Tagfree agent

More to come?

I keep looking at the General Fanager page for the Sens, specifically the “43” at the top where the number of contracts is indicated. With only one more RFA to sign, Cody Ceci, that means that Ottawa’s entire complement of players will total 44, which seems remarkably low. And, that is before the likelihood of sending Thomas Chabot back to junior, which then removes his contract from the total number.

Do the Senators need more players? That depends on your perspective. Right now, Ottawa’s lineup, however it shakes out in terms of actual lines and defensive pairings, will include at least one rookie, likely Matt Puempel due to his waiver status. If you factor in backups, then the team could include Dzingel and Paul, two more rookies, or one or both of Tom Pyatt and Mike Blunden, two players best used primarily in the AHL. Moreover, the team’s seventh defenseman would be Mike Kostka, a serviceable rearguard also best used in the AHL or the above-mentioned Chabot, who’s development could be stalled if he’s forced to watch a lot of games from the press box. (Though, admittedly, that would require being outplayed on a daily basis by Mark Borowiecki, which should force most of us to ask why Chabot isn’t back in junior at that point.)

So, back to our question: does this team need more player depth? I’d argue “yes”. Without a doubt, the team needs at least one more defenseman and, considering that Dorion has said that’s the last thing on his wish list, there’s a good chance one will be signed. But, if the team is serious about winning now (as stated in reference to the trade from Derick Brassard), then at least one more NHL-calibre forward would be a good addition, as well.

But, this is the Ottawa Senators about which we are speaking. Short of whatever spare change can be collected under the cushions of the various sofas around the team’s offices, there is likely little to no money to spend on additional players. Consider the following numbers:

$64,139,166
$65,275,000

The first number, according to the same General Fanager page linked above, is Ottawa’s commitments against the salary cap. (Interestingly, CapFriendly.com has this number at $64,219,167. The difference is based on Buddy Robinson and his $750,000 contract making the NHL roster over Nick Paul and his $670,000 deal.) The second, which is by far the more useful one for our considerations, is the actual dollars committed to players for the 2016-17 season. Think about that number in light of Eugene Melnyk’s infamous comments from last year, specifically his mention of “throw(ing) $68 million dollars” at the team’s payroll. A number, he continued, that “puts us way over budget”. I’d argue that Melnyk is far more concerned with the actual dollars spent on players than on what the cap hit is and, at more that $65 million dollars *before* the team has signed Ceci, I think it’s safe to say that the team is going to be over budget again this year.

That leaves one option if the team is serious about adding even one more player and that’s to sign him at the lowest possible price.

Enter the PTO. Most years, one or two NHL players take a Player Try Out contract for training camp as a way to, hopefully, play themselves onto an NHL roster and avoid having to be a late signing in Europe, sign with an AHL team, or sit out the season until someone gets desperate for another warm body. But, if there’s any chance at all that the Senators will get a NHL-calibre player on a bargain-basement contract, it could be through a PTO.

Who are some candidates for this option? The chances of scoring Kris Russell this way are almost nil (and, with that, a giant sigh of relief is expelled across the Senators fanbase). Unfortunately, getting Brandon Pirri this way isn’t likely, either. Most of even the remaining higher-end UFAs will either sign real contracts with NHL teams just before training camp or will cut their losses and sign in another league. Looking at the bottom end of the free agent pool doesn’t help either as it means signing a player that likely isn’t even as good as the backup options outlined above.

That leaves the mushy middle–a group of NHL players who might be older and established in North America or who genuinely feel they’re better and worth more than what an AHL contract would compensate them.

I hear you. You want names. Here are four, in no particular order:

  • Matt Frattin
    Frattin offers a solid career positive possession having played for some pretty lousy teams. He also has been blessed by a little bit of puck luck (career PDO of 101.5) and all while starting in his own zone more often than not. As a right shot, he might be an option to spell Chris Neil after Neil passes the 1,000 game mark that seems to be the only reason he still has an NHL career.
  • Jordan Szwarz
    Szwarz is a Group VI free agent [http://www.nhlfreeagents.com/#!group-6-free-agents/c1nv7] which, by definition, means he hasn’t got a lot of NHL experience. But, he’s only 25 years old, has okay possession stats in a small sample size (especially in 2013-14 when he played in 26 games for the Coyotes) and started the vast majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.
  • Dainius Zubrus/Domenic Moore/Barret Jackman/Dan Boyle
    Okay, so I cheated with this one, especially since I’ve mixed forwards and defensemen into this mess. But, this group is the aged veterans who might still have something left in the tank and I don’t see the team giving more than one of these guys a PTO. Zubrus looked kind of terrible in the Stanley Cup finals, but was serviceable before that. Moore and Jackman seem to be the best options as the most likely to offer bottom of the lineup help. Boyle probably can’t play in the NHL any longer, but he’s an Ottawa native and that seems to count for a lot with the Senators.
  • Adam Pardy
    I’m not the first person to suggest Pardy as a target for the Senators, but at this stage in his career, he’d make for a serviceable bottom pairing defenseman. Yes, he had a terrible season last year and he’s started most of his career shifts in the offensive zone, but he’s had decent possession numbers in his career. Plus, like Chabot, he’d really only need to play better than Borowiecki every day to improve Ottawa’s defence.

