NHL free-agency danger ratings: Which players are the most risky?


If I were an NHL general manager, I’d be the loneliest man alive.

My colleagues would ostracize me. I would be swiftly deleted from holiday card lists. I’d have to sit near Seattle and Vegas in the annual meetings. This is because, when it comes to free agents, I would not adhere to the culture norms of decorum. I would paper their restricted guys with offer sheets like it was confetti at a wedding. Why waste time and treasure going after the unrestricted free agents who are pushing 30 when you can chase a franchise player in his early 20s, right?

Alas, offer sheets happen once every several years, or whenever someone thinks Tom Dundon is too cheap to match one. (Spoiler: He’s not.) The unrestricted free-agent frenzy remains the preferred path to find a difference-maker — even though that market is fraught with danger.

Here’s a look at 10 NHL unrestricted free agents hitting the market this week and their “danger ratings,” with 1 being a benign signing that will help your team, and 10 being the kind of thing that gets GMs fired.

Alex Pietrangelo, D
Danger rating: 3

Pietrangelo turns 31 on Jan. 18. There’s no getting around the fact that he’s about three years older than your typical belle of the free-agent defenseman ball. He has played 758 games over 12 seasons and 92 more in the playoffs, all with the same franchise. So there’s at least a little concern that his 0.74 points-per-game average this season could be a high-water mark — despite not being enough to earn him his first Norris Trophy nomination, for unknown reasons.

There have been elite defensemen who played into their mid-30s with a gradual decline, rather than falling off cliff like a statistical Wile E. Coyote. Look at Shea Weber and Brent Burns. Recall Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle. If you sign Alex Pietrangelo, and get four to five good years out him while challenging for the Stanley Cup — which should be the only reason you’re signing Alex Pietrangelo — then it was a signing worth making. And even in his diminished capacities as an elder statesman defenseman, his intangibles are an asset.

The only concern we have for him isn’t age, but location. If he leaves St. Louis, it’ll be for the first time as a pro. Eventually, new environs become familiar. But there’s going to be a lot of culture shock for him and his family, combined with a new set of teammates and expectations.

Taylor Hall, LW
Danger rating: 5

Was Hall’s 2017-18, 93-point, Hart Trophy-snagging campaign an outlier? Yes. Is Hall better than what he showed in 35 games with the Arizona Coyotes, in which he was a sub-replacement-level player and continued a season-long trend of uncharacteristically weak 5-on-5 defensive play? Yes.

OK … make that “hopefully.”

The danger for a team signing Taylor Hall is expecting him to be TAYLOR HALL, which is what the Coyotes were thinking when they acquired him from the Devils. He’s a perfect complementary star at this stage in his career, a potent ingredient to add to an already simmering stew. He’s the answer on left wing for the Boston Bruins‘ second line or the guy taking passes from Matt Duchene in Nashville. He’s the player you fold into a power play commanded by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The danger is also that Hall, despite being open to all manner and sort of contracts in these uncertain times, is going to command money and term that outstrips that role. Evolving Hockey thinks seven years and $8.54 million average annual value at a minimum. On a good team, he might have to come in a little lower. And wouldn’t it be nice to finally see Hall on a good team?

Jacob Markstrom, G
Danger rating: 6

Markstrom was the best goalie in the league last season. That’s not me saying it, and it certainly wasn’t the Vezina Trophy voters saying it. That’s according to Clear Sight Analytics, which manually tracks and plot shots against goaltenders. As Daniel Wagner notes in a great breakdown of Markstrom’s season with the Vancouver Canucks, CSA has him rated first in the NHL in save percentage above expectation. (Wagner notes that the proprietary nature of CSA’s stats make this boast hard to face check.)

Not everyone agrees. Evolving Hockey had him 11th in goals saved above average per 60 (0.277), which still quite good. Sean Tierney notes his underperformance vs. expected goals and calls the goalie “a stay-away, I think.”

Markstrom has been a good starter for three years running, but he was elite last season … which, not coincidentally, was his contract year. If he leaves Vancouver for another team, he’s not going to suddenly turn into a sieve; but he’s also not going to be fourth for the Vezina. And if he does stay in Vancouver, it best not be with a no-move clause, GM Jim Benning.

Mike Hoffman, LW
Danger rating: 7

Remember when Hoffman was embroiled in a cyberbullying scandal involving a teammate and their significant others? Wild times.

Anyway, Hoffman was a 29-goal scorer, with 11 of them coming as the trigger man on the Florida Panthers power play, but was a sub-replacement-level player overall. He’s a defensive liability who can pump the puck into the net: In his last 233 games, Hoffman has 108 even-strength points and is a minus-49. It’s hard to assign a danger rating to a player so glaring in his strengths and weaknesses that even the daftest general manager has to understand them. Stick Hoffman on the power play, start 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone and hope he shoots his way to being worth the investment.

Torey Krug, D
Danger rating: 7

There’s a little “what if Mike Hoffman, but a defenseman?” in Krug’s game, but that’s probably doing a disservice to his defense, in which he uses his stick and positioning to compensate for his stature. He’s an exceptional puck-moving defenseman and an offensive asset, as evidenced by his usage, starting over 60% of his shifts in the attacking zone on average for four straight seasons.

His best ability is as a power-play quarterback, with 82 points in 201 games since 2017, second to John Carlson (91) of the Washington Capitals among NHL defensemen. Carlson has Alex Ovechkin. Krug has had David Pastrnak, who actually scored more goals (50) than Ovechkin (48) on the power play in that span. So here is where things get murky: What kind of power-play conductor is Krug if the instruments are, say, Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin instead of Pastrnak and Brad Marchand?

