While the 2015 NHL Draft is the focal point for all of the non-playoff teams, free agency will take place shortly after that. Therefore, teams like the New Jersey Devils should be preparing their plans for both. One of the storylines heading into this year's class of unrestricted free agents is that it is a weak class for forwards. This was correctly brought up in many comments in last week's post about right wingers. In that post, I wrote that I would look at the left wingers this week. After doing so, I agree with those saying that this year's group is underwhelming 1,000%.
If you can believe it, the pending free agent left wingers are thinner than the pending free agent right wingers. I am using General Fanager's free agency filter to identify left wingers currently on track to hit the open market on July 1. I am surprised whoever runs the site did not add a headline at the top of this page stating "Woe befall any team who needs a top-six left winger this year." Rather than do what I did last week and break down the free agents into categories, I'm just going to run through some of the notable names and explain why New Jersey might be interested in them and why they really shouldn't.
One of best bet of the bunch on paper is Erik Cole. This big winger has been quite productive throughout his career. Even last season, between Detroit and Dallas, he put up 21 goals and 18 assists in 68 games while staying out of the box. He only averaged about 1.79 shots per game, however he did average around 14 minutes per game in Dallas and Detroit. Per War on Ice, he had one of his better seasons possession-wise in 2014-15 so he wasn't a drain in that regard. Further, War on Ice lists him as both a left and right wing; I don't know if that's true but if it is, that kind of versatility helps.
The big problem with Cole is his age. He's 36 and he'll turn 37 in November. While a team may be able to get him for less than the $4.5 million he got last year, Cole is more likely going to get worse than stay the same kind of player. It's arguable that the Devils could use a big winger given that Dainius Zubrus is a shell of his former self, Ryane Clowe may not be able to play anymore, and Tuomo Ruutu is Tuomo Ruutu. Yet, the whole point of the re-build is to try to get younger and better. Cole certainly doesn't address the former, and probably won't address the latter. His rate of shots on net has declined, his production has declined, and New Jersey fans have seen enough older players recently to know that most in their mid-30s don't improve in their late 30s. It may seem I'm making a mountain out of a molehill like age, but Cole isn't Jaromir Jagr where he plays like age is just a number. Even if the Devils do get Cole for a year, what does that really help? I don't know.
The only other potential UFA left winger that has an argument for being better than Cole is Tomas Fleischmann. For starters, Fleischmann is only 31. He played with Florida for most of last season before being traded to Anaheim. Fleischmann did not do much with the Ducks in his 14 regular season games of six playoff games. It is arguable that whoever is picking him up is buying low on him. In 2013-14, he shot at 4.5% with Florida. In 2014-15, he shot at 6.5% with the Panthers and 4.2% with the Ducks. According to his career stats at NHL.com, he's a career 10.5% shooter and even with the lack of points and variations in minutes last season, he still averaged just under two shots per game. Lastly, according to War on Ice, Fleischmann has been a positive CF% player in all but three seasons - all three with Florida. This suggests he might help with the Devils' possession woes.
My main question is the same as the old lady from a famous burger commercial: where's the beef? Still, Fleischmann was moved to Anaheim and did so poorly that was a healthy scratch in the postseason. His points-per-60 rate was quite good, but it remains true that his gross production seemingly dropped off a cliff in 2013. I understand that Fleischmann's shooting percentage was in a hole the last two seasons and Florida wasn't good either; but it suggests to me that he's not going to be that helpful without other talent to play off of. Talent the Devils probably don't have right now. While he's 31 and that means he's not likely going to sharply decline as a player in 2015-16 like Cole might, he could demand a significant sum of money for services that haven't really been there for the last two seasons. He made $4.5 million last season and it wouldn't surprise me if he got paid in that range again just for being one of the least worst options at left wing. If the Devils need or want to spend on a left winger this summer, Fleischmann is probably their best bet. But his underwhelming time from 2013 through 2015 concerns me enough to prevent me from advocating his signature on July 1.
