Ranking the Top 10 Wingers in the 2014 NHL Free-Agent Class

Rob Vollman@robvollmanNHLContributor IMarch 27, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Wingers in the 2014 NHL Free-Agent Class

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    RICH SCHULTZ/Associated Press

    There are a lot of great free-agent wingers that will be available July 1, and pursuing the right ones will be among this summer's most critical choices. There are aging top-line scorers like Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla, offensive-minded talents like Thomas Vanek and Marian Gaborik and more complementary two-way options like Ryan Callahan. Where do they all rank?

    To answer that, I used the same system introduced when we covered centers two weeks ago. Taking a list of free-agent wingers from Cap Geek, we estimated each player's value using a weighted historical average of each player's goals versus threshold (GVT), a high-level one-number stat provided by Hockey Prospectus.

    Since the context in which a player is used can greatly influence their numbers, we also considered their location on a player usage chart, divided into left wings and right wings. That served to push those with softer assignments like Vanek down the list, in favor of those who handle the tougher minutes.

    Speaking of those tougher minutes, honorable mentions go to shutdown wingers like Daniel Winnik, Nikolai Kulemin and Brian Gionta, who were not included amongst these primarily top-six options.

    In the end, we ranked the 10 best available free-agent wingers, identified their strengths and weaknesses and identified what they could be worth. Let's begin!

    All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.


10. Steve Downie, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Several teams are looking for a hard-nosed checker who can actually carry a regular shift, and Steve Downie is likely the top free-agent option in that respect.

    Downie, who will be turning 27 in a few days, is in his prime and earned a spot on this list by taking on top-six opponents for Philadelphia this year and keeping the team above water in the possession game.

    There is also an offensive upside in Downie, who scored 22 goals for Tampa Bay in 2009-10 and twice in his career has topped 40 points. His even-strength scoring rate was actually over 2.0 points per 60 minutes for several seasons, which is at the top-six level, although in rather limited ice time.

    Potential Weaknesses: Downie is highly penalized, obviously, and has managed just six goals on 131 shots in 82 games since being moved to Colorado at the 2012 trade deadline.

    Downie doesn't kill penalties, and he doesn't work the power play much, either, or at least not very well. His three power-play goals and six points this year are actually his second-highest totals.

    Then again, not everyone will be shopping for a top-line talent this offseason. Downie is what he is and one of the best at what he does.

    What He's Worth: Downie's annual cap hit has been $2.65 million these past two seasons, which is approximately a match with his true value, especially in his prime.

    Depending on the term, there may even be at least one team so eager to secure a tough player who can provide secondary offense without being a defensive liability that he could even top the $3.0 million mark.

9. Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Ryan Callahan is your classic example of a complete, do-it-all player.

    The former hard-working Ranger captain scores at the top-six level, works the power play, kills penalties, consistently averages over 10 hits per 60 minutes, blocks shots, works the shootout and is one of the league's better players at drawing penalties. If he could sell game programs, there would be nothing left for anyone else to do.

    Of his many talents, Callahan's defensive contributions deserve particular mention. He has received Selke consideration for five straight seasons, finishing as high as fourth in 2011-12.

    Potential Weaknesses: The 29-year-old right wing is not a top-flight offensive talent. He has 13 goals and 31 points this year (same as last year in the latter category), well shy of his career highs of just 29 goals and 54 points.

    Callahan's even-strength scoring rate is at the top-six level but just barely. He certainly can't carry a line offensively. And while he has had some success on the power play in the past, on the whole, he's more of a secondary option.

    What He's Worth: Callahan's current cap hit of $4.275 million per season is already quite a step up from his estimated value of around $3.6 million, and he's bound to sign for even more.

    That being said, it will be awfully hard to criticize any deal that secures a player like Callahan long term for under $5.0 million per season. Hard-working, complete, do-it-all leaders like him don't exactly grow on trees, and so you pay whatever you have to.

8. Daniel Alfredsson, Detroit Red Wings

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Grizzled veteran Daniel Alfredsson is just three goals short of his 14th 20-goal season, fourth among active players. He is also fourth among active players in career assists and fifth in goals and points.

    This year, the 41-year-old Swede is five back of the Detroit team lead in scoring with 43 points in 60 games and second in both goals and shots.

    Alfredsson has a sparkling defensive reputation and even received Selke consideration in seven of his final 10 seasons in Ottawa, finishing as high as fourth in 2005-06. He also finished fifth in Hart Trophy voting that year with a career high 43 goals and 103 points.

    There has also been a great deal of postseason scoring success in Alfredsson's past, with 100 points in 121 career games. He led the postseason with 14 goals and 22 points in Ottawa's 2006-07 run to the Stanley Cup Final.

    Potential Weaknesses: At 41, Alfredsson is slowing down.

