Free Agent Wingers; Who is out there?

Without question, one of the top priorities for Carolina this off-season is acquiring a top-six winger, preferably one who can play on the first line with Eric Staal. Jim Rutherford has stated that this is what he plans to do this off-season but a problem he will run into is that the free agent pool this year is very shallow. There will be at least seven teams bidding on one player which means that someone is going to have to overpay to acquire him. his strategy will help a team in the short-term but it could also hurt them a few years down the line when they are still paying big money for a player whose production is declining. This is the same dilemma that most of the teams trying to sign Brad Richards ran into last year. The Rangers knew they could be a contending team as soon as this year, which is why they felt the need to give Richards that big contract. Carolina probably doesn’t have the same mindset, so the likelihood of Rutherford handing out a big deal is slim.

However, this doesn’t mean that Rutherford isn’t going to be aggressive in his search for a top-line winger because he has to take that approach if he wants to land anyone who will make an immediate impact. There might be a chance of the Canes landing a big name free agent, but if don’t, who else is out there and how much are they available for? I looked at some of the players that Rutherford could possibly buy low on a couple months ago, but that only covered certain players. After the jump, we’ll take a look at all of the potential unrestricted free agents who could possibly play in the top-six for the Hurricanes and determine which ones are the right guys to go after.

Here is a list of the potential free agents along with some stats from Behind The Net hockey. After that, I’m going to break up the players into groups based on how good of a fit they would be in Carolina.

Player Age GP G A Pts ESG/60 ESP/60 Corsi Rel. Corsi Rel. QoC QoT Sh% On-Ice Sh% OZ% Start Cap Hit
Ray Whitney 40 82 24 53 77 0.82 2.82 12.7 1.131 0.187 13.0% 10.3 54.2 $3 mil.
Alex Semin 28 77 21 33 54 0.95 2.3 11 -0.34 0.018 11.5% 9.34 51.1 $6.7 mil.
PA Parenteau 29 80 18 49 67 0.59 2.27 9.6 0.71 0.356 10.8% 9.03 56.2 $1.25 mil.
Jiri Hudler 28 81 25 25 50 1.28 2.22 0.8 0.789 0.051 19.7% 11.7 55.8 $2.875 mil.
Zach Parise 27 82 31 38 69 0.99 2.18 4.2 0.731 0.012 10.6% 8.82 55.8 $6 mil.
Kyle Wellwood 29 77 18 29 47 0.74 2.15 15.8 0.105 0.047 19.4% 7.84 60.5 $700k
Jaromir Jagr 40 73 19 35 54 0.99 2.04 10 0.522 0.232 11.2% 9.09 59.9 $3.5 mil.
Petr Sykora 35 82 21 23 44 0.91 2.03 7.6 1.129 0.213 12.4% 9.75 49.3 $650k
Teemu Selanne 41 82 26 40 66 0.74 1.94 3.5 0.404 0.152 12.4% 10.28 49.8
Ryan Smyth 36 82 19 27 46 0.79 1.93 -1.5 1.057 -0.11 9.8% 9.68 48.1 $6.25 mil.
Andrei Kostitsyn 27 72 16 20 36 0.69 1.89 -0.6 0.377 -0.05 13.1% 9.61 53.5 $3.25 mil.
Steve Sullivan 37 72 17 31 48 0.8 1.79 3.9 0.512 0.078 17.9% 8.96 62.4 $1.5 mil.
David Jones 27 72 20 17 37 0.84 1.74 -7.5 -0.123 -0.17 14.7% 7.56 51.2 $2.5 mil.
Lee Stempniak 29 61 14 14 28 0.94 1.72 10.5 0.437 -0.15 10.8% 7.98 49.4 $1.9 mil.
Shane Doan 35 79 22 28 50 0.87 1.68 5.8 0.756 -0.09 9.7% 7.99 52.7 $4.5 mil.
Mikael Samuelsson 35 54 14 17 31 0.6 1.53 5.4 0.914 0.061 10.1% 7.44 45.9 $2.5 mil.
Brad Boyes 30 65 8 15 23 0.51 1.27 1.9 -0.118 -0.11 8.0% 6.55 53.9 $4 mil.
Dustin Penner 29 65 7 10 17 0.44 1.25 1 0.395 0.042 5.9% 4.82 53.8 $4.25 mil.
Jason Blake 36 45 7 5 12 0.53 0.96 4.3 0.04 0.045 6.4% 5.43 52.7 $4 mil.
Mike Knuble 39 72 6 12 18 0.36 0.93 -9.3 0.06 0.047 5.0% 5.99 46 $2 mil.
Kristain Huselius 33 2 0 0 0 0 0 17.1 1.244 -0.22 0.0% 0 62.5 $4.75 mil.

