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Finding value targets on the free agent market

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Searching for bargain basement free agents that could help the Pittsburgh Penguins

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In today's Blake Comeau season review, GoPens said something that really resonated with me:

As Andy Smith likes to say, the key isn't re-signing Blake Comeau, it's finding the next Blake Comeau in this year's free agent crop. If the Penguins want to win the Cup next year, that has to be their ultimate focus.

It's almost a "Moneyball" type philosophy, which despite how you may feel about that strategy, the principle can effectively be applied to hockey. Take the Penguins, who are always tight to the salary cap and need to find value and bargains to round out their team. The basic, core principle is to find useful players that are under-valued by the market, sign them to a team friendly deal and be confident that they will probably exceed expectations and be contributing players.

Comeau is a prime example of such a strategy, he was signed last summer for a 1 year deal for $700,000, barely above minimum wage in the NHL. Let's look at Comeau's career stats prior to joining the Pens:

bcomeaustats

We highlighted some good and some bad. The good were 2 seasons from 2009-11, Comeau was used as a top-6 forward on a bad Islanders team, but he scored 41 goals and 40 assists in those two seasons, shooting 13.0% and displaying very good production as a complimentary player.

Then, Comeau's career hit a bump at the start of the 2011-12 season. He slumped with NYI and got waived. Calgary picked him up and eventually traded him to Columbus, where he really settled into a role of a grinding 4th liner that didn't get any power play time, wasn't expected to produce, and didn't have a very good shooting percentage, as the red arrows point out.

The Pens noticed Comeau in a big way in the '14 playoffs when he was with Columbus. Though he didn't score, he left a big impression with the way he forechecked, battled and played from a 4th line role so the Pens signed him up quickly last summer.

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Which leads us to the important point of finding the next Blake Comeau. The Pens have tried this many seasons. Sometimes they end up with busts like Mike Comrie , Chuck Kobasew or Matt D'Agostini - all value players who didn't really live up to expectations. But sometimes they can pick out guys like Comeau and Steve Downie who contribute to the team on cheap contracts.

Signing a Comeau instead of a D'Agostini is a complex matter. There's all sorts of variables like luck, how the player fits a style/coach/team and other items beyond control that could shift the experiment to success or failure. But if we do some homework, we should be able to at least find some targets that have a higher possibility to succeed.

David Moss

dmossstats

Hockey News Scouting Report:

Assets: Has an intriguing combination of size and versatility: he can play all three forward positions (and in any role). Owns a sneaky shot and some offensive ability. A courageous player, he's willing to pay the price in front of the net.
Flaws: Doesn't use his 6-4, 210-pound frame nearly enough to maximize his all-round potential. Must show greater consistency from game to game Hasn't really found his National Hockey League niche, and perhaps he never will.
Career Potential: Versatile, yet inconsistent forward.

Much like Comeau, David Moss has a history of a couple of good seasons, followed by a few years where he's dropped off the page a little. This year, Moss didn't have regular linemates- he played 649 ES minutes, his most common linemates were Kyle Chipchura (263) and Martin Erat (194). Moss was under-utilized in Arizona last year, playing only 12:54 per game, but he did play 1:21 short-handed nightly, which could help a Pittsburgh team that will need to replace some penalty killers like Craig Adams.

Can Moss, at age 33 reverse his 4 straight years of a poor shooting percentage? That would be the risk, at his age maybe he's falling off. He's probably not a 20 goal guy anymore like earlier in his career, but he is a big body, who has had some success in the past, could help the PK unit and be a bottom six winger on the cheap. Last year Moss made $800,000 and if Pittsburgh can get him in about the same ballpark on a 1 year deal, he could be a solid player.

Patrick Dwyer

pdwyerstats

Hockey News Player Profile

Assets: Kills penalties very well and has great straight-line speed. Is defensively responsible. Has been an all-around contributor at lower levels. Displays plenty of versatility up front.
Flaws: Lacks the size and strength to consistently win battles in the corners at the National Hockey League level. Isn't a great goal-scoring threat, either. Is a limited talent, overall.
Career Potential: Versatile defensive forward.

