A lot of big names will change uniforms over the coming week, but it's often the value players that have the most significant impact down the stretch and into the playoffs. Which overlooked role players might be available this year, and ready to help propel a team towards post-season glory?
The hockey analytic definition of a value player is anyone who contributes in a number of ways that aren't completely captured by mainstream statistics or subjective impressions. Specific examples include anyone who:
- Wins faceoffs
- Scores on the shootout
- Draws and/or kills penalties
- Plays tough minutes and/or against top competition, and
- Drives a team's possession rate
Examples of value players who just missed this list include Columbus defenseman Nikita Nikitin and Phoenix's defensive-minded veteran Jeff Halpern.
Often there are reasons why these players are undervalued, such as their age, small size, history of injuries, bad contracts or disappointing seasons caused by poor linemates and/or tough opponents. We'll explore these reasons too.
One team came up repeatedly in the hunt for the 10 value players most likely to make a big splash: The Florida Panthers. This is a club that was built on a collection of low-cost character guys who simply didn't come together this year. They are excellent candidates to succeed in more suitable environments.
These aren't the only value players, and they're not presented in any particular order, but outside the NHL's big names, they should represent the 10 players most likely to become available, and make a big impact. Let's begin!
Why He'll Be Available: Florida has no chance of making the postseason and is in an excellent position to deal away any player who isn't part of their long-term plans, or who can be easily reacquired or replaced in the offseason.
On the flip side, a trade would come as particularly bad news for Brad Boyes, who just welcomed a new baby into his family, reports Andrew Ivins of the Sun Sentinel.
What He Brings: The 31-year-old offensive-minded right winger could provide some solid secondary scoring. Boyes is one point back of the team scoring title, and leads the Panthers with 15 goals and 138 shots.
At his best, Boyes scored 76 goals over two seasons for the Blues in 2007-08 and 2008-09, ninth in the NHL over that span.
Boyes is also one of the league's best shootout artists and could help a team in the playoff hunt to pick up as many post-regulation points as possible. He's six for nine this year, and an amazing 31 for 57 over the last six seasons.
Why He's Undervalued: Quite frankly, Boyes is not that strong defensively. Without the right linemates or playing conditions, he can often allow as many opposing scoring chances as he creates for his own team.
He has also qualified for the postseason only three times in his career, for three different teams, and lost in the first round each time.
Why He'll Be Available: David Moss is a pending unrestricted free agent on the final season of a two-year, $2.1 million per season contract.
Phoenix is tied with the Dallas Stars for the final Western Conference playoff position, but slightly on the wrong side of a 50/50 shot at the playoffs. Moss is the type of player they could let go in exchange for someone who will improve their chances this year and fit in better with their long-term plans.
What He Brings: Moss is a versatile and possession-oriented winger who can fill any number of roles.
Last year, for instance, Moss played on one of the league's most effective and unheralded shutdown lines with Boyd Gordon and Rob Klinkhammer. This year, the 32-year-old is playing more frequently on the scoring line with Mike Ribeiro.
Regardless of how he has been used, the major common theme in Moss's game is confidently taking on top-six opponents and helping the Coyotes improve their possession game.
Two other attributes Moss brings are his size and his penalty killing. He consistently averages about 6.0 hits per 60 minutes, but doesn't take too many penalties. In fact, this year Moss has drawn six more penalties than he's taken. He's also two seconds behind Antoine Vermette in average time per game killing them.
Why He's Undervalued: To be blunt, Moss has never really made a big splash in his career, aside from a single 20-goal season in 2008-09.
Moss has struggled with injuries, has just 163 points in 420 games over eight seasons and has scored on just 4.6 percent of his shots over the last three seasons. He has also qualified for the postseason just three times in his career but was out in the first round every time.
All of this has conspired to cast him in unflattering light. It has made him appear to be a replacement-level veteran looking for one last deal, rather than a versatile two-way forward who can kill penalties and drive possession.
Why He'll Be Available: Mark Fayne is a pending unrestricted free agent, finishing up a two-year, $1.3 million deal with the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils are a fantastic possession team with an easy schedule down the stretch, but statistically still have only about a one in four chance of making the postseason.
With youngsters Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Adam Larsson breaking their way into the lineup, the Devils may be prepared to move Fayne.
What He Brings: Much more than a rental, 26-year-old Mark Fayne would be an ideal pick up for any team looking for a long-term defensive upgrade on their blue line.
Fayne has good size, has developed quickly and has far more potential to improve his game further. He also brings the experience of New Jersey's run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
He is trusted with really tough minutes, having faced the highest average quality of competition among New Jersey's defensemen over the previous two seasons. Only partners Andy Greene and Stephen Gionta start a higher percentage of their shifts in the defensive zone.
Somehow, despite the difficulty of his assignment, Fayne still manages solid possession numbers.
Why He's Undervalued: Fayne may have some offensive potential, but any puck-moving talents have been almost completely invisible so far. He has only 42 points in 219 NHL games, including just 11 in the 80 games played over the past two seasons.
Quality defensemen are in high demand and in limited supply right now. This is a player that is potentially ready to break out into becoming a solid top-four defensive-minded blueliner for years to come, but it could take a change of scenery and the right opportunity.
