Free Agency and the Devils Part 1: Will the Devils find value in 2010 or repeat past mistakes?

Last year during the beginning of the hockey free agency period I was on vacation in Alaska.  After reading profiles of free agents like Rob Scuderi and Saku Koivu I was hopeful the Devils would upgrade their roster after the devastating last second playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.  Cell reception was spotty and I was finally able to access the internet via my blackberry around 11PM EST and access the day’s transactions.  Two core players, one role player and a backup goalie who played well for the Devils - gone (in case you didn’t know, the players I am referring to are John Madden, Brian Gionta, Mike Rupp and Scott Clemmensen).  

Surely they had to be replaced right?   Nothing.   It was frustrating to me - as I am sure it was to many other fans - that the Devils weren’t making any moves.  I mean it was only one year ago Lou Lamoriello was making a huge free agent splash with the signings of Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.   Considering the heartbreaking playoff exit, we wanted activity and new blood! 

 

What did we get?  Illka Pikkarainen (even though he was already Devils' property) and then a few days later Cory Murphy.  Not the most inspiring signings.   All of that said, now I think I have a clearer view of the values of free agency and how the wrong signing can hurt your franchise for years to come. 

 

I think one of the problems that has greatly contributed to three consecutive 1st round exits is our failures in free agency.  It started in 2005 and we have been playing catch-up ever since.  The more I evaluate the salary cap and every signing's future implications I would almost rather remain silent in the first days of free agent activity.   The reality is however that the Devils may make some moves because of their needs.  While I understand that, I hope they realize the value of the players they are acquiring and don't repeat mistakes of the past.

 

Before the free agency period opens, I wanted to go back to the post lockout free agency signings made by the Devils and evaluate their impact on the team.   After the jump I will be looking at the signings, impact and salary cap implications of those signings.  You are warned however as you may not trust the Devils to sign any free agents this year. 

 

I will focus on the past free agency acquisitions in this article.  In Part 2 I will address the potential targets for the Devils in 2010.

 

(Editor's Note:  A quick section on new acquisition Jason Arnott will also be included in this article)

To show the values of our historical free agent acquisitions I am going to use an extension of GVT (Goals Versus Threshold) called GVS (Goals Versus Salary).  GVT as John has mentioned in previous posts is a stat developed by Tom Awad, measuring a player's contributions on offense, goaltending, defense, and shootouts.  GVS takes GVT as the main driving factor and then uses a formula (for further information here is a good reference for advanced stat definitions) to determine the player's value vs. salary. It takes GVT one step further and analyzes a player’s performance above what a replacement level player (salary of $500,000) would provide. The three step formula utilized is listed out in this article.   GVS has the same downside as GVT as it penalizes players who are injured, but is that such a bad thing?   There are examples of freak injuries (Ian Lapierriere vs. the Devils in the playoffs) and long-term injuries where players may miss games as precautions (any concussion related injury) that may paint players in a negative light but at the end of the day when a player isn’t on the bench and available to play he is not a productive asset to the team.  In addition results often favor younger players who are more cost controlled than other free agents who are in a free market with many teams as potential suitors.

 

Typically a GVS rating of +10 and above is good while a GVS rating of -10 is poor.  Players typically hover around the midpoints of +5.0 to -5.0 with expectional players scoring much higher than +10 or +15 barometer. Ideally you want any investment to be at a minimum cost neutral so while you would hope all your players are a +15 in reality sometimes just getting your money’s worth out of a player is enough.  For example you will see some defensive defenseman that while useful don’t generate the same level of GVT and subsequently a low or negative GVS.   In my opinion defensive defenseman suffer with GVT ratings since they tend to be on the ice for a higher level of competition of their opponents and let up a fair number of shots intead of generating offense.

 

Now I will go through the Devils' free agent acquisitions in the post lockout era and provide the GVT/GVS of each player in the year before the Devils signed them and their production (or lack thereof) with the Devils. 

