NHL Free Agency 2013: 6 Teams in Desperate Need of Defense
When the lockout ends and free agency resumes, some NHL teams are still going to need to shore up their defense.
Though most of the biggest names on the market were snapped up prior to the work stoppage, that's not going to stop some organizations from scrounging from the remains. Then again, for most of the teams on this list, throwing $100 million at Ryan Suter wouldn't have solved all their problems anyway; the defensive woes run deeper than that.
Let's take a look at the teams that will be wanting for defensive help when the league returns to action.
A team with Ryan Miller in net should not struggle to keep pucks out of the net.
The Buffalo Sabres have already done the toughest part of building a team by nabbing a marquee goaltender. That said, the impact of turning away more shots is undone if the opposition can fire at will.
Even with Miller starting 60-plus games a year, the Sabres have consistently been pedestrian in terms of goals against. Last season, they ranked 18th in the league with a 2.72 goals against average, and it's not difficult to see why. The Sabres gave up the fourth-most shots against in the league last year, allowing 31.4 shots on goal.
Buffalo has the beginnings of a defensive corps in Tyler Myers, who is making strides but still has not reached his ceiling. After that, the rest of the Sabres' defensemen don't have much potential to improve. Which is unfortunate, because Buffalo's defensemen are wasting a great goalie.
The Carolina Hurricanes need multiple pieces to turn around their defensive unit.
If the Hurricanes are committed to Cam Ward in goal (his contract doesn't expire until 2015-16), they must get some protection in front of him. Seven Carolina defesemen averaged at least 19 minutes on ice per game; four of those guys were minus-10 or worse in plus/minus, and only one recorded a positive mark.
Unfortunately, Ward is not the young phenom the organization thought he was when it won the 2006 Stanley Cup. He's a guy with a .910 career save percentage, which is a decent mark, but not much more. So when Ward's skaters allow 32.4 shots against per game, the most in the league, he's not going to be able to hold up behind them.
Carolina has a ways to go to get back on track. Stopping the puck will be a start.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The formula for the Columbus Blue Jackets' improvement is simple: They need better defense, because they need everything.
Now that Rick Nash has been shipped out of town, it's officially time to rebuild this team. The fact that they have more or less always been rebuilding notwithstanding, the Blue Jackets need to dedicate themselves to defense to get by.
The unfortunate fact for Columbus is that they are not an attractive destination for free agents. Trying to find other offensive weapons to complement Nash didn't work out. Trying to develop a capable defensive unit is a more sensible solution; it's generally a more cost-efficient way to construct a team, and hopefully some offense will come with it.
Of course, new defensemen won't solve everything on this team. The outlook is bleak for Columbus, but a workmanlike, fundamentals-first approach to defense is a good starting point.
There are worse defensive teams than the Ottawa Senators, but defense was the difference between a playoff run and a first round exit.
Ottawa sported a potent offensive attack in 2011-12, ranking fourth in the NHL with 2.96 goals per game. On the flip side, though, the Senators allowed 2.88 goals against, the seventh-worst average in the league.
It's not that Ottawa lacks in solid defensemen; they just made most of their impact at the offensive end.
Erik Karlsson was a revelation last year with 19 goals and 59 assists, and Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba each topped 30 points as well. However, none of those guys are particularly effective at stopping the puck at this point in their careers; Karlsson is still learning to play at that end, while Gonchar and Kuba have slowed as their careers waned.
Improving the defense isn't just a matter of respectability for the Senators; it's what stands between contention and also-ran status.
Without Ryan Suter, the Nashville Predators have to find a new top line defenseman.
It's nearly impossible to replace a player of Suter's caliber. He's the consummate two-way defenseman, a staunch stopper in his own zone and a guy capable of racking up assists when he joins the attack. That's tough production to replace with one guy, and that's why Suter commanded such a steep price on the open market.
Unfortunately, replacing Suter with multiple pieces might not be the answer.
Nashville put up a 2.50 goals against average last season. The tandem of Suter and Shea Weber wasn't the only reason for that solid mark; a staunch D from top to bottom did the job. Bumping someone like Kevin Klein up to the first line is not going to make up for Suter's departure, nor is improving the third pairing to compensate losses in the first.
The drop off from Suter to any potential replacement is just too great. Given the Predators' pedestrian offense, they will have to figure out some solution if they want to maintain their team identity.
The Phoenix Coyotes adhere to a trend we've seen from other teams.
Mike Smith was outstanding in goal for the Coyotes last season. He won 38 of his 68 starts in net, pitching eight shutouts and posting a superb .930 save percentage. With such a sturdy presence in net, Phoenix finished fifth in the league in goals against with 2.37 per game, offsetting their paltry average of 2.56 goals for.
At the same time, Phoenix allowed the third-most shots in the league with 31.6 per game. This figure did not have a substantial impact because of the impressive performance in net by Smith. Here's the thing about Smith, though: Last season seems like a clear outlier for him.
Even including last season, Smith's career save percentage is still just .914, which is decent, but not good enough to stand up to the barrage of shots Phoenix is letting up. It's unlikely Smith has made a leap at age 30; he's probably looking at a decline back closer to his previous level of production next season.
If Smith plays to his career level of production, the Coyotes won't be the playoff team we saw last year. Strong goaltending was covering up for porous defense in Phoenix. The Coyotes will need to shore up that deficiency if they're serious about contending after the lockout.
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