Ranking the Best Playmakers Among 2014 NHL Free Agents
A great playmaker can help unleash the scoring talents of those around him. They can make 20-goal scorers out of nothing, push an average player to the 30-40 goal range and help an elite sniper top 50 goals and contend for the Maurice Richard.
Who are the best playmakers available through free agency?
To answer that question we'll look at primary assists only—since we're looking at who is setting up the goals directly. We'll also go back a few seasons to make sure no one who simply had a bad season is overlooked nor is the impact of someone's unusually strong single season being exaggerated.
Setup passes, which were explained in more detail in a Bleacher Report piece last October, is another analytic tool that can help identify the top playmakers. It's an estimate that's been recently demonstrated to be accurate within about five percent (given enough data) of the actual number of shots a player has set up.
Taken together, we have found and ranked the top 10 unrestricted free agents based on who is most effective at setting up scoring opportunities.
I was quite surprised to find someone who ranked higher than Paul Stastny, to realize how low one of this year's playoff heroes wound up and just how solid a gamble one particular 42-year-old may be.
Honorable mentions include Olli Jokinen, Mike Cammalleri, Ales Hemsky, Derek Roy and Radim Vrbata. Turn over to begin with the first of 10 free agents whose playmaking skills eclipse those five.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.
10. Jussi Jokinen, LW
Teams usually have to give something up to acquire a proven playmaker, but in 2012-13 Jussi Jokinen was actually available on waivers. The Hurricanes even agreed to retain a large portion of his salary when Jokinen was ultimately dealt to the Penguins at that year's trade deadline.
This year, Jokinen ranked third among unrestricted free agents with 36 assists and was one of only four with at least 21 primary assists.
How much were his totals boosted by his skilled Penguin teammates? His estimated 194 setup passes—which is calculated in a way that's independent of the shooting skills of one's linemates—ranked seventh among unrestricted free agents. And if you go back three seasons to include his time in Carolina, Jokinen still squeezes into the top 10 in all three playmaking categories.
I recently ranked Jokinen as the fifth best available UFA winger (source Bleacher Report) because he is "a complete do-it-all player that can help out in a variety of roles."
As is typical of players in which Pittsburgh shows such interest, Jokinen ticks off a lot of the moneypuck boxes. He's a strong possession-driving player (especially last year), is amazing at faceoffs (his 53.5 percent this year actually being his worst since 2010-11) and has gone 12 for 38 on the shootout over the past six years.
As for special teams, I ranked him as the third-best power play option among UFAs in an earlier Bleacher Report article, and he can occasionally be used as a secondary penalty killing option.
In terms of traditional statistics, the 31-year-old Finn recorded a career-high 172 shots, scored 20 goals for only the second time and recorded between 34 and 38 assists for the sixth time in his nine seasons.
It was just last season that all 30 NHL teams balked at the idea of paying Jokinen $3.0 million, even for just a year and a half. Now there are several teams that will be quite inclined to put that kind of package together, including the Penguins themselves.
What will his future hold? Even Jokinen himself doesn't know that, according to a recent tweet. But one thing is for sure: He's unlikely to be available at the same bargain price.
9. Daniel Alfredsson, RW
Daniel Alfredsson really came through for the injury-depleted Detroit Red Wings last year, leading the team with 49 points and finishing one back of Henrik Zetterberg for the assist lead among forwards.
Those 31 assists are good for sixth among this year's UFAs and fourth on a per-game basis. The majority of those were secondary assists, however, pushing him outside the top ten in terms of primary assists and/or estimated setup passes.
Working in Alfredsson's favor is his well-established track record as a top playmaker. Over the past three seasons combined, the future Hall of Famer ranks between seventh and 10th among this year's UFAs in the statistical playmaking category of your choice—both in absolute terms and on a per-game basis.
In a recent Bleacher Report piece, I ranked Alfredsson as the eighth best UFA winger overall despite his age (41) and frequent injuries. He remains a solid two-way top-six option who provides valuable leadership.
There's obviously some cause for concern when signing a player like Alfredsson. He has been bouncing back and forth between poor and strong seasons offensively for four years, from the 45 point pace to over 60, and he's due for a slow one.