ESG/60 = Even strength goals per 60 mins., ESP/60 = Even strength points per 60 mins., Corsi Rel. = Corsi Relative, QoT = Quality of Teammates, QoC = Quality of Competition, Sh% = Shooting percentage, On-ice Sh% = Team’s shooting percentage at even strength when player is on ice, OZ% Start = Percentage of even strength shifts the player started in the offensive zone.

Right off the bat, you can probably exclude Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne. Their age prevents them from being long-term solutions and there is a good chance that neither will be in the NHL next year anyway. Selanne is either going to stay with Anaheim or retire and it looks like Jagr will probably be playing hockey in the Czech Republic to finish out his career. I also think that Ray Whitney’s name can probably be crossed off, too. as great as it would be to have the Wizard back in Carolina again, he is also nearing the end of his career and doesn’t provide much of a long-term solution. Plus, he is probably going to want a retirement contract with whatever team he signs with and I don’t think it would be smart for the Hurricanes to give him that. His age is obviously a concern, too even if it hasn’t been much of a problem in recent years.

Top Targets

First, we’re going to talk about some of the players who I think should be at the top of Rutherford’s list. A couple of these names should be obvious but there are a couple others who I think Rutherford should keep his eye on. The first guy on everyone’s list is Zach Parise and Carolina is no different. There isn’t too much to dislike about Parise as a player. He’s put up near-elite levels of scoring production in the past, has been one of, if not, the Devils best player for the last few years and is a very responsible two-way threat. The issue with him is going to be money and competing with other teams to get him. Parise is still relatively young so a long-term deal isn’t as big of a risk as it would be to sign someone who is in their 30’s, but he’s currently in the prime of his career and whoever signs him to a 5+ year contract will be overpaying for his production in a few years. As I mentioned in the intro, I don’t think the Hurricanes can take that risk right now.

The other player who I see as a key target is Alex Semin and this one might be a little more controversial than others. Semin has a reputation for being a “lazy, one-dimensional player” but he gets much less credit than he deserves. Going by just his numbers and nothing more, he looks like a player that most teams would welcome to their top-sixes. He drove the play forward at a high rate, scored at least 2 points at even strength for every 60 minutes he played and his production isn’t completely dependent on a high shooting percentage. His numbers might be off from his career but a guy who can put up 50-65 points a year is welcome on this team anyday. He is going to need to take a massive paycut, though and he will probably have to if he wants to stay in the NHL.

PA Parenteau would be another player who I suspect to be on some team’s wishlists. This is the second year in a row that he has put up at least 50 points and he’s shown in the AHL that he has a pretty good amount of scoring ability. Parenteau was also very successful at creating offense and moving the puck forward, which would be an excellent asset to have on a team like Carolina. There are concerns surrounding Parenteau, though. For one, he started a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone, giving him a territorial advantage over some other players. He also played most of his minutes with John Tavares centering his line, which definitely helped him but how much of Parenteau’s success came from playing on his line? According to Hockey Analysis’ stat site, quite a bit of it did but Tavares also depended on Parenteau a little more than one would expect. Both players were less effective at driving the play when they were apart from each other.