 

(editor’s note:  Since GVS is related to players who are above the cost of a replacement level player I will not be looking at any minimum salary players that were signed during the free agency period as their GVT would equal their GVS.  I will also not be evaluating undrafted free agents like David Clarkson or Andy Greene)

 

2005:

 

 

2005 Signings Prior Organization 2003-2004     
Name Salary GVT GVS
Vladimir Malakhov $3,500,000 3.6 -5.55
Dan McGillis $3,200,000 6.8 -1.45
Alexander Mogilny $5,500,000 6.9 -8.25
Devils Production      
Name 2005-2006 Salary GVT GVS
Vladimir Malakhov $3,600,000 1 -8.45
Dan McGillis $2,200,000 0.5 -4.75
Alexander Mogilny $3,500,000 3 -6.15

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2005 the Devils made three notable free agent acquisitions in Vladimir Malakhov, Dan McGillis and Alexander Mogilny.

 

To say the totality of those three transactions was terrible would be an understatement.   Malakhov ended up costing the Devils a first round pick (which is not factored in here) which happened to be David Perron of St. Louis.  We don’t know who the Devils would have taken with their selection that year, but obviously anyone would have been better than nothing, as the Devils could use all the draft picks they can get especially considering their recent draft history.

Both McGillis and Mogilny ended up playing in limited games for the Devils and were shipped to Albany.  McGillis played the next year in Lowell while Mogilny was injured and unable to play, the Devils being given a cap exemption for his long-term injury.  The three acquisitions of Malakhov, McGillis and Mogilny never played an NHL game again after their 2005-2006 seasons with the Devils.

 

Even in their prior organizations the three acquisitions were positive factors for their team just looking at GVT but when enhanced with GVS they all scored negative ratings.  The GVTs generated by McGillis and Mogilny were certainly worth their future salaries with the Devils but age/injuries and erosions of skills caught up with them and both regressed to lower production levels.   Mogilny might have exhibited good value at $3.5MM if he continued with a 7 GVT, but his hip problem ended his career early.  McGillis who was productive for his salary in 2003-2004 could potentially have been a positive investment for the Devils at $2.2MM if he played to his previous GVT levels.  While Mogilny and McGillis did not display terrible value when they did play, the two did get paid $5.7MM combined NOT to play in the NHL in 2006-2007. 

 

Malakhov was signed for almost his exact salary ($100,000 extra) of his previous contract and was serviceable in his last year with the Philadelphia Flyers and NY Rangers, but he certainly wasn’t playing at a very high level with a 3.6 GVT which resulted in a negative GVS of -5.55.  The only thing you can say about his 1 GVT in 2005-2006 was that at least he wasn’t in the negative.  Malakhov’s abrupt ‘retirement’ in December of 2005 ended up costing the Devils a first round pick as Lou Lamoriello had to move Makakhov’s rights to the Sharks (who had plenty of cap room at the time to absorb the cap hit) in order to free up cap space to resign Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and other players. 

 

The three combined to play only 90 games in a Devils uniform.  

 

While the GVS rates of the signings were bad, at least their respective GVTs were not negative.   But, imagine if the Devils were able to supplement the positive years in 2005-2006 by Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Brian Rafalski with an additional $10MM of players who were at least GVT positive enough to make them GVS neutral.  Could they have beaten Carolina?  I hate dwelling on the past so I am going to quickly move on. 

 

2006:

 

This was a real easy year to look at as the Devils' only free agent acquisitions that played in the NHL were Mike Rupp and Jim Dowd.  Both were signed at the league minimum so as I stated above their respective GVTs of -1.7 for Rupp and +0.2 Dowd would also be their GVS.   Remember GVS is designed to analyze the value of a player vs. a replacement player and replacement players are thought to have the league minimum salary.  After the disaster of 2005 it is easy to see why the Devils refrained from procuring any big ticket free agents.

