The Predators Need to Avoid Buying High on Sergei Kostitsyn, Selling Low on Joel Ward

Sometimes I worry that the Predators' (and Predators fans') obsession with acquiring goal-scoring forwards has created an overcompensation. Berated by reminders of the team's lack of scoring, David Poile is in a perfect position to make a very popular and seemingly smart move that both ignores the team's other needs, and hurts the team's long-term future. Most immediately, I'm concerned the Predators will re-sign Sergei Kostitsyn for $2-3 million and let Joel Ward walk for a similar a mount.

Ostensibly, such a move would seem like the best possible use of that money. Kostitsyn, 24, scored 50 points, was +10, and led the aforementioned scoring-strapped group of forwards with 23 goals. By contrast, Ward, who will turn 31 next season, had a career low 29 points, 10 goals, and was -1. 

And while I may ultimately be presenting a false choice, here--the Predators could re-sign both players (my preference) or let both walk--these two impending free agent decisions are two perfect chances for Poile to lose the forest for the trees--err, goals. 

Sergei Kostitsyn came to the Predators last off-season gift-wrapped. The Montreal Canadiens, apparently sick of his bad attitude, shipped the young Restricted Free Agent to Nashville for the rights of two players (Dustin Boyd and Dan Ellis) for whom they had no use. 

At the time of the trade, I rejoiced. Young, highly-touted, Eastern European, and supposedly contumacious, Sergei hit every square on the Alexander-Radulov-offensive-prodigy bingo board. I expected him to come to the Predators and make good on the promise of an elite playmaker. 

Barry Trotz would later admit he too assumed as much, when the Predators acquired Kostitsyn. But watching video of him in Montreal, Trotz realized, as I would much later, that Sergei's skill lies not in speed and playmaking ability, but the stay-on-your-man-and-wait-for-a-mistake mentality that underpins the entire Predators' system, and that famously eluded Radulov (and most recently, Colin Wilson). 

Sergei Kostitsyn has good hands and good vision, but he's not that fast and simply doesn't shoot enough to be a top-line winger. He passes well and was johnny-on-the-spot for a bunch of rebound goals, which partially accounts for his high point total. He backchecks and forechecks. 

But he also led the league with 24.7% shooting percentage. And that number will come down. Just look at the 2009-10 S% leaders. Mike Knuble went from 19.2% to 11.8. Steve Downie from 19% to 12. Even Andrew Brunette and Tomas Holmstrom, who have both demonstrated an extremely unique ability to boost their S% by hanging in front of the net, dropped from ~19% to ~15 each. 

If we assume next season Sergei shoots 17% (his career mark, which may also be too high) on 100 shots, that's a decent 17 goals, but a big perceptual drop for a 24-year-old, former team-scoring leader. For any Predators fans hoping for the start of something bigger, watch out. 

Joel Ward, by contrast, may seem like a replaceable third-line winger, but really does much more. 

While there's no consensus on what a "defensive forward" is in hockey, most would agree such a player:

  • Faces the opponents' top lines
  • Prevents those top players from getting shots on goal

Joel Ward faced the second-toughest minutes of any winger in the league this past season, and still outshot his opponents, while on the ice. That's a feat only replicated this year by much more offensively-capable players (who themselves take a lot of shots) like Patrick Elias, Brandon Dubinsky, and Danny Cleary

He ranked 8th in blocked-shots by a RW, and 11th in takeaways, despite playing just over 13 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time per game.

Joel also took the 7th highest percentage of defensive-zone faceoff shifts of any RW. Most of the other names in the top 10, as you might expect for players who mostly start in their own zone, were outshot by huge margins and scored very little. But Ward excels at winning defensive-zone board battles and pushing the puck up ice. 

Simply put, there isn't another winger in hockey that takes so many defensive-zone faceoffs, consistently matches up against top players, and controls the shooting, like Joel Ward. He's arguably the best defensive winger in hockey. 

In that light, 29 points isn't so bad--in fact, it's pretty impressive. And the same argument against Kostitsyn repeating his success--regression of S%--works in Joel's favor. Joel shot 6.4%. Assuming he shoots his career mark, 9.2%, on 140-160 shots next year, he's a good bet to pot 13-15 goals, not decline further. 

In short, I wouldn't be surprised if Ward and Kostitsyn matched each others' goal totals next season, with Ward providing a lot more overall value for the team. Ward may be in line for a nice bump to his $1.5 million dollar salary this season, after his impressive playoff performance, but it's a bump that's deserved, for other reasons. 

Name QualComp Corsi Ozone%
Ward 1.126 1.25 39.8%
Kostitsyn 0.436 -2.16 49.0%

 

Kostitsyn is a Restricted Free Agent, again. He'll undoubtedly get a raise from this year's $550K salary. Sergei has the added leverage of being young and having the option of playing closer to home in the KHL, for much more money. 

Ideally, the Predators could bring both players back. But if one has to go, the Predators would be better served re-signing Ward and trading Kostitsyn while his rights are restricted and his value is very high. 

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