Latest posts by Phil Kocher (see all)
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Dumpster diving. Bargain bin shopping. Finding a diamond in the rough. Whatever your idiom of choice, the New York Rangers have developed a shrewd business technique of bringing in low-cost players with high-reward upside and have been reaping the extensive benefits of that practice often over the last five years.
A quick mention of names like Michael Grabner, Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot, and Viktor Stalberg, all of whom took low-pay contracts with the Rangers in the hopes of rebounding their careers, did exactly that. As such, they’re famously held up as champions of the technique; illustrative of the yield that “bargain bin” shopping can produce when the right parameters are set before diving into the dumpster to find treasure amongst another man’s trash. The Rangers are one of the most successful NHL franchises in utilizing this philosophy every year, having rehabbed all of the aforementioned group of players, as well as others, into trustworthy NHL players. In the case of Pouliot, specifically, he was able to take a one-year deal with the Blueshirts worth $1.3M, and turn it into a five-year contract with the Oilers worth $20M. Though he was ultimately bought out of the final two years of that deal this summer, he still landed another NHL contract with the Sabres where he’ll double dip payments between his buyout agreement and the Sabres’ offer this season.
The pessimist reading this will no doubt be quick to counter the start of this narrative, having recognized it for its distinct design, with names like Ryan Malone, Jarrett Stoll, Nathan Gerbe, and Josh Jooris, among others. And they wouldn’t be wrong to do so. At least not entirely. If we were to look at all of the bargain-type signings the Rangers have made over the last five years to determine a rate of success, the number itself wouldn’t be very inspiring. That’s because there have been more failed attempts than successful finds. But that same pessimist would also be missing the forest for the trees. Because the point of the process isn’t rooted in how often it turns water into wine, rather in just how big of a jackpot you can win after placing a very low-cost, targeted bet. In other words, it’s a proverbial penny slot machine. If you’re looking at how often you lose versus how often you win, you’re failing to grasp the point of playing in the first place. As Michael Grabner most recently exemplifies, the value is in winning a $750 jackpot on a one cent bet—a 7,499,900% return on investment! It’s hard to imagine the exhilaration the Rangers’ front office must feel every time they see his $1.65M annual average value (AAV) in the same sentence as his 27-goals this past season. Even if he regresses this season, they’ve already won.
Though this free agent class is a demonstrably weaker class than most, it, too, stands to offer a number of free agents who are, to this point, still available for pennies on the dollar. Below are three players who I think the Rangers would be wise to place one of these calculated bets on:
Daniel Winnik, 32
Winnik is your par for the course grizzled veteran bottom-six grinder whose physical game endears him to fans and teammates alike, but whose production isn’t nonexistent – an important factor to keep in mind when discussing signing players renowned for their hitting game. It’s this added dimension, among others, that separates him from his singularly talented, fixed gear peers like Tanner Glass, who the Rangers are thankfully past.
In the 227 games he’s split between the Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Pittsburgh Penguins over the last three seasons, Winnik has compiled 27 goals and 78 points, good for a 0.34 points per games played (P/GP) average. The 25 points in 72 games he scored with the Caps last season nearly mirrors that production at 0.35 P/GP. This all, too, has come as his time on ice per game (TOI/G) has continued to fall over that span. He’s gone from averaging 16:50 TOI/G with the Leafs in 2014-15 to 12:54 with the Caps last season. His goal-scoring is on the lower end of the spectrum, even for a bottom-six player, but like Jesper Fast, his defensive game is stellar. He had the fifth highest shorthanded TOI/G (2:31) with the Capitals last season, and in terms of shot suppression, he’s among the best the league has to offer. For a Rangers team that gave up the sixth-most shot attempts against (3823), the sixth-most unblocked shot attempts against (2799), and whose penalty-kill (79.8) was just 12th league wide last season, improving in all three facets is something Winnik could help with.
He’s also not an analytics drain, either, which is another important aspect of judging players who often play much of their time without the puck. He’s averaged a 51.5 corsi for percentage (CF%) and a 51.9 fenwick for percentage (FF%) over the last two seasons with the Caps in which he’s been deployed heavily in a defensive role, averaging a 58.6 defensive zone start percentage (dZS%) to a 41.4 offensive zone start percentage (oZS%).
The depth of talent of last season’s Caps team probably inflated his value just a bit, but at 32, he’s worth kicking tires on, whether on a formal one-year contract, or a Professional Try Out (PTO), should he go unsigned through to late September. The fact he can play all three forward positions only helps his case, too, as it won’t lock him out in the depth chart based on position.
Lastly, given the recovery time for Fast, who will likely miss at least the first few weeks of the season stemming from offseason hip surgery, and the losses of two NHL centers in Derek Stepan and Oscar Lindberg, the Rangers’ training camp, preseason, and start to the regular season stands to offer a player like Winnik the opportunity to impress early. It might even force the team to have to make a tough call on trading an extra forward once Fast returns, depending on just how much of an impact he might make.
Alex Chiasson, 26
Like Winnik, Chiasson is a big-bodied, physical player who excels in defensive situations. Unlike Winnik, Chiasson is a big-bodied, physical player who excels in defensive situations who also has scoring upside and can probably be a boon if given power play time.
