It’s come up in both our previous articles on pending Calgary Flames UFA players (done so far: Craig Conroy and Chris Higgins), so I figure he’s probably the next logical guy to profile. For the first time in his career, Flames first rounder Eric Nystrom enters free agency, and his return to Calgary is not necessarily guaranteed.
Selected 10th overall in 2002, Nystrom comes off his second full NHL season, posting career highs in goals (11), points (19) and games played (82). So now what? Vikki Hall’s article in Wednesday’s Calgary Herald seemed to suggest the two sides still had some ground to make up to meet in the middle. Sutter’s quote was "I like Eric Nystrom, but fourth-line players on the first of August are $600,000 players. You have to prioritize. If you can get a star by spending that extra $300,000 to $400,000, that’s what you do."
Nystrom counted $688,000 against the cap last season with a salary of $750,000 and will turn 28 in Feburary of next year, so I’m not sure necessarily what the logical salary jump is for him. He averaged just over 13 minutes of ice time last season, up over four minutes from his 76 game season in 2008-2009. He played the bulk of his time this past year on the fourth line, finishing the season with Brett Sutter and Jamal Mayers. So, let’s analyze whether or not he’s ready for increased responsibility on a hypothetical new contract.
The numbers that pop up right away are the career points…39 in about two-and-a-half seasons of NHL work, but obviously his role has increased steadily during that time. But some of the even strength numbers may or may not paint a different picture. Going through Kent’s scoring chance numbers from the past season, he was one player severely outchanced 5-on-5, with close to 200 chances against to around 150 for while he was on the ice. That seems to be in line with his -3.89 rating when counting shots towards the net for and against, which was lowest among full-season Flames, and one of only three in the sub-zero range (Jamal Mayers and Jay Bouwmeester being the others).
To balance those numbers, his goals against per 60 was third lowest on the team at 1.95, and he did start from the defensive zone over 51% of the time, so not every number is slanted towards the negative. However, I do think part of the low goals against figure comes down to who he was playing against. Playing largely fourth line minutes, Nystrom wasn’t out against top flight competition, which could explain a lack of finish. Fact of the matter is, for me anyway, he’s a guy who can be outplayed by middle of the road players. I don’t know if there’s enough evidence that shows he’s ready to play anything more than those type of minutes.
You might think I’m not a fan of Nystrom. It’s actually the opposite. I think he has value on any team, particularly this one. When the Head Coach goes out of his way to pinpoint a "casual atmosphere" with his team, it means there is some sort of issue. From what I’ve heard, Nystrom was one of the guys who probably wouldn’t be counted in that. He’s a character guy who can play a physical brand of hockey.
I also appreciate that he was one of the few guys that made a concerted effort to take the puck to the front of the net, especially after the Olympic break, where he scored six of his 11 goals. A groin injury suffered on Halloween at home to Detroit set him back for a good three month span. He felt he was starting to come into his own on the team before suffering the injury, and didn’t feel fully healed until after the two week February break.
To me, more than any other player, this decision comes down to money. If the Nystrom camp is looking for $3 million over two years, which I’ve heard rumoured (obviously just rumours), then I don’t think I’d do the deal. However, if the Flames and Nystrom can come to an agreement in the $800 thousand to $1 million range, it’s not a bad fit. Calgary is the only team Nystrom has known, and maybe he is able to progress the way he felt he was before the injury last season. I think some of his qualities are worth bringing back, but in his brief NHL tenure, I don’t think it’s in Calgary’s best interest to agree to a significant raise.