Today is the eve of free agency and July 1st is less than 24 hours away. Rosters across the league are in flux at this time of year due to trades and RFA signings, and the Toronto Maple Leafs could potentially seek players within the unrestricted free agent (UFA) pool to fill roster holes.
The Leafs displayed an interesting free agency strategy last year that sought to find value in low-cost acquisitions, and the success of this strategy may cause management to replicate it again to some degree this year. While they’re anticipating more youth involvement in the lineup next season and have since taken on the contracts of Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek and Colin Greening for one more year, head coach Mike Babcock wants a competitive training camp and some veteran presence on his roster to insulate the kids.
A Brief Overview of Toronto’s 2015 Free Agency Strategy
The Leafs free agency strategy in 2015 was straightforward. The Leafs signed low-cost acquisitions to short-term contracts to help supplement the young players on their roster. These acquisitions include Mark Arcobello, Shawn Matthias, P.A Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Matt Hunwick and Daniel Winnik. Many of these players were, at the time, seen as undervalued relative to their contract because of their production and possession results from prior years. In addition, some of these players (Matthias and Winnik) provided added-value by being traded for draft picks at the trade deadline. In hindsight, this strategy was moderately fruitful for the Leafs, and therefore may be replicated again to some extent this year if management believes they still have holes to fill in the roster.
Notable Free Agent Forwards Under $2.5M Threshold
All charts are score, zone, and venue adjusted. Data courtesy of Corsica.hockey.
Possible Forward Targets in 2016
Darren Helm is a player worth considering on a low-cost, short-term deal. Helm’s P160 (1.16) is above average among the notable free agent forwards (~1.03), but what’s intriguing about Helm is that he excels as a strong possession player capable of using his speed to drive the play towards the opponent’s net from prime shot location. This can be seen by his high rel.CF% and ixG60.
It’s important to note that the Helm achieved strong production and possession results while playing for Mike Babcock in Detroit during the 2014-15 season. There’s a sense of safety in signing him because he’s found success playing within this context, which makes it easier to believe that he can continue this type of performance going forward.
It appears the Leafs are least giving some thought to re-signing P.A Parenteau to another short-term, cap-friendly deal. Parenteau is one of the more attractive options shown in the above charts due to a combination of strong possession results coupled with reasonable offensive output. He ranks in the top seven in P60 and rel.CF% among notable free agent forwards, and in the top third in P160. In addition, he did this all within the context of a second-line role (unlike players such as Marchessault or Boyes). Despite Parenteau ranking in the latter half in ixG60, it’s fair to assume that his performance in the other metrics makes up for this slight deficiency.
Parenteau compares favourably to some of the high-cost free agent wingers available.
Wingers such as Ladd and Eriksson, who will both receive significantly more dollar value and term than Parenteau in free agency, produced at a similar rate last year and have comparable possession numbers.
Parenteau, similar to Helm, also provides the added benefit of having played in Babcock’s system before. It’s fair to assume Babcock would have an easier time figuring out how to best utilize Parenteau’s talents by drawing on past experience.
The question for the Leafs here is whether they want to leave those minutes and opportunities (Parenteau led Leaf forwards in powerplay in ice time) open for their fledgling youth. While a poorly-timed injury entered the equation, Lou Lamoriello also wasn’t able to move Parenteau for futures at the 2016 deadline despite a 20-goal season. With no long-term future with the team and remembering the inability to flip him last deadline, he could be viewed as simply in the way.
Tomas Fleischmann may be a possibility if the Leafs are looking to add veteran scoring to their third or fourth line. While Fleischmann doesn’t necessarily stick out for his possession play, his production over the last two years certainly makes him a free agent worth considering. More specifically, Fleischmann led all notable free agent forwards in P160, which is an attractive quality because primary points (both goals and primary assists) are more predictive of future scoring than secondary production. Rather than favour the high P60 of players such as Fontaine, Stempniak and Cullen, it’s important to consider that there is far less “noise” (or secondary production) in Fleischmann’s P60. The numbers suggest it makes more sense to bet on Fleischmann and the more predictive stats which favour him.
Also, while it is a close comparison, Fleischmann seems to be a better low-cost option than Joe Colborne. Colborne shot 19% last year and is likely to regress in production. Colborne will also likely demand a raise because of his age and point totals from last season, which may put his price range near or beyond the $2.5M threshold. If the Leafs want to add bottom-six scoring, and don’t want to pay much for it or commit beyond one season, Fleischmann fits the profile.
Notable Free Agent Defencemen Under $2.5M Threshold
All charts are score, zone, and venue adjusted. Data courtesy of Corsica.Hockey.
Possible Defence Targets in 2016
Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly, Matt Hunwick and recently-qualified Martin Marincin are all left-shot defenceman, but David Schlemko is a potential target if the Leafs are looking to add another left-handed depth defender capable of driving possession. Schlemko will not get a ton of points from looking at his P160, but he can help drive the play towards the opponent’s net (ranked 2nd in rel.CF% among notable free agent defencemen). Schlemko’s HERO chart from the 2016 season helps illustrate the effect he has on his team.
As seen above, Schlemko excelled in the minutes given to him in New Jersey, and could be a potential candidate to receive an increased role on a young Leafs team. Schlemko could be slotted into the Leafs lineup and expected to affect the team in a positive way.
It’s worth noting that while the rel.CF% chart shows that Carlo Colaiacavo outperforms Schlemko in relative possession over the last two years, Schlemko is a preferable option because he more positively impacts his teammates. Schlemko elevated the possession of the teammates he played with most often last season. The same cannot be said about Colaiacavo, who acted more as an anchor to his highest time on-ice defence partner, Mark Pysyk, when playing together in Buffalo. Overall, Schlemko may be one of the more enticing defencemen options for the Leafs because of his possession results and positive impact on his teammates.
Patrick Wiercioch is another player who won’t light up the score sheet, but he will drive possession (ranked 3rd rel.CF% among notable free agent defencemen), particularly through an underrated first pass, and is potentially capable of filling in in a top four role.
Wiercioch, similar to Schlemko, significantly props up many teammates that he often plays with (See: Ceci, Cody). In addition to his excellent play, Wiercioch adds some much needed size to the Leafs lineup (6’5) and is still near the prime of his career. Wiercioch brings some positive qualities, and is another interesting option for the Leafs to consider.
Finally, Matt Irwin could be a target if the Leafs want to bring in a depth defenceman capable of adding some scoring to the lineup. Irwin leads the field in P60 (1.11) and P160 (0.81) by a large margin. His possession statistics are less than stellar, but if his role was confined to offensive situations like the powerplay, this could be an ideal fit. Irwin also seems to get shot attempts off in prime scoring areas as per his high ixG60. It is worth proceeding with caution with Irwin because he played mostly in the minors last year with the Providence Bears. Nevertheless, Irwin definitely presents a viable option for the Leafs if they want to add a depth defenceman who can score.