Head-scratchers on Day 1 of NHL free agency

July 2

New Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller cashed in on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Darryl Dyck)

After the opening salvo of free agent signings on Tuesday, rookie Flyers GM Ron Hextall stood before the Philadelphia media and explained why his team sat idle, aside from re-signing backup goaltender Ray Emery.

“To be honest with you, July 1 is one of those days where we all can get carried away,” Hextall told the assembled press“Sometimes this day, you make some of the poorest decisions you make, and quite honestly we didn’t have to think it through that hard.”

The conclusion of Hextall’s sober assessment  referred to the Flyers’ lack of cap space, as they currently sit more than $1 million over the limit, according to CapGeek. But sometimes having your hands tied by financial constraints can be a good thing, prohibiting you from a deal you’ll soon regret.

The bashing of bad free agent contracts on July 1 is the Canada Day equivalent of Cinco de Mayo pinata pummeling — everyone gets to take a swing at an easy target. But after speaking with former NHL assistant general manager Frank Provenzano Tuesday, context is important when evaluating Day 1 deals — even the head-scratchers handed out at the peak of Ludicrous Speed.

Provenzano’s point is two-fold: There is no such thing as universal player value. Nor is there a universal player market.

Not every free agent is a fit for every team. And not every free agent is available to every team. Those factors, combined with the bidding war that accompanies the Day 1 frenzy, can greatly impact a player’s contract either far above or below his perceived value. For example, yesterday we noted how the Blackhawks and Penguins capitalized by snatching up Brad Richards and Christian Ehrhoff at extremely team-friendly prices. Other teams, say, the Capitals, weren’t going to get those discounts because they weren’t clear Stanley Cup contenders. Instead, they were forced to pay through the nose to lock up Brooks Orpik — much to the chagrin of colleague Neil Greenberg.

But Orpik’s deal was just one of several curious contracts that raised eyebrows or prompted visceral media reactions on Tuesday.

In examining two of the most curious, we’ll refrain from blatantly mocking the decisions. Rather we’ll keep Provenzano’s points in mind and try to appreciate some of the stranger Day 1 deals as something akin to modern art. We’re not 100-percent sure why this happened, but we acknowledge the effort.

Florida Panthers | F Dave Bolland | Five years, $27.5 million

Bolland will ding the Panthers for a $5.5 million cap hit for 2014-15. That makes him the second highest cap hit for the Panthers (behind D Brian Campbell) and will tie him for one of the top 50 forward hits next season. It should go without saying that contracts like Bolland’s are normally awarded to point-generating forwards. Bolland is not a point-generating forward. Since 2007-08 when he skated 39 games for the Blackhawks, Bolland has averaged just shy of 26 points per season.

Part of the problem for the lack of production has been injuries. Just twice in his career has he played more than 70 games in a season. His 2013-14 campaign with the Maple Leafs was short-circuited by a slashed tendon, which leaves his status for next season (and beyond) a little uncertain. Even if he’s cleared to play, will he be at full strength?

His lack of point production could be partially attributed to his usage, as he’s started in the offensive zone less than 24 percent of the time each of the past two seasons, per extraskater.com. But it hasn’t been like he’s been particularly effective as a defensive forward either. When Bolland was on the ice for the Leafs at the start of last season, about 62 percent of the goals scored were credited to the opposition. Defensive-minded forward Brian Boyle, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning for three years and $6 million Tuesday, started in his own zone even more often and yield goals to opponents at a 53.3 percent clip. So … Dave, what would you say … you do here?

Adding in the Provenzano Perspective (accounting for club-specific factors), we get a little more clarity as to why Bolland’s contract figures climbed as high as they did. Start with the salary cap floor. Heading into the offseason, the Panthers had precisely five players under contract beyond 2014-15 according to CapGeek. It was possible they were going to have to spend significantly just to get to the cap floor. GM Dale Tallon  accomplished that mission Tuesday, doling out contracts that will count $16.25 million against the cap.

Tallon has faced this challenge before, and he similarly acquired some of his former players (Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell) when he was general manager of the Blackhawks to compensate. Bolland likewise played on Chicago’s Stanley Cup-winning roster. (You may recall his most notable goal.) If you’re going to knowingly overpay for players, you may as well reward guys you know who offer intangibles, right? Bolland fits that mold. That makes some bit of sense at least.

But there are an astounding number of question marks — ranging from Bolland’s health to the impact the deal will have on the Panthers’ salary structure when foundational players Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bujgstad and Aleksander Barkov reach the end of their rookie deals — that still make this pact a puzzler.

Vancouver Canucks | G Ryan Miller | Three years, $18 million

Like most Americans, I love what Ryan Miller has achieved as a player. That said, there are a few strange layers to the Miller contract. First and foremost, the market for starting goaltenders was pretty much Vancouver and Calgary. So unless Miller wanted to sign with the Flames and place himself in a rebuilding project similar to the one he endured with last season’s Sabres, his options were pretty much limited to the Canucks or the Canucks.

In the big picture, Vancouver is trying to reorganize on the fly after a disappointing 2013-14 campaign that saw it miss the playoffs. However, the Canucks don’t have a ton of top-tier prospects waiting in the wings. Add in a plethora of no-trade clauses for their most marketable players that will likely limit the return from trades — as it did when they dealt Ryan Kesler to Anaheim — and free agency may be the best option to stay relevant during a reboot. So, why throw more money at Miller than you seemingly have to?

Furthermore, Miller’s play down the stretch of the 2013-14 season with the Blues was fairly suspect (.903 save percentage), and it was worse in the playoffs (.897). His season mark of .923 was great, but that’s also his best showing since he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender in 2009-10. In the time between, he’s hovered around .916. All of this is to say, Miller isn’t a bad investment, but it just feels like Vancouver spent more than they really should have to land him.

From the Provenzano Perspective, the money makes more sense. When you’re in the front office and your crease depth chart for the coming season consists of Eddie Lack (16-17 with a .912 save percentage in 2013-14) and Jacob Markstrom (a .896 save percentage in 46 games since 2010-11) part of the price tag pays for piece of mind. Another portion could be rationalized by the intangibles a first-class player like Miller will bring with him as the team enters a new era under GM Jim Benning and head coach Willie Desjardins. As Benning told the press after the deal was struck:

“He’s intense and focused,” said Benning. “Our younger players are going to see the way he works in practice, how hard be practises. It’s going to make them better players.”

Vancouver didn’t throw elite money at Miller — the top five goalies have and average cap hit of $7 million for the coming season — but he will rank seventh in that category among netminders next season. With Jonas Hiller — the next-best free agent goalie option — getting $1.5 miller per year less from the Flames, Miller’s deal seems excessive. After all the considerations, it still feels like the Canucks are making a bigger bet than they had to that Miller will play closer to his first-half form from last season, rather than repeating his lackluster play with the Blues.

 

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