Alfredsson has gradually slipped down the depth chart and generally doesn't take on top lines anymore, nor did he kill penalties last year. He has also scored on only three of his 17 shootout attempts over the past three seasons after going 12 for 26 in the preceding four.
Despite these legitimate concerns, the Swedish legend still has considerable upside both offensively and defensively. He could help the power play too, which is why I included him in a recent Bleacher Report piece ranking the top power play options among free agents.
Alfredsson can still have a considerable impact if he's healthy and wants to play.
Whether in Ottawa or Detroit, Alfredsson has always been prepared to take a discount to play where he wants. His cap hit never exceeded $5.0 million in Ottawa, and he played for just $1.0 million in 2012-13. In Detroit, he signed a complicated bonus-laden deal that carried a cap hit anywhere from $3.5 to $5.5 million. It's reasonable to expect Alfredsson to remain in that range.
Of course, he may ultimately decide to retire, but if Alfredsson stays then it makes sense that Detroit would have the first opportunity to sign him, and they'd likely make every attempt to do so.
8. Mikhail Grabovski, C
One of the shrewder UFA choices this summer for a second-line playmaking center is Mikhail Grabovski.
Flying low under the radar, Grabovski actually ranks third among this year's UFAs in primary assists per game and fourth in estimated setup passes per game.
Even when looking back three seasons and including his bizarre 2012-13 burial on the checking line in Toronto, Grabovski still ranks top-10 among this year's UFAs in both primary assists and estimated setup passes.
Known in analytic circles as a great possession-driving player, the 30-year-old Belarusian would make an excellent second-line center.
Offensively, he consistently scores at a solid top-six rate between 2.0 and 2.2 points per 60 minutes at even strength.
Washington also discovered his talent for the shootout, using him 12 times and being rewarded with five goals. Grabovski's faceoff percentage finished above 50 percent for the third straight season.
The only real downside is not being particularly useful for killing penalties and being only a secondary power play option at best. I consequently ranked Grabovski as the sixth best UFA center in a recent Bleacher Report piece.
Only one year after cashing in on a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.5 million, Grabovski's contract was bought out by the Maple Leafs last summer.
Signing a more reasonable single-year, $3.0 million deal with the Capitals, the talented UFA is now available for a team to make a more sizable and long-term investment either in Washington or virtually anywhere else.
Grabovski is keeping in shape playing soccer in Belarus this summer, as reported by TSN.
7. Jarome Iginla, RW
Though obviously known more for his goal-scoring talents, former Maurice Richard trophy winner Jarome Iginla's 31 assists tied with Daniel Alfredsson and Radim Vrbata for fifth among this year's unrestricted free agents.
His 18 primary assists are tied with Matt Moulson for sixth, but the boost provided by linemates like David Krejci and Milan Lucic resulted in only a 17th-ranked 157 setup passes.
Going back three seasons to include his time in Pittsburgh and Calgary paints a much more flattering picture. His 505 setup passes are sixth among this year's UFAs, his 85 assists fourth and his 55 primary assists tied for third. Even on a per-game basis the future Hall of Famer ranks between fourth and sixth in each of these categories.
Though he's turning 37 this summer, Iginla remains one of the league's more consistently potent offensive forces. That's a big reason why I ranked him as the second best UFA winger in a recent Bleacher Report piece.
Iginla finished second to David Krejci among Boston's forwards in average ice time, and he managed 30 goals for the 12th time in his career, tying Patrice Bergeron for the team lead.
He may be a rugged scoring machine and an excellent leader, but Iginla doesn't really excel at any other aspect of the game—including a miserable three for 24 in the shootout over the past six years.
Long gone are the days where he can carry a team on his back, but the days where he can unleash the full potential of a team's scoring line should remain for at least a couple more years.
Will Iginla remain a Bruin? Cam Neely wants to try to find a way to keep him in town, as reported by Amalie Benjamin of The Boston Globe. Pierre McGuire seems to think that Iginla will want to try to stay in town too, as he recently said on the Mut and Merloni show on WEEI 93.7.
The future Hall of Famer's services won't come cheap, however.
After two contracts that spanned eight seasons and paid the same $7.0 million every year, Iginla signed a complicated bonus-laden deal with Boston that carried a cap hit anywhere between $1.8 and $6.0 million. It certainly wouldn't be unusual to see him agree to a similar deal this summer.