My guess is that the Islanders want to re-sign Parenetau before July 1st hits, because he is probably going to get a nice payday in the open market based on what he has done over the last couple of seasons. The shallow market also means that he’ll probably get a bigger contract than he should, so GMs are going to need to keep an eye on the question marks surrounding Parenteau before signing him. If Parenteau is a player who is entirely dependent on his linemates then he shouldn’t get that big of a contract but this might not be that big of an issue if he is going to play on a line with Eric Staal in Carolina. We’ve seen Staal elevate the play of his linemates int he past and Parneteau clearly has a decent level of talent, so these two could make a good combination. Although, Parenteau played some soft ice-time with Tavares and he probably will have to be used in tougher situations with Staal, should he be signed here.

Players to Avoid

Now we are going to go over the players who I think Rutherford should stay away from and one guy at the top of that list is Jiri Hudler of the Detroit Red Wings. Going by counting stats and his scoring rate, Hudler seems to be a safe bet if you are looking for a top-six winger but if you dig deeper, you’ll see that he has a lot of red flags. If you’re looking to predict a player’s future success, one of the first things you should look at is how effective he was at puck possession. Hudler was not very successful in this area as he had a mediocre corsi relative rating despite starting 55.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Another thing to point out is that he scored on nearly 20% of the shots he took and that the Wings scored at a high rate at even strength when he was on the ice. In other words, luck played a big role in Hudler’s success this season and he isn’t a safe bet for Carolina at all.

In addition to Hudler, I think it would be best if Rutherford stayed away from Andrei Kostitsyn, too. A guy who didn’t score much and posted mediocre possession stats on top of that generally wont be on the top of most GM’s wish lists. I’d stay away from David Jones for exactly the same reason, only he was much worse at gauging puck possession than Kostitsyn. Steve Sullivan is another one I would pass over. He isn’t exactly a first line player anymore and had impressive stats last season mostly due to a high shooting percentage and from playing with three of the most talented centers in the league with the Penguins. I was considering putting him in the “buy low” category but Sullivan’s age and extremely high offensive zone start percentage makes me want to shy away from him.

Jason Blake and Mike Knuble can also be crossed off the list. Both are pretty old and their production in the last couple of seasons leaves a lot to be desired. Blake also has issues with injuries and is probably a third liner at this point of his career so I don’t think he’ll be in the Canes’ plans. Knuble is coming off an awful season and was ineffective in just about every area so I think Carolina will avoid him, too. Knuble is one of those players who is only as good as his linemates and Carolina needs to add someone with a higher skillset than him right now. He did have trouble earning ice-time in Washington last year so that might explain his low point total. His awful corsi rating, however, doesn’t speak well of him at all.

I would put Brad Boyes and Mikael Samuelsson into this category, too. Boyes isn’t nearly as bad as his point total suggests but he posted some pretty brutal numbers against weak competition with the Sabres last year. The Sabres used him in mostly a protected role and he couldn’t do much in terms of scoring or driving the play, so that isn’t a good sign in terms of how he will perform in the future. Boyes can still be a useful player but I think his days of being top-six forward are almost over. My concern with Boyes is that he will be Alexei Ponikarovsky Part 2. Useful player but won’t be able to work out in a top-line role here. Samuelsson can probably go in the “buy low” category but his age makes me want to put him here instead. He played on Florida’s shutdown line last season and had a solid season despite that, but the only time he produced at a top-six rate or higher was when he played with great talent surrounding him. He played with the Sedins and Ryan Kesler in Vancouver and with Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg in Detroit. This along with the fact that he is very brittle makes me want to stay away from him in free agency.

