The 2016 NHL free agent frenzy was a whirlwind that seemed to launch and wrap up in about a single afternoon on July 1. The market went incredibly quickly from crazy bidding wars for top players to no chairs left in the game of musical chairs for depth players even of pretty good variety. By the second week of July, it appeared possible to build a decent third line from leftovers that no one seemed to want. Now a couple weeks later with many of the same players still on the market, the next phase of the market that sees players taking whatever they can get seems to be underway.
One example is the recent news this week that Kris Versteeg had signed to play in Switzerland. I doubt highly that the plan in Versteeg’s camp at the beginning of the summer was to look overseas. And to be honest, it is surprising. Canes fans know Versteeg pretty well. He spent about three-fourths of the 2015-16 season playing on the Carolina Hurricanes top line. His 2015-16 season was not lights out, but his 38 points in 77 games is worthy of an NHL roster spot in the right situation and for the right price. I think the difficulty that Kris Versteeg and similar players are having finding NHL contracts says two significant things about the changing landscape of NHL roster building.
The ability to find good help inexpensively and with low risk but only if you have room for it
We do not yet know what the price tag will ultimately be, but the current situation suggests that it was probably possible this summer to build one heck of a fourth line for next to nothing by shopping from players like Jiri Hudler, Kris Versteeg, Radim Vrbata and others. But to do so, a team needs to have roster spots and salary cap to do so. In today’s NHL, many fourth line roster spots are allocated to lesser players who were recent bad contract decisions that the team is locked in to. The Canes are pretty clean in this regard but they do have Bryan Bickell (who was a Chicago mistake that Francis took to get Teravainen in a package deal) and to some degree Jay McClement. Ignoring position, I would take Hudler and Versteeg as two-thirds of a fourth line that can score some. But the problem that many teams have is that they simply do not have room to take more roster players.
I wrote in some detail about the potential to boost scoring at much less cost from improving the fourth line instead of trying to buy a first line. Ideally some fourth line slots will be used to break in young players (who also bring the ability to score) but adding inexpensive quality depth in the $800,000 to $1.5 million price range on 1-year contracts is an incredibly low-risk way to add scoring depth.
The importance of making correct decisions on top half of the roster commitments
The other significant upshot of the financial situation for depth players is the increasing gap in pay between top players and even good depth players. Top 6 forwards and top 3-4 defensemen generally early $4-7 million per year and seem to almost always get long-term contracts these days. Meanwhile decent third line players sometimes cannot even get a contract at all. This makes it increasingly important to make sure that the $4-7 million commitments are in fact top half of the roster players. The fine line between being considered a top 6 forward and being just a decent #9/depth forward is huge right now. If you sign a player for $4-6 million, and he slips from expectations and becomes a third line type, he will be virtually untradeable in this market. Why would anyone take a $4-6 million third-liner when you can get similar on the free agent market for a half or a third of that cost and probably with a shorter-term contract that has much less risk if it does not work out.
The market is fascinating to me in that the price of top half of the roster players is escalating and many players who have limited prove it time in that role or sometimes even none are receiving higher dollar amounts for longer terms at the same time that the risk of missing on these contracts is going through the roof.
Taking advantage of the situation
Ron Francis has it right that the surest way to consistent winning in the NHL is building a deep system that can regularly supply good young players on discounted entry-level deals. This is also almost the only way to add star players in their prime since most are locked up long-term and so few ever see the open market.
But I also think there is an opportunity to take advantage of market inefficiency. In a world where good second line forwards are worth $4-6 million and the scoring expected of those players can be as low as 50 points, any kind of reasonable math would price players like Kris Versteeg and Jiri Hudler who are capable of 40ish points at something like $2-3 million. But recent summers suggest that if you wait until August and are more opportunistic than targeted that you could easily add a couple players who legitimately slot as third-liners for a fourth line price.
If Ron Francis can keep the roster free of bad contracts that fill out the bottom slots on the roster, the opportunity is there to add #12 and #13 forwards and maybe also #7 defensemen who are capable of slotting 2-3 places higher on the depth chart. That could be an interesting recipe for building a very deep roster without always needing an incredibly deep system.