So, why is he a free agent? Well, technically because the Flames didn’t extend him a qualifying offer, making him a UFA by default. But having played for three teams now—the Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators, and Calgary Flames—since becoming an NHL regular in 2013-14, Chiasson’s P/GP declined in each of his first three seasons, falling to a career-low of just 0.18 in 2015-16 before picking back up with the Flames this past season where he finished with a 0.30 P/GP pace.
According to LeftWingLock, Chiasson played the largest percentage of his time last season—a 5.69% frequency rate—with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau (though not by a very wide margin compared to other line formations). Despite playing with talented players, however, he managed just 12 goals and 24 points in 81 games. While that production is fine for a bottom-six player, it’s nowhere near good enough for a top-six role, and the Flames are likely eyeing Kris Versteeg, who re-signed with Calgary on a one-year deal worth $1.75M, as his immediate replacement.
But there is some value to Chiasson despite the Flames’ decision to walk away from him. At the age of 26, he’s still young enough that a team might still be able to tap into the scoring potential he’s displayed, albeit in inconsistent spurts throughout his career. But in the meantime, he has some talents that might earn him a PTO from a team looking for a few of the same traits Winnik offers by way of shot suppression and physicality, but on a player billed as two inches taller and four pounds heavier than him, not to mention six years younger.
It’s important to note, however, that Chiasson was deployed as more of an offensive player with the Flames, seeing a near 15% oZS to dZS% differential (57.2 to 42.8) last season. In that role, he was a 52 CF% and 52 FF% player, but the opposite picture was painted just a season prior in 2015-16, his last with the Ottawa Senators. In it, he saw an opposing zone start differential of more than 62% dZS where his CF (43.5) and FF (42.6) percentages suffered tremendously for it. To be fair to him, that season was his worst, and the same in which he scored a miserable 0.18 P/GP, which helped lead to his departure from the Sens, but it also helps to add context to why the Flames seemed to utilize him differently in the hopes of getting more out of him in a more protected and/or advantageous role.
Should the Rangers look to him, they’d be wise to play him in a similar deployment to the one the Flames used, which would require a dash of sheltering to try and get him into more offensive situations where his talents are probably best applied. Lastly, it’s also worth noting that Chiasson is purely a winger, which might reduce his attractiveness to a Rangers team who would benefit most from a multi-positional forward, particularly one who can play center.
Andrej Nestrasil, 26
Nestrasil is probably still fending off criticisms after giving a stinging interview back in March in which he vented to a Czech newspaper his frustrations with the Carolina Hurricanes. An interview in which he told the paper, “I’m done here, 100%, and I don’t want to stay here”.
I think Ron Francis likes me as a player. But the coach didn’t want me. And now they’re happy that I’m on the farm.
I’m done here, 100%, and I don’t want to stay here. This was such a frustrating and mentally draining year that I’m not going to repeat it. Still fifteen games left, so we’ll see. The worst part is that I’m playing for people and a team that doesn’t want me. And now I don’t want to play for them.
The interview was candid and damning of the organization’s treatment of the young Czech forward. Worse yet, the NHL is a very conservative league in which this kind of behavior can and often does, cost a player his own future out of spite for what could be seen as throwing his own team under the bus. Rangers and Hawks fans probably remember a similar situation involving Antti Raanta, who had some pretty critical things to say about his hopes of the Blackhawks chances in the playoffs back in 2015. Raanta ended up getting traded to the Rangers just a couple of weeks after that season ended.
Still, Nestrasil’s underlying numbers show plenty of promise. Though he has just 17 goals and 48 points in 128 games played thus far (0.38 P/GP pace), and despite playing just 19 games with the Hurricanes last season due to injury, his shot generation and shot suppression data is stellar.
In three seasons with the Hurricanes, he has an NHL average 54.6 CF% and 54.3 FF% while maintaining a nearly even offensive to defensive zone start differential of just 1.5%. Meaning he can be trusted in all three zones. He’s yet to spend much time, if any, on the penalty-kill, but that’s also something that can be taught.
Like Winnik, he has the NHL body most GMs covet (6’3, 200lbs). And also like Winnik, he also plays center and wing, giving him the kind of positional flexibility the Rangers could really rely on.
The Rangers, who still need to re-sign their only remaining [Restricted] free agent, Mika Zibanejad, are currently sitting on approximately $7.6M of available cap room. By my estimations, at least $5M of that will go to retaining Zibanejad’s services, leaving roughly $2.5M to play with in bringing in a depth forward like any of the aforementioned players. According to Matt Cane’s 2017 Free Agent Projections, neither Winnik ($1,818,417), Chiasson ($1,518,162), nor Nestrasil ($823,811) stands to bust that bubble, which the Rangers would be wise to leave a little wiggle room under for a better prorated Trade Deadline projection to work with.
There’s no rush to get any of the men under contract, and there’s even a chance at least one of them could be brought in on a PTO, which doesn’t carry a guarantee of any kind. But forward depth was a critical component to the Rangers’ success last season and there’s no reason it can’t be again this year, too. Plus, a little competition never hurts anything. In fact, it’s a good “problem” to have.
All contract and salary information courtesy of CapFriendly.com
All analytics data courtesy of Puckalytics.com
HERO Charts courtesy of ownthepuck.blogspot.com
View Matt Cane’s 2017 Free Agent Projections here