Flyers and Free Agents: An Analytical Approach

With the Stanley Cup Finals beginning tonight, it’s important for the Flyers brass to look at the maneuverings of the managers behind San Jose and Pittsburgh. Shark’s GM Doug Wilson added Washington cast-off Joel Ward and Devils’ buy-out Dainius Zubrus, while Jim Rutherford of Pittsburgh traded for an entire line of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin. All of these players have had a positive effect on shot generation and certain analytical measures.

Advanced Stats, Enhanced Metrics, Analytics; whatever you call them they’re a tricky subject for a lot of old school hockey fans (and executives) to get their heads around. It’s tough to accept the numbers when they tell you the opposite of what you feel. Many NHL teams are moving towards a more analytically based evaluation process, like the Arizona Coyotes who hired a 26 year old kid, John Chayka, to pull the strings as General Manager. Despite his youth, Chayka has a strong background as a hockey analyst, and it’s impressive that he’s risen so high, so fast.

A good example of this old school vs. new school battle just happened in the NHL last week with the most recent trade between Vancouver and Florida. Erik Gudbranson and a 5th round pick went to the Canucks in exchange for prospect Jared McCann, a 2nd round pick and a 4th rounder. While the upgrading of picks, and addition of McCann are interesting for Florida, this is more about shedding Gudbranson. The Panthers appear to be embracing a lot of new ideas while Canucks GM Jim Benning was recently quoted saying, “we won a Cup in Boston and didn’t use analytics.”

New Florida GM Tom Rowe identified Erik Gudbranson as a problem because he’s known as a defensive defenseman, but he struggles to prevent shots. Gudbranson was deployed as such by the Panthers coaching staff, with an Offensive Zone Start rate (OZS) of just 42.7%, meaning he had almost 6 defensive zone starts for every 4 offensive ones. Despite his ‘defensive pedigree’ he was second only to 39-year-old-end-of-career Willie Mitchell in  even strength Shots For/Against ratio (SF%) with a rating of 46.9% at even strength. That might not seem like a whole heck of a lot, but over a whole season that’s 470 shots for the Panthers compared to 533 shots against with Gudbranson on the ice.

Yes, he was deployed heavily in the defensive zone, but the mark of a good defensive player is to break even in SF% despite those bad zone starts. Sean Couturier for example had a 44.6% OZS and a 51.3 SF% this season; he’s able to take a ton of defensive starts, and manufacture more chances than he gives up while on the ice. Heading into this off season, how can the Flyers use information like this to better their team and avoid mistakes? Well let’s take a look at some 5v5 results over the last 3 seasons shall we.

SF% is Shots For / (Shots For + Shots Against). Simple ratio showing if the team took more shots than they gave up with the player on the ice.

PDO is Save Percentage + Shooting Percentage. Shows if a player was lucky/unlucky, if the number exceeds 100 then either the team was shooting very well or the goaltending was better than average.

OZS% is Offensive Zone Starts / (Offensive Zone Starts + Defensive Zone Starts). Tells us which zone a player was deployed in.

Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

5v5 Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

As is pretty common knowledge, this isn’t a fantastic group. The only thing that’s really surprising over the past 3 seasons is that Radko Gudas has had the most positive effect on shot generation. Management would be wise to lock him up for his prime years. Ghost got an absolute ton of offensive zone starts, but that’s how it should be seeing as his offensive skill far surpasses the rest of this group. Del Zotto and Manning have been effective enough, and noting that Del Zotto has had some bad luck with a 98.8 PDO is interesting. That hints that even better results may be on the way from him.

Streit is just too old, but he’s still valuable as he’s accumulated 98 total points in those 3 years. A lot compared to MacDonald’s 48 and Schultz’s 30. MacDonald, and Schultz have had a negative effect on shot generation, much like Gudbranson, and that’s because they’ve all taken on defensive assignments that are simply too great for them. The fact that MacDonald has had the benefit of way more offensive starts and had similar results to Schultz in terms of shot opportunities should be the take away here. He’s had it way easier compared to poor Nick Schultz who has also struggled, but his assignments have been tough.

The Flyers are basically stuck with this group because of their current contracts. There is promise in those top four in the table though, and they’re all young. Not to mention Ivan Provorov is likely joining the team this year, and he’s definitely a skill upgrade from those bottom three. He may take Manning’s spot on the roster, or if we’re lucky both will be on the team, and AMac will be shipped back to Lehigh Valley. It’s unlikely the Flyers test the free agent market on Dmen unless a trade is made in the near future. Thus, I won’t be providing a list of them here. I’ll be focusing on forwards.

Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

5v5 Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

There’s a solid core of forwards here that not many teams in the league can match because they’re both good players and entering or still straddling their prime. Voracek, Raffl, Giroux, and Simmonds are good at driving the play in the right direction. Nick Cousins had a nice rookie season, providing a pesky presence with good underlying stats. He shouldn’t be overlooked for a permanent roster spot as a middle six forward.

Read and Couturier are continually breaking even in SF% (both actually did break that barrier this season) despite getting a yeoman’s load of defensive zone starts. Couturier is only getting better, but Read has struggled with his dropping shooting percentage. As a result his PDO was very low this year at 96.7. Looking past his offensive struggles he’s still a valuable checker.

