Who’s Left? Unrestricted Free Agent Defencemen Still on the Market

Updated: July 8, 2015 at 3:19 pm by Cam Lewis

All in all, 2015 has given us a pretty tame offseason so far. The crop of unrestricted free agents wasn’t too strong, and as a result of a lower than expected salary cap ceiling, there wasn’t as much money to be spent as usual. As a result, a match made in heaven where teams didn’t massively overpay for the average to above average players on the market. Aside from Ryan O’Reilly’s bizarre, bulletproof contract with the Sabres, there haven’t been many ugly contracts handed out over the past week. 

Although a good chunk of the top talent from this year’s UFA class is off the board, a few big names are still floating around on the market. Some of the guys available flying under the radar would make great additions and could really be worth top dollar, while others seem like the types who should be avoided like the plague. 

After the jump I’ll take a look at some of the interesting names left of the 2015 UFA defenceman crop.

Cody Franson

Cody Franson is my favourite defenceman from the 2015 UFA class. Not just of the ones left over, all of them. For whatever reason, he’s the type of player that fails the casual eye test. He’s a huge guy that isn’t overly physical, he looks slow, and there’s an opinion floating around among fans that suggests he’s poor defensively. It’s also been widely accepted that he was terrible in his stint with the Predators last season, largely because he didn’t see much action in Nashville’s first round series against the Hawks. A deeper look at the numbers suggests that when Franson is on the ice, the teams he plays for are better than they are when he isn’t. 

I’ll start with his short time with the Predators. Franson played 23 games in the regular season with the Predators after being traded from the Leafs, in which he averaged 15:25 minutes of ice time per game and managed to score just one goal and four points, which was well below his career average. If you stop there, it looks like Franson was no more than a bottom pairing defenceman who brought nothing offensively. In those 23 games, Franson managed a 57.7 even strength Corsi For percentage, which was strong in relation to his teammates, all while starting roughly 56 per cent of his shifts in the defensive zone. He was even better in even strength close situations. At even strength close, his Corsi For jumped up to 61.7, much better than his teammates, and his zone starts shifted aggressively in favour of the defensive zone. So he really wasn’t as mad as the basic stats/eye test suggest. 

In his time with the Leafs, Franson was a strong offensive producer. Last year, he scored six goals and 32 points in 55 games with the Leafs, similar to the five goals and 33 points he scored in 79 games the year before. He also managed to have positive possession stats in relation to his teammates every season in his time in Toronto. His zone starts while with the Leafs were much, much easier than they were in Nashville, which would suggest why his production was a lot stronger before he was traded. Long story short, he didn’t produce much, but he was excellent in a defensive role with the Predators, but when he’s given more offensive zone starts like the was with the Leafs, he can be a solid offensive producer. 

Franson will likely have a pretty hefty price tag attached to him, but it’ll be worth it. He’s a guy who can excel defensively, but also produce offensively depending on how his coach uses him. Sure, he looks slow, or lazy, or whatever, but every underlying metric suggests that the teams he plays for are better when he’s on the ice then they are when he isn’t. It’s as simple as that, really.

Johnny Oduya

Johnny Oduya is the exact opposite of Cody Franson. When Oduya is on the ice, his team isn’t as good as it is when he’s on the ice. In fact, his team’s possession stats go down quite a bit when he’s playing even though he’s been given pretty favorable zone starts over the past few seasons in Chicago. Despite all that, he’s the type of player who passes the eye test, largely because he’s a playoff warrior who logged a ton of minutes during Chicago’s Stanley Cup run this season. Hey, I can’t really blame people for liking that. Oduya certainly isn’t a bad player, but asking for him to be as good as he has been in Chicago in a similar role on a different team is asking for trouble. 

Oduya has put up a 51.1, 53.0, and 54.9 Corsi For percentage at even strength in his past three seasons. Those seem like pretty good numbers, but they’re well below average in relation to his teammates. To be fair, though, of course they will be when your teammates are Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, etc. But there really is no doubt that Oduya’s game will take hit on a new team due to a combination of weaker teammates and the simple fact he’s going to turn 34 at the beginning of the season. He would make a nice upgrade on a good team, but asking Oduya to come in and be the centerpiece of a D core is asking for trouble. Regardless, it seems that he’s waiting for Chicago to move some money around to make room for him anyway, so I expect him to be a Hawk again next season.