Buy Low Options

These are players who had bad seasons scoring wise but have top-six potential and might be undervalued in the market. Dustin Penner is likely to be one of those players even if he continues to play well in the post-season with the Los Angeles Kings. Penner had a miserable scoring line this year and a lot of it is due to a horrible shooting percentage. He is certainly a lot better than his goal and point total suggests and he has also been known to drive play at a high rate, or at least he has in the past. Penner struggled in that category this year, which is probably going to make even more GMs stay away from him. Either way, Penner is probably going to be available for a low cost this off-season and if eh can return to the kind of player he was last year or two years ago, then some team might have themselves a very good bargain on their hands. Taking on Penner will still be a gamble but they aren’t going to need to break the bank to sign him so it won’t be a huge risk. I don’t see his shooting percentage staying this low forever.

Another buy low option could be Kyle Wellwood, who was signed to almost a league minimum deal with the Winnipeg Jets but there’s a lot of red flags surrounding him. He got a lot of soft ice time and his shooting percentage is unsustainably high, so that’s probably not going to carry over into next season. Wellwood was still very good at driving puck possession but he did have a lot of bounces go in his favor and the fact that he started over 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone helped him, too. Wellwood is a good player and might be worth taking a chance on but he could end up being a third liner next season when that shooting percentage comes back down to Earth.

Another player who probably fits in the third liner category is Lee Stempniak. He was one of Calgary’s best forwards at driving the play last season but couldn’t score that much. His scoring rate over his career suggests that he is a fringe top-six player and probably won’t be much more than a 40 point player. Still, I do like Stempniak’s ability to get the puck moving in the right direction and he has shown to be a decent finisher in past seasons. Although, he couldn’t seem to get the puck to the net that often which might be due to him playing fewer minutes in Calgary last year so he probably isn’t what the Canes are looking for. Either way, Stempniak isn’t going to be expensive and does a lot of great things so he might be worth keeping an eye on if other options are gone. Same goes for Petr Sykora who was signed in training camp by the Devils this season and turned in a great season. He did benefit from playing with some good linemates, though.

Other Possibilities

This is reserved for players who do not fit in any of the three categories but do provide some intrigue for the Hurricanes this offseason. One of those players is Shane Doan and there are only a couple things keeping me from saying that the Hurricanes should definitely target him. The first of which is age because he’s going to need a 35+ contract no matter where he signs and his production could tail off soon. Secondly, Doan seems to be loyal to Phoenix and I think he might want to stay there instead of finishing his career with another franchise. Aside from that, I think Doan provides a great linemate for Eric Staal and could fit in very well with the Canes. Although, his production at even strength was below what is considered a “top-six rate” so that is something to be aware of.

Ryan Smyth was another player who I was thinking of signing but I believe that he will probably stay in Edmonton when all is said and done. If he doesn’t, then he would be a welcomed addition on a lot of teams. He played tough minutes this season, scored at a pretty high rate and was used on both the powerplay and penalty kill. I’m not sure how much he has left in the tank but judging from this year, he can still play at a relatively high level and be a solid second liner. HOw he would do on the top line is a good question because one of his best assets is crease-crowding and screening the goalie. That would help Carolina but acquiring someone with a higher skillset might be a bigger need.

This final suggestion might be from completely out of left field but Kristian Huselius is also a free agent and he has been a very talented goal scorer in past seasons. What will probably keep him from being signed is his inability to stay healthy. Huselius has never played a full season in his career and he missed all but two games this year with an injury. This will probably keep a lot of teams away from him but when he is healthy, Huselius is a very useful offensive player and a dangerous goal-scorer. The injuries might mean he is available at a lower price but can Rutherford afford to take a risk on a player with major health concerns? My thought is that he is healthy now and that should be all that matters but the injuries are definitely a problem so I don’t blame those who are leery of him. Still, if he can manage to stay healthy then he would be a big help to Carolina.

I will be breaking down some more details of these free agents over the next week or so and also look at some defensemen could also be targeted by the Hurricanes this off-season. There are a lot of different routes the team can take so I’ll have plenty to cover here.