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Top 10 2014 NHL Free Agent Defenseman

Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

Expanded look at unrestricted free agency this week by Todd Cordell, who can be found on twitter @ToddCordell. Other Top UFA pieces: Centers, 1-10 Wingers, 11-20 Wingers .

If you’re an NHL GM looking for help on defense, this isn’t the free agency class for you.

While there are a few quality defensemen available, the cost to bring them in will likely exceed their actual worth because there aren’t many alternatives.

I think what we’ll see is that Matt Niskanen will be overpaid based on his career year and slow, stay-at-home defensive defensemen like Brooks Orpik (i.e. guys who can’t skate, make an outlet pass and spend most of their shifts chasing play in their own zone) will rake in most of the cash, while vastly underrated players like Mark Fayne, Tom Gilbert, etc. slip through the cracks and sign relatively cheap.

In this post we’ll be looking at the top-10 defensemen whom could test the market come July 1. The rankings will take into account standard stats such as goals, assists, and points as well as advanced stats such as Corsi For% relative to the team, and points per 60 minutes of 5 vs 5 and/or 5 vs 4.

Honorable mentions: Sami Salo, Derek Morris, Brooks Orpik, Andrej Meszaros and Willie Mitchell.

10. Raphael Diaz – New York Rangers – 28-years old
Prior contract: two years, $2.45 million ($1.225M cap hit)

Diaz has struggled to stay in the lineup throughout his career, but he has produced offense when given a chance. He has 45 points in 145 career games, and has been very effective on the power play. Diaz has averaged 3.37 points/60 on the man advantage over the last three seasons, which ranks 41st in the NHL among defensemen in that span. That’s ahead of the likes of Dan Boyle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Drew Doughty, among others, though Diaz’s sample size is smaller.

If someone will take a shot on the Swiss defensemen and give him a chance to be a regular, they could reap the rewards.

9. Andre Benoit – Colorado Avalanche – 30-years old
Prior contract: one year, $900,000 ($900K cap hit)

Benoit’s first full season as a regular in the NHL was a success, as he recorded 28 points while playing in 79 games for the Avalanche.

Benoit was 5th among free agent defensemen in even strength scoring with 14 points, and he was quite effective on the power play averaging 2.50 points/60 minutes of ice on the man advantage.

I still have questions about him as a potential top-4 defenseman – I think he’s best suited on the 3rd pairing and 2nd power play unit – but I think he’d be a good depth guy for any team.

8. Anton Volchenkov – New Jersey Devils – 32-years old
Prior contract: six years, $25.5 million ($4.25M cap hit)

After being caught up in a numbers game where the Devils needed to clear roster spots for Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill as well as gain cap space to bring in help up front, Volchenkov was bought out by the Devils.

Volchenkov is still a good defenseman, though, and was dumped more so because of his contract than anything else.

He’s not a possession anchor like most that are labeled as defensive defenseman, and he can hold his own against tough competition. Not only that, but he’s physical, will block any shot that comes his way and is quite effective killing penalties.

7. Stephane Robidas – Anaheim Ducks – 37-years old
Prior contract: four years, $13.2 million ($3.3M cap hit)

Robidas is a tough, in your face defensemen who plays way bigger than his size. He’s highly regarded as a shot blocker and penalty killer extraordinaire, but he’s an underrated puck mover, too, and is one of the best defensemen available in this year’s class.

He’s 37 and coming off two serious leg injuries so there’d be some risk involved, but if he can get back to the way he was playing prior I think any team would be happy to have him.

While playing for both Dallas and Anaheim they drove possession at a higher rate with him than without, and he managed to chip in offensively with five goals in 38 games (11 goal pace).

6. Mark Fayne – New Jersey Devils – 27-years old
Prior contract: two years, $2.6 million ($1.3M cap hit)

Fayne, like Anton Stralman, won’t put up many points, but he’s a lot better than most people give him credit for.

Fayne is sound in his own zone, can handle top competition and help out on the penalty kill. He’s also good with zone exits, as he regularly hits teammates for safe outlet passes that get the puck out of the zone.

He was a 55.3% Corsi player on a 53.8% possession team, so the Devils were better with him on the ice than sitting on the bench.

He won’t produce many points so he probably won’t command much money, which is good news for any team that tries to sign him, as they will likely end up getting a top-4 defenseman under market value.

5. Tom Gilbert – Florida Panthers – 31-years old
Prior contract: one year, $900,000 ($900K cap hit)

After being bought out by the Minnesota Wild, Gilbert had to wait long into the summer to get his contract with Florida, and was about ready to head overseas to continue his playing career.

It’s a good thing Dale Tallon came to his senses and picked him up, though, as he was quietly very effective playing alongside Brian Campbell on Florida’s top pairing last season.

Gilbert was excellent at full strength, as he was a 51.7% Corsi player on a team sub 50%, and was 2nd in 5 vs 5 scoring among free agent defensemen with 20 points.

