues’ on the fly summer change, Perron was a Day 1 UFA signing who worked out very well even despite being limited to 57 games. Following a career-best 66-point season in Vegas, Perron’s .80 points per game mark with the Blues was the second-best rate of his career. In limited action, Perron led the Blues in points and goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 time, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s great value for the seventh-highest paid forward on the Blues’ depth chart.

Perron is 31 years old and still has three years ahead of him on a great value contract. With young players rising within the Blues organization and age-related decline a decent possibility, 2018-19 could end up being Perron’s best on this contract. His $4 million price tag may never become a problem, but if the Blues do ever need to trade him for cap reasons his modified no-trade clause would only eliminate five teams from the field. It’s likely someone will always be willing to take a crack on a player with his production history, if it ever comes to that. In the meantime, he’s a sneaky strong support player producing above his pay grade.

Signing grade: A

4. Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights: Three years, $6.5 million AAV

Any more term and this would be a very problematic contract — but that the Golden Knights are today over the salary cap (before putting David Clarkson’s $5.25 million on LTIR) makes you wonder if they’d do this same deal again. At the time of signing Stastny, the team didn’t have Mark Stone on the radar and hadn’t yet traded for Max Pacioretty. They needed a second-line centre to support William Karlsson’s inevitable regression from a 43-goal season on a 23.4 shooting percentage and after Tavares, Stastny was the best available centre free agent.

There’s a defensive element to Stastny’s game that is one of his more valuable components, but for the offence to shine through he needs finishing wingers because he’s a playmaker first and foremost. For the first half of the season, it was very hard to get a read on Stastny in Vegas because he was injured for most of it, but did post nine points in his first 12 games.

Stastny didn’t play more than three games in a row with new linemate Pacioretty until January and things really took off after Stone was acquired and added to that line. In Stastny’s last 17 games of the regular season, he finished with 17 points and then put up eight points in seven playoff games. Given his time missed to injury and how long it took for his full line to come together, we won’t really have a full picture of how well Stastny worked out until we see more of this trio in 2019-20. But in 50 games played, Stastny led all Golden Knights forwards in primary assists and points per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, per Natural Stat Trick.

For someone who was brought in on a short, three-year deal to bolster an offence that was expecting its first line to experience some degree of an offensive slow down (which did end up happening), it’s hard to argue Stastny didn’t work out. His cap hit was partly responsible for the Golden Knights having to deal away the likes of Erik Haula and Colin Miller in a cap crunch this off-season, but that can be an acceptable cost for loading the top of your lineup.

Signing grade: B+

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5. Robin Lehner, New York Islanders: One year, $1.5 million AAV

Even behind some shoddy defences in his career, Lehner had always been a pretty decent NHL goalie. But in his last one with Buffalo, he managed just a .908 save percentage and the Sabres decided a long-term contract extension or an arbitration award would be too rich for them, so they didn’t extend RFA Lehner a qualifying offer and he became a July 1 UFA. Lou Lamoriello and the Islanders swooped in, stealing Lehner at a bargain cost, and the payoff in 2018-19 was considerable.

Behind a much better team defence put together by Barry Trotz, Lehner and teammate Thomas Greiss thrived. The two earned the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals, Lehner posted a .930 save percentage that earned him a nod as a Vezina Trophy finalist, and he led the Islanders to their second playoff series win since 1993. This was a great pickup for the Islanders that came with no risk at all — but that’s what also holds this back from being an A+ value contract.

The Islanders won big in their one year roll of the dice on Lehner, but couldn’t get him re-signed and were thrown back into the UFA goalie market in 2019. This time, they did go long-term, giving 31-year-old Semyon Varlamov four years and $20 million. For a goalie with the injury and consistency issues Varlamov has had in recent years, this one doesn’t seem like a gamble that’s going to pay off.

The oddest part of this is that Lehner left to take another one year deal with Chicago, — which already has a starter in Corey Crawford — for the same $5 million Varlamov got from New York.

