Ranking the Top 10 Defensemen in the 2014 NHL Free-Agent Class

Rob VollmanContributor IApril 1, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Defensemen in the 2014 NHL Free-Agent Class

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    Matt Slocum

    Defensemen are always in high demand during the annual free-agency period, and the fate of certain teams is often based disproportionally on how well they do after July 1.

    This year, teams may initially chase aging veterans like Kimmo Timonen and Andrei Markov, but ultimately settle for lesser-known second pairing types like Ron Hainsey and Tom Gilbert. Where do they all rank? 

    To answer that, I developed a system that was previously used to look at both centers and wingers. Essentially, I took a list of free-agent wingers from Cap Geek, and then estimated each player's value using a weighted historical average of each player's goals versus threshold (GVT), a high-level one-number stat provided by Hockey Prospectus.

    The critical final step is to locate each defenseman on a player usage chart. That provides the proper context for each player, serving to push down the value of those who play easier minutes, like Dan Boyle, in favor of those who handle their team's tougher assignments.

    Interpreting all this information, I have identified the 10 best available free-agent defensemen, along with their strengths and weaknesses, and identified what they could be worth. As always, please be sure to weigh in on these rankings in the comments. Let's begin!

     

    All usage data is from Extra Skater, and all other advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.

     

10. Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    What He Brings

    Dan Boyle is one of the league's most accomplished offensive defensemen.

    He is one of only eight active defensemen to score 20 goals in a single season, and his 32 points are currently just one back of Jason Demers for the team scoring lead on the blue line.

    Boyle is also a demon in the postseason, with 66 points in 100 playoff games. Sergei Gonchar is the only active defenseman who can top both that and Boyle's six 50-point regular seasons.

    One key to Boyle's scoring is his incredible talent on the power play. His average ice-time of 3:36 per game is just four seconds back of Joe Thornton for the team lead, during which time he has scored 16 points. Boyle averaged 5.0 points per 60 minutes in four of the previous five seasons, which is highly impressive.

    Boyle is also one of those rare defensemen who can pitch in on the shootout, where he has bagged 10 goals over the past six seasons.

    All in all, Boyle has received at least some Norris consideration eight times in the past 10 seasons, including three finishes in the top six.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    Boyle is turning 38 this summer, and his ice time has dropped by over two and a half minutes for the second season in a row.

    With only six even-strength points in 46 games last year, Boyle is becoming more and more dependent on the power play for his scoring, and has been reduced to the sub-40 point pace.

    Another alarming statistic is how he possibly managed to be minus-six on a great team like San Jose. Despite the greatest offensive zone tilt on the team, and facing just about the softest competition the Sharks could manage, Boyle's possession numbers are still below average.

    What's wrong? Boyle's defensive skills may have started to abandon him. He doesn't even kill penalties anymore, average just 0:15 per game this season.

     

    What He's Worth

    Boyle is clearly on the decline and worth nowhere near the $6.67 million per season that once appeared reasonable.

    It wouldn't be fair to say that his value has been cut in half, but any team investing $4.0 million or more is paying extra for his experience and intangibles.

     

9. Anton Stralman, New York Rangers

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    Gene J. Puskar

    What He Brings

    The New York Rangers are a great defensive team, currently allowing the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL. Behind their elite top three of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal is their unheralded No. 4 defenseman Anton Stralman.

    The 27-year-old Swede has the best possession numbers on the team for the second year in a row. He otherwise ranks fourth on the team's blue line by most usage-based measures, whether that's playing time at both even strength and on the penalty kill, or average quality of competition.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    Despite enjoying his second strong season in a row, there is still some uncertainty about Stralman's true talent.

    It's possible his success this year was due to his partner Marc Staal. This was, after all, Stralman's first year in the top-four, and also his first year as a regular penalty killer.

    Stralman is also without much of an offensive upside. He scored 34 points in 73 games for Columbus in 2009-10, but just 54 points in 227 games since then. That works out to less than 20 points over 82 games.

     

    What He's Worth

    Stralman's last three contracts spanning the past four seasons have ranged from $900,000 per season to $1.95 million with the Blue Jackets.

