Thursday, September 5, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - The Best/Worst Signings of the 2013 NHL Offseason
We promise not to make one single mention of Sergei Gonchar for $5 million. Not one.
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we had a little good-natured fun at the expense of Mr. Mike Modano. This week, rather than inundate both of you reading this with another fantasy hockey column (pro tip: don't draft d-men before the 5th round, even the best ones suck compared to mediocre forwards), it's time to take a look back at the Summer of Madness.
We've consulted with the top minds of our generation for each best/worst pick, carefully weighing stats, good looks and ca$h bribes to come to our 100% scientific conclusions. Some of this you've already heard from more reputable sources, like that hobo with the weird scar that tries to warn you that your team's hockey arena is built on a gateway to hell. Other tidbits may surprise you.
Top Three Signings of 2013 So Far
#3: Michael Ryder, New Jersey Devils - When the Devils tragically and unexpectedly lost the services of Ilya Kovalchuk to the KHL, they --er, he-- opened up a gaping hole in their forward scoring. Who would be able to replace Kovy's 48 goals over the last 1.5 seasons? Who could the Devils find that could even come close to Kovy's 11.1% shooting percentage, his 43 powerplay points or seven shorthanded goals? And do so for less than the league maximum, considering New Jersey wasn't exactly in the best financial shape at the beginning of the free agent frenzy?
Enter Michael Ryder. While Ryder's powerplay production (27 points) and shorthanded goals (a big fat zero) aren't quite up to snuff compared to the guy he's essentially replacing, Ryder has quietly gone about his business as one of the league's top goalscorers in that time. Playing primarily on second lines and with less PP time than Kovalchuk, Ryder has outscored the big Russkie 51 to 48, outshot him 16.3% to 11.1%, and done so for considerably less moolah ($3.5 million a season as opposed to All The Money). In fact, it was largely his potential bank-breaking UFA contract this summer that probably forced his underwhelming trade from Dallas to Montreal midway through the 2013 season.
The result of all this production? Nada. Ryder will again make $3.5 million for the next two years, a raise of approximately --let's see.... carry the one....subtract a finder's fee-- zero dollars and zero cents. Or even less, considering he didn't have to pay income tax in Texas. GM Lou may have screwed the pooch on the Kovalchuk signing, but there's no denying he got the absolute bargain of the summer here.
#2: Mikhail Grabovski, Washington Capitals - Actually, this was the bargain of the summer. Grabovski has spent his entire career accomplishing what many thought impossible: he has successfully flown under the radar in Toronto. For a guy who consistently puts up 50+ points in a top-two center spot with some truly terrible wingers while constantly driving possession --seriously, it's like he's the only one out there, while all of his teammates are sitting there licking the ice off their balls-- you'd think the Maple Leafs would be all over re-signing this guy to whatever dollar amount he required.
Uhhh... about that. There's no denying Grabovski had a "down year" last season, dropping from 50ish points down to a pace for 27-- but that sort of thing happens when you bump someone off the top six and put them exclusively in a third-line checking role. Still, players like Grabovski don't exactly grow on trees... Toronto would be insane not to sign their one good two-way player, right?
Nope. In fact, the Maple Leafs went waaaay out of their way to get rid of the guy, spending seven figures and their last compliance buyout --more on that in a bit-- just to throw their second-best (maybe third after Reimer) player under the bus.
Enter the Washington Capitals, who, after suffering through just one miserable season of Mike Ribeiro, had a gaping hole in the middle of their second line. With Ribs, you know what you get: lots of flashy assists, some impressive scoring numbers when he's paired up with your #1 player, and literally nothing else. But with a dearth of solid, 50+ point defensively-responsible two-way second-line centers that speak Russian, surely such a player --if this Unicorn of Men exists-- would cost an astronomical sum, perhaps something in the range of all the gold in Damascus, the two dozen finest members of the sultan's harem, and a magic sword that grants wishes?
Nope. Just three million. While Ryder's a bargain at $3.5, Grabovski actually does stuff that Ryder would never even consider --like playing defense, taking faceoffs, and generating offense for himself and his wingers-- for less money on a team that needs him even more. On the downside, he might get injured or something, I dunno.
#1: Mark Fistric, Anaheim Ducks - Early in his career, this hard-hitting behemoth of a defenseman had many fist- and hammer- related nicknames, but lately the most relevant is The Exception. If there's one constant in Fistric's recent journeyman career, it's that people will go to tremendous lengths to throw out any data whatsoever that proves he's a good defenseman.
