We’re deep into the dog days of summer and there’s still a number of players without contracts for next season. We highlighted the best of what’s left just over a week ago and there’s no denying the pickings have gotten pretty slim.
For most of the players available, there seems to be a justifiable reason as to why they haven’t found work yet. There are a number of players who just aren’t as effective as they used to be (Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Brian Gionta, Francois Beauchemin, Fedor Tyutin), players who just aren’t very effective (Jay McClement, Roman Polak), players who have retired or are considering it (Mike Fisher, Matt Cullen), players who are KHL-bound or rumoured to be (Andrei Markov, Dwight King) and two wingers who look fine on the surface, but come with some baggage. Thomas Vanek can score, but he can’t play a lick of defense, while Jiri Hudler is still a capable offensive player, but has struggled mightily with his health.
For most of the players left, it’s not hard to see why teams are staying away – for now at least. But there are two players left among the dearth of free agency talent that don’t belong with the rest of the misfit toys: Jaromir Jagr and Cody Franson. Both guys could be a solid piece that could push a team just over the edge, whether that’s toward the playoffs or toward Cup contention.
In our numbers primer for free agency, Jagr was one of the best forwards available and was estimated to be worth 1.4* wins while it was a similar story for Franson who was estimated to be worth 0.9 wins. Somehow both have been passed up and they’re now the best forward and defenseman left – at least according to these numbers.
*The chart in the story stated Jagr was worth 1.8 wins. That was without an age adjustment and the error was due to the age curve ending at Jagr’s age last season.
The win value is determined by projected Game Score Value Added (explained more in depth here), a metric that predicts how good each player is expected to be next season. It’s based on the last three seasons of Game Score with the most recent seasons being weighed the heaviest while also being regressed to the mean based on sample size.
For Jagr, his projected value is that of a high-end second liner thanks to a still-incredible ability to drive play, to go along with a projected 40 points. Very few players can influence shot attempts as well as Jagr still somehow can and the likely 40 points is nothing to scoff at, especially at his age. This is, of course, situation and ice-time dependent and it’s possible he won’t be as effective without someone like Aleksander Barkov at center or if he’s further down the lineup, but at the same time, it’s clear he can still get results.
Same thing goes for Franson. His point-scoring ability has gone down since he’s stopped getting power play time, but his shot rates are as strong as ever. Franson has been above average relative to his team in every season he’s been in the NHL. When he’s on the ice his team generally does better.
The big sticking point with Jagr is his age and his price point. He’s going to fall off at some point, the question is when. It’s hard to know for sure because he looks like he’ll be able to play until he’s in his 60s, but the end of the road is likely near, and if he wants similar salary to what he’s been making the past few seasons it’s getting tougher to make that gamble. There’s no doubting Jagr is still a good player, but there’s some risk in how long that’ll continue.
Franson is a different story because there’s a lot of debate about how good he actually is. Watching Franson play is not for the faint of heart. I get why there’s some aversion to his game from those that have seen him extensively, but at the end of the day he gets the puck where it needs to be. It may not be pretty, but he gets the job done and his numbers are sparkling relative to a lot of other defensemen, especially in his own end. The last two seasons in Buffalo saw Franson suppress more than seven shot attempts against when he was out there compared to when he wasn’t. That’s a hard skill to find.
Those that know the numbers and still disagree would likely say that context matters for Franson, that he always gets soft match-ups. That was true early in his career, but not so much over the last few seasons. His first season in Buffalo saw Franson back in a mostly sheltered role on the third pair, but that changed this year where he faced competition closer to that of a second pairing defender. He actually did better this season despite that bump and despite one of the toughest quality of teammate situations in the league.
It wasn’t too long ago that Franson was actually getting some of the toughest minutes in the league. His last season in Toronto in 2015 saw him face the same tough competition as Dion Phaneuf – his most common partner that season – and it was Phaneuf who struggled away from Franson, not the other way around. In the past three seasons Franson has seen hard, medium, and soft competition while also having to deal with weaker teammates; he’s been a successful defenseman anyways.
Looking at his career usage (based on opponent and teammate Game Score, explained here), it’s likely Franson is an average or better defenseman at 5-on-5 even after accounting for the difficulty of his minutes. (A negative “GS Effect” means tougher minutes).
Even if the argument is that Franson is only good because he has it easy (not entirely true), that’s no excuse for not putting him in that very situation. If he’s on a third pair, he’s probably one of the best third pairing defenseman in the league. He can move up the lineup, too, if there’s injury because he’s shown that he can handle it in the past. Right-handed defensemen are hard to come by. Good right-handed defensemen are even harder. Franson is better than a lot of other bottom four right-handed options on a lot of NHL teams.
So what’s the deal with these two? How do they not have jobs? I think what it really comes down to is the league’s current obsession with speed and these two aren’t exactly the Flash on skates. The NHL is and has always been a copycat league, and seeing Pittsburgh win back-to-back Cups with an up tempo style of play has pushed teams toward that style of play.
That’s left guys like Jagr and Franson waiting for an opportunity with a team because they don’t fit the current mould of what an NHL team wants to look like. That’s understandable in some cases (Jagr in Toronto’s system instead of the speedy Patrick Marleau probably wouldn’t work), but oftentimes it’s mistaking what a player can do with a how a player does it.
It’s about inputs and outputs and it’s something we used to see a lot with the big buzzword from a few years ago: “compete level.” A guy can score points, but if it doesn’t look like he’s trying while he does it then his value was lowered as a result. It’s the same thing now with speed, where a lot of slower players aren’t as well regarded as they should be given their results. It’s putting too much focus on how they look versus their actual results and it’s one potential shortcoming from depending entirely on what our eyes see.
If slower speed was that big of a detriment to their game, it would show up in their numbers. The fact it doesn’t means that it doesn’t really matter for that particular player because they can still be an effective and valuable contributor on a good team, even if they’re not doing it as quickly as the rest of their teammates.
That’s the case with Jagr and Franson, two guys who are still somehow unsigned. When it comes to most of the available players, it makes sense that they may not have an NHL job right now. For these two it doesn’t make much sense at all.