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Michael Raffl extension a shrewd move by GM Ron Hextall

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Given a choice between trading soon-to-be free agent Michael Raffl and signing him to an extension, Flyers general manager Ron Hextall chose the latter. Here's why it was the right decision.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

With only one day left until the NHL trade deadline, Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall made a final decision on the future of forward Michael Raffl. The 27-year old was in the last year of a two-year, $2.2 million contract, making him a natural candidate for trade if the Flyers had no interest in re-signing the forward.

A number of contenders expressed interest in Raffl, with the most aggressive apparently being the Florida Panthers. But Hextall and the Flyers had no intention of trading him on the cheap. TSN's Travis Yost reported yesterday that Philadelphia was close on an extension with Raffl, but were keeping him on the market just in case a particularly enticing offer materialized.

Today, the Flyers and Raffl finally put pen to paper, quashing all trade talk and ensuring that the forward would be a part of the team's future. In the end, Raffl received a three-year, $7.05 million contract extension, with a yearly salary cap hit of $2.35 million. Per General Fanager, the deal did not come with a no-trade clause.

In his three seasons with the Flyers, Raffl has played up and down the lineup, starting out as a fourth-line forward before settling in as a top-line winger last season. This year, first-year coach Dave Hakstol has shuffled his lines frequently, but Raffl still usually finds himself playing on Philadelphia's top three lines.

But is this extension the right move for the Flyers? First, we'll analyze Raffl's performance relative to all NHL forwards, to better understand where he ranks among his peers. Then, we'll compare his new contract to players receiving similar term and money. And finally, we'll see if Philadelphia would have been better off trying to replace Raffl in free agency rather than locking him up now.

How good is Michael Raffl?

Michael Raffl has his fans and his detractors. The fans point to his ability to drive play at even strength and his versatility in being capable of playing every forward position on each line. The detractors cite his underwhelming raw scoring totals and limited playmaking ability.

Raffl is certainly having a down year from a scoring standpoint in 2015-16. After potting 21 goals in 67 games in 2014-15, he only has eight goals in 61 games this season, totals more in line with those of his rookie season.

But are Raffl's career NHL scoring statistics really that underwhelming? He hasn't established himself as a power play forward, so it's best to judge him based on his even strength scoring. To that end, it helps to use 5-on-5 points per 60 to evaluate a player's efficiency at even strength. This allows us to account for the amount of ice time a player receives when judging his scoring talent.

Over his three NHL seasons, Raffl has posted a Points/60 of 1.41, ranking him ninth among Flyers' forwards over that timespan. But while the Austrian forward has scored a rate worthy of top-nine minutes with Philadelphia, that does not necessarily mean his statistics are truly top-nine worthy at the NHL level. After all, the Flyers have been far from an elite team over the past three seasons - maybe having players like Raffl playing on one of the team's top three lines has contributed to their mediocrity.

To answer that question, let's look at the overall points per 60 rankings for forwards over the past three seasons (Raffl's time in the NHL), and limit the dataset to those who have played at least 1000 5-on-5 minutes. Since there are 30 NHL teams, the top 90 forwards would essentially have scored a first-line level, those between 91 and 180 would be second liners, and 181 through 270 would be viable third line talents.

Role High-End Points/60 Low-End Points/60
First Line 2.79 1.82
Second Line 1.81 1.53
Third Line 1.53 1.24

This places Raffl as a solid third-line scorer. The eye test backs up the statistics in this case - few would go so far as to call the 27-year old a dynamic offensive player, but he rarely looks out of place when placed alongside highly-skilled forwards.

Now, let's do the same exercise to evaluate play-driving ability. By looking at a player's relative on-ice shot attempt differentials (or Corsi), we can evaluate if his team is generating more offense with him on the ice versus when he's sitting on the bench. In this category, Raffl has posted a healthy +5.10% Corsi Relative to his teammates. Where does that fall in the NHL at large?

Role High-End Corsi Rel Low-End Corsi Rel
First Liner +9.04% +2.43%
Second Liner +2.43% +0.57%
Third Liner +0.56% -1.23%

Here's where Raffl really thrives. From a puck possession standpoint, he's delivered on-ice results at the level of a high-end first line forward. He may not be getting the goals, but the ice is tilted in the right direction when he plays.

In the end, Michael Raffl is best categorized as a third-line scorer but top-line play driver. He's a support possession player, capable of helping to create offense for his linemates but not especially fantastic at finishing plays off. That's why he can play alongside stars like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek and not look out of place, but is still probably a second/third-line tweener on an elite squad.

Still, Raffl is certainly a useful player worth keeping.

Raffl and comparable contracts

Just because Raffl is a useful player does not necessarily mean that the Flyers signed him to a acceptable contract. There are many overpaid NHL players, and most are capable of performing at a solid level. Their compensation is simply out of line with their on-ice production.

In order to see if Raffl falls into the category of "steal" or "overpay," it helps to find other players that have recently signed deals in the ballpark of Raffl's extension. We'll limit the search to contracts given to forwards between the ages of 26 and 30 (late prime years) with a cap hit in the $2.3 to $2.5 million range over the past three seasons. We'll also only look at contracts that did not buy out any RFA seasons, so that we're making apples-to-apples comparisons.