In his rookie season, he slid into a tough shut-down role in the regular season and playoffs due to injuries, and helped Dallas to the Western Conference Finals. The next season, he led an absolutely abysmal defensive team in plus/minus at +27, with no one else on the team higher than +8 (and that was just one guy, everyone else was pretty much double-digits negative). In 2011-12, his GA/60 was an impressive 1.78, yet he was still routinely scratched in favor of Adam Pardy (2.83, worst on the team). When the Stars traded Nick GrossmanN mid-season, Fistric stepped into GrossmanN's spot on the penalty kill, and the team immediately killed off 44 of 46 to (temporarily) jump back into the playoff race.
He was unceremoniously dumped by Dallas in the offseason and replaced by Aaron Rome, then headed over to his hometown of Edmonton, which needed defensive defensemen badly. Fistric had, advanced stats-wise anyways, his best season to date: a miniscule 1.46 GA/60, despite the second-toughest minutes on the team. When Fistric was not on the ice (which was often, considering he was a frequent healthy scratch), the Oilers surrendered a full two more goals per 60 minutes than when he was on. For the first time in almost a decade, the Oilers' defense was mediocre, rather than the absolute laughingstock of the Western Conference.
Surely Edmonton would be backing in a dumptruck full of money to Fistric's house.... right? They wouldn't even need to drive all that far.
The Exception was unwelcome in Edmonton much like he was shooed out the door in Dallas, despite the fact that his replacement in Dallas, Aaron Rome, was just a huge heap of s**t on the ice. (For added bonus, Fistric, with zero offensive ability, outscored both Rome and alleged "offensive defenseman" Philip Larsen in fewer games).
And that's just data that you can measure. The Eyeball Test tells you that while Fistric isn't the smoothest of skate or passiest of blade, he's still one of the top five hitters in the NHL, the guy who hammers the biggest hitters in the game, a lower-tier guy capable of changing an entire game around with a single thunderous check.
The Exception's strange career --he is still the only d-man of the last fifteen years who scored less than 0.50 points/game drafted in the first round to actually become an NHL regular... in fact, he's on game #282 and counting-- took him to the Anaheim Ducks, who, with Sheldon Souray ailing, were forced to go and spend top dollar for a defensive defenseman that kills penalties like Paula Deen kills erections. And by 'top dollar,' we mean '$900,000'... a 39% drop in salary for a guy who seems to be redefining the word "bang for the buck."
Fistric will likely slide into a 5/6 role, unless Boudreau realizes what he has in Fistric and puts him alongside a svelte offensive d-man like Fowler to make best use of both players' abilities and weaknesses. Former Dallas coach Glen Gulutzan started off his NHL career with a bang, going 11-3-0 by pairing Fistric with Alex Goligoski to form a ridiculously effective second defensive pairing, allowing Goligoski to create offensive chances and make outlet passes out of the zone, while relying on Fistric to cause and collect defensive turnovers in the first place, a major weakness in Goligoski's game. The "experiment" ended as quickly as it started, and Gulutzan, like the other last three coaches who underutilized Fistric, was dumped by his underachieving team. Causation/Correlation? We'll see how the Ducks look when they're sitting in the top spot in the Pacific eight months from now.
Worst Three Signings of 2013 So Far
#'s 3, 2, and 1 - Everything the Maple Leafs Have Done - If you ask anyone outside of Toronto, the Maple Leafs absolutely lucked into a playoff spot last season, avoiding the inevitable Regression to the Mean until the last possible second. A well-run team would look at the results of the lockout-shortened season and realize three very important, obvious things: #1, the Maple Leafs would be a lottery team without James Reimer, #2, the team hemorrhages shots while generating relatively little in the offensive zone, and #3, let's go out and sign some guys to reverse that trend so we can make the playoffs in a legitimate season!
The Maple Leafs responded, of course, by #1, benching Reimer in favor of the relatively untested Bernier, #2, getting rid of two of their best possession players in Grabovski and MacArthur, and #3, going out and signing guys who generate about as much offense as your aunt's Facebook pictures of cats farting. But at least they have a few dozen compliance buyouts to save their hides two years from no--oh, right, no they've got no exit strategy here. Barring a trade to some mythical "dumber" bunch of executives, they're stuck with these guys for a long, long time.
No need to re-hash what's been better explained elsewhere: let's just say that if there really is a Hell, it's got advanced stats guys re-living the horrifying events of The Toronto July.