Schenn has always been a bit of an enigma and his underlying numbers indeed are questionable. This year however he was much closer to breaking even with a 49.3 SF% at 5v5. It’s reasonable to expect him to still be improving at 24, and the steady increase from 41 to 47 to 59 points is hard to ignore. A more permanent spot alongside Giroux will likely mean his point totals keep increasing.

As for the spare parts, Sam Gagner was actually not as bad as these stats makes him seem. He was used in more of a 3rd line role by Hakstol and he had a 49.5 SF% this season despite getting a 48.3% OZS rate. If he wanted to return in that role (for less $) it seems there may be a decent 3rd line player hiding under his scorer’s reputation. Colin McDonald is still under contract and might be worth giving a longer look. His smaller sample is a bit better than the other checkers Bellemare, Laughton, White, VandeVelde and Umberger. Overall those 5 guys are all pretty replaceable, but Laughton is worth keeping as he’s probably going to improve. Umberger is mercifully going to be bought out; he stinks.

With this knowledge in hand there are improvements that can be made up front. Replacements for Gagner, White, and Umberger could be plucked from the Free Agent market to give the bottom-6 a jolt. Umberger’s buy out will cost the team $1.6 million against the cap, Lecavalier is retiring, Schenn and Gudas should be re-signed, and Gagner/White are off the books. Our speculated wiggle room will be something like $6 million give or take. Let’s take a look at potential additions.

5v5 Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

5v5 Statistics: Stats.HockeyAnalysis and Puckalytics

This table of 20 Unrestricted Free Agents (+ Gagner/White) is sorted on EVPP82, which is Even Strength Points Per 82 games. Sam Gagner is in the upper third of the table, and he does deserve to be there, he’s a legitmate middle six forward. He should be utilized as such, and shuttle between the 2nd, and 3rd lines. You will also notice that Ryan White is at the very bottom because he’s offensively challenged, and as a kicker he also consistently fails to win the shots for/against battle. He’s bad. Replacing him is actually a good idea, I don’t care how ‘gutsy’ a guy he is.

Loui Eriksson, Frans Nielsen, Mike Santorelli, Colton Sceviour, Darren Helm: Potential Free Agent Upgrades

Loui Eriksson, Frans Nielsen, Mike Santorelli, Colton Sceviour, Darren Helm: Potential Free Agent Forward Upgrades.

The two most skilled players in this table are Loui Eriksson and Frans Nielsen. They aren’t superstars, but they are very good NHLers. I have them grayed out because if any of these players cash in this year it’s them. If the Flyers were in a slightly better cap position I would be adamant that they give chase, but seeing as they aren’t…adding that kind of salary would be tough. Eriksson’s coming off 30 goals and Nielsen’s a consistent defensive center who puts up 40-50 points without fail (see: an older Couturier). Eriksson will get $5-6 million, while Nielsen will go for a bit lower. Without a doubt pricey, but no harm in reaching out to their agents.

More puzzling (and probably expensive) forwards like David Perron, Mikkel Boedker, and Brad Richards should be avoided. Perron has played with a laundry list of skilled NHL players over the past few seasons; Crosby, Malkin, Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Getzlaf. Only Nugent-Hopkins’ production saw an uptick with Perron on the ice, the rest were better without him. That’s a big red flag. Boedker has always seemed to get the nod as an offensive player, but his shot differentials don’t seem to lend themselves well to that. It’s true that the Coyotes teams he’s played for weren’t all that impressive, but with the amount of offensive zone time he’s had I’d like more production. Richards has been an offensive powerhouse in the past, but he’s faded big time in the last few seasons. Pass.

It should surprise everyone that Mike Santorelli may be the best deal out of this entire group. He ran away with good opportunities in Vancouver, and Toronto before getting the shaft this year in Anaheim where he didn’t really get a chance to play despite dressing for 70 games. Santorelli, Colton Sceviour, and ageless wonder Matt Cullen are all defensively responsible forwards who get the puck up the ice and create more opportunities than they give up. Santorelli and Sceviour might even output enough offense to be 2nd line fixtures. Cullen’s age is a question mark, but his playoff performance with Pittsburgh has been inspiring. All three of those guys could be productive and frugal (<$1 million) additions.

The next group of forwards I would consider Sam Gagner equivalents; good enough offensively to frustrate you when they don’t score, but all-in-all decent 3rd liners. Jiri Tlusty has been the most sheltered of this group with 54% OZS so I’d avoid him for a checking line spot. Kennedy looks the best, but injuries have always been a problem for him. Stalberg had the worst defensive assignments, but still managed so there’s value there. Fleischmann was a nice piece on a pretty bad Montreal team while he served with Desharnais, and Wiese. He’s not the 60 point scorer he once was, but he still has skill to contribute in a diminished role. But…Helm is the most sensible choice as he’s had 12, 15, and 13 goals in consecutive years on a Detroit team that’s been headed South.

Among the plethora of cheap free agents who could replace (and probably outperform) Ryan White are Chris Kelly, Vern Fiddler, Shawn Horcoff, Dainius Zubrus, Rob Klinkhammer, and Paul Byron. To a lesser extent Riley Nash, it worries me that he received such a sheltered role (55% offensive zone starts) on a bad Carolina team whereas the rest were all deployed as defensive players. None of these guys will provide much offensively, but ALL of them have produced better at even strength, and NONE of them were as bad at creating vs. suppressing shots as White was! Case closed.

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