Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan had his busiest opening day to free agency since his ascension from assistant general manager to general manager back in 2014, acquiring six players in the opening day frenzy. One of his six acquisitions and the only new player added to the Capitals blueline is Erik Gustafssson, signed in the first day of free agency.
Justin Schultz, who was not expected back, signed a two-year, $3,000,000 AAV deal with the Seattle Kraken on the opening day of free agency. As a result, the Capitals signed free agent defensman Erik Gustafsson.
The apparent plan is to initially have Gustafsson step into Justin Schultz’s vacancy on the third defensive pairing. The move first appears to be for simple cost savings, but how will the change look on the ice? Let’s take a quick look.
Tale Of The Tape
As mentioned, the transition from Schultz to Gustafsson will save the Capitals a considerable amount of money, approximately $2,200,000. In addition, the roster pot gets about two years younger.
So the Capitals save a ton of cash and get younger by the move . What’s not to like? But how will it pan out on the ice?
Before we dive into a few of the more granular metrics, let’s first take a quick look at the basic stats: games played, goals, assists, points per game and plus/minus, for last season and for each of their careers.
Last seasons stats are very similar for both players. Schultz had a slightly better scoring season (very slight) but also had a much worse plus/minus. Gustafsson has the better points per game career average. Advantage: push.
Next let’s take a deeper dive on a few of the more specific metrics that provide a better gauge for the play of the defensemen. [To learn more about the statistics used in this post, check out our analytics NHL Analytics Glossary. Statistics in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Hockey Reference.]
First let’s take a look at the basics: Corsi for percentage, expected goals for percentage, xGA per 60 and expected goals against minus actual goals against: [Click to enlarge].
Just Schultz had the better CF% and xGF%, while Gustafsson had the better goals against differential. Advantage: push.
GAR, WAR And SPAR Metrics
We’ve typically applied the Goals Above Replacement (GAR), Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Standings Points Above Replacement (SPAR) metrics to initial assessments of this nature. In very general terms, the metrics encapsulate how valuable an individual player is in terms of on-ice play, relative to a ‘replacement level’ player. Please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary if you should need further definition. [Click to enlarge].
Gustafsson holds better value in all three of the advanced metrics, further tilting the needle forwards him. Advantage: Gustafsson.
Context And Caveats
As always, there are a wide range of variables that limit context and the depth of the granularity of the metrics above. Justin Schultz played on a much better team last season, and was paired with a solid defenseman in Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Gustafsson played primarily on the right side of the third pair for the Blackhawks last season, and was paired with several different defensemen, including Jake McCabe, Riley Stillman and Caleb Jones, all fairly average defensmen with poor goals against differentials – again a reflection of the team as a whole.
The comparison above could easily produce the conclusion that the players are fairly equal and a wash, statistically. The Capitals will lose a little experience on the backend, but likely gain fresher legs in Gustafsson. All-in-all, if the players are generally equal, the move by MacLellan has to be deemed a good one, simply from a business perspective.
More to come.
By Jon Sorensen