He won’t put up a ton of points, but he’ll chip in here and there, and can more than hold his own against top competition.

4. Dan Boyle – San Jose Sharks/NY Islanders – 37-years old
Prior contract: Six years, $40 million ($6.667M cap hit)

Boyle is getting up there in age and his best days are behind him, but he’s still an effective puck-moving defenseman who could be a big help to any team on the power play. Boyle averaged just less than 4 points/60 minutes of ice on the man advantage, which ranked 1st among free agent defensemen. Those numbers were probably a little inflated playing with all the talent he had on his side in San Jose, but he’s been effective on the man advantage his whole career and there’s no reason to believe he’s in line for a significant decrease in production elsewhere.

His power play work was excellent, but he had just 13 even strength points in 75 regular season games so he’s not going to be a steady producer at full strength. His 5 vs 5 points/60 of .63 ranked below Andre Benoit, Scott Hannon, and Stephane Robidas, among others, but he’s OK in possession and will chip in here and there so he should be fine.

Boyle would be best suited on a contending team where he doesn’t have to play top pairing minutes and can be spoon-fed power play ice.

3. Anton Stralman – New York Rangers – 27-years old
Prior contract: two years, $3.4 million ($1.7M cap hit)

Stralman is probably the most underrated defenseman in hockey, and after a very solid season coupled with a strong playoff run in New York, he’s in line for a big pay increase. That said, I think he’ll be worth every penny he gets.

Stralman had a 56.5% Corsi rating in the regular season on a team that was 50.5% without him (+6% relative to the team). Stralman is a weird case in that he doesn’t put up many points, but his team spends most of the time in the offensive zone, and score a lot of goals when he’s on the ice.

Over the last two seasons Stralman is 4th among defensemen with 2,000+ minutes played in goals for% at 55.6%. That means when he’s on the ice during 5 vs 5 play, the Rangers score 55.6% of all goals. That number is ahead of the likes of Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, and his teammate Ryan McDonagh, among many others.

I have a feeling he’ll get around $4 million per season on his next contract, and I’d pay him that any day of the week.

2. Matt Niskanen – Pittsburgh Penguins – 27-years old
Prior contract: two years, $4.6 million ($2.3M cap hit)

The Penguins’ blue line was decimated by injuries this past season, which gave Niskanen the opportunity to play more minutes than planned, and he absolutely made the most of them.

Niskanen scored 10 goals and added 46 points – 27 of which came during 5 vs 5 play – in 81 regular season games, before tallying nine more points in 13 playoff games.

Niskanen’s underlying numbers were equally as impressive, as his Corsi For% was above 53 on a team that was under 46% without him on the ice. His +7.3 Corsi For% relative to his team was the highest number in that regard among all free agent defensemen.

He was also excellent on the power play, as he averaged 3.72 points/60 minutes of ice on the man advantage. Dan Boyle is the only free agent defensemen who produced points at a higher rate than Niskanen.

Niskanen’s 13-14 campaign was very impressive in all aspects, but it’ll be hard to replicate that success again, and I doubt he’ll be able to live up to the big contract he’ll sign in the coming days.

1. Christian Ehrhoff – Buffalo Sabres – 31-years old
Prior contract: 10 years, $40 million ($4M cap hit)

After being bought out by the Sabres, I believe Ehrhoff instantly becomes the top defenseman on the market.

Playing big minutes for a very poor team in Buffalo he was able to produce points, drive possession and managed to keep a sinking ship afloat better than anyone else on the roster.

Simply put, the Sabres did significantly better with Ehrhoff on the ice than when he was on the bench. The Sabres had a 46% Corsi rating when he was on the ice, and were a 42% possession team when he wasn’t. The Sabres scored 40.6% of all goals when he was on the ice, and only 33.3% when he wasn’t.

He also managed to put up 33 points playing for the worst offensive team in hockey.

At 31 he still has some good hockey left in the tank, and would be a huge addition to the top-4 of any team.
 

Notes: Corsi For% is simply used to track shot attempts taken while a player is on the ice. If Player X is a 60% Corsi player, that means 60% of all shot attempts when he’s on the ice go towards the opposing net, while only 40% head in the direction of his goaltender’s net. This number is used to see who’s driving play, and generally having higher Corsi numbers leads to more production. Corsi For% relative to the team compares a player’s numbers to those of his team when he’s not on the ice. If Player X is a 60% Corsi player and his team is 55% without him, which gives him a Corsi Relative% of +5%.

Points per 60 minutes is simply how many points Player X records per 60 minutes of any given situation. If Player X had 10 5 vs 5 points in 120 minutes of ice, his 5 vs 5 points/60 would be 5. The same goes for goals and assists.

All numbers are via CapGeek, HockeyAnalysis, and ExtraSkater.