    A couple of strong seasons with the Rangers have solidified his status as a legitimate NHL regular, and he should consequently have no trouble achieving a new personal best somewhere north of $2.0 million per year.

     

     

8. Ron Hainsey, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    What He Brings

    Carolina has a highly underrated top pairing in Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera. And right after them, in virtually every statistical category, is 33-year-old defensive-minded veteran Ron Hainsey.

    Whether it's in scoring, possession numbers, quality of competition or ice time (at even strength or killing penalties), Hainsey is the team's No. 3 defenseman. And that isn't bad, as the Hurricanes are actually quite good defensively.

    Hainsey does climb up to second behind Sekera in one category: Blocked shots. He averaged upwards of 7.0 blocked shots per 60 minutes his last three seasons.

    And yes, he was a top defensive presence in Winnipeg, too. Hainsey ranked as their blue-line leader in defensive zone starts three of his last four seasons with the franchise, during which time he led it in quality of competition twice.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    Hainsey is not an offensive threat anymore.

    He once enjoyed three straight 30-point seasons with Columbus and Atlanta, but his scoring has gradually eroded since then, culminating in four straight seasons short of 20.

    In fact, Hainsey is one of only six defensemen to score between 10 and 19 points for each of the past four seasons, according to Hockey Reference. Grant Clitsome, Jonathan Ericsson, Barret Jackman, Derek Morris and Johnny Oduya being the others.

     

    What He's Worth

    How did Hainsey remain on the open market so long before Carolina secured his services for the bargain price of $2.0 million?

    Often players signed to overpriced contracts, as his five-year, $4.5 million/season deal plainly was, are subsequently undervalued.

    Expectations for Hainsey should be re-calibrated by now, and a deal that stops short of $3.0 million could be a fair one, depending on the term.

     

7. Tom Gilbert, Florida Panthers

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    Jay LaPrete

    What He Brings

    Tom Gilbert is a solid two-way veteran option for almost any team's second pairing.

    He has 28 points in 73 games this season, his highest total since 2009-10. That's actually only seven points back of Florida's team lead, if you can possible believe it. He's fifth in team scoring!

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    It's possible that Gilbert's success this season has been boosted by his overpaid, but underrated, partner Brian Campbell.

    Coaches have also gradually lost confidence in his penalty killing. After a career on Edmonton's top shut-down unit, Gilbert was down to 1:28 per game last year with Minnesota and just 0:52 on Florida's sad shorthanded squad.

    Last year was also his first taste of the postseason, and the Wild were out in five games.

     

    What He's Worth

    Florida got one of this season's best deals by signing Tom Gilbert for only $900,000 after Minnesota bought him out of a $4.0 million deal.

    His true value is about halfway between those two, or maybe slightly more, once you factor in the free-agent boost.

     

     

6. Mark Fayne, New Jersey Devils

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    Bill Kostroun

    What He Brings

    Defensive-minded New Jersey defenseman Mark Fayne could be this year's hidden UFA gem.

    The young defenseman, who turns 27 next month, has faced the team's toughest opponents for the third season in a row, and he is trusted with more shifts that start in the defensive zone than any other Devil blueliner.

    Fayne's also useful in killing penalties, averaging 1:56 of PK time per game. That's a little less than last year but still good for fourth among the team's defensemen, behind the big three of Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene.

    Despite the difficulty of his assignment, Fayne's possession numbers are currently second best on the team to his partner Andy Greene.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    No scoring! Fayne has only 47 points in 235 NHL games, which works out to about 16 points over an 82-game schedule.

    It's also possible that he's been carried by Andy Greene. And yes, Greene is that good.

    According to the data at Hockey Analysis, the Devils have the puck 58.2 percent of the time when the two are playing together, but just 48.0 percent when Fayne is with someone else.

    Then again, that might not be an entirely fair comparison, given that when Fayne isn't with Greene he's usually with someone like Ryan Gelinas or Peter Harrold. The trend is, nevertheless, clear.

     

    What He's Worth

    Fayne could be a real value pick-up. His current deal carried an annual cap hit of just $1.3 million, but he's potentially worth twice that.

     

5. Marek Zidlicky, New Jersey Devils

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    Mel Evans

    What He Brings

    Marek Zidlicky is one of the stronger puck-moving defensemen available through free agency.