6. Ray Whitney, LW
Looking for a potential bargain? There's no question that Whitney has been the best playmaker among this year's unrestricted free agents over the past three seasons, but in 2013-14 he ranked somewhere between 13th and 16th.
Does he have one more strong season left in him?
Only one UFA exceeds his 94 total assists and 56 primary assists over the past three seasons, and no one tops his estimated 566 setup passes. Even on a per-game basis no one can touch his totals. He could be one of the best gambles on this list if he can regain even a fraction of those playmaking credentials.
At 42 years old, "The Wizard" is obviously not in a position to play in the top six nor to provide much assistance beyond some veteran leadership and secondary scoring.
He could help out on the power play as I wrote in a recent Bleacher Report piece, but he may not be able to effectively carry a regular shift at even strength anymore.
Ray Whitney will not be returning to the Dallas Stars, according to Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News. Could he be bound for Phoenix, which he described as the "easiest solution" to Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal?
Wherever he winds up, it will obviously be for far less money than the $4.5 million per season he's earned the last two years in Dallas.
With 32 points in 69 games, he may even find it difficult to find the $3.0 million he earned previously. Anything less and he may actually be just the right bargain—especially for a team like the Coyotes.
5. Marian Gaborik, RW
Marian Gaborik may be having a fantastic playoff run and probably ranks at the very top of this year's list of unrestricted free agents in terms of goal scoring, but statistically he only ranks fifth in playmaking.
Gaborik did rank third in assists this year (among UFAs) on a per-game basis, but he was only eighth in primary assists and outside the top-10 in setup passes. Using the additional data of the past three seasons pins him between sixth and eighth in each of these three statistical categories.
The 32-year-old Slovakian has been highly effective since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline, especially in the playoffs. He has also gone seven for 19 in the shootout over the past six years. Taken together, that provides a glimpse of what to expect from Gaborik at his very best.
On the flip side, Gaborik's forgettable 2012-13 season provides a glimpse of his worst case scenario. When not in the right situation, he can be mediocre offensively, ineffective defensively and prone to injury.
Taking the two extremes into consideration, I recently ranked Gaborik as the seventh-best UFA winger in an earlier Bleacher Report article.
Gaborik was acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline with the intention of being a long-term addition rather than a rental, according to a tweet by Helene Elliott.
CBC's Elliott Friedman also doubts that Gaborik will leave town, writing that he doesn't "think Marian Gaborik is going to hit free agency. During their 2012 Cup run, the Kings quietly did an extension with Jarret Stoll, but waited until it was over to announce. Could see something similar here."
Whether he stays or goes, even Gaborik's incredible playoffs is unlikely to help him secure a deal with the same $7.5 million cap hit. Expect a small pay cut, depending on term.
4. Matt Moulson, LW
Though known for this three straight 30-goal seasons, Moulson's 90 total assist, 55 primary assists and estimated 526 setup passes over the past three years are each good for third among this summer's unrestricted free agents.
The 2013-14 season was a tough one for Moulson, spending the bulk of the season on two of the league's weaker teams—the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Islanders—before being rescued by the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline. He nevertheless still managed to squeeze into the top 10 in all three playmaking categories among this year's UFAs.
Originally a ninth round selection by Pittsburgh, Moulson has developed into a strong offensive force, albeit not one as high-profile and expensive as others on this list.
Moulson can score goals and generate assists at both even strength and on the power play (where I ranked him second best among this year's UFA in an earlier Bleacher Report article), and he is deadly in the shootout. He went seven for 14 on the shootout this year, and six for 11 previously.
Those are all reasons why his primarily one-dimensional scoring-focused nature didn't prevent me from ranking him as the sixth best available UFA winger (in another earlier Bleacher Report piece).
There's speculation that Moulson could land just about anywhere—including getting an extension to stay in Minnesota. Nothing solid has yet to come out of either Moulson's camp or the Wild's.
Moulson's salary was $3.9 million last year, and it will likely cost at least as much to secure his services this summer.
3. David Legwand, C
Ranking David Legwand as the third best playmaker among UFAs speaks to both their relative scarcity and how underrated the long-time Predator is.
