The Craziness of NHL Free Agency

Brian Campbell
Taking an in-depth look at the questionable contracts handed out during free agency this year and why they might have been made (Chicago Tribune)

After the playoffs end and the Stanley Cup is awarded to the last team standing, the next big thing hockey fans wait for is NHL free agency. And for good reason, as it can be exciting to watch all the different player movement across the league. Free Agency may not have all the excitement it used to but the beginning of free agency is still interesting to follow. Teams are given the opportunity to improve their rosters and hopefully add the pieces they were missing to put them in the playoffs or make them a contender.

But like every year, there always stands to be baffling moves made by clubs across the NHL. There are beneficial and well-conceived moves of course but this year is no different. I’ve already talked about Jaromir Jagr and the how ridiculous it is he isn’t signed yet but there are plenty of other moves (or lack of moves) from this year that leave you scratching your head wondering why.

Just recently defenseman Brian Campbell announced that he would be retiring from the NHL after a 17-year career with the Buffalo Sabres, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Florida Panthers. At 38 years old, Campbell’s time in the league was naturally coming to an end, as age affects every player at some point (except maybe Jagr). But Campbell can still play. Not at the high-level he used to be able to but there’s plenty of reason to believe that he would have been a valuable addition to any team looking to shore up their defensive depth.

Last season with the Blackhawks was one of Campbell’s worst offensive campaigns of his career, only tallying five goals and 12 assists throughout the season. From a guy who used to be a 50+ point defender (with a career-high of 62 points in his prime), that’s a far drop. But he’s no longer expected to be that sort of player, evidenced by his limited usage with the Blackhawks. Receiving an average of under 20 minutes of ice time per game for the first time over the past 10 years last season, Campbell was brought into Chicago to compliment the rest of the Blackhawks defensive core, not too carry it. His shot metrics may have dropped a bit but his 5v5 GF% was still fourth best on the Blackhawks and second best out of all Chicago defensemen. His GAR rating is also still very good, comparing favorably with other good defenders.

But what’s interesting is not how great Campbell is (he’s definitely not the top-pairing defenseman he used to be), it’s that he decided to retire instead of keep playing. It’s ridiculous to think that there wasn’t an NHL team that wanted Campbell as a steady third-pairing defenseman, especially when considering he probably wouldn’t have needed a large contract. It’s possible that Campbell just wanted to retire but the issue is that he’s arguably much better than some of the other players signed on the first day of free agency.

Dmitry Kulikov and Dan Girardi were both handed fairly significant contracts the minute free agency began despite compelling evidence that neither are worth it. Even though Kulikov skated in 47 games last year, he only managed to post a measly five points. Out of all NHL defenders who averaged at least 20 minutes of ice time per game, Kulikov was second to last in points-per-game, behind only Ben Lovejoy. For defenders who averaged at least 21 minutes, he was dead last.

Besides even his poor offensive totals, Kulikov struggled in the defensive end too, bleeding shot attempts on an already poor Sabres team. His 5v5 CF% numbers were some of the worst on the team while his 5v5 CF%RelTM was fifth worst, second-worst out of all defenders on the Sabres. Not to mention his 5v5 GF% was dead last on the Sabres at 32% and third-worst in the entire NHL among all defenseman who played in at least 10 games.

Yet he was handed a three-year, $13 million contract by the Winnipeg Jets on July 1st. And I don’t even want to go into depth about Dan Girardi and his new two-year, $6 million deal with the Lightning.

I’m not trying to say that Campbell is vastly superior to the two (even though I do think he’s much better). At around one-year, $1 million deals, I think Kulikov or even Girardi could possibly provide some value to a team in a limited role, as Kulikov has shown past success with the Florida Panthers. It’s some of the crazy valuations and numbers that are given out during free agency that can be just plain ridiculous. While moves aren’t made in a vacuum and individual context between teams is important, is it justifiable to give Kulikov over $4 million dollars a year while Campbell was available? Or how about while Cody Franson was (and still is) sitting out there without a contract, who might have to take a PTO with the Blackhawks?

