Free agency is such a weird beast. There’s rarely anything there of value and if a good player does hit the market, he’s often overpaid and signed for too long. It doesn’t help that players hit free agency after they’ve passed their statistical peak, but nevertheless some teams can’t help but be seduced by the shiny new toy. All in all, free agency is a trap.
Stanley Cup contenders will often go into free agency looking for that piece to put them over the hump, which is fine, but it can lead to trading away young talent in an effort to stay salary cap compliant. Guys like Kevin Fiala and Juuse Saros will likely be making more than five million dollars after their RFA deals end in the coming years. A free agent now could potentially mean cutting someone else loose in the near future. Is a player who’s only getting worse worth it for a player who’s only getting better?
Of course, the cap is going up this season (thanks Vegas) and certain players will be let go in free agency or retire over the next few years. But signing someone now could put the Predators in a tough predicament by costing more money than they’re worth and taking a roster spot from a developing player.
James van Riemsdyk is a great example of what I’m talking about. The 29-year-old winger had one of his best seasons ever with 36 goals and 54 points in 81 games. Van Riemsdyk is a monster around the net as he produced a team-high 109 high danger chances at even strength, compare that to the Predators’ best 91, produced by Craig Smith.
Besides having a great nose for the net, Van Riemsdyk has nothing else to offer. He has good possession numbers, but his 55% Corsi and 53% Fenwick take on a bit of a new meaning when you see that Mike Babcock started over 62% of his starts in the offensive zone. On top of that, he also usually saw second and third line competition as the Toronto Maple Leafs would frequently mismatch lines in order to give Van Riemsdyk a better chance at scoring.
I’m not saying that the Leafs were wrong to do this, but the Predators already have enough defensive liabilities in their top six. What’s more, van Riemsdyk shot at 13% at even strength and 14.5% in all situations which means he was lucky for the majority of the season. Regression to the mean is inevitable, and if you don’t believe me, ask Marc-Andre Fleury.
The only thing that van Riemsdyk excels in is shots per 60, which is 10.59 at even strength and good for being as high as the 83rd percentile. When looking into zone exits and entries, things get even dimmer as he ranks below the 44th percentile in every category.
Do the Predators really want a power forward who’s about to start the downswing of his career? Who has to be extremely sheltered in order to be successful? On top of that, van Riemsdyk plays left wing and would most likely relegate Fiala off the second line or Eeli Tolvanen off the third line.
Another option I’ve heard rumblings on is Paul Stastny. He’s about three years older than van Riemsdyk but also plays center. I can’t imagine him taking over Kyle Turris’ spot on the second line, but he’d be a great improvement over Nick Bonino. That does leave the issue of Bonino and his 4.1 million dollar cap hit per year. There’s just no way to justify spending that much on a fourth line center, especially when you have Colton Sissons, Calle Jarnkrok, and even Frederick Gaudreau ready to play.
Besides the fact that Stastny will likely make over 5.5 or 6 million dollars per year in his next deal, his play leaves a bit to be desired. He did produce 16 goals and 53 points in 82 games this season with the Blues and Jets, but he was often carried by his linemates. He only produced 76 high danger chances all year and only produced 15 primary assists at even strength all season despite playing with some great talent.
Stastny isn’t too bad around his net as he had about a 51% high danger chance share all season and exited the zone with possession often. I wouldn’t hate this signing, but it makes no sense with who’s already on the team. If that albatross known as Bonino’s contract magically disappeared, this could be a good signing but I don’t expect that to happen. The money issues that Stastny would cause wouldn’t be worth the trouble in two or three years, especially considering that the 32-year-old Stastny is in the middle of regression.
I’ll admit, I may have lied to you earlier, there’s only one free agent on the market I think the Predators should look into and it’s John Tavares. All 31 teams could use a Tavares, and it’d be worth it to trade a good or even great player (Ellis, Turris) to make room for the elite center. That said, I don’t think the Predators have enough money to grab his attention as the San Jose Sharks, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Islanders will be backing up dump trucks of cash onto his New York estate.
That only leaves one attainable free agent, the real deal James Neal. Many in Nashville were sad to see the sniper walk away after David Poile rightfully chose to protect Calle Jarnkrok, but some have held out hope he could come back.
Yeah, I really don’t see that happening. Neal is about to turn 31 and will likely be signing the last big deal of his career. This is not the time to take a hometown discount, this is the time to set yourself and your kids up for life, which is what he’ll probably do. I’d expect some team to throw a five-year deal worth 30 million dollars at him, similar to David Backes in Boston.
Even judging off of Neal’s production from last season, 25 goals and 44 points 71 games, is that really worth 6 million dollars? His stats are only going to get worse over time, and his possession numbers are already pretty average. A 51% Corsi and 50% Fenwick aren’t exactly anything to worry about but it’s a little concerning that Neal had a negative high danger chance share, even if it was just 49%.
Not to be cruel, but Neal is a product of those he plays with and will do better depending on where he’s put in the lineup. But guess what, Craig Smith is the exact same way. Smith will probably produce at the same rate as Neal but cost over a million dollars less. On top of that, leaving that third line right wing spot open allows some of the Predators’ buried talent a chance to move up in the lineup. David Poile traded a first round pick and more on Ryan Hartman, they might as well give him a shot among more talented linemates.
So what should the Predators do in free agency? The answer is to do nothing! If Tavares decides to continue his career away from Music City, the best thing to do would be to promote the kids. There are some great young players that are looking to crack the lineup and giving them spots could do wonders. Tolvanen is obviously the best offensive prospect, but even someone like Emil Pettersson could be a decent bottom six guy who contributes offensively. My biggest area of concern for the roster is the third defensive pair and I think it might be time for the youth in Milwaukee to get a few games up with the big club. Dante Fabbro looks like he’ll spend his next season back with Boston University but Frederic Allard and Alexander Carrier look the readiest to make the jump.
The Predators have a big offseason ahead and the worst thing they could possibly do would be to panic. Singing a free agent to a bloated deal would set the team and franchise back years while also shifting the Stanley Cup window. Sometimes the best move, is no move.