Should the Kraken sign Johnny Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg?

As the offseason approaches, Kraken fans are eager to see what GM Ron Francis has up his sleeve to avert another disappointing season. In his end-of-season media availability, Francis reiterated his plans to “be aggressive in free agency” this summer. As a team that lit the lamp the fourth-fewest times in the league, it’s no secret that the Kraken’s biggest need is goal scoring. To any team looking to add goals right away, this year’s free agent market presents a unique opportunity. A pair of star wingers are in position to headline this year’s UFA class. Signing either would make easily the biggest splash in the history of the young franchise. Bringing in Johnny Gaudreau or Filip Forsberg would require a significant commitment in both money and term. Conversations likely start at a 7-year contract (the maximum allowed under the CBA for players signing with a new team) at a cap hit north of $9.5 million (roughly 11.5% of next year’s salary cap). Any way you slice it, it would be a bold, franchise changing move.

Now, there’s no guarantee that it will be an option. Ron Francis must be both willing and able to make such a deal in order for it to happen. And both of those elements are still very much in question.

Is he able? That depends on a couple factors outside of Francis’ control. First, Gaudreau or Forsberg would have to make it to July 13th (the start of free agency) without re-signing with their current teams. The Flames and Predators will surely make every effort to lock up their respective star wingers before they hit the market. Even if they do hit the open market, it’s no sure thing that they’d have interest in coming to Seattle. Gaudreau or Forsberg would have to find the Kraken’s offer most attractive of all potential suitors. That’s not as simple as writing a check for $70 million. Free agents choose not just a team, but also a city. Would Filip Forsberg feel more at home hiking Rattlesnake Ledge or, say, attending a Hollywood movie premiere? That could impact Francis’ options.

Is Francis willing? It’s a fair question to ask. As someone who endlessly debates spending the extra 50 cents to add avocado to my sandwich, I feel like I can relate to how Ron Francis feels every July. Signing a big-name free agent would be a significant departure from how Francis has operated in his career as a GM.

How out of character would it be? Of the 26 NHL GMs who have been on the job for more than one offseason, only one has yet to sign a contract with a cap hit of $7 million+. That’s Ron Francis. The most expensive contract he’s given out is Philipp Grubauer’s 6-year deal at $5.9 million/year last summer.

Inking a player for nearly double that amount would require a significant change in philosophy. But let’s say Francis is willing to shell out for the avocado and Forsberg and Gaudreau like the feel of hiking boots. Should the Kraken sign one of this year’s star free agent forwards?

Free Agency PSA

Before narrowing our focus to players more comparable to Gaudreau and Forsberg, I think it’s necessary to make a Public Service Announcement of sorts about the perils of NHL free agency. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn wrote an excellent article in 2020 which I’d highly recommend reading. It illustrates just how much of a minefield free agency is.

Luszczyszyn goes into far more detail than I will here, but here are some of the shocking takeaways:

  • From 2010-2020, teams have paid for 844 wins at free agency. They actually received 217 wins.
  • Teams only get about a quarter of the value for every dollar they spend in free agency.
  • Teams get only 28% of expected value in year 1 of the contract.
  • Only 30.8% of free agents are still in the NHL by year 6 of their contract.
  • Out of 468 contracts, just 96 (21%) had a positive surplus value.

When it comes to forwards, the biggest free agency horror stories come from the dreaded “middle class.” Those are second and third line forwards who are given top-six money and 4+ years of term. Recent examples include Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd, David Clarkson, Gustav Nyquist, James Neal, Frans Nielsen, David Backes, Ville Leino, Dave Bolland, and Mikkel Boedker. I could list dozens more but hopefully by now the danger is becoming apparent. These contracts quickly become anchors that teams have to pay hefty sums to get off the books. The Kraken’s own Jaden Schwartz may fall into this category soon.

During his tenure as GM of the Carolina Hurricanes, Ron Francis would often say that two days scared him every year: trade deadline day and the first day of free agency. This is why. The lesson taught by the data is clear: the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Much of this is due to the effects of aging. Research has shown that NHL forwards generally peak at age 23-25 and their decline accelerates after age 31. That effect is illustrated by this chart published by Evolving Wild which shows player performance by age. Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, is used here as the measure of player performance. WAR uses data-driven models to quantify how many wins are generated by having X player over a replacement player. Charts like these are know as “aging curves” and provide important insight when making long-term signing decisions. That’s not to say every player ages this way, but this is the overall trend.

When next season begins, Filip Forsberg will be 28 years old and Johnny Gaudreau will be 29. If they were to sign a 7-year deal, here are the years the Kraken would be getting:

While a forward’s age 28 or 29 season is very close to their peak performance, there’s a clear downward trend over the course of the contract.

Signing free agents in general is a losing proposition. But Gaudreau and Forsberg are no ordinary free agents. We’ve warned about the dangerous “middle class” of free agent forwards. But can you rise above the perils of the UFA market by signing a star? Let’s find out.

The Big Fish

What can a team signing a star forward in free agency expect? Players like Gaudreau and Forsberg hitting free agency is quite rare, but there are some recent examples we can look at. Since the salary cap was introduced in 2005, there have been six instances where an unrestricted free agent forward signs with a new team for 7+ years at 10%+ of a team’s cap hit (10% now is $8,250,000). Here’s the full list:

One thing that stands out right away is how each contract has ended. Not a single player signed to one of these deals actually completed the contract. Four were bought out, with the buyouts averaging five years after the contract was signed. Two are still active with multiple years remaining.

