Yesterday, on Twitter, I spontaneously tweeted out some line combinations for next year’s Ottawa Senators that featured Matthew Tkachuk in the top six, Dougie Hamilton alongside Thomas Chabot, and Nick Bjugstad as a 2C. I mostly received the kind of gentle pushback you would expect – it’s not realistic that Ottawa can trade for Tkachuk without subtracting another young star, Dougie Hamilton isn’t coming to Ottawa, that sort of thing – all of which I basically agree with. Getting bona fide stars is hard, and Ottawa is unlikely to do it.
But the reaction to the idea of a Bjugstad signing was far and away the most voluminous and critical, which surprised me. Signing a free agent middle-six center with mostly positive underlying numbers if not a great stat line to a mostly affordable deal seemed, to me, to be the least contentious of the proposals. It’s basically bringing in veteran depth the way Ottawa did this past offseason with Stepan, except without having to give up a pick and featuring a younger and better player. Indifference, I expected. Allergic opposition, I didn’t.
Whenever you get a disproportionate response, it suggests to me an opportunity for a discussion. Is Bjugstad an example of where preconceptions don’t line up with the numbers, AKA, just the kind of Moneypuckery that underpins most of our online exchanges? Or am I fundamentally assigning too much value to underlying numbers and ignoring obvious red flags with this player?
In a good-faith attempt to better understand the distance between these positions, let’s take a closer look at Bjugstad, and the arguments against signing him.
All of the following heatmaps, except where otherwise credited, are courtesy of HockeyViz (which is paywalled, and well worth the few bucks a month).
“Bjugstad isn’t good“
As mentioned above, his stat line isn’t impressive. His career high is 41 points, and the last time he hit that number was 2017-2018. Last season he was limited to 13 games after spinal surgery on a herniated disc. This past year with the Wild, he returned to play pretty much the full season in a 3rd line role, where he’s put up good underlying numbers:
He’s a net play driver, taking into account linemates, competition, zone starts, game states, etc., helping to increase his team’s shots for while suppressing shots against. He’s good on the powerplay, he draws more penalties than he takes (though he doesn’t draw many), and he takes very few penalties at all.
Compare this to another, higher-priced pending UFA, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins:
Nugent-Hopkins has the better shot and a worse penalty differential, but in most other regards, they’re remarkably similar players in terms of their effects on driving play. RNH is coming off of a 7-year, $42 million contract, however, while Bjugstad is coming off of a 6-year, $24.6 million contract.
In other words, Bjugstad is a good defensive player on the right side of 30 who drives play but can’t score. If he drives play by suppressing shots-against at a greater rate than he produces shots-for, then even better: teams overpay for goals and points, and underpay for avoiding goals and points against. In that regard, Bjugstad may even represent value.
Ottawa has the worst GA/GP in the league this season, which you can chalk up a bit to goaltending, but they also have the fourth-worst SA/GP in the league. They could use a defensively sound depth player who can play up and down the lineup.
Looking back, he’s been a net positive in five out of nine seasons. 2016-2017 was horrible, as was his rookie year.
So, to the argument that Bjugstad isn’t good, I guess I would say that it depends on how we’re defining good. There’s certainly better out there, if you’re willing to spend more than $5 million per year. But if you’re looking for a middle six center, he’s usually a net positive player whose characteristics you don’t tend to overpay for, and that’s what I mean when I say he’s good.
“There are better options out there.”
It’s true that Dorion could do as he did with Stepan and target a center to bring in via trade. I will grant you that if he can pull that off, and the player’s numbers are better than Bjugstad’s, then maybe that’s preferable, but you have to factor in the asset it would cost you to bring in a good player. Hence my decision to concentrate on free agents.
Here are the top 15 pending UFA centers by salary, filtered to show no players older than 30 or making more than $5M at the time of this writing (courtesy of Cap Friendly):
Of these, there are four others who are also net-positive drivers, according to HockeyViz: Tomas Nosek, Casey Cizikas, Philip Danault and Mikael Granlund. (Jordan Weal has good numbers, but hasn’t played any games this year.)
Nosek can drive play, is an average defensive player who is bad on the penalty kill and takes penalties (though also draws them). He can’t really shoot.
Cizikas is an excellent net positive player putting up comparable numbers to Bjugstad, is even better than Bjugstad defensively, is good on the penalty kill, and for some reason takes a ton of penalties. This is probably the closest pending UFA centerman I’d want Ottawa to go after alongside Bjugstad, though it should be noted that he’s already 30.
