There are a ton of factors to consider when evaluating a free agent class. A players age, contract comparables, on-ice results, and his skill-set are all relevant to the question of value. And ultimately, what you want out of free agency is strong value. What do we mean when we talk about value? In any NHL transaction you want the best results for the lowest cost, whether your dealing with trades, the draft, or free agency. Typically, free agency is seen as the worst market for getting strong value. Although there are always good players available, the small market at each position and a ton of interested teams always drives cap hits and contract length into the stratosphere. You might get a stud player, but you'd better have deep pockets and the cap space to overpay him. Getting the best return on your investment requires finding undervalued players that other GM's might overlook in the scramble to get the 2 or 3 big name players. The first step is comparing players' on ice results. Good tools for quickly comparing multiple players across the league are Hockey Abstract's player usage charts.
A chart like this can be overwhelming because it displays a lot of information. But with a little patience, it can be invaluable. Players are plotted based on coaching deployment. The Y-Axis is quality of competition, telling you how difficult his match ups were. The higher up a player is positioned, the harder his competition. The x-axis is zone starts. The further left a player appears, the more defensive zone usage he received. And conversely, the further right a player appears, the more offensive zone usage he received. Using this information, you can quickly get a grasp off how a player was used by his coaching staff. See below.
Now what about on-ice results? Each player is represented by a bubble. The coloring of that bubble represents Corsi Relative. Corsi Relative is simply how well a player's shot differential compares with his team. It's used when comparing players across multiple teams because it eliminates the bias of playing on a really good or really bad team. Dark blue bubbles represent very strong shot differentials. Recall from previous articles that strong shot differentials are indicative of players who drive puck possession and win the scoring chance battle, both of which are very important qualities for winning hockey games. Dark orange bubbles represent players with negative shot differentials. In other words, players that are getting out-shot, out-chanced, and out-possessed. And players fall everywhere in between those two extremes. The size of bubble represents time on ice per game, which should be self-explanatory. When you put all of this information together, the players draped in blue are driving strong on ice results and the most valuable of those players are doing so in really tough coaching deployments. (See: Mark Fayne, Kimmo Timonen)
Next, we'll take a look at the smart buys and the lemons of this year's free agent class. Keep in mind, this year's is undeniably a seller's market for NHL defenders. There are a lot of NHL teams with needs on the blue line and very few impact players available to fill those needs. That means plenty of big contracts as teams look to outbid each other.
- Brooks Orpik (The Overvalued Shut-Down D) - Though he was trusted with tough shut-down deployment by the coaching staff in Pittsburgh, Orpik was largely ineffective in those minutes. Orpik has a reputation as a big minutes eater and will likely be looking for a solid raise on his current 3.75 million dollar cap hit. His on-ice results simply don't justify the big contract he's likely to demand. Your free agent dollars are better spent elsewhere. Similar Players to Avoid: Christ Butler(CGY), Alexander Sulzer(BUF), Mike Weaver(MTL), Scott Hannan(SJS).
- Nick Schultz (The Sheltered Defensive D-Man) - Although Nick has good mobility for an NHL defender, he falls into the category of guys who get sheltered bottom 4 minutes for a good reasons. And unlike most borderline 2nd pair, 3rd pairing D-man. Schultz is coming off a very lucrative contract for a player of his caliber, at 3.5 million AVV. And a smart agent might parlay this year's seller's market on defense into another long term contract. Similar Players to Avoid: Francois Bullion(MTL), Douglas Murray(MTL), Mark Fraser(EDM), Clayton Stoner(MIN)
- Andrej Meszaros (The Sheltered Puck Mover) - Mez is the type of player that can dazzle you with offensive plays and put up points in the right situation. But his defensive short-comings often mean your team will be giving up just as many goals as it gets in the long run. A team with an already stacked defense looking for some offensive punch could take a flyer on Mez. But if you need serious upgrades on the blue-line, steer clear. Similar Players to Avoid: Derek Morris(PHX), Nikita Nikitin(CBJ), Corey Potter(BOS), Nate Prosser(MIN)
To be clear, not all of the guys listed above are necessarily bad NHL players. Some of them could be serviceable pick ups and depth guys. But we're trying to get the most out of our free agent dollars and find good value.
