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This Offseason’s Top UFAs Per Dollar

Measuring the top unrestricted free agent options by projected contract demands

Vegas Golden Knights v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Even with recent re-signing of last year’s top scorer, Jeff Skinner, it is no secret the Buffalo Sabres are in need of a major facelift. Now that it’s officially the offseason, Jason Botterill has a couple ways to improve the current roster - exploiting the trade market and making a splash in free agency. Unfortunately with the latter, bad contracts have been thrown around recklessly at big named players exiting their prime all too often, resulting in buyer’s remorse.

So that leaves the question, where is the value in this free agency class? And, how can we try to predict who will be worth the contract they are about to be handed? For this exercise, we will need Evolving Wild’s GAR (Goals Above Replacement) numbers, Evolving Wild’s salary projections, and the use of traditional aging curves.

Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the mathematical mumbo-jumbo and try to keep this simple. Basically, I took each unrestricted free agent’s GAR over the past three seasons and compared it to their projected yearly salary. Because most of these players are approaching the later part of their careers, I applied the aging curve to each year of a player’s projected term based on their age. This way, we can get a true feel for not only what a player has done, but what we can expect of him in the years he will sign for.

I eliminated those under 50 games played, due to lack of sample size, and came up with the top skaters available. Please note, I split the players’ ice-time into tiers, in order to classify the importance of their minutes. Here are the top forwards available per dollar, starting with those with the most playing time:

First Tier Forwards

  1. JOE THORNTON
  2. MARCUS JOHANSSON
  3. MATS ZUCCARELLO
  4. GUSTAV NYQUIST
  5. JUSTIN WILLIAMS
  6. JOE PAVELSKI
  7. ANDERS LEE
  8. MATT DUCHENE
  9. KEVIN HAYES
  10. ARTEMI PANARIN

Honorable mention: Derick Brassard

Joe Thornton leads the way by playing well in the the twilight of his career. The one-year contract projection works in his favor compared to his peers. It is much easier to not regret a shorter-term contract regardless of AAV (average annual value). Also - take note Sabres fans - Jeff Skinner and his contract land him just behind Gustav Nyquist in fifth place in the top tier, if he were to be included.


Second Tier Forwards

  1. JASON POMINVILLE
  2. LEE STEMPNIAK
  3. MARK LETESTU
  4. CARL HAGELIN
  5. COLIN WILSON
  6. JOONAS DONSKOI
  7. TOMAS PLEKANEC
  8. JASON SPEZZA
  9. BRIAN BOYLE
  10. MICHEAL FERLAND

Honorable mention: Richard Panik, Thomas Vanek, Riley Sheahan, Ryan Dzingel, Patrick Maroon, Alex Chiasson, Troy Brouwer

Perhaps the easiest positive signing Jason Botterill can make is to re-sign Jason Pominville, who has shown face around the Sabres’ facilities recently. Hometown man Lee Stempniak has bounced around for much of his career, but on a one-year deal might be worth a role in an NHL team’s bottom six.


Third Tier Forwards

  1. DANIEL CARR
  2. KENNY AGOSTINO
  3. BRIAN GIBBONS
  4. BRANDON PIRRI
  5. MARIO KEMPE
  6. MARCUS KRUGER
  7. MATT READ
  8. ERIC FEHR
  9. PIERRE-EDOUARD BELLEMARE
  10. BRETT CONNOLLY

Honorable mention: Ryan Carpenter, Tyler Ennis, Connor Brickley, Brandon Tanev, Oscar Lindberg, Matt Cullen, Noel Acciari, Magnus Paajarvi

The highest rated player overall according to my calculations is Daniel Carr. The forward has only played 77 NHL games over the past three seasons, but has consistenly been effective when given a chance. He may not even command a one-way contract, so for virtually zero risk, Carr could be a very pleasant surprise to whichever team smartly gives him a shot.


Fourth Tier Forwards

  1. ADAM CRACKNELL
  2. JONNY BRODZINSKI
  3. GARNET HATHAWAY
  4. GARRETT WILSON
  5. GREG MCKEGG

Honorable mention: Matt Hendricks, Derek Grant

Without much playing time, it is tough to justify the validity of this tier’s measurements. In case you want to throw some creedance into this, though, Adam Cracknell is the second-highest forward on the overall list.


And now for the defense, which I broke into three tiers, again based on ice-time:

First Tier Defensemen

  1. JAKE GARDINER
  2. ANTON STRALMAN
  3. ERIK KARLSSON
  4. RON HAINSEY
  5. ALEX EDLER

Gardiner will be a big loss for the Toronto Maple Leafs if he is not fit into their future plans. The biggest name on this list is of course Erik Karlsson, who at age 29, is expected to receive max term on his deal. This hurts his average expected GAR, as he will be in his late thirties by the end of his contract.


Second Tier Defensemen

  1. MARTIN MARINCIN
  2. BRANDON DAVIDSON
  3. BEN LOVEJOY
  4. DAN GIRARDI
  5. MARC METHOT
  6. LUCA SBISA
  7. PATRIK NEMETH
  8. BEN CHIAROT
  9. BRAYDON COBURN
  10. BROOKS ORPIK

Marincin barely made the cut with 51 NHL games over the past three seasons, but his projected numbers support his case to latch on with an NHL team. Some defensive defensemen and strong penalty-killing role players round out the list in this tier.


Third Tier Defensemen

  1. CARL GUNNARSSON
  2. KEVIN GRAVEL
  3. OSCAR FANTENBERG
  4. KORBINIAN HOLZER
  5. TIM HEED
  6. NATE PROSSER
  7. CHRISTIAN FOLIN
  8. BRAD HUNT
  9. CHRIS WIDEMAN
  10. DALTON PROUT

Honorable mention: Taylor Fedun

Veteran Carl Gunnarsson may be a great addition to the last pair of any team willing to have him. Old friend Taylor Fedun yields a positive projection on a two-year deal.


So, based on these projections, who would I suggest Jason Botterill target? Well, a top-tier center is perhaps the most desired, but Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are likely to only sign in San Jose. It may be tough to rein in Matt Duchene or Kevin Hayes, so maybe the Sabres should settle for a winger and opt for trying to lure Swedes Marcus Johansson or Gustav Nyquist.

Great bottom-six additions could include Daniel Carr and re-signing Jason Pominville.

On defense, the Sabres seem to have a backlog. If Botterill decides to ship out one or two guys, he could immediately upgrade the backend by adding Jake Gardiner or Anton Stralman.

The 2019-2020 season’s salary cap is projected to be around $83 million, which leaves the Sabres with around $20 million in cap space. Let’s say they sign Johansson at his projected $4.7 million AAV for four years, Carr at 750k AAV for one year, Stralman at $4.6 million AAV for three years, and re-sign Pominville at $1.2 million for another year, that leaves approximately $8.75 million to re-sign the club’s own restricted free agents and shop around on the trade market.