After Fleischmann and Cole, it gets grim real fast among left wingers. I will specifically point out Matt Beleskey first. Unlike most of the list at General Fanager, Beleskey is the only under-30 potential free agent that has secured a regular spot in the NHL. Let me break him down for you. In his contract year, Beleskey manages to play entirely in the NHL, put up twenty-two goals and ten assists in sixty five games, eight goals and one assist in sixteen playoff games, and post a CF% of 54%, his best since a cup of coffee with the Ducks back in 2005-06. Here's the concerning bit: Beleskey scored 22 goals on 145 shots, which is a shooting percentage of 15.6%. That his highest shooting percentage ever and even including it, his career shooting percentage is just under 10%. Even if he fires an average of 2.2 shots per game again, that goal count is going to drop. The low number of assists suggests he's not the one making plays. The fact that he was a sub-50% CF player until last season suggests to me he was a in very good situation in Anaheim; one that I don't think every team can offer to Beleskey. Because he's young and he put up over twenty goals for the first time in his career, Beleskey could stand to get paid real well this summer. Especially considering the other left wingers aren't impressive at all. A team will likely convince themselves that they can give him a similar situation and expect him to match or even improve that performance. I don't buy it and I don't want Ray Shero to be the one making that rationalization either. . Even with the goals, this is a player with a career high of 32 points. A definite "buyer beware" situation with Beleskey.
Curtis Glencross would arguably be a safer bet than Beleskey. He's older as he's 32 going on 33. He has been a more consistent scorer, he's scored at least 12 goals in every season since 2008-09. Granted, he's a 30-40 point player at best and he hasn't been fully healthy in the last two seasons. While he was on the possession non-darling Flames, Glencross certainly wasn't driving much play. Plus, with Calgary he was averaging over sixteen minutes per game; that average ice time dropped to around twelve and a half with Washington team. It could be that he was a bad fit, but that should be another red flag. He may provide an improvement to New Jersey's bottom six, but again, do they really need another 30+ forward who's only going to chip in some points? It'd be one thing if he was great at possession or something else, but unless I'm mistaken, Glencross isn't that sort of guy. I don't think he'd be as bad as the eventual overpayment by someone for Beleskey, but I'm not enthused enough by his game that I'd want Shero to go and get him.
There are other bottom-six-caliber names. One upon a time, Dany Heatley was one of the best scorers in the league. Last season, he made six appearances for Anaheim, cleared waivers, got traded to Florida, and didn't make an appearance for the Panthers. With players like him, there may be flashes of greatness but they're so few and far between that it's probably not worth a contract. His career could be over; if the Devils are interested, I would prefer they give him a try out in camp first to see if the 34-year old can do something.
The Devils could try to be the next team to hope David Booth can stay healthy and be good. On the one hand, Booth actually played in the NHL last season for a significant amount of games, averaged 1.8 shots per game, and has a history of good possession except for last season. On the other, he averaged less than twelve minutes per game on a bad Toronto team, put up only seven goals and six assists to continue a decline in production, and he wasn't available for the whole season. I'd still prefer him over someone like, say, Daniel Paille who got wrecked in possession with Boston last season, averaged less than a shot per game, and put up the same number of points in 71 games. I wouldn't prefer him over Blake Comeau, who for $700,000, put up sixteen goals, 31 points, a good possession rate, and averaged over fifteen minutes per game. Why not rate him higher? Because he just had his best season since 2010-11 due in part of playing significant minutes with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. Comeau may get a good raise, but the Devils have no Malkin and so I wouldn't expect a repeat should he come to New Jersey. He may fit in better on the bottom six than Booth, Paille, Heatley, and maybe even Glencross.
Ultimately, that's the reality of the situation. This is your pending UFA left wingers right now: Erik Cole who will turn 37 next season; Tomas Fleischmann, who's coming off a second straight low-production season; whoever overpays for Matt Beleskey, and some names that may be better for a bottom-six role. That's it. While the Devils do not have a dearth of left wingers like they have on the right side, if they want to get more offense at that position, then they're likely going to have to find it with a trade. Given that there's more talent at center - not top scorers, but more talent - the right play through free agency may be to pick up one of them that could handle first or second line minutes. This way the team can move Patrik Elias and/or Adam Henrique to left wing to bolster the position led by Mike Cammalleri.
Again, I feel bad for any team that wants a top-six caliber left winger who can be productive in free agency this year. They're going to have to settle for less or nothing. The Devils do need that kind of player, but again, they have left wingers to fill in the spaces. They can ensure that by picking up a center or two. We'll discuss that next week. In the meantime, what do you think of this year's class of unrestricted free agent left wingers? Should the Devils try to get any of them? If so, who and why? Should the Devils try to trade for a left winger, or should they focus solely on right wingers or centers that might be able to play right wing? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the pending UFA left wing forwards in the comments. Thank you for reading.