    The veteran Czech is currently second among Devils defensemen in ice-time and leads their blue line with 37 points, which is tied with Torey Krug for 21st in the NHL.

    Career-wise, Zidlicky ranks 12th among active defensemen with 362 points, and is one of only 11 who have at least five 40-point seasons. These accomplishments are particularly impressive, given that he didn't first compete in the NHL until age 26.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    Zidlicky's not that great defensively, especially now that he's 37 years old.

    He's been assigned the team's easiest minutes for years, deployed more frequently in the offensive zone and more rarely against top-line opponents. Zidlicky is, nevertheless, still second last among team's defensemen in possession numbers, ahead of only Bryce Salvador.

    He also averages only 0:18 of penalty killing time per game, his third straight season of disuse. Zidlicky leads the team with 29 minor penalties, seven more than anyone else, another sign of defensive lapses.

    Given that he was on more of a 30-point pace prior to this season, his lack of defensive play brings an element of risk to his signing.

     

    What He's Worth

    Zidlicky's three contracts over the past eight seasons have averaged between $3.0 million (current) and $4.0 million per year.

    Analytically, it's reasonably safe to expect Zidlicky to continue to be worth his current deal, provided the term is kept short.

     

4. Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    What He Brings

    Matt Niskanen is a 27-year-old defenseman whose stock has risen rapidly, thanks to an absolutely enormous season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Not only is Niskanen tied with Andrei Markov for 15th among NHL defensemen with a career high 42 points, but he leads all defensemen with a plus-34.

    Plus/minus can be a flawed statistic, because it can be boosted by having great linemates and/or easy playing conditions, each of which are obviously the case here. But to what extent?

    While that's a hard question to answer, the bottom line is that whether his role in it was large or small, the Penguins outscored their opponents by a jaw-dropping 66 to 34 when he was on the ice (at even strength).

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    Niskanen isn't exactly known for strong defensive play, plus there's the risk that he's only about a 24-point player without the Penguins boost.

    Due to perceived weakness in his own end, Niskanen was mostly used on the third pairing in Dallas, and promoted to the top four this year with the Penguins potentially only because of all of their injuries.

    He plays just 0:44 of short-handed time per game, dead last among the 11 defensemen Pittsburgh has used this season. He wasn't used to kill penalties very often in Dallas either.

    Offensively, Niskanen averaged an amazing 2.0 points per 60 minutes at even strength when playing with Sidney Crosby, and 0.8 without, based on the raw numbers at Hockey Analysis. That's especially interesting given that 0.8 was also his average in Dallas.

     

    What He's Worth

    Given the incredible upside that he showcased this season, Niskanen is due for a massive raise from his current deal that carries an annual cap hit of $2.3 million.

    Depending on how much his performance may have been boosted by Crosby, Niskanen could arguably be worth well over $4.0 million. How much will NHL general managers be willing to gamble that he's the real deal?

     

3. Stephane Robidas, Anaheim Ducks

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    Danny Moloshok

    What He Brings

    Stephane Robidas is a highly underrated defenseman. Despite being one of his team's top two-way options for years, he has made only a single all-star appearance in 13 NHL seasons.

    Paired up with young Brenden Dillon, Robidas has been Dallas' go-to defenseman to shut down top opponents for as far back as those types of analytics have been tracked. He was also assigned 51.1 percent of available penalty killing minutes this season, the only Star above 50 percent.

    Despite the high average quality of his opponents, and being often used in the defensive zone, Robidas still posted possession numbers that were among the team's best.

    Robidas was dealt at the trade deadline, bringing his hard-hitting, shot-blocking brand of defense to Anaheim's blue line.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    At 37 years old, what little offensive upside Robidas once had is fading fast.

    Robidas has nine points in 31 games this year, or 22 in the last 79 over the past two seasons. In 2011-12 he managed 22 points in 75 games, a total he topped only four times in his career.

    In all, Robidas has 250 points in 878 career games, which averages to 23 points in 82 games. I think it's fair to say that anything approaching 20 points or beyond would be a bonus.

     

    What He's Worth

    Robidas carried an annual cap hit of $3.3 million over the past four seasons. It was a good contract at the time, but at age 37 it would be an overpay, albeit only a slight one.

