ST. LOUIS MO - JANUARY 20: Jiri Hudler #26 is not an attractive man, but is he an legitimate free agency option for the Stars?
For the first time in years the Stars appear ready to throw some money around in early July, and not just on complementary parts. The days of throwing money at the back half of the roster and selling it as a success are (seemingly) over with stable ownership in place. There can be no doubt that having money is preferable to not having money, but the new circumstances bring new problems. Mo' money mo' problems, as they say.
The biggest potential new problem facing the Stars is a desperation signing made after the big target(s) is gone. The free agent minefield traps some unfortunate (unprepared?) team every season, and oftentimes the team that steps on the mine is one looking to make a splash to change the image of the franchise under new ownership. Sound familiar?
Leading up to the opening of free agency I'm going to examine some of these traps potentially awaiting the Stars on July 1st by following a strict set of criteria aimed at finding long term fits to help push the Stars to the next level of the win curve. The remainder of this post will focus on the scoring options up front. Brace yourself, Zach Parise.
Zach Parise will be a large focus of this post, but he will hardly be the main focus. Parise, and a blinding focus on Parise alone, is very likely to end poorly. The Stars will not be focused on Parise alone (or Suter, but we'll jump off that bridge eventually). The general population of Stars fans might be though, and if the Stars are unable to convince Parise to jump ship from New Jersey some fans are going to have an immediately poor reaction.
Parise is far from the only scoring option available to the Stars though, and he might not even be the top scoring option available on July 1 that fits the Stars needs. Before we tackle that possibility it might be helpful to spell out the criteria I used to sift through the full free agent class to narrow my scope down to 20 forwards and 21 defensemen. The ultimate goal of the criteria is important to keep in mind. The Stars aren't a player or two away from being a legitimate contender. The goal is to find long term fits that can help pull the Stars up to their former heights for the long haul.
The criteria, in English, is pretty simple. Old forwards (33 or older) and forwards who barely played (less than 20 games) were immediately removed because they are either not long term fits due to age, or had some extenuating circumstances keep them off the ice (poor play, age, injury, etc.). With the group narrowed down I moved on to looking for ability. Players who drove possession for their teams, succeeded in tough minutes, and generally contributed more positives than negatives are the focus of this search.
These criteria uncovered 20 forwards. This post is going to focus solely on the top offensive forward options with future posts dedicated to other nebulous groupings of free agents. The top six even strength scorers among those 20 finalists can be found below.
The top scoring forwards at even strength among the 2012 free agent class are, in order, Alexander Semin, P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, Zach Parise, Kyle Wellwood, and Chris Kelly. Each player comes with their own set of circumstances that would make any general manager think long and hard before signing them to a contract. Fortunately, this group does offer some upside. Three of the six drove possession for their respective teams significantly in 2012: Semin, Parenteau, and Wellwood with Parise also doing so at a slightly above average rate. Context will once again prove to be necessary to get a handle on the surplus value these guys could generate for the Stars though.
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If he didn't immediately eliminate himself as a possible scoring option for the Stars by name recognition alone, Wellwood's upside is inflated significantly by the favorable ice time he got in Winnipeg (good teammates and 60% offensive zone starts) and his bloated shooting percentage (19%, seen below). Chris Kelly's poor Corsi numbers with the Bruins are partially explained away by the fact that he routinely played tough minutes for a very good team, but a small red flag remains if Joe is looking to improve the transition game (he should be).
The big knock against P.A.Parenteau going into free agency is the idea that John Tavares was a significant factor in his production. It's valid to a degree for sure. Playing with good players is preferable to playing with mediocre players, but the when you come out of nowhere to produce while playing with Tavares the questions are valid. As you can see below though Parenteau didn't score on an abnormally high rate of his shots, and his linemates shot roughly around the average of the six forwards discussed in this post. Playing with Tavares certainly made an impact, but it doesn't look like playing with Tavares artificially inflated his numbers to a significant degree. He's just a valuable offensive player.
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We can draw some further conclusions about the other five players by analyzing the shooting percentage splits that impacted their production. Jiri Hudler, Kyle Wellwood, and Chris Kelly all had abnormally high spikes in their shooting percentages. Both Hudler and Wellwood touched 20% while Kelly hit 16.4. The trio had 40-50% increases in 2012 so expecting them to continue at those rates is very unrealistic. Hudler's and Kelly's teammates also shot at a high percentage which will naturally boost their assist totals.
What have we learned so far? Kyle Wellwood, despite sneaking onto this list, isn't a realistic top six scoring option for the Stars. Chris Kelly isn't either though he may fit in on the third line. Jiri Hudler, a player some Stars fans seem to view as a fallback option to Parise, should be handled with extreme caution. Like Kelly he could sign with the Stars, and be a productive player. Based on his production last year he's likely going to make enough money that he needs to be more than a productive player. The Stars attempts at signing a scorer should focus on Semin, Parise, and Parenteau.
The most obvious all around fit for the Stars is Zach Parise, but any number of teams could make the same statement. Both he and Semin can probably expect contracts in the six to eight million range over six or seven years. Either would be a huge risky franchise-altering commitment for this front office to make, but such is free agency. If they plan on filling up sacks of money for one scorer Zach Parise is the least risky of the two by a decent margin. P.A. Parenteau should come with a smaller financial risk, but also more performance risk. The Stars can use a playmaker like Parenteau though the obvious preference should go to a goal scorer.
For the first time in years the Stars have options, but that doesn't mean they can throw caution into the wind. They have to identify the right players to spend the dough on, and then convince those players that joining the Stars is worth the commitment. The Stars definitely do need to take bold action to get the franchise back into the playoffs, but they also need to tread carefully in free agency. If the main options they identify dry up it's ok to move on. The last thing the Stars need is to sign a bad contract that hurts them down the road because they panicked.