Monday, January 16, 2012

What Are They Worth?

Winnipeg has decisions to make on 12 free agent players

As the Jets struggle to remain a part of the Eastern conference playoff race and the end of their magical first year back in the NHL begins to appear on the horizon, management will soon be faced with deciding who among their group of nine unrestricted free agents will move forward with the team, as well as how their three restricted free agents might fit into the picture.

The biggest offseason contract decision at any position for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will be that of what to do with winger Evander Kane. Coming off his entry level contract, which paid him an annual salary of $900k with bonuses that can take him all the way up to $3.1 million (depending on all sorts of things we won't get in to here), the 20 year-old has quickly become Winnipeg's most dangerous player and the one with the most upside. With 18 goals on the season, Kane's next score will tie his career high and a 30 goal campaign is within reach, which would represent continued progression for a player who will have increased his goal and point totals in each of his first three seasons. He's big and strong and his skill set includes elite level speed and a heavy, accurate shot with a quick release. Kane looks an awful lot like he's a dominant power forward waiting to happen.

However, he also lacks consistency and from the sounds of it, maturity. From trying to sell tweets to local businesses, to alienating teammates, to ignoring autograph seeking fans, Kane still has a lot of growing up to do and pegging his value at this stage of his evolution will be tricky. The average annual salary on a new contract will ultimately depend on the length, meaning a shorter deal of 2-3 years could be at about $3 million annually while anything longer than four years will cost considerably more per year. This negotiation could turn ugly and potentially even extend into training camp.

The other restricted free agent up front is Eric Fehr, who is earning $2.2 million this year to play an average on nine inconsequential minutes a night. The Jets took a chance on Fehr, acquiring him for a 2012 4th rounder in what was essentially a salary dump by the Capitals, but with just one lonely goal on the season another one-way NHL contract in Winnipeg is unlikely.

Among the UFA's at forward, Jim Slater ($1.1 million) and Tanner Glass ($750k) have become 2/3rds of what would be an excellent fourth line (if they weren't miscast as a third line), and both should expect new multi-year offers. Slater is the team's face-off specialist and a consistent 10 goal scorer so a similar salary on a two year deal would be appropriate. Glass has proven he can play the energy role and chip in offensively, which could force the Jets to go to at least three years in the $1 million per year range or risk losing him to another team.

Also unrestricted are Tim Stapleton ($525k), who has one huge fan in Claude Noel (I've given up trying to understand Stapleton on the point during the PP) and not many others, and Kyle Wellwood ($700k), who has two fans in his parents. The only way Wellwood should be on an NHL team is if he's playing in the top six, because as Jets fans (and Shark, Canuck and Leafs fans before them) have witnessed, in a third or fourth line role he is entirely ineffective. With that said, if Wellwood is in your top six permanently, as in not just an injury forced fill-in, well, say hello to the draft lottery. Bon voyage to them both.

On the back end Winnipeg has four UFA's, most notably Johnny Oduya, who is in the last year of a contract that pays him $4 million this season. After a very difficult first 10 games, which included a trip to the press box as a healthy scratch, Oduya has settled in nicely but will probably need to take a bit of a haircut on his current salary if he wants to stick around next year and beyond. I expect Cheveldayoff is already negotiating with Oduya's agent, and if no extension can be reached before the deadline, he could be dealt for a prospect or a pick.

The rest of the free agent defencemen, all of whom are unrestricted, include the oft-injured Randy Jones ($1.15M), the rehabbing Derek Meech ($700k), and the surprisingly dependable Mark Flood ($525k). Of the three Flood is the most obvious choice to continue with the team beyond this year, but each could easily be replaced if contract negotiations prove to be at all difficult. Jones, if he can stay healthy, could also be moved at the deadline.

In goal, both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are set to become free agents but a case can easily be made to stay the course, assuming Mason is willing to take a one year deal at slightly below his current $2.1 million salary. The offseason goalie market, particularly for aging veterans (Mason will turn 36 in April), has dried up considerably in recent years as teams recognize there are more quality goalies than jobs available, making bargain bin deals an option for any team willing to be patient (Vokoun, Elliott, Smith, to name just a few from last summer alone). All accounts suggest Mason is a positive presence in the dressing room and his performance, albeit in limited action, indicates he still has enough game to stop pucks when called upon. As long as he doesn't get greedy, it's a good bet he'll return.

