On the first day of free agency, the Minnesota Wild were relatively quiet. Rumored to be pursuing some veteran big fish in Nick Foligno, the Wild struck out, leaving limited options by the end of the day. In spite of this, they were able to fill out many open slots in the bottom half of the roster and, to the elation of fans throughout the State of Hockey, sign a center ice man.
That man is Frederick Gaudreau, a 28-year-old winding down his prime having played 103 NHL games after breaking into the league at the age of 23 for the Nashville Predators four seasons ago. In that time, he’s scored 5 goals and 18 points, avoided the penalty box, and posted a +/- of plus-12, positive in every season that he’s played. He’s also been a 49.7 percent faceoff man having taken 636 career faceoffs.
Last season, Gaudreau played 33 minutes on the penalty kill for the Pittsburgh Penguins through his 19 games played, meaning he was a significant contributor every night he was in the lineup.
Gaudreau’s contract for next year is a two-year deal with an AAV of $1.2 million — that’s pretty cheap for a center, even if he will probably play at the bottom of the lineup. Compare that to other NHL teams, usually they play an older star there to play out the end of a big contract, meaning negative value, or place a young unknown there to develop through the lineup. Gaudreau is cheaper than most predictable options, and provides relatively better predictability than your average rookie having played 100 NHL games.
Good depth signing for MIN. Gaudreau did really well in bottom six minutes last year for the Penguins. pic.twitter.com/cIEne7rZq7— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) July 28, 2021
Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic agrees with this analysis based on his statistical model — which utilizes advanced analytics, aging curves, and the career production of comparable skaters to estimate the remainder of a player’s impact. According to Dom’s model, Gaudreau is more likely to provide positive value both on the ice and above the value of his contract over the next two years.
This is important because after the Suter and Parise signings, GM Bill Guerin made two things clear: the Wild want to compete now, and they are going to have to do so with efficient cap management. A cheap player delivering positive value above his contract does both of those things.
In terms of slotting Gaudreau into the lineup, it’s tough to say exactly where he’ll play, but easy to make a close enough guess. With Nick Bonino now signed by the San Jose Sharks, the bottom six forward group needs a center. It’s tough to say whether he’ll play on a line ahead of or behind Nico Sturm, but it’s fairly likely that both will anchor the depth forward groups. Gaudreau and Sturm are both excellent fits for this role, as they create generally positive on-ice impacts in spite of bringing very few stand-out playstyle characteristics.
Freddy G’s career shooting percentage is a soft 5.9 percent, but that can say more about his chances than his ability. Is his shot really that bad? One way we can test this is by measuring it against all of the scoring chances which have been taken off the stick of Freddy G. Expected goals models factor in several variables to estimate the chance of a shot becoming a goal — these include the distance from the net, the angle of the shot, and the time since the last event (a save, a pass, a turnover, etc. — essentially the amount of chaos in the play). According to MoneyPuck.com’s xG model, Gaudreau is shooting 4.0 percent on an expected scoring rate of 7.3% (based on the location from which he’s shooting). Evolving-Hockey’s model has him shooting below expectation both of the past two seasons as well. So the short answer is, “Yes, his shot really is that bad.”
On the other hand, his defensive game is solid and his ability to drive play is elite. Over his NHL career, he’s been in the 65th percentile in Evolving-Hockey’s GAR metric (Goals Above Replacement), which is intended to measure a player’s overall value based off of on-ice results.
The main components of Gaudreau’s game throughout his career that drive this have been his defensive game (3.6 GAR), his total offensive game (2.5 GAR), and his ability to avoid taking penalties and drawing them(1.5 GAR). By xGAR, which is more stable over time, Gaudreau performs essentially identically over his career, and ranks in the 63rd percentile of all NHL skaters.
These numbers are in spite of playing only 100 games over four seasons, and only playing 9.7 minutes per night. These numbers should continue through this season as he’ll play in the bottom half of the roster, but the important thing is that they’re positive. Signing a player for the bottom half of your lineup that is better than average seems like it would be hard to be a deal that you lose.
Finally, looking at Gaudreau’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) can give an idea of Gaudreau's isolated impact - what this means is that it provides a solid estimate of what a player creates on the ice, independent of both his teammates, team play-style/system, and opponents. Gaudreau has been a positive impact across the board, especially in his play-driving statistics — xGF/60 and CF/60 measure Gaudreau’s offensive impacts in generating scoring chance quality and shot attempt, respectively. The opposites of these are xGA/60 and CA/60 — defensive impacts.
The RAPM chart below shows that Gaudreau has consistently been one standard deviation above the average forward in creating offense and preventing his opponents from doing the same. This essentially means that he belongs in the 84th percentile by these impacts - in the top three players on an average NHL team — but he’s dragged down because his chances haven’t converted at the usual rate.
This is likely due to his ability to finish, which has to do with opening shooting lanes and the quality of a player’s shot. It can also speak to passing ability — essentially, Gaudreau is smarter than he is skilled. That typically is all you need from your bottom two centers. What’s exciting about this is that if you get in a pinch and need to put him next to Fiala or Kaprizov in the event of an injury, Gaudreau is still capable of getting those players the puck, both with volume and in dangerous areas. Overall, there’s a lot to be excited about with this signing.