But buyouts don’t tell the whole story. How effective have these players been while they’re under contract? Let’s look at scoring. I know points are a relatively basic statistic, but when signing a high-end forward, scoring is a big part of what they bring to the table. That certainly holds true in Seattle’s case. The Kraken are in desperate need of goals and any forwards they bring in to solve that problem will be judged heavily on point production.

Here’s a graph showing each player’s points per 60 minutes of ice time (points/60) in the two seasons before signing as a free agent, then the next 7 seasons after signing their contract.

As you can see, scoring stays fairly level for about three seasons before experiencing a more rapid decline. That seems to match the trend we observed earlier when looking at aging curves.

It’s interesting to note that the three most recent contracts, Parise, Tavares, and Panarin, have had the most individual success in point production. Parise stayed remarkably consistent during the first seven years of his deal, while Tavares has kept producing offensively and Panarin is very much still in his prime after year three.

Oddly enough, team success is the opposite. Through 15 combined seasons of the Briere, Gomez, and Richards contacts, their teams won a combined 18 playoff rounds. In 15 seasons of the Parise, Tavares, and Panarin contracts, their teams have won a combined four playoff rounds, half of them coming from the Rangers this season. In case you were wondering, none of the teams involved have won the Stanley Cup in the salary cap era.

After looking at some data and historical examples, it appears the most probable outcome for a Gaudreau or Forsberg contract is 3-4 years of near peak production, followed by 1-2 years of middle-six production, followed by 1-2 albatross years. Teams should know what they’re getting when they choose to embark on “the star free agent experience.” It can work- if you time it right. If your team’s competitive window is right away, the timeline works. If not, the back end of the contract can hinder your team when it is competing for a Stanley Cup.

Are The Kraken Ready?

Is the timing right for the Kraken? Frankly, probably not. While a quick turnaround from last year’s disappointing season is certainly possible, the core pieces to be a Stanley Cup contender (aside from Beniers) simply aren’t on the roster right now. Are the Kraken going to make the playoffs next season? Maybe. But the odds are against them. In the salary cap era, only 19.6% of teams who finished in the bottom-3 made the playoffs the following year. The ’17-18 Avs were the last to do it. So if you suppose the Kraken can’t become the first team in five years to go from the bottom-3 to the playoffs, they’ll have burned one of the “good” years of the deal. That leaves 2-3 more at most and the clock won’t stop ticking.

By the time prospects like Ryker Evans, Ryan Winterton, and the up to six players the Kraken could draft in the top-60 this year are ready to be core contributors at the NHL level, a Gaudreau/Forsberg contract would be in the years where it provides poor value. That could hinder Seattle’s ability to add pieces around the young core in its prime.

This signing would be about helping the current McCann/Gourde/Schwartz/Eberle/Beniers core. Would adding Gaudreau or Forsberg to that group (with a few other tweaks of course) be enough to push the Kraken into a playoff spot over the next three years? Probably. Is that core going to be capable of seriously contending for a Stanley Cup? I don’t think so.

The Alternative

One of the biggest takeaways from economics class that really stuck with me was “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs.” While signing Gaudreau or Forsberg may not fit the Kraken’s window exactly, they still have to do something to address goal scoring. It’s clear that Ron Francis envisions the Kraken being competitive next season, whether it’s his own plan or a mandate from ownership. That’s going to require adding more goal scorers. There’s no way around it. If he doesn’t sign Gaudreau or Forsberg, Francis is left with three options:

A. Dip into the dreaded middle class of free agent forwards and trust that his instincts work better than last time (history and analytics say they won’t).

B. Trade for an impact player. Names like David Pastrnak, Alex DeBrincat, and Kevin Fiala have been floated as potentially available. While those players would better fit the Kraken’s competitive window, any deal to acquire them would involve a massive return. Is a couple more years of peak production worth parting with multiple high draft picks? It’s a tough call.

C. Don’t force a move. This may be the wisest option and the one Francis would most like to take in an ideal world. But I don’t believe it’s an option he feels he has right now. With season ticket holders paying top dollar to attend games and a tight window before the Mariners, Seahawks, or even Sonics recapture Seattle’s attention, there’s simply too much pressure to get the team turned around right away.

The Verdict

Each of those options comes with its own risks. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want. If your goal is to make the playoffs right away, do it. If it’s winning a Stanley Cup in the 2020s, don’t.

Which way is Francis leaning? While attempting to see into any NHL GM’s mind would be an exercise in futility, last month I did ask him point blank what in his mind would be a successful season. His three word answer was clear. “Make the playoffs.” What that tells me: signing Gaudreau or Forsberg may not be the best option, but it may be the best option Francis has available.

2 comments

  1. Good analysis. I would add, though, that if you look at Luszczyszyn’s projection model for each player, Gaudreau would definitely be a good move. I can’t profess to fully understand his model but do understand that it considers how the player’s “comparables” have aged. Under that model, JG will still be producing at a value worth $12m in the 7th year of this contract. That’s plenty of time for the Kraken to become a contender. FF’s production, on the other hand, will start dropping below $9m in year 4.

    • It’s true, Luszczyszyn’s model does project Gaudreau to rise above that middle class even further to the point where he’s still productive late into the contract. I don’t know that I’m as sold on Gaudreau’s star power as the model is but I acknowledge he probably will be the better of the two when it comes to aging.

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