- Matt Niskanen (Expensive) - Niskanen is the top point getter on our list with 10 goals, 36 assists, and 46 points. And he's only 27-years-old. Impressively, he also posted the 3rd best possession numbers relative to his teammates in the league, which means he was a strong driver of his team's results. He'll command a huge contract, benchmarked by the 6 year, 30 million dollar Andrew MacDonald deal, and could easily slot into any team's Top-4. Cash strapped teams should stay away, but Niskanen is undeniably the prize of this free agent class.
- Andrei Markov (Expensive) - Though older than Niskanen, Markov is still up a respectable 43 points and helped carry the Canadiens defense along with his partner P.K. Subban. While his age may blunt his value some, NHL team's will still pay a premium for that kind of production from a blue-liner. He could put a contender with cap-space over the hump and is likely the 2nd best available D-man in terms of his all around game.
- Anton Stralman (Best Value) - The 27-year-old defenseman is arguably the Rangers most effective puck mover. He’s posting outstanding numbers even relative to his top-5 puck possession team with CF% Rel of +7.2. This season, he’s shown he can be relied on for big minutes. Stralman is undersized but has plenty of offensive talent. He can quarterback a powerplay and has a great shot. With New York spending big money to lock up Dan Girardi, they might not be willing to pay Stralman what he’s worth on the open market. Stralman could easily slot into the Top-4 of any team. His point totals aren't flashy, but that should keep him relatively cheap compared to the bigger names like Niskanen and Markov.
- Tom Gilbert (Best Value) - Much like Stralman, Gilbert isn’t big name in the NHL and his game isn’t flashy. But he can log 1st pairing minutes and power play time. Gilbert is very similar to Matt Carle, with a solid all around game but most notable for his ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone. His skill set helps with breakouts and a team's transition game. At 31, he’s probably on the decline, but is also potentially much cheaper than the names we’ve discussed so far. Florida may struggle to resign him with several younger RFA defensemen in need of contract extensions. Similar Players: Mark Fayne(NJ), Ron Hainsey(CAR).
- Kimmo Timonen (Really Good But Really Old) - The 39-year-old Finnish God of Defense is one of the most underrated defenders in the league. His underlying stats are nothing short of remarkable and his point totals are still very respectable. The prototypical two way defender, he's adapted to his declining speed and smallish frame with incredible overall hockey savvy. Though clearly in the decline, Timonen carried an otherwise mediocre Flyer's defense core as their #1 defender. He broke down late in the season but can still be a Top-4 contributor on any team if used correctly. Kimmo has publicly stated a strong desire to remain with the Flyers for what could potentially be his last hurrah in the NHL. But should something change, NHL teams would be crazy not to inquire. Similar Players: Sami Salo(TB), Stephane Robidas(ANA), Marek Zidlicky(NJ)
- Adam Pardy (Sheltered But Potentially Effective) - Pardy is one of those guys who puts up okay numbers relative to his mediocre team, so there's some understandable hesitation for some who wonder if those numbers are sustainable. But if the numbers aren't a mirage, he could be a very reasonably priced depth defender and a stabilizing force for struggling 3rd pairings. He has size, decent mobility, and a safe game with some obvious limitations. A team looking for a cheap, quick upgrade should consider Pardy and others like him. Similar Players: Matt Greene(LA), Mike Kostka(TB), Rafael Diaz(MTL).
Before buying on any player, its also important to consider their career numbers to eliminate the possibility of a fluke season. You should also consider who they played with and how often. For example, how much did Niskanen benefit from playing with Crosby and Malkin? Does a player have elite finishing talent that might offset weaknesses in his all-around game? And last but not least, age and injury history are also a huge factor before committing to any large money value, long term contracts.
That's it for this year's UFA defenseman ! Stay tuned our a review of the forward class coming soon.
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Andrew Devitt is an avid stat nerd and passionate Flyers fan living in Horsham, PA. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewski89