When it comes to the forward group, the Flames have two veteran upcoming unrestricted free agents: Jiri Hudler and David Jones. Both have cap hits of $4 million, and while Hudler is likely looking at a raise, Jones is probably going to end up with a pay cut.
Of the two, you’d assume Hudler would be more likely to be retained by the Flames. He’s the better player, after all; he’s on the first line, alongside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. He’s led the Flames in scoring the past two seasons, and he was pivotal in the push to make the playoffs last season.
Jones, on the other hand, is more of an afterthought.
Is that still the case, though?
This start to the 2015-16 season really isn’t going the way the Flames would like it to. They’re at the bottom of the league, and it’s due to a total team failure. There have been some positive standouts – Johnny Gaudreau, T.J. Brodie – but for the most part, everyone could be doing better.
That said, Hudler is second in team scoring. He has four goals and 12 points on the season, and his 12.10 shooting percentage to start the season is below his career average, so we should be able to expect his offence to kick it up a notch as the year goes on.
Jones, on the other hand, currently leads the team in goal scoring. He has five goals, and not a single assist to his name, putting him in a tie for ninth in overall team scoring. His shooting percentage is 16.7 though, above his career average of 13.6, so it’s not like Jones is going to score 26 goals on the season, probably.
So on the surface, Hudler is meeting expectations as a top line player, and Jones is doing better than expected as a depth guy.
The fancy stuff
This is where stuff doesn’t look as great for Hudler. And indeed, just by watching him, he doesn’t look like his 2014-15 self. He’s on pace for a 60+ point season, which would be the second best season of his career to date, but something’s off, and his corsi and zone starts really highlight why that is.
Look to the far right. That big, bright red circle is Hudler’s performance this year, and though it’s early in the season yet, it’s pretty much his worst performance to date.
These are all relative numbers. So relative to the rest of his team, he’s starting in the offensive zone more than ever, and relative to the rest of his team, he’s putting up some of the worst possession stats of his career.
Last season, Hudler was also getting high offensive zone starts, but relative to the rest of his team, he was controlling the play. That isn’t happening this season. His raw corsi this season (47.01%) is better than last year’s (46.66%), but comparatively, he looks worse. Last season, he was fourth in team possession; this season, he’s 14th.
It’s not as if Jones’ performance is sparkling in comparison, but his zone starts are significantly lower (-11.05 relative to Hudler’s +18.76), and his CF of 47.25% is just above Hudler’s. Hudler is facing tougher competition, but considering how often he’s starting the offensive zone, his possession numbers really should be better, greater competition or not. Gaudreau, for example, isn’t struggling the way Hudler is.
Still: it’s early in the season yet, and there’s plenty of time for Hudler to snap out of his funk and have a season akin to last year’s. Jones is performing decently well for a bottom six guy, but bottom sixers aren’t as important as top line players. Hudler is always going to be more important to any team than Jones.
Who do you keep?
Here’s the deal: the Flames have about $18.9 million coming off the cap after this season, but they’ll have to re-sign six restricted free agents, two of whom are Monahan and Gaudreau (aka: are gonna be pretty expensive). That leaves the Flames with no spare forwards, no spare defencemen, and just one goalie, so they’ll need to sign more players.
Hudler is going to want a raise. No matter how this season goes, he’ll be one year removed from a career year and being one of the top offensive players in the NHL.
Considering all the signings the Flames are going to have to do, if they can’t clear out any additional cap (and considering how that involves removing players like Mason Raymond or Ladislav Smid, that’s going to be difficult to do), Hudler may be completely out of their price range. He’ll be 32 to start the next season and is, thus far, not performing optimally. He may not even be wanted at that price he’ll try to command.
Jones, on the other hand, probably isn’t going to get $4 million again. He was coming off back-to-back 20 goal seasons when he signed his four-year, $4 million deal; even if he hits 20 goals this season, he’s older, and has a career’s worth of evidence of not being a regular 20-goal scorer. He’s a depth player.
The Flames are short on wingers. That could easily change as the season progresses and the trade deadline passes, but for now, they really don’t have much, and they stand to lose a couple of them. Losing Hudler makes the team that much worse, but to commit a big contract to an aging player is dangerous (see: Giordano, Mark thus far) – especially one who already looks to be on something of a decline.
Jones, on the other hand? He’s proving himself, at absolute minimum, a competent depth player, and he’s not likely to command big money. If the Flames need a veteran winger who can be counted on for reliable play within their price range, they could do worse than Jones.
If you have to make a choice between Hudler and Jones, Jones might be the better option, despite being the less impactful player.