February is behind only July when it comes to the best months to follow free agents. July, of course, is when unrestricted free agents get signed, but February is the last month before the trade deadline: a time most prime to trade those expiring contracts, whether you’re trying to acquire assets for the future or build up for a playoff run.
In lieu of the impending frenzy of trades hopefully coming our way, Bob McKenzie has chimed in with some thoughts on a couple of impending UFA defencemen, including the Flames’ very own Kris Russell.
The main takeaway? Russell is going to cash in. Big.
Were Russell to go to July 1, is there any doubt he’s going to get at least, emphasis on at least, a five-year offer for $5.5 million? And he may well be looking for more than that, both in term and dollars.
While last season’s free agent frenzy didn’t yield that many huge contracts – Michael Frolik’s $21.5 million deal was one of the bigger ones – typically, when free agency opens, NHL teams go nuts. Considering Russell will be 29 years old come July, and he’s come into his own playing top four minutes the past few seasons, it’s possible he could garner that kind of contract from a team.
The Flames may want to keep him, but even if he wasn’t looking at a potential $5.5 annual average value, it simply doesn’t make sense for them. This is a rebuilding team that needs to maximize its assets, and if Russell has that much interest surrounding him, the Flames need to capitalize on that. If he’s that widely valued around the NHL, he should fetch a decent return: and that return may be more helpful to the Flames’ rebuild than Russell will as he enters his 30s.
That high of a cap hit poses some major problems, though. If Russell is going to cost that much, the Flames need to destroy all thoughts of keeping him and run as far away as they can.
This is similar to the Andrew MacDonald situation. MacDonald was 27 years old when he was approaching free agency, and had been playing top four minutes with the New York Islanders for quite a few seasons. He was the NHL’s shot blocking leader, having stopped 242 attempts with his body in 2013-14. He only carried a cap hit of $550,000 when the Islanders traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers; the Flyers then re-signed him to a six-year, $30 million contract.
Just over a season into that contract, MacDonald is in the AHL.
Russell will be 28. He carries a modest cap hit of $2.6 million, and was the NHL’s top shot blocker last season (and is second in the NHL at the time of writing).
We can’t really compare MacDonald and Russell this season, because MacDonald has only played one NHL game. But last season, when Russell truly broke out as a shot blocker and further established himself as a top four defender, MacDonald played 58 games.
Here’s how the two looked in 2014-15:
|Points||CF% rel||ZSO% rel||SCA60|
Russell has a definite leg up on MacDonald in points, but that’s where it ends. Even when playing in a much more sheltered role, pucks still went against him much more often than they went against MacDonald, including dangerous pucks in the form of scoring chances against.
And remember that MacDonald is the one who got sent down to the AHL this season, while Russell is looking at a massive deal. And it’s not like last season was a one-off for Russell: he’s on pace for 23 points this season, has a -5.99 CF% rel, a +0.03 ZSO% rel – though he was much more sheltered prior to Dennis Wideman’s suspension – and his SCA60 is 31.37, the worst on the Flames.
It took the Flyers a little over a year to regret the contract they signed MacDonald to. It looks like Russell could trend in the same direction, and the Flames don’t want to be in the same position. They already have nearly $12 million tied up in their cap between Wideman, Ladislav Smid, and Deryk Engelland until next season. The Flyers have $4.05 million of their cap taken up by MacDonald playing in the AHL.
If Russell ends up with $5.5 million per, and the Flames were to somehow fit him under the cap – which, considering the impending raises for Mark Giordano, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sean Monahan, would already be difficult as is – then his cap hit would fall in between Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie’s.
There’s a difference between UFA and RFA contracts, as UFAs tend to command more. Russell’s next deal will come with him as a UFA, and Brodie’s was signed as an RFA. But would you pay Russell more than the $4.65 million Brodie currently sits at? The Flames didn’t miss a beat when Russell had to miss three games earlier in the season; they played approximately as well as a group of headless chickens without Brodie.
If Russell is going to command as much as McKenzie estimates, then he has to go. He should go, regardless, for the sake of the rebuild – but the Flames really, really don’t need to be the next Flyers.