    He has 68 goals and 159 points in 236 games over the past four seasons, which works out to 17 goals and 41 points in 61 games over a full 82-game schedule.

    Alfredsson has lost some of his playing time and is being largely relieved of his defensive responsibilities. He no longer lines up against the top opponents, is used less frequently in the defensive zone and is rarely used to kill penalties anymore.

    What He's Worth: Alfredsson was getting about $4.9 million per year in his last four seasons in Ottawa, which is a fair bit more than what he's worth at age 41.

    Detroit signed him to a cap hit of $3.5 million, which is about right, plus performance bonuses that could take the superstar potentially even higher than before.

7. Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Marian Gaborik is a very high-scoring forward. At his best, he is even one of the highest.

    The 32-year-old Slovakian has seven 30-goal seasons, three of which even topped 40. He has finished in the top 10 in even-strength goals five times and in overall goals three times. Gaborik is currently eighth among active players in career goals per game.

    Gaborik received Hart consideration four times in the six years leading into last season.

    Potential Weaknesses: Gaborik is notoriously injury prone and has managed just 21 goals and 46 points in 79 games over the past two seasons combined.

    While the threat of a 40-goal, 80-point season is always there, those days might be behind him no matter how much the coach tilts the ice in his favor.

    And while Gaborik was once a responsible two-way player, he has become far less of a defensively effective presence over the years.

    What He's Worth: Gaborik will most definitely get overpaid.

    There will be at least one team interested enough in his tremendous offensive upside to offer him a deal somewhere close to the $7.5 million he's been getting for the last five years.

    In reality, a deal just under $4.0 million would be more likely to match his expected value, but you wouldn't even get Marian Cunningham with that offer.

6. Matt Moulson, Minnesota Wild

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Matt Moulson is a strong and underappreciated offensive force down the left side.

    He had three straight 30-goal seasons going into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, one of only eight NHL players to do so. He scored exactly 22 even-strength goals all three seasons.

    His even-strength scoring rate has been increasing steadily for years, until this current chaotic season spent with the Islanders, Sabres and the Wild.

    The 30-year-old winger is also potent on the power play, especially over the last three seasons. Moulson has 19 points with the man advantage this year and finished in the top seven in power-play goals the two previous seasons.

    Moulson is also an impressive 13-for-25 in the shootout over his career.

    Potential Weaknesses: Being consistently deployed in an offensive role can boost a player's scoring totals. Moulson is meant for the pure scoring line, not the two-way, top-six type of line.

    Other than his relative lack of versatility, Moulson has played on some awful teams and has consequently seen postseason action only once (2012-13) and was out in the first round.

    What He's Worth: Matt Moulson has been making just over $3.1 million per season for the last three years and has most definitely earned himself a huge raise this offseason.

    Depending on his destination and the term, expect an annual cap hit in the $4.5 million neighborhood for Moulson's services, which could turn out to be a great deal in the right situation.

5. Jussi Jokinen, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    What He Brings: The free-agent winger on this list most likely to have his true value overlooked is Pittsburgh's Jussi Jokinen.

    After all, the 30-year-old Finn has scored 20 goals only once—the 30 goals he scored with Carolina in 2009-10. And sure, his 33 assists is behind only Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby among Pittsburgh players, but aren't his numbers boosted by playing with Malkin and James Neal on the offensive-tilted scoring line?

    The truth is that Jokinen has had only one bad year—a 27-point season in 2008-09. Other than that, he has scored between 42 and 65 points in each of his seven full seasons and with an assortment of linemates and situations.

    His numbers might be boosted by Pittsburgh, but he has spent most of his career posting similar numbers on mediocre teams like Dallas, Tampa Bay and Carolina. His 33 assists are actually his lowest in the last four full seasons.  

    Jokinen is also a complete do-it-all player that can help out in a variety of roles. He's great at faceoffs, winning 57.9 percent of them for the Penguins last year, can help on the shootout and is a secondary penalty-killing option. He'd be perfect for a top-six role on at least half of the NHL's teams.

    Potential Weaknesses: There are no obvious weaknesses to report.

    The only potential concerns are that his offensive totals may indeed have been boosted by Malkin, that he's more of a complementary player than someone who can carry a scoring line and that his defensive skills are solid but are clearly not at the shutdown level.

    What He's Worth: The $3.0 million that Jokinen has made annually over the past three seasons is actually his richest contract to date. It could nevertheless be blown out of the water this July with a deal that pays up to $4.5 million.

    That high an offer may seem like something of a gamble, but it's a lot safer than many of the other forwards who have signed for that amount recently.

4. Radim Vrbata, Phoenix Coyotes

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Vrbata is a strong scoring-line winger with good possession numbers and a whopping 26 shootout goals over the past five seasons.  