And why should Dan Girardi get $3 million a year for two years after he was just bought out by the New York Rangers? After a player is bought out, his next contract is usually a one-year, one million dollar “show me” contract, and that’s even if the player gets another contract. Girardi has a reputation as one of the worst defenders in the league but is worth $3 million, when the Rangers are paying him not to play for them anymore? The New Jersey Devils surprised a few people by buying out Mike Cammalleri, who just recently scored 31 points in only 61 games for them. Yet the best Cammalleri could do was a one-year, $1.2 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings? While Dan Girardi got $3 million dollars?

I can’t really give you a good answer as to why moves like these are made. When free agency starts, what’s the primary purpose a team signs a player? To successfully fill a need and benefit the team. While at the moment the moves are made we can’t say whether or not they are successful, based on the evidence at hand, we can estimate a certain likelihood of success at achieving the goal they were intended to accomplish. With the more generic “How can we improve our team?” goal in mind, I think it’s fair to say that signing Campbell or Franson for a cheap price would have a much higher chance at success than signing Girardi or Kulikov for $4.3 million. However, maybe that’s not the intended goal of general managers, the people who spend every day analyzing and watching their team. Instead of “How can we improve our team”, they might instead have picked a specific problem and narrowed their focus addressing that weakness. Now the goal changes from improving the team to “How can we improve our third-pairing” or center depth or any other aspect that may need improvement.

I don’t think this is a bad thing; if anything, pinpointing your weaknesses and tackling them head-on could arguably be a far more effective strategy at improving your club. But there could be problems with that question, like what constitutes a third-pairing in a general manager’s mind. If he already has an effective top-four, what might he want his third-pairing to be? Maybe grittier, more defensive orientated. So now instead of just signing the most effective defender, you might be chasing a more “defensive”, grittier defender to fill a predetermined “need”. Let’s look at the Jets, who handed Kulikov a three-year, $13 million contract.

The Jets have their top-four defense in place already with Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba on the team (and Joshua Morrissey coming up too). So from Kevin Cheveldayoff’s point of view, we have our top-four set and want to add a defenseman to play on the third-pairing. Now between Campbell, Franson, and Kulikov, Campbell and Franson would probably provide more overall value than Kulikov, especially when considering the money needed to obtain them. But maybe Cheveldayoff sees Campbell as too old and slow, not playing a defensively reliable enough game and just being a short-term fix. Now down to Franson and Kulikov, Kulikov used to be a sturdy, dependable defenseman in Florida before he had one down year with the Sabres (not to mention, former high first round pick). Franson has had some good years with Toronto (and not that bad of a time in Buffalo) but remember when he was traded to Nashville and struggled mightily on the third-pairing there? If we want a long-term solution for the third-pairing (not a short-term, one-year fix) who has had past success, let’s go with Kulikov. But wait, there’s competition for his services and we want our guy, so we need to make sure we sign him and not let some other team get him. If we already planned on having him for a few years, let’s throw in a little extra term and bump up our offer by another 500K. What will another 500K do?

When it comes down to it, there aren’t as many truly baffling moves as there used to be in free agency. The days of signing David Clarkson to an absurd contract are (mostly) gone. If we look at moves made as probabilities, almost every one has some likelihood of success. The Kulikov contract looks bad but even if there was an 80% chance that the signing would be a miserable failure, that still means there’s a 20% chance that it works out well for the Jets. Maybe Kulikov does rebound from his poor season with the Sabres and becomes a good fit for the Jets. And maybe if there was an 80% chance Franson would do well on the Jets, there’s still a 20% chance of him failing like he did with the Predators. These made up probabilities regarding Franson and Kulikov are a bit extreme but you’d think the goal of the general manager in free agency should be maximizing the probability of successfully improving your team. For instance, with Franson, I think it’s just general managers focusing too much on the 23 bad games he had with Nashville and under-valuing the rest of his career. And when these less likely to succeed moves pan out, they and the mindset that let to them are reinforced. But when you lock onto a specific idea (like creating a gritty, defense-first third-pairing) that deviates from the main goal of simply improving and obtaining the best available option, you can arrive at the wrong players if you misjudge the value of different skills. Campbell or Franson may push play in the right direction, but can they block shots or hit? Instead of an entire team filled with guys playing a possession game, you have some general managers focusing on acquiring other aspects (similar to how enforcers used to be specifically signed for their ability to fight). And I (or anybody really) can’t tell you why some moves happen and others don’t or why teams wouldn’t want an entire lineup of skilled players who can possess the puck. We can only judge if the decision with the highest chance of success was made or not.

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