Edmonton Oilers: Did they dodge a bullet by losing out on Jacob Markstrom?

The Edmonton Oilers dodged a bullet when it came to Jacob Markstrom

Jacob Markstrom was one of the prize free agents this past offseason, before signing a $6 million, 6-year contract with the Calgary Flames. Word had it the Edmonton Oilers were about to snag Markstrom at a $5 million cap hit for 7 years in free agency when another team – which we now know as the Flames – came back with this offer and he signed with them at the last minute.

If you’re experiencing deja vu, it’s because this happened once before, albeit a bit differently.  Prior to the 2007-08 season – only about to enter season 2 of the decade of darkness – the Oilers had an agreement with center Michael Nylander.  They even sent him a contract, only to discover that he signed with Washington at the last minute.  They never received the signed copy back.

However, considering how Nylander’s career went after that, that was a good thing.  After a career year in 2006-07 putting up 26 goals and 83 points with the Rangers, Nylander never again cracked the 20 goal mark – or even put up 40 points – ever again in his NHL career. In fact, he only played 2 more seasons in the NHL again before being stashed in the minors and then loaned around Europe before finishing his career in his native Sweden.  He got a PTO from Philly in 2011 but never made it past training camp.

The Oilers – as was the pattern in those days – offered Nylander more money than Washington but he changed his mind when offered a lower contract with a better team.  Much like Tyson Barrie recently did with us. Could history repeat itself with Markstrom?  IMO, possibly over the short term and most definitely over the long term.

Let’s find out why.

He’s proven to be nothing more than an average NHL goalie

This is the trap that many GMs fall into during free agency – they go after the big fish in free agency without stopping to consider how that fish looks in the NHL pond as a whole.

Sometimes the best move a GM makes is the one that he failed at or didn’t make.

You see, Markstrom has only put up an elite sv% once in his career – when he played a mere 7 games for Florida in 2011-12 and finished with a .923 sv%.  He’s never finished at the elite mark of a 2.5 GAA – the closest he came was that same season in Florida when he finished with a 2.66 GAA.

His numbers predictably dropped the next season and have ranged from mediocre to average ever since.  His career GAA is 2.8 in 270 NHL games, which, while OK, is nothing to write home about.  His career sv% is .911, also no better than NHL average.

For comparison, Mikko Koskinen – a player who IIRC is nearly unanimously agreed upon to be overpaid – has a career sv% of .909 and a career GAA of 2.91. Koskinen is only making US$4.5 million next season, while Markstrom is making US$6 million with the Flames.

Essentially what the Flames have bought themselves is a goalie who is just barely better than Koskinen. Is Markstrom used to being a starter?  Over the last 3 seasons, yes he is.  But is he an elite starter who is worth an elite cap hit?  No.  Those are 2 important distinctions.

What the Flames have essentially done is take an average NHL goalie and give him an elite goalie paycheck.  Does that make sense to you?  Sure doesn’t to me. Now granted, Holland wanting to take on US$5 million for Markstrom is a bit better but still a little overpriced.

The contract that would’ve made the most sense for Markstrom is US$20 million for 5 seasons.  I’ll explain why that works better agewise in a minute.  But, because of the competitive nature of free agency, the Flames have bought themselves a ticking time bomb of a cap hit, that could go off as early as season 4 of 6.  Even if Markstrom’s numbers don’t decline until season 6, it still makes you wince to think of a $6 million boat anchor on your team’s cap space.

But, in Brad Treliving’s defence, he wasn’t the only one handing out ridiculous contracts in free agency.  IMO the goat horns go to Pierre Dorion, who handed out a cap hit of US$6.25 million a year to Matt Murray, who struggled big time in Pittsburgh last year, lost his starting position, and was a mediocre goaltender.  Only 4 seasons for Murray, but still, an incredibly ugly and risky contract that there’s a good chance Murray won’t live up to.

Even the contract Vegas gave to Pietrangelo is questionable.  Sure, he’s an elite d-man right now, but he’s already got 758 NHL games under his belt, and at 30 years of age it’s reasonable to question whether he’ll decline in year 4 of that contract.  US$8.8 million is a huge cap hit if the guy declines.

Not to mention Vegas had to trade Nate Schmidt – a useful d-man – to a division rival in a cap dump just to be able to afford him – and they’re still almost a million dollars US over the cap now so they have to dump at least 1 more player if they don’t want to incur cap penalties or lose draft picks. Markstrom strikes me as the same time bomb.  Don’t believe me?  See for yourself.