 

2007: 

 

Prior Organization 2006-2007:

 

Name Salary GVT GVS
Dainius Zubrus $1,850,000 -1.9 -6.1
Karel Rachunek $1,800,000 5.6 1.55
Kevin Weekes $2,000,000 -5.6 -10.25
Aaron Asham $950,000 2.4 0.9
Vitaly Vishnevski $1,550,000 1.8 -1.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devils Production:

 

Name 07-08 Salary
GVT GVS 08-09 Salary
GVT GVS 09-10 Salary
GVT GVS
D. Zubrus $3,400,000 4.5 -4.2 $3,400,000 5.1 -3.6 $3,400,000 4.9 -3.8
K. Rachunek $1,400,000 3.8 1.1 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
K. Weekes $600,000 -1.4 -1.7 $700,000 5.1 4.5 N/A N/A N/A
A. Asham $700,000 -1.1 -1.7 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
V. Vishnevski $1,400,000 0.3 -2.4 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A

 

July 1st, 2007 was a rough day for Devils fans.  Both Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski left the team to offers from the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings respectively.  Lou Lamoriello was quick to react and on July 3rd countered with the signings of Dainius Zubrus and Karel Rachunek.  Over the course of the next few weeks Kevin Weekes, Aaron Asham and Vitaly Vishnevski were also signed.

 

I never thought signing Dainius Zubrus to be the team’s top center was ever Lou Lamoriello’s intent.  Filling a top 6 forward gap by signing Zubrus was the intent and Zubrus’s chemistry and skill set would determine where he actually ended up playing within the top 2 lines.  His $3.4MM salary is a polarizing figure for Devils fans and often message boards and posts have him involved in any fake trade the writer can come up with.  While not spectacular or flashy Zubrus has posted GVTs of 4.5, 5.1 and 4.9 (the last figure despite only playing in 51 games, remember GVT/GVS punishes missed time).  His GVS however have all been negative with a -4.2, -3.6 and -3.8 for the past three years.    Despite his negative GVS, he has not been a disaster.  Considering the rest of the Devils' UFA (unrestricted free agent) signings since the lockout, in my opinion Zubrus is the best.  Possibly the best of the worst, but he still adds positive value to the team while not quite earning his salary.   Zubrus is a $2.5MM player, but the Devils had a need after losing Gomez and by the time July 3rd of 2007 came around Zubrus was the Devils' best top 6 forward option so they needed to overpay to secure him.   How will he perform going forward?  I will answer that question with a question.  Who will he be playing with next year?  If he plays the wing with Zajac/Parise I can see him having a very productive year.  If he is bounced around between the 2nd and 3rd lines he probably produces similar numbers/value to his past three seasons.   

 

Weekes, while a New York Ranger, was paid $2MM a year with a -5.6 GVT (coming to the team with a -10.25 GVT) .   That said, he was signed to be a backup to Martin Brodeur which is essentially a desk job.  His $600,000 salary even with a negative GVT only resulted in a GVS of -1.7.  In 2008-2009 playing more because of Brodeur’s injury he posted a 5.1 GVT with a 4.5 GVS.  His $700,000 salary was well worth it to the Devils.  However he went unsigned the following year, could not latch on anywhere as a backup and subsequently retired.

 

Aaron Asham was signed from the New York Islanders coming over late in the offseason to fill a specific role and was serviceable in doing so.   Even with the Islanders paying him $950,000 he ended up with a positive GVT of 2.4 and an overall GVS of 0.9.  With the Devils he ended up with both negative GVT/GVS scores of -1.1/-1.7 and was not resigned the following year.   He has since found a home in Philadelphia where he actually put up 10 goals this year and registered a GVT of 3.2, his highest since 2002-2003 with the Islanders.

 

Both Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski were brought to the team to add some size to the blue line and to serve as second/third pairing.  Unfortunately, they were not signed to be a replacement for the departure of Brian Rafalski. In their prior organizations they were GVT positive and Rachunek was a bit above neutral on GVS, Vishnevski was a -2.4.  Neither of the signings was for huge dollars as both made $1.4MM and departed after the year.  Both are currently active in the KHL.