Christian Ehrhoff 

Christian Ehrhoff had a decent save my career season with the Penguins last year after being bought out by the Sabres at the end of the 2013-14 season. To be honest, he wasn’t actually all that much better with the Penguins than he was in his time with Buffalo. He really wasn’t that bad with the Sabres at all. In those three years with Buffalo, he averaged more than 23:00 minutes of ice time per game, produced at a pretty consistent clip offensively, and was a positive possession player in two of the three years. His Corsi For percentage in 2013-14 at even strength was only 46.0, which isn’t great, but it was pretty strong in relation to his teammates, which makes sense, because the Sabres were/are a dumpster fire. 

Anyways, his numbers with Pittsburgh were pretty solid. His Corsi bumped up to 51.5 per cent at even strength, largely because he was playing on a better team. He started more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, but the shifts weren’t too exaggerated. In 49 games, he managed three goals and 14 points and surprisingly, only two assists came on the power play. Throughout his career, Ehrhoff has been the benefactor of production on the man advantage. He was 72 goals and 255 assists in his career, 29 and 121 of them came on the power play. 

Ehrhoff is a guy who can produce at a nice clip offensively, especially if he’s given soft zone starts and heavy power play minutes. If he’s being signed to be a top pairing, all around defenceman, he may not be worth it, but if he’s being brought in to produce big numbers in offensive situations, he will be. That being said, teams shouldn’t be paying a premium for him for that exact reason. He can be a great complimentary piece if he’s put in the right situation, but not if he’s being relied upon to be a top pairing, all situations guy.

Sergei Gonchar 

Apparently Sergei Gonchar is still looking to play NHL hockey. At 40 years old, there’s absolutely zero doubt his best years are behind him, but there could still be something left in the tank. Is he worth the risk? Personally, I think teams are better off signing old man Gonchar to a one and done contract to play in offensive situations than they are giving Christian Ehrfoff a bunch of money over a few years to do the same. Of course, there’s a chance Gonchar completely falls off a cliff this season, but that’s okay, because he won’t command more than a one year “going for it one more time” type contract. 

Gonchar was pretty underwhelming last season with the Canadiens. He played 45 games, he scored one goal and 12 assists while averaging 17:00 minutes of ice time per game. He also started 51.7 per cent of his even strength shifts in the offensive zone, a number that could probably be increased for him to be more effective in his role. All in all, Gonchar is a pretty big risk, because he could be really, really bad next season. But he probably isn’t as big of a risk as Ehrhoff, who’s going to command way more money and term, especially for a team tight to the cap looking for a boost offensively. 

Lubomir Visnovsky 

Speaking of old defencemen still hanging around looking for another kick at the can, Lubomir Visnovsky could be a nice, cheap, short term option for a team in need of a blue line upgrade. He’s obviously better than Gonchar at this point, but he has a bigger question mark attached to him due to his concussion issues. Visnovsky carved out a nice niche over the past few seasons with the Islanders, producing offensively and putting up strong possession numbers. Of course, the main concern with Lubo is his injury history. In the past two years, he’s only played 53 and 24 games and he hasn’t played a season since 2010-11. Like Gonchar, though, Visnovsky is certainly worth the risk if a team doesn’t have the money to spend on Ehrhoff. 

Andrej Meszaros 

It feels like Andrej Meszaros has been in the league forever, but he’s only 29 years old. He fell off the grid a little bit last year due to the fact he played for the very forgettable Buffalo Sabres, but despite the fact he had a pretty mediocre season by his standards, he’s still a nice option for a team looking for a guy who can do a little bit of everything. Throughout his career, Meszaros has been a pretty solid possession guy who makes roughly the same amount of starts in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. Last year, he put up far and away the worst even strength Corsi For percentage of his career at 39.1. Despite that, he was still a positive possession player in relation to his teammates, which is an incredible testament to how bad Buffalo was, and how serviceable Andrej Meszaros is. He’s not exactly an exciting player, he doesn’t produce much offensively, but he’s an effective player who can eat somewhere between 17:00 and 20:00 minutes of ice time per game. On top of that, he probably won’t have a huge price tag attached to him either. 

Stats Courtesy of Hockey Reference