Tyler Toffoli, LW
Danger rating: 6

How has Toffoli only crested over 30 goals once in his career, as a 23-year-old with the Los Angeles Kings in 2015-16? It’s because no matter how sterling one’s underlying numbers are — and Toffoli has some gaudy ones for expected goals and possession — it inevitably all comes down to how you finish.

He had three straight sub-10% shooting percentage seasons before bouncing back to 10.9% between the Kings and Canucks this season. He’ll fit snugly into someone’s top six and really make a difference as the wingman to a talented center. He’s at a point where he needs to make the most of his opportunities, figuratively and literally.

Kevin Shattenkirk, D
Danger rating: 3

It can’t be stressed enough how important Shattenkirk was to the Lightning’s Stanley Cup win. He had 13 points in 25 games, seeing an increase in average ice time (19:30) from the regular season. He built on his best defensive season in years by skating the puck out of trouble in his own end. Those couple of bum years in New York sullied his reputation, but he should be high on any contender’s list for veteran defensive help and a good guy to add to your dressing room.

Tyson Barrie, D
Danger rating: 4

Like Shattenkirk in New York, sometimes bad fits happen to good players. It didn’t work out for Barrie in Toronto, where his offense wasn’t good enough to cover up his historically deficient defense. But this isn’t a player who’s going to see a 12-point decline in power-play production again. Properly deployed and outside of the Toronto pressure cooker, Barrie should bounce back.

Braden Holtby, G
Danger rating: 8

Holtby’s past three seasons have been an absolute roller coaster, with the top of the climb coming in 2018-19 (15.5 goals saved above replacement) and the drop happening this season (0.9). There’s no question that whoever signs Holtby is paying for past performance. In particular, past playoff performance: Holtby is 50-47 in the playoffs with a .926 save percentage and a 2.13 goals-against average. That includes a .922 save percentage in leading Washington to the Stanley Cup in 2018.

He’s 31 now. It’s a weird look to have your worst season in your walk year, but here we are. We think he’s a platoon goalie now rather than someone starting 65 games, and that’s OK. In the right situation, on the right team, he can bounce back statistically. In the wrong situation, like having to carry too much of the defensive burden alone, it’s not a wise investment. He’s not that goalie anymore.

Henrik Lundqvist, G
Danger rating: 2

By all accounts, Lundqvist is going to replace Holtby with the Capitals — we’ve heard it’s a one-year deal, when an announcement can be made — and that’s a smart decision all around. Peter Laviolette’s system is goalie-friendly. The Capitals are a demonstrably better team than the Rangers squads that Lundqvist played behind in the past three seasons, when he amassed 28.7 goals saved above average. And the King actually saw an uptick in quality of play last season. On a short-term “buyout baby” contract and with something left in the tank as a tandem goalie, Lundqvist keeps within that grand tradition of Swedes, in that he’s nonthreatening.

The three weirdest NHL draft Zoom environments

1. Anaheim Ducks

Nothing says “welcome to your new home” like a speech with the stylistic approach of a totalitarian government in a post-apocalyptic action film.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

The draft’s oddest co-star was Morgan Rielly, aka Mitch Marner‘s security detail/sweater model. Although, admittedly, we are digging the “Dazed and Confused” era Matthew McConaughey look for the Leafs defenseman.

3 (tie). Vegas Golden Knights and Carolina Hurricanes

The Golden Knights and GM Kelly McCrimmon were at the Rock Creek Cattle Ranch in Montana with team owner Bill Foley. The Hurricanes and GM Don Waddell were inside their dressing room. Both general managers looked like your local drive-time sports talk radio host doing an on-site broadcast and hoping none of the listeners bother them.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I recap Day 1 of the NHL draft, which certainly had a different feel to it this year (4:30). Lightning head coach Jon Cooper talks about his Stanley Cup champion team and why the celebration was unique, but special (17:41). We then look ahead to NHL free agency and recap a few trades that have already taken place (38:18). P.K. Subban talks about his new partnership with Adidas and how he hopes hockey can become a more inclusive sport (49:21). Listen, rate and review here.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Yaroslav Askarov

He didn’t crack the top 10, but he’s the highest-drafted goalie in a decade and goes to an absolute goaltender factory in Nashville to develop.

Loser: Matt Murray

In 2017, the Penguins forced Marc-Andre Fleury out in order to make Murray their starting goaltender coming off their second straight Stanley Cup victory. Murray went 7-12 in his next 19 playoff games. In 2020, the Penguins traded Murray to the Ottawa Senators, handing the crease to Tristan Jarry. Tough business, this one.

Winner: Bridge contracts

Two good two-year deals were signed this week. Jesse Puljujarvi returns to Edmonton now that everyone who messed up his development is out of there. Max Domi, traded to Columbus by Montreal, gets a two-year “show me” contract to try to become the Blue Jackets’ No. 2 center. Excited to see what both players end up doing.

Loser: Bridge building

The Hockey Diversity Alliance works best as a watchdog and ombudsman for the NHL’s racial diversity and justice efforts. But the news that the HDA is stepping away from its relationship with the NHL is still discouraging, especially with the organization going from getting featured during the postseason to claiming that the NHL is “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game.”

Winner: Nepotism

Congrats to Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings and Jamie Langenbrunner of the Boston Bruins on drafting their 18-year-old sons Kienan and Mason. What is the NHL if not a place of bloodlines and familial advantages?

Loser: The draft floor

I’ve covered every NHL draft since Columbus in 2007. It’s one of my favorite events, from the “last day of school” vibe to chatting up NHL team executives in a leisurely setting. I love watching the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of young hockey players achieving their dreams. I love the buzz in the building as trade rumors swirl. In the bigger picture, we’ve lost much, much more significant things to the coronavirus pandemic. Having the draft go virtual this year was, in context, a necessity, but still a bummer.

Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Chris Peters with the grades for all 31 teams in the NHL draft.

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