Posted by: mdegeorge | July 1, 2011

The NHL Free Agency Diagnosis: Defensemen and Goaltenders

The Stanley Cup was lifted just over three weeks ago, signaling the end of another NHL season. Just a week ago, the annual entry draft was held, ushering a new generation of some 200 teens into the world of professional hockey.

The first occasion was cause for celebration for only one team (unless you dislike the Canucks that much). The second was reason to rejoice and hope for the future, but it’s a distant hope that will take for most a couple year to come to fruition, if at all.

The real recourse for hockey-starved fans comes Friday, the annual shuffling of the deck that allows every team to sit at the table and incur immediate losses or reap what it hopes will be benefits starting the next time the skates hit the ice.

It’s the opening of free agency, a type of manic multi-million dollar chess game that plays itself out across phone lines, television specials and fax machines the continent over.

This season’s version enjoys a special significance: While Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith take in a cuddle while each tries to get up the nerve to reach and lovingly take hold of the other’s hand, and the NBA Players Association and their lawyers decide the most legally sound way to publicly hand David Stern in effigy, the skaters have the rink to do some real business pertaining to a season we know will happen.

Hope springs eternal July 1 – though to a lesser degree than in past years, but there’s no need to discuss that yet. Because for a brief few moments after the clock strikes noon, when every free agent is thrown into the pool to start a Supermarket Sweep-like shopping frenzy, there’s no end to the dreams of what your favorite team may land in their cart.

And that beats talk of revenue sharing and decertification any day.

So without further ado, here’s a look at just who’s available out there on the open market. In parenthesis are the player’s age and their raw salary (not salary cap hit) in millions of dollars from last season. I’ve done the forwards already, here are the defensemen and goalies.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Defensemen

Ed Jovanovski (35, 6), Roman Hamrlik (37, 5.5), Scott Hannan (32, 4.5), Tomas Kaberle (33, 4.25), Bryan McCabe (36, 4.15), Sami Salo (36, 3.5), Craig Rivet (36, 3.5), James Wisniewski (27, 3.25), Ian White (27, 3), Jim Vandermeer (31, 2.3), Brent Sopel (34, 2), Jan Hejda (33, 2), Radek Martinek (34, 1.9), Shane O’Brien (27, 1.6), Anton Babchuk (27, 1.4), Sean O’Donnell (39, 1), Paul Mara (31, .75), Ruslan Salei (36, .75), Andy Green (28, .75), Jeff Woywitka (27, .7), Andreas Lilja (35, .6)

Analysis: Entering the start of the free agency period, the defensemen have been a much more fertile source of drama and moves potentially revealing of trends we’ll see once teams can sign players. There have been a number of trades focused on defensemen, including deals moving Wisniewski and Christian Ehrhoff. It’s also a market where defection to the Europe has already been exercised by Niklas Wallin and Karlis Skrastins. Those last two are the big hint: There are a lot of guys who fit the same general profile as aging, stay-at-home defensemen. The puck-moving segment of the defenseman population seems to stick more – probably through an avoidance of hits on cupcake power play minutes – which is why someone will still pay exorbitant sums of money for the services of Jovanovski, McCabe, Kaberle, Salo and their howitzer blasts from the point.

But this market, too, is largely bereft of talent. Arguable the two biggest commodities are off the market in Kevin Bieksa, who re-upped with Vancouver for five years, and Ehrhoff, whose 10-year, $40 million deal that will pay him $10 million next season almost made me choke to death on the pretzel I was eating when I opened the link. Also snapped up by their teams already are Steve Montador, Eric Brewer and Joni Pitkanen. Any climate in which a team – even if it’s the Canadiens – has no compunction about playing Andrei Markov over $5.5 million a season for the next three season benefits the players, however marginal their talents.

There are a lot of third-pairing guys, especially guys on the wrong side of 35 who slot into that fifth defenseman/power play specialist role (O’Donnell and Rivet). But there are some interesting pieces. Wisniewski’s rights are in the hands of a sixth different team in his five-year career. How does that happen for a guy with so much talent? Babchuk and White could be in line for hefty raises, not of the level of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek last year, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Goaltenders

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere (34, 7), Tomas Vokoun (35, 6.3), Mike Smith (29, 2.4), Ty Conklin (35, 1.4), Marty Turco (35, 1.3), Peter Budaj (28, 1.25), Mathieu Garon (33, 1.2), Chris Osgood (38, 1.1), Johan Hedberg (38, 1), Alex Auld (30, 1), Brian Boucher (34, .925), Patrick Lalime (37, .6), Curtis McElhinney (28, .57), Martin Gerber (36, .5), Ray Emery (28, .5), Pascal LeClaire (28, 4.8)

Analysis: It may be presumptuous to say that there’s only one starting goalie available in this pack. But it’s not a stretch to say that the best goalie on the market, Ilya Bryzgalov, has been snapped up and at a cap-friendly nine years, $51 million to boot. Perhaps the second-best prize, Dwayne Roloson, has also re-upped. That leaves Vokoun in the catbird seat, though a 35-year-old with a career 3-8 postseason record is a reason for a bit of discretion.

Beyond that, there are just guys to take fliers on. Giguere, Turco, Osgood and Boucher probably are no longer full-time starters at their ages. As for the rest of the list, it’s highly doubtful they were ever of starter quality. That leaves only Smith, who was booted from the job in Tampa by Roloson as to whether the Bolts want to keep him as an insurance policy or move on.

The RFA game: It bears mentioning that the above lists are only for unrestricted free agents. The flip side that could have an impact on this debate are the restricted free agents, mainly young players within the first four years of their professional careers whose teams have the right to match any team submitting an offer sheet. There are some big names that could be out there, such as Shea Weber given Nashville’s unsteady finances. Even teams that don’t move their RFAs impact the market, such as the ongoing Steven Stamkos that seems to be somewhat settled, at least from the Philadelphia perspective. Then there are cash-strapped teams like the Penguins, who may have to choose between veteran depth players and retaining RFA Tyler Kennedy. Also out there as RFAs are the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty, Montreal’s Josh Gorges, Buffalo’s Marc-Andre Gragnani, New Jersey’s Zach Parise, Phoenix’s Keith Yandle and not-Atlanta’s Andrew Ladd among others. A move with one of these guys is unlikely, but could change the face of July 1 in an instant.

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