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Nashville Predators Free Agency Targets: Wingers

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TJ Oshie is off the market. Can David Poile find other scoring help at the wing in free agency?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After losing reliably elite goalscorer James Neal to the Golden Knights, the Predators may be looking to add a high-performing winger in free agency.

With the Capitals’ re-signing of T.J. Oshie, a tempting player with the potential to be an expensive mistake is off the board. With Oshie gone, Alexander Radulov is the only high-impact winger not yet in his mid-thirties left in free agency, and my guess is that Poile is not going to bring Radulov back for a third time. Who’s left?

Justin Williams (RW)

Williams, who turns 36 at the start of next season, scored 24 goals and added 24 assists on the Capitals’ second line during the 2016-17 season. While he struggled to produce at the start of the season, being moved to a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson had almost immediate results. Williams did great in a shutdown role without sacrificing too much offense—nearly all of his teammates had better shot rates with than without him.

The blue boxes represent Williams’s shot rates without the player whose number is in the box, and the red boxes represent that player’s shot rates without Williams. Note how many of the players take fewer shots, concede more shots, or both without Williams.

However, the Capitals could be ready to move on from him, despite his good regular-season production, after a pair of eliminations by the Pittsburgh Penguins—including this season’s disappointing 0-2 Game 7 loss at home. If “Mister Game Seven”’s no-show in Game 7 keeps the Capitals from re-signing him, a very well-rounded offensive player will become available to the rest of the league.

Even at his age, Williams still looks like a first-line player in just about all aspects of his game, as tracked by Ryan Stimson and the Passing Project. He shoots, he passes, and he sets up plays.

As you can see from his HERO chart, Williams’s primary assist rate is lower than would be expected of a first-line winger, but he does score goals. Also, his balanced style of play and great passing lend themselves well to meaningful secondary assists. According to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, his 1.12 assists/hour at 5v5 play still had him among the top 90 forwards with at least 500 minutes played, despite his lower proportion of primary assists.

Although his 24 goals this season came on a career-high shooting percentage of 14.4, he has consistently been a pretty good shooter with the exception of his time with the Kings (whose offensive strategy is not about efficient scoring on dangerous shots). He could probably still add quite a few goals next year while improving the play of everyone on his line.

The biggest concern with Williams would be his age. He hasn’t missed more than two games in a season since 2010-11, but in spite of his health he’s still reaching a point at which his production should start dropping off.

Still, Williams brings enough in addition to his goalscoring that he might be worth a short deal for a reasonable price, especially since there are few other options available in free agency.

Thomas Vanek (W)

Vanek, a 33-year-old right-handed shot who has played both RW and LW in his career, has played on six teams in the last four years. He has also missed some time at various points. In 68 games for the Red Wings and Panthers this year, Vanek put up a decent 17-31–48 stat line.

His production has been okay—not great, but okay. But with heavily sheltered zone usage (according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com, 49.5% of his 5v5 shifts this past season started in the offensive zone, and only 21.4% in the defensive zone), Vanek’s CF% was a miserable 47.5. Over the last several years, he has consistently had bad relative shot rates. Despite being a key part of a struggling Detroit offense, which was painfully unable to get to the front of the net in his line’s absence, he opened up the ice just as much at the other end.

Playing with Kevin Fiala and a good defensive center like Calle Järnkrok might help compensate for Vanek’s liabilities in his own end.

However, worryingly, there isn’t much to Vanek’s game.

His utility begins and ends right at the front of the net. That’s a great place for a player to be strong, but Vanek is a (slightly-)below-average passer who almost never sets up plays and who plays very little role in zone entries. For a team that’s worked to be stronger in the neutral zone and in transition, Vanek’s overall game looks like it might be a step back.

He produces at a first-line rate at even strength and a first-unit rate on the power play, but I’m not convinced Vanek is the right fit for Nashville.

Patrick Sharp (LW)

Sharp, who was on all three of the Blackhawks’ modern-era Cup-winning teams, is one of the biggest names likely to be available on the free agency market. The 35-year old is still capable of helping control play when he’s on the ice.

Notice on these shot maps from HockeyViz.com that Sharp doesn’t change the shape of the Stars’ offensive game, but more is still happening with him than without him. He’s also fine in his own zone.

In the neutral and offensive zones, he is an effective and well-rounded player, with a little more emphasis on some aspects of his game than others but no real weaknesses.

His passing is the weakest aspect of his game, and it’s still very strong for a second-line player. He’s been great through the neutral zone, he shoots the puck, and when he shoots he does it from good locations.

However, Sharp’s injury history is a growing concern. This season he landed on the injured reserve three separate times, with two concussions and season-ending hip surgery. He also missed a stretch late last season. At his age, recoveries are likely to be slower and less complete. Taking Sharp would be a significant gamble as to his health.

His production has been declining for the last few years, even before the recent flood of injuries. Although right now he still puts up numbers and controls play like a solid second-line winger, I have serious doubts that that can continue for much longer.

Look at the difference in his HERO chart from two years ago and now. His goalscoring has started to drop off, probably with age and his primary assists have gone down a little. The progression through time below the bar graphs shows fairly constant shot impact, maybe trending a little down (though some of that could be attributed to his move from Chicago to Dallas), and plummeting production.

Despite his being talked about as a big name on the free agent market, Sharp should be avoided. If he’s able to rebound despite his health issues next year I congratulate him, but he’s much too big a risk.

Radim Vrbata (RW)

Vrbata, a 36-year-old winger who’s spent the past eight years shuttling between Arizona and Vancouver, has given surprisingly strong performances despite his age and his presence on bad teams.

With the exception of a very bad 2015-16 season where he lost time to injury while playing on an also-bad Canucks team, Vrbata has performed pretty well. He’s been a 20-goal scorer in three of the past four years, including a 31-32–63 performance in 2014-15. Again with the exception of 2015-16, he has also had positive shot impacts on his teams despite neutral usage.

Offensively he plays like a slightly less-skilled version of Sharp.

He is much more clearly a second-line player, but he plays well through the neutral zone and his high shot volume speaks well for his ability to continue to make a direct impact on the scoreboard.

His production has been fairly steady over the last few years, and he has missed very few games.

While he isn’t the model of a second-line winger, his production numbers are a little better than expected for a 2W and it’s possible his slightly worse shot impact numbers have been due to playing on bad teams. If he feels like leaving the Coyotes this summer, he could be a solid and likely cheap pickup with the biggest risk being his age.