As Kevin Sellathamby wrote today, next season's top unrestricted free agent (apologies to Patrik Elias) is Travis Zajac, and given the outcome with this year's number one UFA (anyone that has been in a cave for the past two months click here) I doubt I am the only one concerned about Zajac's whereabouts after next season.
John Fischer's article last week established that keeping top free agents isn't a problem just for the Devils, it is a problem for all teams. Based on his initial thoughts I decided to delve further into the issue to see what the outcomes normally are with top free agents and what that might mean for our current #1 center.
To start with I used contract information at the indispensable CapGeek, transaction information from the player pages on SB Nation, and supplemented with salary information from USA Today (CapGeek archives only go back to the 08-09 season). From these, I created a database of all "Key" free agents from 2006-2012. I defined a "Key" free agent as someone who signed a contract of $3m per season or higher and was age 30 or under (using minor discretion to include or exclude based on age). While $3m probably includes too many players in 2012 and excludes too many in 2006, it seemed like a fair baseline. I decided to exclude players over 30 so as not to count players that only wish to play for one team (i.e. Lidstrom, Selanne, and despite a scare Brodeur) and older free agents less likely to be part of a team's core (i.e. Jan Hejda, Jaromir Jagr, Mikael Samuelsson).
What were the results? Well, between 2006 and 2012 there were 156 "Key" players heading toward unrestricted free agency, and only 52% would eventually re-sign. Of the 81 players that re-signed, 23% (19 of 81) re-signed prior to or in the first month of the season, 50% (40 of 81) signed during the season, and just 27% (22 of 81) signed in the off-season (though most prior to reaching free agency). This means only 23% (22 of 97) "Key" players that reached unrestricted free agency re-signed with their original team.
So your thinking, well it is nice to have some numbers but we all know that it's hard to re-sign top free agents. What I really want to know is how did the Devils do?
I'm glad you asked. The Devils did an excellent job of producing "Key" UFAs with their seven players (Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Johnny Oduya, Paul Martin, Andy Greene, and Zach Parise) ranking them as one of the six best teams (a number which doesn't even include Brian Rafalski as he failed to meet the age cutoff). As you'd expect, teams that drafted well in the late 1990s-early 2000s were high on this list (Nashville -9, Detroit -7, Calgary -7), while teams that drafted poorly were low (Pittsburgh -3, Colorado -3).
I have to admit it brings a smile to my face (and shows how poorly they drafted) to see the Ranger at the bottom of the bucket with only two "Key" UFAs (Michael Rozsival and Sean Avery). The Devils also did an impressive job by re-signing three out of seven "Key" UFAs that reached the off-season, a rate better than all but four teams; though the Devils fall to the middle of the pack when you include potential UFAs that were signed to extensions.
The problem for the Devils was that they were the only team to lose four players to free agency without receiving any compensation. In fact no other team lost more than two players that they didn't trade away. A large part of this is likely due to the Devils' success, most teams are unlikely to trade away a top player while in the playoff hunt or leading their division. However, the Devils' well known reluctance to negotiate in-season places them in a more difficult position than most teams.
Parise left New Jersey to go home to Minnesota, would it be shocking if Zajac (or even Clarkson) did the same? He has already talked about being excited to play in Winnipeg against the Jets, might he enjoy playing for them even more?
Given the rate "Key" UFAs re-sign once they reach the off season and, as reported by Tom Gulitti, no contract extension talks underway, we may want to start savoring every game we see Zajac in a Devils jersey. Hopefully, Lou Lamoriello is waiting for the new CBA to start negotiations but I wouldn't hold my breath.
One more interesting tidbit from my analysis: between the 2006-2011 seasons, 13 "Key" restricted free agents signed one year contracts and Shea Weber is the only one that remained with the same team. Signing Parise to a one year deal may have ensured his leaving after the 11-12 season.
What do you think? Is Zajac likely to leave? Is getting him signed to a contract extension this off-season critical? Thanks for reading my first FanPost. Any thoughts, critiques, or questions about my analysis are greatly welcomed!