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Behind The Numbers

Lehner, Benn, Spezza among best short-term free agent signings

Numbers show they should make new contracts pay off

by Scott Cullen / NHL.com Correspondent

Some teams steered away from big contracts in NHL free agency in hopes of finding potential value in players signing short-term contracts.

There are a few analytical principles that can be applied when trying to determine which contracts can be expected to provide favorable value.

Short-term contracts reduce the level of risk involved for the signing team, and while goals and assists have value, there is particular value in generating offense at even strength, as well as value in players that drive play and tend to create more shot attempts than the opposition.

With those considerations in mind, here is a team of players that should provide a positive return relative to the value of their new contracts.
 

[RELATED: 2019-20 NHL free agent tracker]

 

Robin Lehner, G, Chicago Blackhawks (one year, $5 million)

A finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season, the 27-year-old ranked second in the NHL with a .930 save percentage (behind Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars) and, among goalies to play at least 30 games, he ranked fifth with a .934 even-strength save percentage. With an even-strength save percentage of .924 over the past four seasons, he is tied for 11th among goalies to play at least 150 games.

From Chicago's perspective, Corey Crawford is 34 years old and has been limited to 67 games the past two seasons because of injuries. Lehner has the qualifications to push for the starting job, and the Blackhawks shouldn't miss a beat if Crawford can't stay healthy.

Video: Robin Lehner on his one-year deal with Blackhawks

 

Jordie Benn, D, Vancouver Canucks (two years, $4 million; average annual value of $2 million)

It's not easy to acquire a top defenseman in free agency without paying a premium, so the value may be easier to find in a no-frills veteran like Benn. Among Montreal Canadiens defensemen who played at least 20 games last season, he was fourth in average time on ice (18:12).

Benn, 31, has helped move the puck effectively over the past three seasons; his team has controlled 51.35 percent of the shot attempts (SAT) with him on the ice. In that span, 50 defensemen have played more than 150 games and had an SAT percentage of better than 51 percent, and of those 50, Benn is one of 15 who have started more of their shifts in the defensive zone.

 

Nathan Beaulieu, D, Winnipeg Jets (one year, $1 million)

The Jets landed good value by re-signing a player they didn't give a qualifying offer to as a potential restricted free agent. The 26-year-old had been competing for ice time with the Buffalo Sabres before they traded him to Winnipeg on Feb. 25.

In the past two seasons, Beaulieu's team has tended to fare better with him on the ice when it comes to shot attempts. Among defensemen to play at least 100 games in that span, Beaulieu ranks 38th with a relative SAT percentage of plus-1.96 percent.

With restricted free agent forwards Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine unsigned, signing a defenseman who can handle a regular role at this price seems like a sound investment.

 

Brandon Pirri, LW, Vegas Golden Knights (two years, $1.55 million; AAV of $775,000)

Pirri has scored 15 goals in 33 games over the past two seasons with Vegas, his fifth NHL team. The 28-year-old also has scored 94 points (47 goals, 47 assists) in 86 games with Chicago of the American Hockey League during that span.

But Pirri has been a consistent goal-scorer for longer than that. Since 2014-15, he has played 203 NHL games and scored 1.25 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, tying Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (287 games) for 25th among those to play in at least 200 games during that span.

 

Jason Spezza, C, Toronto Maple Leafs (one year, $700,000)

Though not the premier point producer he was in his prime -- he scored at least 84 points four times between 2006-06 and 2011-12 -- the 36-year-old can be productive for his hometown team.

In the past two seasons, Spezza has scored 23 of his 53 points on the power play (six goals, 17 assists) and has had an SAT percentage of 50.77 percent with a relative SAT percentage of plus-1.66 percent. If the Maple Leafs are getting a depth forward who can help outshoot the opposition and contribute on the second power-play unit, he will be a bargain on this contract.

Video: STL@DAL, Gm4: Spezza hammers PPG past Binnington

 

Ryan Hartman, RW, Minnesota Wild (two years, $3.8 million; AAV of $1.9 million)

Traded from Nashville to Philadelphia on Feb. 25, the feisty wing was traded to Dallas on June 24, but then the Stars did not give the potential restricted free agent a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent at age 24, which should be right in his statistical prime.

In the past three seasons, Hartman has scored 40 of his 42 goals at even strength, which is tied for 118th among forwards. During that span he has an SAT percentage of 52.17 percent, which ranks 74th among forwards to play in at least 150 games. He fills a complementary role at a very reasonable price and is younger than the typical unrestricted free agent.

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