Using conventional statistics, Legwand's career-high 37 assists last year ranks second among UFAs, and he's one of only four with at least 20 primary assists. He also ranks second in estimated setup passes. He ranks top five in all three measurements on a per-game basis.
Going back three seasons doesn't change the picture very much. Legwand is exactly fifth in primary assists, total assists and setup passes among this year's unrestricted free agents. Another point in his favor is how unlikely it is that his totals were boosted by having an elite sniper as a linemate.
Legwand is an excellent choice as a solid two-way second-line center. He's a well-rounded player without an obvious weakness, nor a particular strength.
- He finished with an even-strength scoring rate of 1.7 for the third straight season, which is bang on with what top-six forwards generally produce (at a minimum).
- Legwand is 10 for 31 in the shootout over the past six years—almost exactly average.
- He has received Selke consideration three times in his career.
- In Nashville, he was a secondary choice on the penalty kill right up until this past season.
- He's also a below-average faceoff man who snuck above 50 percent for the second straight year.
- As I wrote in a recent Bleacher Report piece, he could easily help any team on the power play.
Add it all up and it's easy to see why I ranked the 33-year-old as the third best available UFA center this year.
There is not a lot of news of David Legwand's status with Detroit, nor about which clubs could be expressing interest in acquiring the versatile veteran.
His 2013-14 salary was just $3.5 million, which is about right for an all-around second-line center. Since free agents always cost a bit of a premium, expect his deal to safely clear $4.0 million, depending on term.
2. Paul Stastny, C
Paul Stastny was the player I figured would finish on top before I conducted this study, and I was quite surprised that such a great playmaker would only rank second. After all, there are few better examples of someone who has made 20-goal scorers out of some awfully marginal players.
On a per-game basis, only the UFA coming up next bested Stastny's assist totals last year—even when considering only primary assists. When combing back three seasons, all but two of the five players with arguably better playmaking numbers are much older and on the decline.
Stastny is the best all-around player available through free agency and could even serve well in a small core around which a franchise is built. He has been Colorado's tough-minutes forward for a long time now, relied upon to face the top lines and in defensive zone situations.
The two-time U.S. Olympian ranked first on my recent Bleacher Report ranking of the best power play options among UFAs, has been used on-and-off on the second penalty killing unit, consistently wins 52 to 55 percent of faceoffs and is a fantastic possession-driving player.
There's really no current UFA who could alter the direction a team is heading to a greater extent than Stastny.
Adrian Dater of The Denver Post reports that any deal between Paul Stastny and the Colorado Avalanche won't be negotiated until the final days before the free agency period begins.
If Stastny elects to test the market, there's almost no telling where he'll wind up or what he'll cost. In my view, he's the best all-around player available this summer. I wouldn't be surprised to see his new contract exceed his current annual cap hit of $6.6 million.
1. Thomas Vanek, LW
Though primarily known as a goal scorer, Thomas Vanek is arguably the best playmaker on the market.
Whether looking at primary assists, all assists or setup passes; whether looking on absolute or a per-game basis; whether looking at just this past season or the past three seasons, Vanek is first or second among unrestricted free agents in every statistical category.
Most notably, Vanek was the only UFA to record at least 40 assists last year (with 41), and he also led the way with 26 primary assists.
Vanek is a pure offensive force. He doesn't kill penalties, throw hits, block shots or play tough minutes, and asking him to do any of those things is like putting popcorn kernels in your toaster. That's just not what he's meant for.
The 30-year-old Austrian contributes in a variety of ways offensively, however. He is 17 for 38 in the shootout over the past six years, scores at even-strength at a very consistent rate of 2.1 to 2.5 points per 60 minutes (which is excellent), and though he's coming off a bad year on the power play I still ranked him fifth among UFAs in a recent Bleacher Report piece.
That's why I had no trouble ranking even an exclusively scoring-focused player like Vanek as the third best winger available this summer.
Guy Lafleur may blame Vanek for Montreal's elimination (according to Yanick Poisson of La Presse), and Vanek may blame coach Therrien (according to Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette), but the end result is that the talented scorer is definitely going to test the free agent market (tweeted Renaud Lavoie).
Could he wind up in Minnesota, where he played college hockey and still maintains a residence? If so, the Wild are going to have to pony up something comparable to his hefty $6.4 million salary last year.