 

2008:

 

Prior Organization 2007-2008:    
Name Salary GVT GVS
Rolston $2,432,000 12.2 6.4
B. Holik $4,250,000 2 -9.25

 

Devils Production            
Name 08-09 Salary
GVT GVS 09-10 Salary
GVT GVS
Rolston $5,250,000 3.7 -10.55 $5,000,000 6.8 -6.7
Holik $2,500,000 -0.3 -5.7 N/A N/A N/A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2008 was the Devils Reunion aka the resigning of former Devils Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.

 

Brian Rolston was quite the commodity heading into free agency.  Before he was able to negotiate with other teams Minnesota traded his rights to Tampa Bay. Additionally, he had generated over 17 offers per Gulitti. This required the Devils to step up with a No Trade Clause in addition to a $5MM yearly salary to a 35 year old player (no buyout possible).  Rolston had a good final year with Minnesota but had shown signs of regression with GVTs 17.7 in 2005-2006,  15.8 in 2006-2007 and finally 12.2.  His GVS of 6.4 for his final year in Minnesota was good, but not great.  Plus, he was miscast as a center when signed and that hasn’t worked out as hoped.   Hampered by an ankle injury that caused him to miss 18 games in the beginning of the year, he never found a rhythm and generated a GVT of 3.7.  Roughly a third of his previous year’s output in Minnesota.   Further his GVS dipped from 6.4 to -10.55.  He displayed terrible value for someone making in excess of $5MM a year.  And instead of getting the second line center that the Devils needed, they ended up with another second line winger.

 

In 2009-2010 he was healthy and his play improved marginally.   He posted a 6.8 GVT and his GVS negativity was only -6.7.   While certainly not as productive as he should have been we all know other mitigating factors like being bumped to the third line when Ilya Kovalchuck arrived and not having Patrik Elias for parts of the season hurt his productivity. That being said, at $5MM per year I am not sure how much help should be given to make you perform.  The Devils are still on the hook for another two years of Rolston’s contract.   The moves the Devils make in the offseason this year will dictate the role Rolston will play going forward.  Can he be a 30 goal scorer again as a second line winger?   Possibly, but his overall regression makes it unlikely a resurgance is coming.   I believe he will end up with a similar production level as last year provided that he is not on the third line exclusively.  If he is on the third line I would imagine that his GVS may poke the -10 mark again. 

 

Holik had come off a year in which he was paid a pretty high salary for his production level.   With a GVT of 2 and a GVS of -9.25 those are the mistakes teams in smaller markets cannot make.  A really bad investment.  He came to the Devils at a bit of a discount at $2.5MM but it didn’t seem like many teams where in the mix for him.  

 

In his return season to the Devils a broken pinkie forced him to miss 18 games and after that he never had a large role with the Devils and didn’t often play big minutes averaging 10.10 minutes a game for the year.  His only playoff action was due to Jamie Langenbrunner’s knee injury.  He retired from hockey after the season ended.  

 

2009:

 

Prior Organization 2008-2009:    
Name Salary GVT GVS
Rob Niedermayer $2,000,000 0 -4.5

 

Devils Production:      
Name 2009-2010 Salary GVT GVS
Rob Niedermayer $1,000,000 3 1.5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As discussed earlier the Devils mostly stayed out of the market in 2009 only acquiring some league minimum players (Danis, Murphy, Dean McAmmond, Andrew Peters)  but they did sign Rob Niedermayer to a one year/$1MM deal.  After a neutral GVT and negative GVS in Anaheim the previous year, Niedermayer contributed a 3 GVT and a +1.5 GVS.  All in all a serviceable acquisition that added size and depth to the roster.  Will he come back in 2010-2011?  Gulitti had quotes from his agent that Niedermayer wants to come back and if he can be signed for $1MM or under I would hope he could perform at similar levels to last year.   Ideally with less of a workload he could sustain his effectiveness over the full course of the year instead of dropping off as he did toward the end of the year.

