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Talent drains: The worst summers in recent NHL free agency

The Sens are poised to lose a ton of talent in the summer of 2019.

2017 Scotiabank NHL 100 Classic - Montreal Canadiens v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Getty Images/Freestyle Photo

The Ottawa Senators are methodically setting themselves up to have one of the worst summers in recent NHL history. In 2019, they face the possibility of losing Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene to free agency. That’s...bad. Very bad. So bad that it made me wonder how it compares to other teams over the last few years. How often do teams lose that much talent to free agency in one summer? The answer is: not very often.

Losing good players in free agency is one of the worst things that can happen to a team. We saw an extreme example this summer when John Tavares left the Islanders to join the Leafs. Teams never want to lose good players. But losing them to free agency without recouping any value in a trade is the worst-case scenario. That’s why we always hear trade rumors about any pending free agent. If a team thinks a player won’t re-sign, the pressure to trade them to salvage some of the value is immense. The only teams who should be hanging on to free agents who will walk in the off season are Cup contenders.

The Ottawa Senators are certainly not Cup contenders. They are contenders for being the worst-run franchise in the league. For the sake of their fans, one would hope they could re-sign Karlsson, Stone, and Duchene. But as of now, none of them seem likely to re-sign in Ottawa and all of them would be valuable to contending teams. And if that remains the case, the only option is to trade them before losing them for nothing.

Trade rumors have swirled for months around Karlsson, including some involving the Lightning. But thus far, nothing has materialized. And once the regular season starts, pending free agents lose value to potential trade partners with every day that passes. Stone’s one-year extension signed this morning makes him new to pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) status so he’s just making his way into the rumor mill. Things have been quiet around Duchene as well but that won’t last as the season progresses.

Let’s imagine the worst case scenario unfolding in Ottawa. They somehow manage to not trade any of their big three pending UFAs and all three sign with teams not owned by Eugene Melnyk next summer. How would that compare to other bad summers in recent memory?

The way we’re going to answer that question is to use Wins Above Replaement (WAR), which is a single metric that measures how valuable a player is to their team. We’re going to look at every free agent that changed teams going back to 2011 and calculate which teams lost the most WAR from their roster to free agency in one summer.

We’re only going back to 2011 because that’s as far back as the data is easily available. It comes via Spotrac. For our WAR stat, we’re going to use the version created by EvolvingWild. Corsica also has a well-designed WAR stat but we’re using the EvolvingWild version because it fits better for our purposes in this article.

To start, below is a chart with the nine biggest talent drains from an NHL team in one summer due to free agency. For each team, the player’s WAR is from the previous season. For 2019 free agents, the chart uses the player’s WAR from last season because, well, this season hasn’t happened yet. The 2019 teams still have a chance to re-sign or trade the players on the chart and avoid ending up on this list.

The Senators don’t top the list but they do come fourth, meaning that if they don’t figure out some way to either re-sign or trade any of their big three, they would lose the fourth most talent to free agency of any NHL team since 2011.

That’s bad but it could get much worse. Karlsson and Stone both had down years last season. If they both perform the way they did in 16-17 next year and then walked in free agency, the Sens’ 2019 summer would become easily the worst in the last nine years. In that scenario, they would lose 8.1 wins, bumping the Pens 7.4 win drop in 2014 down to second.

For fun (unless you’re a Sens fan), here’s a chart with Karlsson and Stone’s 16-17 numbers instead to show how that would look.

As ugly as this could get for the Sens, they aren’t the only interesting team on this list. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2019 summer also makes an appearance. Yanni Gourde, Anton Stralman, and Dan Girardi were all positive WAR players who are scheduled to be UFAs next summer. Girardi will almost certainly not be back. Gourde and Stralman are the question marks.

Stralman has been a key defender on the team during this run of success since joining the team from the New York Rangers in 2014. His status is uncertain for next summer. He’ll be 33 and whether he returns will likely depend on how well he plays this year and whether he’s willing to take a below-market deal to remain in Tampa.

Gourde is the most interesting name on the Tampa Bay chart. His story is well-established. He lacks the pedigree of other more well-established free agents in next summer’s class but he doesn’t lack the production. He scored like a first-liner last year and drove play in shots, expected goals, and goals. He was quietly one of the best forwards on the team in his minutes.

The Lightning have a difficult cap situation but they should already be exploring how to re-sign Gourde long term. If he plays another year like the last one and goes to free agency, the Lightning could find themselves unable to compete with teams that have more cap space. To avoid that, they should be looking to get a deal done either this summer or during the season.

From a team perspective, the only players that are acceptable to lose to free agency are those who hover around replacement level. Good teams will do everything they can to re-sign their good players. Bad teams will either try to re-sign their good players or trade them for prospects and draft picks to rebuild for the future. Watching a player walk away in the summer and receiving nothing in return is the worst case scenario.

Next summer, the Lightning may have to do just that. Fitting both Gourde and Stralman back on the roster will be a challenge. But unless something goes severely wrong this season, trading either isn’t an option. They’re more valuable in helping the team try to win now than they are as trade bait.

That isn’t the case for the Senators. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They’re bad, and if they can’t keep Karlsson, Stone, and/or Duchene, they’re going to get even worse. They should be trading players they can’t re-sign as soon as possible to maximize the return they get from their trade partners. If they don’t, they could be heading into a nightmare summer that would see them lose an exceptional amount of talent and get nothing in return.

Even for the Senators’ front office, letting that much talent evaporate from the franchise without restocking for the future seems extreme. For the sake of their fans, let’s hope they figure out how to avoid that.