When the San Jose Sharks signed four European free agents during the span of little more than one month this past spring, they surely did so with this season’s salary cap crunch in mind. Lean Bergmann, Joel Kellman, Tony Sund and Danil Yurtaikin are all players whose performance levels have yet to peak, but who have already enjoyed at least one season of professional experience. Individually, each skater costs far less than nearly any single impactful National Hockey League (NHL) free agent would cost. Together, the four represent a cumulative cap hit of just $3.53 million.
While playing moneyball is more important for the Sharks this season than it ever has been, there are other motives behind scouring European leagues for potentially impactful players. The team trudged through nearly three rounds of playoffs thanks to a luxury not afforded many clubs. With Timo Meier, Gustav Nyquist, Evander Kane, Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi in the fold, the team was able to deploy five different top-six forwards. After this summer’s free agency departures, the Sharks must count among their weaknesses what was once a major strength.
To fill in the gaps, and to fill in the lineup around the team’s remaining forwards, San Jose is relying in part upon untested youngsters like Ivan Chekhovich, Sasha Chmelevski, Noah Gregor, Antti Suomela and Dylan Gambrell. And though the organization’s prospects offer a more promising collective future today than they have in most years past, the front office would be foolish to assume their up-and-comers will all become top-six NHL players at the drop of a puck. It seems logical that the handful of European free agent signings are also intended to provide reassurance should some of the up-and-coming drafted prospects struggle during their first full pro hockey seasons.
While there are tomes of research telling us what we might expect of recently drafted prospects, less has been written about what we might expect from older free agents signed from European professional leagues. Luckily, this isn’t San Jose’s first foray into foreign leagues. To best project what this free agent class might accomplish, we must look no further than recent Sharks signings.
Namely, we can compare the statistical profiles of the 2019 signees with those of players like Joonas Donskoi, Melker Karlsson, Lukas Radil, Radim Simek, Marcus Sorensen and Antti Suomela during the seasons before they joined the Sharks.
Clearly, age makes a big difference when it comes to someone’s chances of making the NHL, but that fact doesn’t preclude older players from making an immediate impact. Although Donskoi and Suomela enjoyed very similar seasons statistically, Donskoi’s near point-per-game season in the Finnish Liiga came when he was a full year and one month younger than Suomela. Despite the age discrepancy, Suomela’s first season with the Sharks was the most impressive (while he remained on the roster) after Donskoi’s.
It’s almost certain Joel Kellman’s advanced age is why his chances of making the NHL appear so low. But, if Lukas Radil’s first NHL season is predictive of anything, it’s that Kellman’s projected upside may be the most important part of his profile. The key here is that Kellman, while old for a traditional prospect, might very well have the best chance of making a big positive contribution in the NHL. Through December of the 2018-19 season, Kellman’s impact on his team’s even-strength scoring network was the third best on his team and top-30 in the SHL. That sort of network effect isn’t something these WAR projections take into account. It may suggest there’s even more than meets the eye to his already-impressive projection.
Danil Yurtaikin is the next-most intriguing prospect of this year’s crop. His upside projection is lower than others in his class and lower than everyone in this sample, save Melker Karlsson. That fact is reflected in his low likelihood of making the NHL despite his youthfulness. Still, his scoring rate for his age is exciting, and if he can adjust quickly to North American ice he may very well find himself with the mother club before long.
Lean Bergmann, despite his age, simply didn’t score enough in the comparatively less competitive German professional league to warrant much consideration for NHL duty. He’ll likely play a role on the Barracuda, but his scoring output given the league he plays in doesn’t suggest he’s likely to make the jump this year.
Finally, Tony Sund’s statistical profile is nearly identical to that of Radim Simek the season before he came to North America. Simek spent his entire first season in North America in the American Hockey League (AHL). Part way through last season, he was called into action opposite Brent Burns where he performed well until his ACL injury late in the season. That the two share comparable pre-NHL seasons doesn’t mean Sund is going to follow the same trajectory. But, given that the Sharks have seven NHL-level defenders signed and Jacob Middleton with NHL experience already, a full year with the Barracuda seems likely for the Finnish defender.
Points aren’t the only way to assess player impact
All of the above metrics are based on scoring rates, and that’s not the only impact that a player can have on the game. Leveraging Evolving-Wild’s regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM) metrics, and Garret Hohl’s estimations of what contributes to standings points, we can compare each player’s first NHL season without referring to the points they scored.
Because these players for the most part did not impact special teams, we will refer just to even-strength impact. It would be surprising to see either Kellman or Yurtaikin jump directly into a special teams role should the stay with the Sharks this season, so examining what sort of impact they might make at even strength makes the most sense.
Borrowing from existing research, Hohl finds that on-ice goals (luck, opposing goalie ability, shooting skill, and variance) account for about 46 percent of standings points. Shot volume accounts for about 44 percent, and shot quality (expected goals or “xG”) accounts for the final 10 percent of standings points earned. Using those weights, we can create a weighted average of each player’s impact on those facets of the game relative to his position group that season.
Of all the European free agents to sign with the Sharks recently, Marcus Sorensen’s first season represents the worst individual isolated impact on the team’s ability to earn standings points (read: win). Even then, he delivered a third-line impact.
This year’s class isn’t quite as impressive, but it still offers potential
Of this year’s four European free agent signings, Joel Kellman’s statistical profile is the most impressive. His scoring rate given his age and league give him the highest upside of any of the Sharks 10 European free agent signings of the last half decade. Not only was last season’s performance impressive given the metrics we have available to us, but he’s shown progression during each of the last three professional seasons in Sweden. He’ll have to show that he’s at least as adapt defensively as Barclay Goodrow or trustworthy in a top-six winger role to spend the season in the NHL, but his professional performance to date suggest he’s capable of playing a regular role for the Sharks.
Kellman profiles somewhere between Marcus Sorensen, who played fourth-line minutes but made a third-line impact, and Lukas Radil, who also played sparingly, but offered the impact of a top-line forward at even-strength.
Yurtaikin, for his part, looks like more of an AHL/NHL tweener at this point in his career. The good news is that his projected upside is higher than that of Melker Karlsson’s, and Yurtaikin was just four more points away from registering a similar adjusted points-per-game rate as his Swedish counterpart, all while enjoying that success at a younger age. He profiles to a similar projection as Marcus Sorensen: playing the bulk of his games in the AHL, but making a lasting impression during his brief NHL time.
Yurtaikin profiles most similarly to Melker Karlsson, who probably played too much his rookie year (borderline second- and third-line minutes) but had an impressive second-line impact before settling in as a true fourth-line player.
For either of these forwards, bottom-six ice time with third-line impact is the most likely scenario. Anything beyond that we can consider exceeded expectations. That outcome isn’t terribly exciting, but adding two forwards who are anywhere near league-average without surrendering a draft pick or player via trade is the equivalent of playing with house money.