 

Conclusion:

 

Post lockout free agency acquisitions have not been kind to the New Jersey Devils.  From the disaster of 2005 to the failed reunion of old Devils from 2008 there has not been a major success story that I can really point out.  Danius Zubrus is the closest thing.  Is free agency a sucker's game as this fanpost by dr(d)evil suggests?  No, it can be beneficial when used correctly.  That means players that are acquired serve a positional need and contribute to areas of weakness on your team. It's not reaching and hoping Brian Rolston can suddenly act as a center. 

 

Free agency also serves as a second chance.  For teams that have not drafted well in the past there is a second chance to right a wrong. After digesting John's article from Tuesday you can see why we have been looking for similar types of free agents (top 4 defenseman and 2nd line center) the last few years.  Simply, that is why teams overpay.  They need to pay for the mistakes they have made in the past and have to pay over market value to do so.  I like to view free agency as a supplement to drafting, where you can fill in holes with players who will play up to their salary. 

 

Is GVS more of a tool for a middle market club?  Possibly.   While the Devils do have a set budget going into the year, one thing they have never been is cheap.  The Devils spend money when they must.  For a team like Phoenix or Atlanta making sure you can illicit good value for your investment into free agents is key.   The Devils can (and have) made mistakes. 

 

So how did my wish list in 2009 of Rob Scuderi and Saku Koivu work out? 

 

Prospective Signings 2009 Prior Organization Performance
Name 2008-2009 Salary GVT GVS
Rob Scuderi $725,000 6.4 5.725
Saku Koivu $4,750,000 7.9 -4.85

 

Prospective Signings 2009 Performance
Name 2009-2010 Salary GVT GVS
Rob Scuderi $3,400,000 4.9 -3.8
Saku Koivu $3,250,000 10.8 2.55

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scuderi, because of his salary jump of $2,675,000 went from a positive GVS of 5.725 to a negative GVS of -3.8 while coming in with a slightly lower GVT overall.  Los Angeles should have known what they were getting with him and should have known that he is what he is, a solid defensive defenseman.  I doubt the Devils made a bid or inquired about him seeing as they had similar players (Bryce Salvador, Colin White) already on the roster.

 

Koivu on the other hand was coming off a fairly large contract and was commanding $3MM-$4MM in the marketplace and per Gulitti was probably looking for a long-term deal of 4 years, which most likely took the Devils out of the running, if they were even in it to begin with.  He ended up taking a one year deal with Anaheim to play with his countryman Teemu Seleanne at a discount of $3,250,000.   That said, even on an Anaheim Ducks team that didn’t make the playoffs he improved his overall play with a 10.8 GVT which allowed him to reverse his overall GVS to a positive. 

 

 

Jason Arnott:

 

As I was finalizing this article, the Devils went ahead and addressed their center situation trading Matt Halischuck and a 2nd round draft pick in 2011 for center Jason Arnott.  As John already wrote this trade will help address the Devils offensive depth and will relieve some of the burden on Travis Zajac.  The signing will also form a bridge to Jacon Josefson and Adam Henrique who will be more seasoned in 2011-2012.  Below is Jason Arnott's salary, GVT and GVS from last year in Nashville.

 

Prior Organization 2009-2010:    
Name Salary GVT GVS
Jason Arnott
$4,500,000 7.7 -4.3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arnott sported a 7.7 GVT with a -4.3 GVS.   For $4.5MM you would hope for a little more but the silver lining is that when he last played a full year (79 games) he generated a 15.1 GVT which would have put him in positive GVS territory.  An additional factor that I think is positive is that he will be playing against a slightly lower level of competition as the Devils 2nd line center as John pointed out here.

 

In Part 2, I will analyze some of the popular names out there in the 2010 free agent market. Unfortunately I will be amending my draft and dropping Tomas Plekanec in light of the Arnott trade.    Any requests? I will also look at some of the Devils' current roster to see who the bargains are and who else is overpaid. 

 

So what does the community think about the use of GVS?  Is it too much of a self fulfilling prophecy and too skewed for younger players?

 

 

 

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