The 2015 Unrestricted Free Agent class boasts a handful of good defencemen looking for new contracts. There are a lot of options out there for teams who are starving for good blue liners, especially ones who can produce offensively. I’m going to break down some of the most attractive free agents available into a couple of categories based on the types of contracts they’ll be looking for due to a combination of their age and value. There are young, top pairing guys looking for fat, long term contracts, then veteran guys who can still produce at a high level but won’t warrant as much term. After that, I’ll look at some of the teams who desperately need defencemen and who has the money to sign these guys.
TOP YOUNG GUYS
Cody Franson might be the hottest commodity on the market this summer. Before being traded to the Predators, Franson was putting up the best numbers of his career on a really bad Maple Leafs squad. Through 55 games with Toronto, Franson scored six goals and 26 assists, with 17 points coming at even strength. After being traded to Nashville, though, it seemed like he fell off the grid. His minutes per game heavily decreased from roughly 21 to 15 minutes per game and he only managed four points in 23 games. At a glance, it looks like he was horrible. When you look a little deeper, though, his peripheral stats tell a different story. Franson was starting way more shifts in the defensive zone than he ever had at any point in his career and he put up a really impressive 57.7 Corsi For percentage despite his difficult assignments. It could be argued that this was because he was playing on a really successful possession team in Nashville, but the fact his Corsi For percentage in relation to his teammates was the best ever in his career suggests otherwise.
Franson has spent the last few years signing short term bridge deals, and it looks like he’s finally going to hit the jackpot this summer. His last deal, signed with the Leafs, was worth $3.3 million over one year, and I expect that number to be almost doubled. Franson is only 27 and he’s put up good offensive stats on pretty bad teams for the past few seasons. He’s proven he can play well at both ends of the ice, face tough assignments, produce offensively, and make his team better than what it is when he isn’t on the ice. All in all, that’s a really attractive commodity. He may not be a top pairing guy, but somebody is going to pay him like he is.
Mike Green epitomizes the type of player who tends to get overpaid in free agency. It’s not that he’s a bad player or anything, it’s just that his history of putting up a lot of points makes him an attractive commodity. He isn’t quite the dominant producer he was four or five years ago when he was putting up 70 plus points, but Green is fresh off a 45 point season, which is pretty attractive to general manager looking for somebody who can provide offence from the blue line. Green boasted a pretty solid 52.3 Corsi For percentage at even strength this season which was slightly better than his teams average, meaning the Capitals were a little bit better when he was on the ice than they were when he wasn’t. He isn’t averaging the same amount of shot attempts as he used to back in his 70 point seasons, but he’s been taking on a much bigger defensive role by starting less shifts in the offensive zone than he used to.
Green’s last deal paid him $18.25 million over three years, giving him one of those frustrating to type out cap hits of $6.083 million. With that salary, he was just outside of the top 10 in terms of highest paid defencemen in the NHL. The Capitals have about $21 million to spend this summer depending on where the cap ends up, and they have eight forwards, five defencemen, and one goalie signed. Personally, I think it became inevitable that Green would be on his way out when the Capitals invested a combined $11 million on Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik last summer. All in all, Green is a good player, and somebody is going to hand him a ton of money.
Jeff Petry has flown under the radar his entire career. He was never really favored by management in Edmonton despite being pretty easily their best defenceman the past few seasons, but a pretty strong playoff performance has helped prove that Petry is an attractive commodity. He was traded to the Canadiens at the deadline where it took him a while to adjust, as his Corsi For percentage was much below his career average in Edmonton and was pretty bad in relation to his teammates. The playoffs were a different story, though. Through 12 playoff games, he smothered his opponents with a 54.1 Corsi For percentage with tough opponent assignments.
He was paid $3.075 million last season, and since he’s only 27 years old, he’ll be looking at a pretty hefty pay raise over a decently long term. I doubt he’ll garner as much as Green or Franson because he doesn’t have the same offensive pedigree, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him ink a deal that gives him a cap hit of $5.0 million per season.
A couple of years ago, Andrej Sekera enjoyed a nice breakout season in Carolina. He had been around for a while, but he posted career highs in goals, points, time on ice, and point shares, which really started to put him on the map. He chose a nice time to break out, because just one year later, he hits free agency. He’s a lot like Franson actually, because he was traded to the Kings midseason, put up pretty weak offensive numbers, but had really good underlying peripheral stats. Sekera had the best Corsi For percentage of his career in 16 games with the Kings, which is a small sample size, but it makes his poor production less damning.
He was paid $11 million over four years on his last deal with a cap hit of $2.75 million. I expect him, like the other guys, to get a pretty decent raise on a fairly long term because he’s only 28 years old.
For any team who misses out one of the guys in the above category, Paul Martin makes a nice, and much cheaper consolation prize. Martin has consistently logged at least 22 minutes a game in every season since his rookie year and he’s done so while making a good chunk of his starts in the defensive zone. His basic production numbers aren’t quite as flashy as Green’s, but he finished in the top 20 in even strength Corsi For percentage among defencemen who logged at least 1200 minutes last season. In the best seasons of his career between 2007-2011, Martin was basically a lock to have a 55+ Corsi For percentage at even strength, which was much higher than most of his teammate’s numbers. In essence, throughout his career, teams are better when Martin is playing than when he isn’t. The one blip in the radar for Martin had been the past two seasons where he finished with a slightly below 50 Corsi For percentage.