    Robidas may be enticed to sign for around $2.5 million a season if he can get a good term. That could be a great deal for a number of teams looking for a solid top-four veteran at a discount price.

     

     

2. Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens

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    Duane Burleson

    What He Brings

    Andrei Markov is one of the league's best power-play quarterbacks. In addition to being one of the more effective top-pairing players offensively, he's reliable in his own zone, including when killing penalties.

    Markov tied for fourth among NHL defensemen with 30 points in 48 games last year, and tied for third with 10 goals. Those were the exact same scoring totals as Keith Yandle. He consequently received some Norris consideration last year.

    The talented Russian veteran actually finished sixth in Norris voting in back-to-back seasons in 2007-08 and 2008-09 when he scored an amazing 122 points in 160 games. This year, he's tied for 15th among blue liners with 42 points.

    A lot of that scoring is done on the power play, where his 21 points ranks ninth among defensemen this year, and where his 23 ranked second last year. In his last full NHL season, back in 2008-09, Markov led the league's defensemen with a whopping 39 power-play points in 78 games.

    Unlike other top scorers, Markov is no defensive slouch. He and occasional partner P.K. Subban take on Montreal's top opponents, yet still manage the top possession numbers among the team's defensemen.

    Markov is assigned over 40 percent of the team's penalty kills, and his 25:11 per game this year ranks ninth among NHL defensemen.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    How good would Markov be without defending Norris trophy champion P.K. Subban by his side?

    We actually have a partial answer to that question, given how Markov has spent the second half of this season playing with Alexei Emelin instead.

    The good news is that Montreal's possession rates with Emelin on the ice improved from 47.4 percent to 51.4 percent when he was playing with Markov, according to Hockey Analysis. The bad news is that Markov's dropped from 52.1 percent to 47.7 percent without Subban.

    In fairness, Montreal's possession rate with Subban dropped from 52.2 percent to 48.7 percent without Markov, so their magic together wasn't a one-way street. Still, it's possible Markov won't be as successful anywhere else.

    Finally, Markov is 35 years old, and managed just 20 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and just 45 games before that in 2009-10. His age and that risk of injury can't be overlooked by a team about to make a large investment.

     

    What He's Worth

    Markov's cap hit has been exactly $5.75 million over two contracts spanning seven seasons, and that's roughly where it is likely to remain.

    Obviously, $4.5 million would be a far safer amount to invest in an aging offensive-minded veteran, but free agency usually means paying a little extra to get what you need. In Markov's case, that will likely be at least an extra million. 

1. Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Matt Slocum

    What He Brings

    Kimmo Timonen is one of the league's top two-way defensemen. He is one of only 12 blueliners to play over half of the team's minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill.

    Just like always, Timonen and his usual partner, Braydon Coburn, have taken on the toughest competition for the Flyers and yet he still manages to score at the 40-point pace and compete with Jakub Voracek for the team's best possession numbers.

    Timonen received some Norris consideration last year, for the first time in four seasons. He finished as high as fifth his final year in Nashville, when he set personal highs of 13 goals, 42 assists, 55 points and a plus-20.

     

    Potential Weaknesses

    The odds of Timonen remaining effective decrease with every passing year.

    Only eight defensemen in all of NHL history have scored at least 30 points in a single season at age 39 or older. In fact, from this point forward only 11 defensemen have managed 30 points over the rest of their entire careers!

    Furthermore, despite Byng consideration in the past, Timonen does get penalized more than the average, which is perhaps a sign of his age slowing him down.

     

    What He's Worth 

    Despite his age, Timonen's services won't come cheap. The Flyers signed the veteran Finn to a single-year, $6.0 million deal last summer after a six-season deal that carried an annual cap hit of $6.33 million.

    While it would be safer to sign a player like him for $4.5 million or less, that's not going to cut it. Until proven otherwise, teams looking for a two-way, top pairing defenseman are going to be willing to gamble an extra $1.5 million that Timonen has at least one more great season left.

     

    Rob Vollman is author of Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, co-author of the annual Hockey Prospectus guides and a featured ESPN Insider writer. @robvollmanNHL.