Why He'll Be Available: Carolina picked up Malhotra on a one-year deal near the league minimum to anchor their checking line, win a few faceoffs and kill some penalties.
Carolina now finds itself near the bottom of a large pack of teams going for the final playoff spot. The Hurricanes are looking at perhaps a one in three chance of grabbing a playoff position, at best. That may open up the opportunity to let go of a player who may be considered dispensable, like Malhotra.
What He Brings: Incredible shutdown play.
In the analytic world, we use Malhotra's name as a verb to describe anyone who starts almost exclusively in the defensive zone. He is the bar against which the defensive zone starts of all other shutdown forwards are measured.
Though his usage is a result of the high regard his coaches have in his defensive abilities, it consequently skews a lot of his numbers and the subjective impression observers may have of his play.
More obvious contributions include his ability to kill penalties and win faceoffs. Malhotra's 59.1 faceoff winning percentage is third in the NHL this year, and I ranked him eighth among this season's best faceoff men in a Bleacher Report piece earlier this year.
Malhotra also brings good size, leadership and 910 games in 15 seasons of NHL experience, despite being only 33 years old. Surprisingly, he's made the playoffs only five times and advanced past the first round only once.
Why He's Undervalued: It may not be fair, but there are some concerns about his vision. Malhotra played only nine games last year after the eye injury he suffered in the previous postseason.
Malhotra is also without an offensive upside. He actually had three straight 30-point seasons from 2008-09 through 2010-11, for three different teams, but even those modest levels are likely far behind him.
Why He'll Be Available: In an offseason where teams in desperate need were unable to sign capable veteran defensemen, the Carolina Hurricanes managed to land several. One of them was Ron Hainsey, who agreed to a one-year, $2.0 million deal.
Unfortunately for them, the Hurricanes were unable to translate that success into a favorable position in the standings. They currently sit tied with New Jersey for 12th in the Eastern Conference, three points out of the final spot. This could leave them in a position to make some of their blue-line wealth available to the right bidder.
What He Brings: Hainsey is a solid veteran defenseman who is comfortable playing big minutes against top-six opponents in key defensive situations.
As a Jet, Hainsey started a lower percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other Winnipeg defensemen in three of the past four years, and faced the highest quality of competition in two. He also blocked about 7.0 shots per minute the last three seasons.
This year in Carolina, the 32-year-old has taken more of a backseat to Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera, but has nevertheless rounded out the top four quite nicely. He is just 38 seconds back of the team lead in even strength playing time per game, and 31 seconds back to the team lead in short-handed ice time per game.
Why He's Undervalued: Hainsey had a pretty bad contract in Atlanta, which paid him $4.5 million for five years. Failing to live up to a high-priced agreement can sometimes skew people's perceptions of what a player really did contribute.
And though he occasionally shows flashes of it, his puck-moving talents have largely abandoned Hainsey years ago.
Why He'll Be Available: Mike Weaver becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. It's his final year on a deal that paid him just $1.1 million per season, which is actually his highest-paying contract.
Florida's chances of making the playoffs are essentially zero, as it is currently 13 points behind Detroit for the final postseason position.
What He Brings: Pure defense!
Weaver is more than a depth option, as he can reliably play top-four minutes as well. All four seasons in Florida, Weaver's pairing has taken on the team's top opponents, and largely in the defensive zone.
Based on his share of the duties and how few shots opponents attempt when he's on the ice, I ranked Mike Weaver as the ninth best penalty-killing defenseman in the league earlier this year. He currently works 56.7 percent of available penalty-killing minutes, leading the team by 10 percent. That's 2:52 per game, while no other Panther is higher than 2:09.
Weaver is also a highly physical player. He's currently second on the Panthers with 98 hits, and leads the team with 90 blocked shots.
Why He's Undervalued: There are several reasons why Weaver's true contributions are often overlooked.
First of all, he's 35 years old. He's also only 5'10", which is considered undersized for a shutdown defenseman. Size can have its advantages, however, as Weaver has drawn more penalties than he's taken all four seasons in Florida, which is uncommon for a defenseman, especially a physical one.
Both Weaver's numbers and the impressions formed about him can be skewed by the fact that he's assigned to play in the defensive zone so frequently. Marcel Goc is the only Panther who has started a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone this year.
Weaver consequently has just 86 points in 583 career games for five teams. He has taken 343 shots throughout his career, only 45 more than league leader Alexander Ovechkin has taken in 55 games this year alone.
Finally, Weaver doesn't bring a lot of postseason experience to the table. He has made only two appearances in 12 seasons, and has never won a series.
Why He'll Be Available: The Florida Panthers are second to last in the Eastern Conference, and in a position to trade some of their veteran unrestricted free agents, like defenseman Tom Gilbert.
What He Brings: Tom Gilbert is a solid puck-moving defenseman who can hold his own defensively against the top lines.
The 31-year-old blue liner plays on Florida's top pairing with Brian Campbell, and is currently tied with P.K. Subban for ninth among defensemen in even-strength scoring, with 19 points. He leads the Panthers with 22 assists and is tied with Campbell for the team scoring lead among defensemen, with 25 points, which is just two back of the team lead.
