In the summer before the 2014-15 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs did a great job of targeting potentially under-valued free agent forwards and signing them to low-cost, short-term contracts. Players like PA Parenteau and Brad Boyes had fallen out of favour with their old teams, but had a history of putting up solid numbers and seemed likely to rebound. Last summer I decided to put together a list of 9 forwards who fit similar criteria, guys who scored at an impressive rate but for whatever reason didn’t get paid very much.
In retrospect, I think the list turned out pretty well. It included two players who had monster break-out seasons, Jonathan Marchessault and Patrick Eaves, as well as players who continued to quietly put up good numbers, like PA Parenteau and Lee Stempniak. All 9 players didn’t turn out to be hits (Justin Fontaine couldn’t crack a regular NHL roster, for example), but given a roughly 50% chance of getting a player like Eaves or Stempniak on a cheap contract seems pretty solid to me.
So I decided to do the same thing this summer and put together a list of free agent forwards who might be undervalued by teams around the league. My primary criteria for this list was 5v5 points per 60 minutes of ice time over the previous two seasons. Two seasons seems like a good window because it helps identify players who may be better than their numbers looked last season while being short enough that ageing shouldn’t be a significant concern. As a general rule, about 1.8 P/60 or higher is a 1st line forward, while 1.5 P/60 and up is a second liner. Since the goal is to find players who will play above their cap hit, I’ve used that 2nd line cut-off as my target. It’s easy to find depth players, but finding guys who can perform well in a top 6 role is more of a challenge. Anyone who can do that on a cheap, short-term contract makes a good target.
The list is limited to players who made $2M or less last season (with one exception, which I’ll explain), and they must have played at least 50 games over the past two seasons. These criteria leave out Jordan Weal, who some pundits see as this summer’s Marchessault, but from my standpoint, I’d rather be making these judgements with a larger sample size.
The player at the top of the list, Tomas Vanek, actually made $2.6M last year, which is above my cut-off. However, his even strength scoring rate was very high, as 2.06 P/60 is in the range for 1st liners, and given Vanek’s age and relatively low salary this past season, I think it’s plausible that he’ll be available at a pretty low cost this season, so I’m including him here. He struggles defensively, but his scoring talent could still help a team that needs some finishing ability.
Next on the list is Matt Cullen. It sounds like Cullen is leaning towards retiring at the moment, so he’s not likely to be available, but he fit my criteria and he hasn’t retired yet, so he’s on the list.
Sam Gagner is the player on the list most likely to get a pay raise that bumps him well above the $2M range, as his 50 points last season in under 14 minutes of ice time per game has likely elevated opinion of him around the league. But it’s also possible that he’ll be available at a bargain price again, and teams should jump at the opportunity if that happens.
PA Parenteau is on this list so often I may as well just start naming the column after him. He remains a productive player who is also a major driver of possession, and it’s pretty surprising how many cheap one-year deals he keeps getting signed to. He’s a good player who gets consistently under-valued.
Radim Vrbata took a major pay cut last season, but was quite productive, with a 5v5 P/60 right around first-line production (1.86 P/60). He could be in for a raise that puts him out of my bargain territory, but as an older guy who played on a cheap contract, he could be available at a low cost again.
The final player on my list is the least known. Andrej Nestrasil hasn’t played a ton of games over the past two seasons, and his P/60 is technically very slightly below my cut-off of 1.5, but he was so close and his Corsi Rel is so strong that I think he’s worth including. Nestrasil is also the youngest player here, at just 26 years old, which might make him more appealing than some of the other players. He had a low S% last year, under half his previous career average, which suggests he could be in line for some upward regression. On the other hand, Nestrasil has never been able to earn a regular full-time role with an NHL team, and his AHL numbers aren’t especially impressive, so it’s possible that Carolina made the right decision by not giving him a qualifying offer, and there might not be as much upside as with someone like Parenteau or Gagner.
This list is a bit shorter than last years. That may be an indication that fewer teams are letting talented players slip through or it may just be a symptom of the broader issue that each year the free agent class seems to be shrinking in general. Whatever the case, there are still a handful of forwards out there this summer who represent pretty good value for teams looking to shore up their depth at a low cost.