Danault is an excellent defensive forward, but doesn’t do anything on offense, and takes a lot of penalties with a negative penalty differential.
Granlund is interesting, because he can actually score, but he’s weak defensively and takes more penalties than he draws, and is average on the powerplay.
Against his comparable in this UFA class, Bjugstad is definitely a competitive choice.
“I’m fine with them signing him, but why did you suggest $5M X 5?“
Bjugstad’s last deal was $24.6 million over six years, and I figured with him being a UFA and Ottawa not being a big free agent destination, that that’s what it would take to bring him in. He’s better than Colin White, but older, so I figured White’s 6-year, $28.5 million deal was a good ballpark.
I was somewhat surprised to see how much pushback this received. It’s true that the team will need to re-sign Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson this offseason, and Josh Norris, and Tim Stutzle in the next few years, during which time they probably don’t want expensive depth on the books. But they also have a plethora of expiring deals – Anisimov and Dzingel as UFAs and Tierney likely to Seattle in the expansion draft is $11.425 million right there. And, in a flat cap world, most of our expensive RFAs will likely opt for shorter, cheaper bridge deals rather than give away UFA years for less.
Having said all of that, if it’s term that fans are worried about, I completely understand. My argument was that five years was what I thought it would take to sign Bjugstad, not that I desperately want Bjugstad’s 30-33 years. Obviously, if Bjugstad is willing to sign for fewer years – say, to Dadanov’s three-year deal – or if fans can stomach a higher payday in exchange for a shorter deal, that’s preferable.
“The Sens should just roll with Norris / Pinto / White / Stutzle and/or keep Tierney”
Norris has looked pretty good playing as a top six forward, and Pinto has been impressive in all of his two NHL games. But assuming that that’s your top two for next year might be asking a lot. Both will have ups and downs, so it would be helpful to have a veteran center who can play up and down the lineup.
If Pinto plays very well and bumps Bjugstad down to the third or fourth line, that’s a good problem to have; the Senators will be able to roll four lines and have more options when it comes to team matchups. This is basically the same ethos the team is using with White, who has played in mostly a third-line role this year. But going into next year with the assumption that Norris, Pinto, White, and Stutzle give you 82 high-quality games seems awfully risky to me.
As for Stutzle, I think we’re all hoping he can play center at some point, but he’s like 12 years old and is getting caved in defensively this year, even with sheltered minutes and favorable zone starts. He’s not ready for prime time, nor should we expect him to be.
“The Sens should be focusing their money on defence.”
I tend to agree that of all of the things that need fixing, defence probably comes first. I did this same exercise for defensemen and identified three players who were net positive, 30 or under, and relatively affordable – Ryan Murray, Jamie Oleksiak, and Jake McCabe. (I also wanted them to re-sign Mike Reilly, but he was traded to Boston for a pick shortly after.) However, I received similar pushback from people on twitter.
I don’t know how Ottawa fixes the defence if these kinds of net positive, affordable UFAs are off the table. Obviously, if they throw everything in the world at Dougie Hamilton, he bites, and that takes Bjugstad off the table, I would be okay with that.
The main thing I want to emphasize here is that it’s really hard to state just how little money Ottawa is spending next year, even with Brady Tkachuk and Drake Batherson on big extensions. Even if Ottawa signs Tkachuk and Batherson to matching $7M per year extensions, extends Zub and Mete at a raise, and signs Bjugstad to a $5M per year deal, they’d BARELY be over the $60M salary floor.
If we take their spending this season as a guide, at their peak spending they had a cap hit of about $73.6M. Even with many of those cap hits including lower salaries, there should still be plenty of room to sign or trade for a defenceman.
In other words, bringing in a veteran middle six center doesn’t preclude you from spending elsewhere, even after re-signing your big RFAs.
Conclusion: There are worse things than overspending to improve your team
Is Nick Bjugstad the difference between the Sens making the playoffs next year or not? No, probably not. They’re in tough in a division with Tampa, Toronto, Boston, a suddenly resurgent Florida and big-spending Montreal. But a defensively leaky team who is especially green down the middle who can add a relatively young player on an affordable deal should look closely at doing so.
Is $5M per year for five years too much? Maybe a little. But if a person can’t enjoy the team improving itself at $25 million because they think we should have improved themselves for $20 million, then we could just be watching hockey for different and equally valid reasons.