Pavelec, despite his mediocre numbers (2.89 GAA and .910 SV%), has played very well overall and has established himself as a core piece of this team moving forward. He's coming off a deal that paid him only $1.3 million, and can expect a significant raise. Pavelec and his agent will likely point to his countryman Jaroslav Halak as a reasonable comparable and look for something in the neighbourhood of $4 million annually for at least four years. But as a restricted free agent, and with his misleading numbers, Cheveldayoff has an opportunity to lock Pavelec up with a team friendly contract, something closer to $3 million per year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Brains Behind the Bruins

In less than six years the NHL's best General Manager, Boston's Peter Chiarelli, has drafted, signed or acquired all but three of the 23 active players on his roster

When Peter Chiarelli was hired by the Bruins in May of 2006, he inherited a team that seemed to be going nowhere after it traded a dollar (Joe Thornton) for three quarters (Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau) and finished 13th in the East.

Knowing the team had lost it's identity, Chiarelli immediately capitalized on a brutal mistake when the team he had just left, the Ottawa Senators, chose to re-sign Wade Redden over Zdeno Chara. That allowed Chara to hit the open market, and Chiarelli snapped him up with a five year deal that made the towering defenceman the NHL's highest paid rearguard ($7.5 million/year) and the new face of the Bruins.

That same summer Chiarelli also added free-agent Marc Savard, drafted Phil Kessel (5th), Milan Lucic (50th), and Brad Marchand (71st), and traded former Calder trophy winning goalie Andrew Raycroft to Toronto for Tuuka Rask. Even though Boston improved by only 2 points in the standings during Chiarelli's first season (06-07), the foundation for an elite team was quickly being put in place.

The next year (07-08) the Bruins returned to the playoffs, and as an eighth seed forced a game seven before losing in the opening round. They advanced to the second round the following two years (08-09 and 09-10) before becoming the Stanley Cup champions in 2010-11. That culminated a pretty good run.

Or so we thought.

Improbably, they've actually improved upon that form and have been steamrolling the NHL since Halloween. Boston is currently on a 24-4-1 run that has included a pair of 6-0 triumphs, as well as 7, 8, and 9 nothing games in their favour. They lead in goals scored and goals against, have the league's best road record, are the only team not to have allowed a shorthanded goal, and could have as many as 11 players score 15 or more goals.

Chiarelli has assembled hockey's deepest and most complete line-up and his Bruins are the odds-on favourite to become only the second team in the last 20 seasons to successfully defend their championship (Detroit in 96-97 and 97-98).

In addition to the moves outlined earlier, Chiarelli has made a number of shrewd high profile deals (Kessel for draft picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton; Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman, who eventually turned into Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell), was rewarded for staying patient with holdover young talent (Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci), and identified and acquired the right veteran pieces to help short-term (Mark Recchi) and long (Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly, Andrew Ference, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk).

Even the goaltending situation, which not that long ago was a potential area of concern, appears to be working itself out beautifully for Chiarelli. After Tim Thomas provided exceptional value during his first three and a half years in Boston, Chiarelli signed the goalie to a four year $20 million contract extension that kicked in for the 09-10 season and would see Thomas through to his 40th birthday. As that season unfolded Thomas struggled and Rask emerged, and it looked like the Bruins might be stuck with a potentially crippling $5 million cap hit for an aging back-up goalie.

Instead, Thomas bounced back with a Vezina and Conn Smythe-winning performance last year, has posted nearly identical numbers again this year, and now has only one more very cap manageable season left on that extension. Meanwhile Rask has gained plenty of experience, and will be looking to increase his workload and salary at a time that should fit perfectly into Chiarelli's plans.

Which evidently include more Stanley Cup parades in Boston.

*Bergeron, Krejci, and Thomas were the only three players Chiarelli didn't bring to Boston.