    What makes this free agent especially appealing is the incredible upside. Vrbata actually received some Hart consideration for his amazing 2011-12 season when he led the Coyotes with 35 goals and 62 points while posting a plus-24 plus/minus and leading the league with 12 game-winning goals.

    Even if that year turns out to be a fluke, Vrbata still consistently hovers around the top-six even-strength scoring rate of 1.8 points per 60 minutes. Though offense is his obvious focus, he remains a solid two-way player who even does some occasional penalty-killing.

    This year, Vrbata is second on the team with 20 goals and 48 points, including 21 on the power play, and is first with 236 shots. Keith Yandle is the only Coyote who has been on the ice for more even-strength Phoenix goals this year than him.

    Potential Weaknesses: There are no obvious weaknesses to Vrbata's game, although it should be mentioned that he's not meant to play a defensive role.

    Though he's not a liability in his own end, his numbers may have been boosted by the incredible goaltending behind him. Phoenix goalies have posted at least a .930 save percentage for six straight years, including over .945 the previous two years.

    What He's Worth: Vrbata is potentially one of the offseason's value-priced targets.

    The talented Czech has been getting about $3.0 million per season for the past six years and is likely to be offered a deal in the $4.0 to $4.5 million range. Statistically, he is worth at least $5.0 million.

3. Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    What He Brings: The best available goal scorer on July 1 is bound to be Montreal's Thomas Vanek.

    The 30-year-old Austrian led the league with 20 power-play goals in 2008-09 on his way to his second 40-goal season in three years. Vanek was on pace for 40 again as recently as last year when he managed 20 goals in 38 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Vanek is also 16-for-32 on the shootout over the past five years.

    His current 25 goals are actually his nine-year career worst, other than last season.

    Potential Weaknesses: Vanek is neither a defensive nor particularly physical player.

    He may have led the NHL with a plus-47 in 2006-07 but has otherwise posted a minus-14 on his career (not that plus/minus is an ideal statistic).

    Vanek will not kill penalties, throw hits, block shots or protect late leads with shutdown defensive play. He is there for goal scoring and goal scoring only.

    What He's Worth: Vanek is worth a great deal but is still likely to get significantly overpaid in free agency.

    His current contract has an annual cap hit of just over $7.1 million per year, and it might take something similar to secure his services this July.

    In the unlikely event that Vanek can be signed for under $6.0 million, there will be many high fives and bro-hugs among fans and front-office officials alike. 

2. Jarome Iginla, Boston Bruins

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Iginla is an experienced and high-scoring power forward. In Boston, he has helped the defensive-minded Bruins create one of the league's better scoring lines around David Krejci and Milan Lucic.

    Iginla himself leads the Bruins with 28 goals, five more than Patrice Bergeron. He is also second to Krejci in ice time (among Bruins forwards) and has put up 58 points.  

    Potential Weaknesses: Iginla is turning 37 this summer and will continue to slow down offensively, although at his remarkably gradual rate.

    He is also not a defensive-minded player, but if placed on the right line and in the right situations, he is hardly a liability either.

    What He's Worth: Iginla's serivces will not come cheap.

    After seven years of making $7.0 million a season as Calgary's franchise player, Iginla stands to earn up to $6.0 million in Boston this year.

    Iginla is quite likely worth north of $5.0 million for his top-line offensive skills alone. His leadership, experience and other intangibles arguably make him worth even more.

1. Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    What He Brings: Jaromir Jagr is one of the greatest offensive talents of all time.

    Even at age 42, Jagr is still New Jersey's most valuable player. He still plays over 19 minutes a night, is tied with Adam Henrique for the team lead with 23 goals, his 192 shots leads the team by 44 and his 60 points leads all Devils by 11.

    Jagr has a lot of experience, especially in the postseason. With 199 points in 202 NHL games, he actually has more playoff points than the rosters of 10 entire NHL rosters. He went to the Stanley Cup Final last season with Boston.

    Even if his scoring slows down, it can still prove inspirational and motivational to have someone of Jagr's tremendous accomplishments teaching any team's young players on what it takes to be great.

    Potential Weaknesses: Jagr is up there in age, is not a defensive-minded player and any hits he throws or shots he blocks are purely by accident.

    Though not a defensive liability, he's not for killing penalties or for shutting down opponents in the final minutes of game. He's for scoring only, albeit without a defensive penalty even against the league's best.

    What He's Worth: Playing for the value price of just $2.0 million this season, Jagr would have been a bargain at twice the price.

    With another season like this, he could easily be worth the $4.5 million he earned in Dallas and Boston the year before. Although it's only a matter of time before the future Hall of Famer slows down, someone will pay this price to bet that Jagr has at least one more top-line season left in him.

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.


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