Breaking Down the Remaining UFA Forwards Using Analytics

With the season fast approaching, who's worth taking a flier on?

Of the many serious global consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, inarguably the most severe is that a couple of pretty good UFAs remain unsigned. Fortunately, according to Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, with training camps beginning in two weeks there is “increased urgency” for teams to acquire these players, so those of us who have been trapped in a two-month death-cycle of refreshing every five minutes to learn where Riley Sheahan will sign will soon finally find some relief.

In this piece I’m going to check out the five most interesting options still available at forward, break down their statistical profile using Patrick Bacon’s WAR model and Corey Sznajder’s microstats, and speculate on their cost using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections model. I also want to match up these players with potential fits, which is limited by who actually has the cap space to sign anybody. So as good a fit as I think Mikael Granlund would be with the Penguins, their ~$1.3M doesn’t permit it. That unfortunately means matching up a lot of these guys with teams that aren’t really trying to compete.

Mikael Granlund - RW

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $2.9M

If you told somebody two years ago that Mikael Granlund was going to find himself scrapping for a short-term UFA deal two months deep into free agency, they might not have believed you. He scored over 65 points in consecutive seasons and was on pace for 63 in his final stretch with the Minnesota Wild before being traded to Nashville in early 2019. While his underlying results with the Preds weren’t bad at all, his point totals suffered considerably and presumably his market value did as well.

There’s a lot to like with Granlund. He’s a strong two-way playdriver at even strength, an effective playmaker, and an asset on the powerplay. He hasn’t played centre since 2016, but he should slot in very well as a solid 2nd line right winger. Anything below $5M is a good deal for what he brings.

I’d like to see him sign with a team with a hole in their top six that can surround him with guys who can finish the chances he gives them. The Rangers would be a great fit in my mind; in addition to everything he brings himself, it would also keep Kaapo Kakko away from Zibanejad and Panarin for the time being.

Who should sign him? New York Rangers, Nashville, New Jersey

Mike Hoffman - RW/LW

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $3.3M

Mike Hoffman is an excellent example of the “zero calorie scorer,” a rare type of player who can snipe and little else. He isn’t a great passer, he’s poor defensively, and his teams don’t even tend to get a lot of quality scoring chances when he’s on the ice. But by god can this man put pucks into nets. The Florida Panthers’ powerplay was basically built around his shot last season - not generally something that works out very well. And yet Florida finished 6th in PP% with Hoffman taking 39% of the shots and scoring 30% of the goals. That’s how well this guy can shoot.

Evidently there are enough concerns about Hoffman’s defence and maybe even off-ice history to keep him unsigned. But 30 goal scorers don’t usually come cheap. A team with the players to mitigate his negative on-ice qualities could end up very happy with what they’ve paid for here. A really fun fit in my mind would be the New Jersey Devils. This is not a year where they’re expected to really compete, but I would love to see Jack Hughes play with a guy who can finish the chances he generates. He would also be flippable at the deadline.

Who should sign him? New Jersey, Nashville, Columbus

Erik Haula - C/LW

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.4M

Haula’s a bit tricky to get a clear read on. His 2018-19 season was only 15 games long, which warps his data from that year big-time - that means that in the visualization above his defence and passing are likely overrated and his shooting is probably underrated. Even if he’s not the 30 goal scorer he looked like in that one year with Vegas, he does seem to be a reliably above-average offence-driver and scorer who can’t really be trusted defensively. In that sense he’s a bit of a tweener - not somebody you’d want as your 2nd line centre but maybe not reliable enough in his own end to trust him as a 3rd liner. The first team that jumps to mind with him would be Los Angeles - their centre depth is appalling and Haula could at least help them manage the minutes of their young players like Gabe Vilardi.

Who should sign him? Los Angeles, New York Rangers, Nashville, San Jose

Carl Soderberg - C

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.9M

Soderberg isn’t a really exciting name, or an exciting player for that matter. He’s a middle six forward who’s been just about average for the past three seasons, has an okay shot, and boasts a solid two-way track record. He’s also 35 and has every reason to want to wind down his career in Sweden, so I’m not sure how “in play” he is. But the evidence suggest he belongs on an NHL third line. A good match for him would most likely be “whoever doesn’t get Haula,” although he’s arguably a more effective overall player.

Who should sign him? Los Angeles, New York Rangers, Nashville, Minnesota

Andreas Athanasiou - C/LW

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.9M

Speaking of 30 goal scorers not usually coming cheap… Athanasiou scored 30 goals two seasons ago and was over a half point per game on the league’s worst team before being traded at the deadline. Nine games (and nine months) ago, he was apparently worth two second round picks. Now he’s still waiting for a contract after not being qualified by the apparently unimpressed Oilers.

I would have to imagine that a big reason for that is his abysmal defensive play. Unlike Hoffman, Athanasiou is an above-average driver of offensive scoring chances and has even demonstrated an ability to carry the puck and lead the rush. But he’s even less involved defensively than the veteran and hasn’t shown that his scoring touch can be relied upon as consistently. When the pucks are going in, Athanasiou’s weaknesses (such as his less-than-impressive passing and in-zone offensive play) are more than made up for. But when they aren’t, like this season, things can be a bit of a mess. With his awful defensive numbers, speed, and love of run-and-gun hockey, Athanasiou is to Connor McDavid what those creepy 3D-animated DVDs you buy at the dollar store are to a Pixar movie.

This guy is pure boom-bust. If L.A is willing to play Martin Frk on its second line, they might as well just get Athanasiou and see what happens. From what I can gather, the Kings are a pure cycle team - it might not hurt to get a burner like Athanasiou and see what happens.

Who should sign him? Los Angeles, Detroit