The Senators flirted with bringing in Martin Havlat as a PTO last season and could be considering using the tactic again this season. Whether it’s one (or more) of the above players or others in similar situations, the NHL free agent market is such this season that there could be some legitimate NHL talent in desperate circumstances come the eve of training camp. Because of this, using PTOs could be the best way for Ottawa to add depth that will allow their young players to get more AHL time and improve the bottom of their lineup.

My suggestions for Ottawa’s free agent targets, Part 2

Yesterday’s signing of Steven Stamkos by the Tampa Bay Lightning dramatically changes the free agency landscape for those teams looking to acquire top-end talent in this way. As the readers of this site know, though, the Ottawa Senators are not a team that usually plays at the top of the free agency market. So, while imagining top free agents in Senators uniforms is an enjoyable fantasy, looking at potential signing target in a realistic way requires aiming a lot lower down on the list.

In my previous post, I suggested some Group VI free agents that Ottawa could explore signing as a way to improve depth and add some NHL experience to the minor league roster. Today, I’ll offer my suggestions for adding some bona fide NHL talent to the Senators without breaking Eugene Melnyk’s very small bank account.

The players below are all Group III free agents, meaning that they are at least 27 years of age, have accrued at least seven years of NHL experience, and have expired contracts. When anyone talks about free agency in reference to the NHL, it is this group of players to whom they usually refer.

As outlined above, the key to this list of players is taking into consideration both the team’s history in the free agent market and general manager Pierre Dorion’s own words from just before the draft. When asked about whether Ottawa would be “active” in free agency, his response made very clear that the team would be seeking to sign only depth players and not anyone that might be a top six forward/top four defenseman.

So, considering the realities of the Ottawa budget and the team’s general aversion to risk, I’ve made some suggestions below for free agency targets for the team. I’ve included handedness for defenders and position for forwards and, for all, 2015/16 cap hit and whether the contract included a two-way (2W) clause. I’ve also linked each player to his hockey-reference.com page. Statistics (courtesy of Puckalytics.com) provided in the embedded images are for the past three years to ensure a significant sample size:

Defence:

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators defenseman free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators defenseman free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com (Note: Dahlbeck was a late addition and not included in these statistics.)

The unfortunate reality is that Ottawa doesn’t value defensemen who lack size, current bottom pair defender Chris Wideman notwithstanding. The suggestions above are all above 6’ tall and are not exactly possession darlings. Each has strengths that mean they’d be an upgrade over the existing pairing, but weaknesses that exclude them from climbing higher up the depth chart. McBain seems to be the most offensively gifted with 110 points in 345 games, but also has played very sheltered minutes in his career. Dahlbeck (a victim among the unusually high calibre of unqualified restricted free agents this year) is by far the youngest of the group with comparable possession numbers to the others. None of these players will radically transform the Senators blue line, but each would make for a quality depth signing at a low price.

Forwards:

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators forward free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Advanced analytics for suggested Senators forward free agent acquisitions. Courtesy of Puckalytics.com

Again, little separates these forwards, though I was surprised to find that both Sceviour and Santorelli have exceed Tlusty in individual points per 60 minutes over the past three years. Nonetheless, all four have decent possession numbers for fourth line players who generally start their shifts in the defensive zone. Upshall’s numbers are particularly interesting as he seems to have maintained a very good 51+% Corsi despite his offensive zone starts dropping well below 40%. Tlusty could also be useful due to his abilities to play all three forward positions and, as recently as 2014/15, to score 30+ points in a season.

Beyond these players are many others that Ottawa could consider, many of which would not cost much more than what these players will likely sign for. A player like Matt Martin fits the makeup of a player that Ottawa’s hockey operations staff have loved in the past (e.g. a big, tough forward who’s got “intangibles”) and, considering last year’s cap hit, I suspect he might sign for something like Chris Neil’s $1.5 million salary. But, that would mean the team is spending $3 million on fourth line wingers and I just don’t see that happening.

Also, as mentioned above, a third pool of free agents has emerged this year that could be ripe for exploit. Many teams left surprising restricted free agent names out in the cold by not offering them a qualifying offer. These players, cast somewhat unexpectedly into unrestricted free agency, likely would command extremely low salaries. A quick glance at some of the bigger names (Joe Colborne, Brandon Pirri, Dahlbeck) show players with less than appealing analytics. Still, taking some time to find a diamond in the rough could yield a quality player for a rock-bottom price. Unfortunately, I suspect the one that glitters most would turn out to be the one Ottawa threw away, Patrick Wiercioch.

Assuming Ottawa wants to give its younger players more time to develop in the minor leagues, signing a few unrestricted free agents will be necessary to fill out the roster. As we see, there are players to be had at very low prices that can provide the kind of depth Ottawa will need to perhaps push for the playoffs while also shielding players who are not quite ready for prime time.

My suggestions for Ottawa’s free agent targets, Part 1

The Ottawa Senators aren’t exactly the team one thinks of when one hears the phrase “active in free agency”. In the past three years, Clarke MacArthur remains the biggest name free agent that Ottawa has signed away from another team. And, as long as Ottawa’s financial situation remains the same (a.k.a. while Eugene Melnyk owns the team), that isn’t going to change.

But, that’s not to say that Ottawa can’t exploit the free agency system to acquire some truly talented depth. There are a lot more NHL calibre players than there are NHL jobs right now (I’d argue that’s the reason for expansion, but we all know that’s just about the $500 million) and lots of players who will sign for less than $1 million and likely accept two-way contracts.

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