In a one year look, you couldn’t have asked for anything more than what the Isles got from Lehner. But because they couldn’t keep the soon-to-be 28-year-old for any longer, and had to make a riskier bet on an older goalie with term Lamoriello loses a few points for how this one played out.

Signing grade: B+

6. Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes: One year, $1.5 million AAV

Not that long ago Mrazek was a goalie on the rise with the possibility of becoming elite and taking over from Jimmy Howard in Detroit. But it all unravelled rather quickly and after he was moved off to the goalie graveyard in Philadelphia he became a UFA who was scooped up on the cheap by the Hurricanes.

It took the 27-year-old some time to settle in. Waiver-wire pickup Curtis McElhinney was the early success story for the Canes, but Mrazek had a pretty good December that put him back on the map. He cooled again in January, but from Feb. 1 to the end of the regular season Mrazek’s .938 save percentage stood only behind Ben Bishop and Philipp Grubauer.

Mrazek’s playoffs were a little hit and miss. Carolina got past Washington despite the fact he was below a .900 save percentage, and then an injury put McElhinney back in the net. The last two games Mrazek played were against Boston, and he allowed 10 goals against.

He did not work out as well for Carolina as Lehner did on the Island — a big reason the Canes finally pushed through is they also found a great deal of offence in the second half. Carolina was, however, able to retain Mrazek on another short term (two years) deal, with a pay increase. It wasn’t longer because there’s still some uncertainty to him, but in no way has this been a bad investment by GM Don Waddell.

Signing grade: B

7. Tyler Bozak, St. Louis Blues: Three years, $5 million AAV

I mean, it’s really difficult to dump on any moves Doug Armstrong made last summer in assembling this year’s Blues since they won the Stanley Cup. Having Bozak as their third-line centre was a help, and he contributed 13 points in 26 playoff games. But coming off the UFA market, he was making $500,000 more against the cap than Nazem Kadri was to play the same role in Toronto — and where Kadri is good enough to be a second-line centre, Bozak is best used on the third.

That’s where the issue of value comes in — should a third-liner, even a centre, make $5 million against the salary cap? St. Louis didn’t have any issues with this in 2018-19, but with six RFAs still to sign the Blues could start feeling the pinch from that even this summer. Next year Brayden Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo are UFA eligible and Vince Dunn will be an RFA. Bozak could squeeze them a bit more by then.

The Blues have only two more years committed to Bozak, so it’s not completely unmanageable. But for a player who isn’t exactly dominant defensively and only managed 38 points in 2018-19, that’s a heavy salary to dole out. Everything worked out just fine for St. Louis in 2019, but that doesn’t mean this was a steal, or even a good contract.

Signing grade: C

8. James Neal, Calgary Flames: Five years, $5.75 million AAV

The Flames’ top line was already great and the draft weekend pickup of Elias Lindholm turned out fantastic in bolstering that trio. But they still needed a goal scorer to back them up on the second line and GM Brad Treliving bet on Neal being that guy. And, really, it wasn’t a bad idea at the time at all. This grade is admittedly coming in complete hindsight.

Neal had just scored 25 goals for the Vegas Golden Knights a season prior and in the five previous seasons before signing with the Flames, Neal’s 0.37 goals per game ranked 16th in the league among players with at least 250 games played. But in Calgary, he couldn’t get off the third line, had just four goals in the 2018 portion of the calendar and finished with only seven in 63 games. The risk with Neal, who was 30 at the time of the signing, was supposed to be a potential decline in the last year or two. No one could have foreseen the kind of collapse that came right away.

The (potentially) good news is that his horrendous five per cent shooting should come up, right? Even if he doubled that in 2018-19 it would still be beneath his career-average shooting percentage and he would have wound up with 14 goals in 63 games. Still — not great for so much money.

Neal’s contract is part of the reason why the Flames aren’t involved in the summer market in 2019, taking them out of the running for the likes of Mats Zuccarello or Gustav Nyquist. Maybe they’ll eventually be able to find a trade partner to offload the player, but it’s hard to imagine them doing so without either also giving up a solid asset or retaining some salary. If just 20 goals from Neal is considered a success now, this will never be a good value contract.

Signing grade: F


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