Patrick Dwyer doesn't fit the mold of having a great track record and then a lesser few years, but his value might be flying under the radar a little, due to playing in Carolina. As mentioned, the Pens need more penalty killers. Like Moss, Dwyer gets a credit for being versatile. Can play on both wings and has been relatively effective with a 48.2 CF% in the past 3 seasons on what's been a non-playoff team.

Pens GM Jim Rutherford would obviously know a lot about Dwyer. At 31 years old, it should only be a 1 year deal, last year he made $900,000. There probably isn't much difference in the production or contributions of Dwyer vs. Nick Spaling, but there will be over a $1 million difference in their salaries next season.

The Pens need to be as lean as possible, and they really shouldn't be paying $2.2 million dollars to a glorified 4th liner like Spaling. There's plenty of perfectly decent 4th liners at half the price, which will free up space to target the top-6 forward the Pens wish to add.


Patrick Eaves

pateavesstats

Hockey News Player Profile

Assets: Owns solid penalty-killing qualities. Is an excellent skater and forechecker. Anticipates plays well at both ends of the ice, and displays some all-around acumen. Can play either wing position.
Flaws: Is somewhat prone to serious injury. Isn't a natural goal-scorer. Lacks the ideal size and strength to thrive at the National Hockey League level. Could use more fine-tuning in all aspects of the game.
Career Potential: Solid defensive but somewhat fragile winger.

Ryan Wilson at Hockeybuzz made a strong case for Eaves a couple weeks ago:

His quality of teammate has gone up and down. His offensive zone starts have gone up and down. His even-strength point/60 have gone up and down. But his possession game is consistently strong.

His dCorsi has shown he has outperformed these roles he has been given, sometimes significantly

The whole article is worth a read if you haven't seen it yet, it presents a very strong case to show the value and solid play that Eaves has demonstrated on many different teams and roles throughout his career. At just $650,000 last season, Eaves could be a great value on the free agent market. Look at last year, he produced Comeau-like production in half a season.

But the half-a-season thing is very concerning.  At 31 years old, Eaves has a very unfortunate history of significant lost time to multiple head injuries in recent years. Eaves got hit with a puck and suffered a concussion this season. He missed 11+ months in 2012 with post-concussion symptoms. His history with concussions stretches back further than that too, Penguins fans may remember him as the dude Colby Armstrong concussed and forced out on a stretcher way back in the 2008 playoffs.

Eaves has only played 121 out of a possible 294 in the past 4 seasons, computing to being out of the lineup for 59% of all games. If not for the lockout, it would have been 121 out of 329, or 63% missing from the lineup. Regardless of circumstance (and some of his injuries have been fluke, random occurrences) that is a huge red flag for a player to be sidelined for so long.

For a team that already has as many injury worries as the Pittsburgh Penguins, would Eaves be a reliable investment to make? If Eaves could guarantee 65+ games, he would surely be a great addition to the lineup. But he's only played more than 65 games just twice in a 10 season career.

No player helps the team from the medical room, and signing Eaves to only get 30-40 games out of him wouldn't the best use of limited assets and time. If his price was under a million dollars it would mitigate the risk probably enough to sign, but given his production in limited time last season, he could be in a position to cash in a little more.

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Those are 3 names that pop out to me as guys who not only should be considered, but could potential fill very important roles for the Penguins at very decent prices for the team. As the summer goes on we can look at others like Carl Soderberg, Mike Santorelli, David Booth and Derek Roy to name just a few as some more "above the radar" types that could also fill major roles for the Pens.

This summer will be about tightening up and improving the Pens roster. They have some nice pieces in place, but as we see year-after-year, the teams that tend to go deep into the playoffs are the ones who get contributions and surprises from young or under-paid lower line players.