In his prime, Gilbert scored 45 points in 2008-09, which was tied with Rob Blake for 16th among the NHL's defensemen. His 109 points over that and the adjacent seasons, in which he didn't miss a single game, ranked 24th among blueliners over that three-year span.
Gilbert can also hold his own defensively, even against the top lines—against which he also consistently played when he was in Edmonton. He's a good skater with good size but isn't that physical. He was the top penalty-killing option in Edmonton, but moved to a more secondary role in Minnesota, and is barely used at all by Florida.
Why He's Undervalued: Gilbert has played on some awful teams and some truly questionable blue lines, which may have stained his reputation.
His reputation may also have been affected by his lofty six-year contract that paid $4.0 million per season. Edmonton traded him and his deal to his hometown Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz, and he was bought out a year later. This past offseason he settled on a one-year deal with Florida for just $900,000.
Why He'll Be Available: Marcel Goc is a pending free agent on a non-playoff team. This is his last season on a three-year deal that carries an annual cap hit of $1.7 million.
What He Brings: Goc can win faceoffs, play the tough minutes and kill penalties.
The 30-year-old German center is Florida's faceoff leader, winning 53.4 percent of his draws. That helps him on the penalty kill, where he spends an average of 2:17 per game, second most of the team. He has averaged over two minutes a game killing penalties all three seasons in Florida.
Want to talk tough minutes? No Panther currently starts a larger share of his shifts in the defensive zone than Marcel Goc. These are also spent facing the highest average level of competition.
Add it all up, and the speedy veteran would be an ideal defensive upgrade for any postseason contender.
Why He's Undervalued: The 58 games played this year is actually the second most the injury-prone German has managed in a single season since his 2006-07 sophomore season.
As a result of those absences and his own offensive limitations, he has never exceeded the 12 goals and 30 points he produced in 2009-10 for the Nashville Predators.
Goc has a quantity of postseason experience, but not a quality. He's played just 50 career games in seven playoff appearances for three separate teams, who have won a combined two series out of nine.
Why He'll Be Available: Andrew MacDonald is a pending free agent on the last season of a crazy bargain of a contract that paid him the league minimum for the past four seasons.
He's due for a big raise, and the Islanders know it, and will probably choose to invest those dollars elsewhere.
What He Brings: MacDonald is a two-way defenseman in his prime who can play big, big minutes. His average ice time of 25:33 per game is currently eighth in the NHL.
He currently leads Islanders defensemen with 24 points, which is 50 percent more than second-place Thomas Hickey, and tied for 36th overall among NHL defensemen. He also led Islanders defensemen in scoring in 2010-11 with 27 points, and finished third both seasons in between.
MacDonald plays a sound defensive game, taking on tough competition at even strength, and working with Travis Hamonic on the top penalty-killing pairing. He leads the team with 192 blocked shots, far more than second-place Hickey's 106.
Playing on a weak team also gives him the opportunity to lead the entire league in blocked shots, which he does by 28 more blocks than Montreal's Josh Gorges.
Why He's Undervalued: A bad agent? MacDonald's value contract is one of the NHL's great mysteries.
The only real drawback to MacDonald's game—and in fairness, it's a big one—is that he has been dominated possession-wise, both this year and last. That's probably not due merely to the difficulty (and excess) of his minutes, but also his own potential defensive shortcomings.
The Islanders have a weak blue line and they have to overplay him, but he may settle into more of a second-pairing role on a more competitive team, and play it effectively.
Why He'll Be Available: Mike Cammalleri may be getting a lot of the attention, but the player worth pursuing could be Lee Stempniak.
Like Cammalleri, he's a pending unrestricted free agent. He's on the last season of a two-year deal that carried an annual cap hit of $2.5 million. Unlike Cammalleri, he may be obtainable without giving up a first-rounder or a blue-chip prospect.
What He Brings: The 31-year-old right winger sits atop the league with five shorthanded points, and provides highly underrated two-way, top-six play. When the Coyotes acquired Stempniak from the Leafs at the 2009-10 trade deadline, he scored 18 points in 18 games the rest of the way.
Last year Stempniak was tied for the team scoring lead with 32 points in 47 games, while leading the Flames with 113 shots and finishing as one of only two players with a positive plus/minus.
This year he once again leads the team with 142 shots, but only 5.6 percent of them have gone in, barely half his career average of 10.5 percent. He is, nevertheless, among the team's leaders among forwards in ice time in all manpower situations, and posts good possession numbers in tough situations.
Why He's Undervalued: Lee Stempniak is minus-21, ninth worst in the NHL.
Stempniak is actually one of Calgary's best possession players, and the team actually has much better shot and scoring chance differentials when he's on the ice, but the goalies behind him have posted just an .877 save percentage, while his linemates have scored on just 5.7 percent of their shots. Most of that is entirely outside of his control, but it has butchered his plus/minus.
Also, the veteran's reputation may have been affected by playing on some relatively weak teams. Stempniak has played in the postseason twice in his nine-season career and was out in the first round both times.