Three UFAs NHL teams should be wary of paying too much for

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  Sportsnet

Unrestricted Free Agency is the most dangerous day on the calendar for NHL general managers. Between the competition of the market and players generally coming down from their peaks by the time free agency hits, many mistakes are made.

Sometimes the mistakes are justifiable. A team will overpay for a player who many teams are pursuing, that player has a track record of good play, and there aren’t many signs of precipitous decline. Sure, it may have been an overpay from the start, but one that would be worthwhile to get the player. Then the player breaks down completely out of seemingly nowhere, and the team is on the hook. Just ask the Vancouver Canucks about Loui Eriksson.

Those will always happen and it’s one of the risks inherent in the game. However, there are players who should come with big warning signs hanging off of them, and smart teams will always be wary of how those players are approached, if they’re approached at all.

Who are the players buyers must beware of in 2020?

JACK JOHNSON

At this point it almost seems like bullying. The hockey analytics community has been talking about Johnson being a negative impact player for about a decade, maybe even longer, but apparently some hockey people still haven’t got the memo.

Up until he was bought out by the Penguins, GM Jim Rutherford was still openly going to bat for Johnson, which would make sense given the context that a GM should defend his players, but he was throwing other players under the bus to cover for him, which was odd to see.

Johnson likely took a bit too much blame for the Penguins being upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round this season, but as he’s back on the market now, there’s little doubt that some team looking for depth on defence will still value his draft pedigree, and long NHL career. They’d better be very careful not to overvalue it.

For most of his career, Johnson has been lambasted for poor shot share numbers, with his teams doing better in shot attempt differentials when he’s off the ice every year of his career. But the counter was always that when you look at the higher quality plays, Johnson shows much better.

Except, since that information began to be tracked accurately a few years ago, the exact opposite is true. As bad as Johnson is at controlling shot share overall — about six per cent worse than his teams usually play — things get way worse when you look at the details.

Last season the Penguins were nearly 10 per cent worse in inner slot shot differential with Johnson on the ice, and nearly 12 per cent worse in slot passes. Despite playing the fifth-most minutes per game at even strength among regular Penguins defencemen, Johnson was on the ice for 36.4 per cent of the slot passes the Penguins allowed last season, and 38.3 per cent of the inner slot shots.

He wasn’t given top-end matchup duties or anything, he was just a defensive disaster. It’s hard to imagine a need for any team that Johnson fills at this point outside of veteran depth if he’s a very good teammate.

ALEX GALCHENYUK

There was a time not too long ago that I truly believed Alex Galchenyuk could have been a very good player in the NHL, but injuries, broken confidence, and musical chairs of line mates have seemingly made teams push him into big time question mark territory.

That isn’t to take responsibility away from Galchenyuk. He played his part in going from a rookie who scored at one of the highest rates for an 18/19-year-old in recent memory to clinging with one hand to still being in the league.

There was a bit of a resurgence when he joined the Minnesota Wild last season, as they’re a team with the defensive structure to insulate him. But Galchenyuk’s poor defensive play was among the worst in the league and it hasn’t improved after multiple stops in different cities. And the offence that he brings to the table that used to make his defensive risks worth taking on has seemingly fallen off.

Galchenyuk’s even strength offence has been on a decline compared to the league average for years now, with his peak being the one season he spent as a centre with the Montreal Canadiens, when he put up elite level offence at even strength on a team that desperately needed it, but was undone all season by injuries, especially the ones that took out Carey Price for all but 12 games.

In the following seasons, even with his even strength offence falling off, you could still bank on Galchenyuk’s one-timer on the power play being a deadly weapon for teams to have to deal with, but that disappeared for him last year as well.

For the first time in his career, Galchenyuk was generating less offence at even strength than a league average forward, and his bread and butter placement on the power play was taken away from him.

Still just 26 years old, the talent isn’t suddenly gone for Galchenyuk, but he’s going to need to work a lot harder to get his game back. For a former 30-goal scorer, it may be a tough pill to swallow to not be able to get term or a high dollar amount in what should be the prime of your career, but anything over a one-year deal to show some improvement looks like a gigantic risk for teams looking to add some skill.

His defensive limitations are likely to keep him away from playing centre, yet it’s at centre where he does his best work. It’s an unfortunate situation that is almost mirrored by Max Domi, who he was traded for in 2018 and who was also just shipped out of Montreal this off-season after one successful season at centre, and an underwhelming follow up splitting time on the wing. Time is a flat circle.

BRADEN HOLTBY

A model of consistency for years, the past few have been pretty rough to Braden Holtby.

At 31 years old, it’s around the time that a lot of players start to break down in their careers, though we have seen good goaltenders time and again resurrect themselves; just look at Pekka Rinne’s Vezina Trophy win at 35 years old. However, that doesn’t mean we should expect it to be the norm.

Holtby posted a relatively disastrous .895 save percentage this past season with the Washington Capitals in 36 games, seemingly losing his grip on the net before getting the nod for the Capitals’ extremely underwhelming playoff performance where they were dusted unceremoniously by the New York Islanders.

Holtby was better in the playoffs, but not by much, and he’s now gone three straight seasons where he was about average or significantly worse behind a pretty good team in Washington.

The drop in performance seemed sudden from the perennially .920 or above goalie, but it was preceded by a year where Holtby was struggling on inner slot shots and feasting on the lesser chances to boost his numbers back in 2016-17.

I don’t think it’s a guarantee that Holtby will struggle next season, and throwing in the towel on his career is way too premature, but with his pedigree as a Stanley Cup winner, Vezina Trophy winner, Jennings Trophy winner, and All-Star… Does anyone believe he’s looking to be a bargain signing next season?

The cap is tight for everyone right now, but Holtby could be looking down the barrel at his last opportunity for a big contract, and he has to try to get it. Whoever signs it, though, could be making a very expensive mistake.