Martin’s last deal was worth $25 million over five years, giving him a nice cap hit of $5.0 million. Since he’s five years older than Green, he’ll probably be looking for less term, which could actually make him the more attractive target. I doubt he’ll make much less than he did on his last deal, especially if he’s signing for less term. There’s no way the Penguins will be able to afford to bring him back because they only have about $13 million to spend on a roster that needs six more forwards, two more defencemen, and a backup goalie.
Speaking of players the Pens likely won’t be able to afford, Christian Ehrhoff is looking for a new deal this summer. Ehrhoff was injured for about half of the year, but when he was playing, he put up some decent numbers. Three goals and 11 assists in 49 games doesn’t look great, but 12 of those 14 points came at even strength. He also had a 51.4 Corsi For percentage at even strength despite playing against pretty tough competition.
After being bought out by the Sabres, Ehrhoff signed a one year, $4.0 million deal with the Penguins, a total I expect him to match again this year in free agency. He’s only 32 years old, and while he isn’t quite the player he was in his Vancouver days, he’s been a positive offensive contributor and a good possession player every year of his career. Even when he played for the Sabres, his Corsi For percentage was at career low levels, but it was still really good in relation to his teammates. Like Martin, Ehrhoff is a veteran risk worth taking because he probably won’t demand the same long term implications as Green or Franson.
Francois Beauchemin is an interesting, and tough to gauge situation. The Ducks are in a really nice cap situation right now, with about $18 million in cap space available at 10 forwards, eight defencemen, and two goalies already under contract. Aside from Ryan Kesler, who becomes a UFA at the end of next season, most of their key players are either locked up for the foreseeable future, or they aren’t anywhere near UFA status. With that in mind, it’s tough to see Beauchemin leaving the Ducks to play anywhere else. He’s been a good player for Anaheim, and the one time he did leave back in 2009 to play with the Leafs, it didn’t work out too well. If he does decide to move on, though, he’s certainly a valuable player as he can much a ton of minutes and play a really strong game on the defensive side of the puck.
If a team misses out on all of those guys, and they’re looking for somebody who can rack up some points, Marek Zidlicky is a nice option. Zidlicky’s last contract paid him $4.0 million including bonuses, but had a $3.0 million cap hit. I imagine his next deal will be of the one year variety at around the same cost, which is pretty low risk for a team looking for some offensive production from the blue line. Another guy worth mentioning is Johnny Oduya, who most likely won’t be back in Chicago due to their cap situation. His last contract had a cap hit of $3.375 million over three years and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him match that on his next contract. He’s been a decent possession guy throughout his time with Chicago and he’s a sure bet to munch at least 20 minutes per game. He doesn’t provide much in the way of offence, but he’s a nice, reliable player to have on the blue line.
WHERE DO THEY GO
I wrote in my last article about goaltenders that this isn’t really a great year to be a free agent. It’s been well noted at this point, but a lot of teams are in pretty ugly cap situations and simply don’t have the money to spend on overpriced free agents. A bunch of teams are already stacked right up against the cap without a full roster filled up, or they have incoming free agents of their own they need to deal with. Of course, regardless of the cap situation, there are always teams out there that go ahead and sign a player to a massive contract because they feel he’s the one who’s going to push the team over the top. Then you also have a bunch of teams who are rebuilding and may use their massive amounts of cap space to add a nice piece to their defensive core.
Both the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have a boat load of money laying around. They’re both awful teams, they probably want to continue being awful so they can add a few more high draft selections, but they have the money to spend on a key member of their long term core. If a guy is willing to listen to the money, and is happy to be a part of a rebuilding process, both Arizona and Buffalo are good options. Both teams need pretty much everything, but the Coyotes in particular are pretty thin on D especially after the departure of Keith Yandle. The Sabres are a little stronger on D, but hell, it’s the Sabres, they’re nowhere near good enough to say no to any of Mike Green, Jeff petry, Cody Franson, or Andrej Sekera. In a cap bound world, Arizona and Buffalo have the best ability to outbid pretty much anybody.
Same goes for the Oilers, but not quite to the same extent. It certainly isn’t a mystery to anybody that the Oilers are paper thin on D, but they’re a little further into their rebuild so they can’t afford, figuratively and literally, to throw wads of cash at defencemen like it’s Halloween in July. Regardless, they still have a pressing need on D, so I’m fairly certain we’ll see them in on some of the top free agents available, especially if they can manage to lock somebody up to a shorter term deal.
The Dallas Stars had a really disappointing season last year. They had a huge offseason last summer, acquiring Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, but they weren’t able to keep the puck out of the net, resulting in their powerful offence going to waste. The Stars have 11 forwards, five defencemen, and one goalie signed with about $16 million in cap space to spend. Their long term cap situation looks pretty nice, as Jamie Benn has another two seasons before becoming a UFA, and by then, Ales Hemsky’s contract will be coming off the shelf. They certainly have the money to add one, or even two of the aforementioned guys.
There a handful of other teams who will likely be in on these guys, too. The Flames, Preds, and Islanders all have quite a bit of cap space and all took a big step last season. They’ll likely be using some of that open space to bring in a player that can help them build on what they accomplished this year.
Long story short, there are a lot of teams who need defencemen, and there are quite a few quality D available, so needs will be fulfilled. The difference this year is that with the amount of teams pressed against the cap. As a result, cap crunched teams will be selling, so teams who need D could be looking to fill their holes via trade rather than free agency because they’ll be less likely to have to overpay on dollars and term. Had the cap gone up like some people assumed it would, these free agents would be looking at a bigger payday because more teams would be in on the free agency frenzy. Unfortunately for them, this could be a more conservative summer than we’re used to.