Why Devante Smith-Pelly Remains Unsigned

Devante Smith-Pelly turned 22 in June and is coming off a season in which he led his AHL team with 27 goals, got a late season call up to the Anaheim Ducks, and capped it off by leading the team with 5 goals in 12 playoff games.


So why is Smith-Pelly still sitting at home without a contract for the 2014-15 season?


As a restricted free agent (RFA), any team can sign Smith-Pelly to an offer sheet, but the Ducks have the right to match that offer. If the Ducks let Smith-Pelly go, they’re entitled to compensation in the form of a draft pick (or multiple picks) from his new team. What they get depends on what he signs for.


So, for example, if Smith-Pelly signed for between $1,682,194 and $3,364,391, the Ducks would be entitled to a second round draft pick. Meanwhile, if he signed for between $3,364,391 and $5,046,585, they would get a first round pick and a third.


Let’s assume for a moment that Smith-Pelly could be signed in the $1.682 million to $3.364 million range. Should someone make that offer?


Assuming the money isn’t scaring anyone away, the answer then depends on whether Smith-Pelly, who went in the second round (#42 overall) in 2010, is still worth a second round pick.


To figure that out, we looked at every player drafted between #31 and #60 between 2001 and 2010. We then subtracted the 26 goalies in that group, which left us with 274 skaters.


Next we figured out how many regular season games each player got into in the 4 NHL seasons following his draft year.  For 143 of those players, that number was zero.  In other words, the probability of getting a single game out of a second round pick in the next 4 seasons is only 47.81%.


On average a second round pick has only a 12.41% chance of playing more than 75 games in the first 4 seasons after he’s drafted, meaning Smith-Pelly, who already has 75 games under his belt, is well ahead of the pack.


Next we looked at points among forwards, which left us with 88 players. Among that group, Smith-Pelly also looked solid, ranking 25th in terms of total points (23) and 34th in terms of points per game (0.31).


In other words, not only has Smith-Pelly been better than the average 2nd rounder, who doesn’t log a single NHL game in his first 4 seasons after being drafted, he’s also been significantly more productive than the average forward who does get into games.


Clearly that second round pick isn’t the disincentive, so what’s keeping the other 29 teams from sending out an offer sheet?


There’s a bit of an unwritten rule in NHL circles that signing another team’s RFAs is dirty pool, but if you’re willing to spend the money and give up the draft pick(s), it seems like a no brainer.


As Calgary showed when it signed Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet two years ago, pursuing an RFA can be win / win. If the other team doesn’t match, you get the player at a price you can live with. If the other team does match, you don’t get the player, but you can still make a mess of a rival’s salary cap structure.


What’s trickier is managing the fallout in the future.  Because if you do violate the unwritten agreement on RFAs, unless the other team is low on cap space there’s a chance they can come after your RFAs next year, thereby pressuring you in the same way, especially if you already gave up precious cap space to sign their guy.


The Ducks have more than $10 million in cap space, which suggests they should have a high appetite to match an offer sheet and would still have room to burn you back next year.


And while Smith-Pelly has proved himself to be more valuable than an average second rounder, if you believe the Ducks are going to match any offer below $3,364,391, that means the only way you get the player is if you pay more and give up a first and third round pick as compensation. It’s a lot harder to justify that price.


Signing an RFA is a complicated dance in which NHL teams have shown some willingness to pursue RFAs aggressively but have more often been very cautious despite an individual player’s value.


My guess is the carrot of first line ice time with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry will entice Smith-Pelly to sign before training camp starts.  But if I were a team that had significant cap space and few RFAs to resign in the near term (e.g. the Buffalo Sabres) I might put that theory to the test with an offer sheet.

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