June 16 2015 11:00AM
Photo Credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
This is a series counting down the top-10 pending UFAs. It will be posted across the Nation Network over the next month! Enjoy!
Almost every postseason there arises an unlikely hero from the middle of a team's roster to make headlines. And any time that player is a pending free agent, teams line up to pay that him too much money as a result. Call it the Bickell effect.
This year, that player is Matt Beleskey. The Ducks 27-year old winger has been a run-of-the-mill NHL forward for years, but his 8-goal in 16-games playoff performance combined with his size (6', 205 pounds) has him on a lot of GM's radars heading into July. Just to make his agent even happier, Beleskey also put up the best regular season of his NHL career, managing 22-goals and 32-points. His underlying numbers, however, tell a much more complicated story than his counting stats.
Beleskey's career up until this year had been unremarkable. Chosen in the 4th round in 2006, he eventually made the show in 2009-10, scoring 18 points and playing about 12 minutes per night. And that became his role for the next five seasons: a middle rotation forward who banged bodies and put up between 15 and 25 points a year.
Things changed for Beleskey in 2014-15. At even strength, his most frequent linemate was Ryan Kesler (460+ minutes). He also spent about 160 minutes of 5-on-5 ice with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. What's particularly interesting is that each of those players got a zone start bump when they played with Beleskey versus when they were away from him.
For example, Kesler + Beleskey had a zone start ratio of 53%. Kesler alone dropped down to 41%. The Beleskey + Perry combo enjoyed a 58.7% zone start, whereas Perry alone was 50.4%m while Beleskey + Getzlaf went from 59.4% together to just 49.0% for Getzlaf alone.
A look at Beleskey's more advanced metrics gives us an idea of why Boudreau may have preferred to deploy him in the offensive zone with stars. According to Beleskey's Hero Chart, he tends to be decent at generating shots, but pretty lousy at suppressing them.
As you can see, Beleskey gets shots at a first liner rate, but his team surrenders shots at nearly a 4th liner rate when he's on the ice. Otherwise, his point rate seems pretty solid.
Things are strange with Beleskey even if we ignore his zone start usage. After years of being a mediocre possession player (at best), Beleskey actually jumped into above average territory this year. His drastic improvement is captured in two charts, the first from War on Ice and the second from Own the Puck:
Clearly, Beleskey has spent a majority of his career being a third line (or worse) forward in terms of possession play. For four out of his six seasons, he has been a negative influence in terms of shot rates for and against for his team. Which is why his ice time was capped at about 12 minutes per night by his coaches.
There has been a marked improvement in his game over the last two seasons by these measures, however. In 2013-14, his team's shot rate improved with him on the ice, enabling Beleskey to at least break even in terms of corsi overall. He took another step forward this past year in terms of both suppression and shot generation, putting him in the plus possession wise for the first time since he made the NHL.
Belesky enjoyed, by far, the best shooting percentage of his career this season (15.2%), which is crazy good for a guy who was a single digit finisher up until now.
If that was everything to Belesky's big jump, it would be easy to say GM's should probably avoid him. On the other hand, his noteworthy improvement in other areas of the game, particularly possession, suggest he might be a late bloomer. It's also possible, of course, that playing with guys like Getzlaf and Kesler helped drag Belesky's underlying numbers upwards.
The longer history of mediocre play would make me wary of Belesky, despite the apparent improvement recently. Any team who might be interested in this player should probably have an established, two-way centerman to play him with and be prepared to start him more often in the offensive zone. In addition, they shouldn't expect Beleskey to be worth a damn when it comes to puck distribution - he is one of the rare players who has managed to collect more goals (57) than assists (55) over the course of his career.
That's a lot of caveats and ifs to spend money on in the off-season, but there might just be a useful player there in the right situation.
It's unlikely Beleskey will put up another 15% scoring rate again next year, but he might sustain his goal production if a club that signs him gives him more ice time at ES and on the PP. He's unlikely to crack the 40-point plateau, however, given how poor he is at garnering assists.
Bryan Bickell is a good comparable for Beleskey, and not just because he pulled some playoff heroics that also inflated his offseason pricetag recently. Bickell also plays between 10-12 minutes per night and subs in with some of Chicago's stars now and then. Like Beleskey, he's good for between 20-30 points most seasons.
Although Bickell's $4 million/year contract is now considered a blunder by most, it wouldn't surprise me if Beleskey manages to leverage his career year/playoff outburst for something similar. His underlying numbers this season hint at a player who may have unexpectedly turned the corner at 27-years, but it may also be an aberration, which would mean he'll be a rather expensive and average third line winger for someone.