Player Years Average Annual Value of Contract (AAV)
Chris Higgins 4 $2.50 million
Jannik Hansen 4 $2.50 million
Lauri Korpikoski 4 $2.50 million
Eric Nystrom 4 $2.50 million
Blake Comeau 3 $2.40 million
Michael Raffl 3 $2.35 million
Shawn Matthias 1 $2.30 million

Not exactly a murderer's row of talent here at first glance. But let's break down the statistics, looking at each player's even strength performance in the three years leading up to their respective extensions.

Player Three-Year 5v5 Points/60 Three-Year Corsi Relative
Jannik Hansen 1.82 -1.37%
Chris Higgins 1.70 +0.81%
Lauri Korpikoski 1.61 -5.74%
Shawn Matthias 1.53 -3.48%
Michael Raffl 1.41 +5.10%
Eric Nystrom 1.01 -4.70%
Blake Comeau 0.85 +2.74%

Raffl falls right in the middle in terms of even strength scoring, but absolutely blows away the pack when judging play-driving ability. When looking at these comparables, it's fair to say that the Flyers paid about market value for Raffl's point production while getting a bargain on his puck possession capabilities.

On the whole, Raffl looks like a pretty darn good buy.

If not Raffl, then who else?

So far, we've determined that Michael Raffl is a third-line scoring talent and a top-line Corsi player. We've also seen that his three-year, $7.05 million contract is far from an overpay, actually falling in line with similar even strength rate scorers and below the market value for comparable puck possession forwards.

But the Flyers did have another option. With Raffl set to hit free agency absent a contract extension, Ron Hextall could have chosen to pursue an upgrade to the 27-year old forward in free agency. A true improvement over Raffl would likely be a player with more scoring ability who still has the ability to drive possession. And considering the risk in signing aging talent, Ron Hextall would probably want to target someone around Raffl's age, rather than replace him with a player on the downward slope of his career.

The problem? There aren't many pending UFAs that fit the bill, and even fewer that could be signed for anywhere near the AAV that Hextall just gave Raffl.

Forward Age Three-Year Points/60 Three-Year Corsi Relative
Kyle Okposo 27 2.19 +1.37%
Andrew Ladd 30 1.83 +2.43%
Loui Eriksson 30 1.70 +3.49%
David Perron 27 1.69 +2.19%
Kris Versteeg 29 1.56 +1.39%
Sam Gagner 26 1.45 +2.18%
Michael Raffl 27 1.41 +5.10%
Darren Helm 29 1.39 +2.29%
Teddy Purcell 30 1.36 +2.92%
Jiri Tlusty 27 1.30 +1.77%

Okposo, Ladd and Eriksson will almost certainly command top dollar on the free agent market - think five years or more with a cap hit over $6 million. The Flyers clearly haven't been impressed with Sam Gagner, considering his regular scratchings and stay in Lehigh Valley.

That leaves five viable options - Perron, Versteeg, Helm, Purcell, and Tlusty - as potential Raffl replacements. In my opinion, the only player who seems to be a no-doubt improvement would be Perron. He's a consistent 40+ point scorer who is young enough to be a viable piece of the Flyers' core for years to come.

But would letting Raffl leave to chase Perron really be a prudent way to do business? After all, he's been very impressive in Anaheim ever since being traded in January - maybe the Ducks will simply keep him. Maybe he just won't want to come to Philadelphia.

In that case, Hextall has three options: break out the checkbook for one of Okposo, Ladd or Eriksson, chase a player like Helm, Purcell or Tlusty (all of whom would probably be downgrades at even strength), or not replace Raffl at all, weakening the team's forward corps.

Instead, Hextall chose the safe route, retaining an above-average forward who clearly fits Dave Hakstol's system and wants to be in Philadelphia. It's tough to argue with the decision when weighing the risks and rewards involved with letting him leave.

Conclusion

Ron Hextall's decision to sign Michael Raffl to an extension makes all the sense in the world. Raffl scores like a third-liner and drives play like a first-liner, and is capable of playing both wings and even center in a pinch. He's not a superstar by any means, but a useful role player who could fit on any NHL team's top three lines.

The terms of the extension look good for the Flyers as well. Raffl is right in the middle of the pack from a scoring standpoint when looking at players who have signed comparable deals over the past three years, but the Austrian forward drives play better than any of them. Hextall paid fair value for Raffl's scoring, and got an elite puck possession player as a bonus.

Finally, it would have been very risky to let Raffl test free agency, considering the dearth of reasonably-priced forward options on the market capable of scoring at a top-nine level while also driving play. If he intended to replace Raffl on the UFA market, Hextall would have been forced to dish out a large contract to one of the few elite options or chase players similar to Raffl in even strength performance.

After weighing his options, Hextall shrewdly chose to retain Michael Raffl at a reasonable price. It's a move that should pay dividends for the Flyers in the coming seasons.

All statistics in this piece via war-on-ice.com and/or stats.hockeyanalysis.com.