He’s 30 years old

As is the habit for free agency overpays, the Flames made the exact same mistake that have been the undoing of Chicago, Detroit, San Jose, Minnesota, and LA in recent years, among others that could probably be listed too.  They sign guys on the wrong side of 30 for way too long, being stuck with boat anchor contracts that are untradeable and must be either bought out – which isn’t much better – or shoved in the minors or loaned to Europe if necessary.

Not to mention, heaven forbid if a younger, cheaper prospect is ready to take the place of said player, no one will trade for him so you can’t make room for the prospect.  This forces you to play the boat anchor player way past his expiration date at the bottom of the roster.  Ask Vancouver how much they want Loui Eriksson in their lineup right now.

You see, NHL players tend to experience a decline in play around the age of 35 after their bodies are usually at peak physical condition around 25. Markstrom doesn’t have as much mileage on his body as other players, but still, his contract with the Flames won’t finish until he’s 36.  If Markstrom breaks down as expected at 35, you’ve still got to bite the bullet and keep him another season.  The Flames might still have to sacrifice a player to stay below the cap ceiling if that happens.

If he breaks down before that, in year 4, now you’ve got 2 more seasons you have to pay him as a boat anchor.  You can do the math on if it happens even before then. And the thing is – goalies are the hardest players to predict in terms of future performance.  This is why it was ridiculous of the Florida Panthers to give Sergei Bobrovsky US$10 million per season – another big fish reeled in during free agent frenzy in the past.  Look up his numbers, you’ll see he did not cover the bet of his contract – and he’s signed until he’s 38.

Players like that you don’t trade for unless the team retains 80% of his cap hit in the good years and 90% in the projected declining years.  Personally, I’d love to take Bobrovsky at $2 million for the next 3 seasons and $1 million for the 3 after that, but it’s highly doubtful Florida would do that trade. Until GMs learn their lesson and stop being so competitive with each other in free agency, these kind of monumental mistakes will keep happening.

Team defence make goalies look better or worse than they really are

In the 90s there were a whole host of elite goalies that were so good they stole games for their teams even when the team was only so-so.  Curtis Joseph did that for the Oilers in the mid-90s, as 1 example.  Martin Brodeur backstopped what was a so-so team in Jersey for much of his time there – not to mention the neutral zone trap helped to curb the shots on the net he faced every game, making him look better.  It seemed like Olaf Kolzig WAS the Washington Capitals for much of his career.  Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary too.

But times have changed, and there are very few elite goaltenders left in the modern NHL who carry their teams as most NHL teams opt to go with a 1A/1B situation, a scenario that allows you to cut back on cap space in goal so it can be re-allocated elsewhere.
There aren’t too many pure starters who carry their team left.  Carey Price is one, Andrei Vasilevsky is another.  I could probably add another 3 names to the list, but it’s not a very long one.  See for yourself.

Anyway, the teams that have the best team defence can make goalies look better.  Right now Calgary is a team that struggles to produce offence – they struggled to score and finished 10th out of 16 teams in the west in terms of goals for.  Vancouver was #2 in that category, while the Oilers were #4 and only 3 goals for behind Vancouver.  The defences put up similar GA numbers last year, but because Calgary struggled to score their Goal Differential is -5, compared to +11 in Vancouver or +8 in Edmonton.

That tells me that Markstrom is going to face more rushes in Calgary than he did in Vancouver or would’ve here, resulting in more shots on goal, and more of them are going to go in.  If he was only average in Vancouver, how do you think that bodes for Calgary?

What this means is Markstrom’s numbers are more likely to go down, not up, in Calgary.  Maybe he’ll buck the projections but usually putting an NHL average goalie in front of more shots on goal makes for a decrease in stats. I was not impressed with the work Calgary did to replace Hamonic and Brodie in their D this offseason so that certainly won’t help.

This is why I was surprised Markstrom chose Calgary because their D is really nothing special. With fewer shots on goal here in Edmonton IMO he would’ve looked better or even re-signing in Vancouver he looks better, but in Calgary, he’ll only get worse.  Matt Murray faces an even worse situation in Ottawa.  Their goal differential was -52 last year, and for the same reason in Calgary – lack of scoring, only more so.  He’ll face a problem in Ottawa he didn’t have in Pittsburgh.

For a comparable contract here, his numbers would’ve been better due to much better depth on defence here.  But, he’s made his bed and now he has to lie in it. And he has an NMC so good luck trading him if it doesn’t work out.

If this is the craziness of free agency, then the Oilers are better off without Markstrom and his ticking time bomb of a contract.  It’ll blow up in the Flames’ faces before it’s over, I guarantee you.  Still doesn’t justify re-signing Mike Smith, but at least we won’t have to deal with the albatross of that contract now.