By: Nick Lanciani
12:01 PM ET on July 1st (precisely) marks the start of the NHL’s free agency period, so of course, you’ve found yourself scavenging the Internet for the freshest hot takes and the best indications of where players will end up. Likewise, you probably just want to know who’s available out there (and I’m not talking about Tinder).
Well fear not, because I’m here to set things straight with a short series of posts about the Top-5 free agents in every category you can think of (UFA forwards, UFA defensemen, UFA goalies, RFA forwards, RFA defensemen and RFA goalies) in this latest edition of Numbers Game posts. So let’s continue our journey with the lackluster UFA defensemen market this summer.
1. D Jason Demers (7-16-23 totals with the Dallas Stars)- $3.400 million cap hit, 27 years old
Look, none of these defensemen are spectacular, but they’re all about to be paid ridiculous sums of money because of that good ol’ supply and demand factor. A lot of teams need to fix their blue line, not a lot of defensemen can do that for them. Your best bet is to trade for a defensemen if you can’t at least patch some wounds (and hope they turn out better than expected) with these guys.
To start, let’s take a look at Jason Demers who is the best of this group, in terms of age, experience and a chance to supply you a little more depth and stability. His season was cut short due to injury, but he managed to put up a respectable 23 points on the season in 62 games played, which almost matched his 25 point season in 2014-2015 in 81 games played with Dallas and the San Jose Sharks.
His career year was in 2013-2014 when he notched 5-29-34 totals in 75 games played for the Sharks, but judging from how he was tracking this season, despite the injury, he might have been able to pace, if not better, his career best totals.
A healthy Demers at only 27 years old is a risk worth taking if you are in desperate need of a guy or you cannot find a trading partner. His value will be driven up immensely compared to some of the other older UFA defensemen. Likewise, he’s better at the defensive aspect of the game than Kris Russell, so he’s sure to be a hot commodity if teams are smart.
2. D Brian Campbell (6-25-31 totals with the Florida Panthers)- $7.143 million cap hit, 36 years old
Brian Campbell was an almost 40 point scorer in 2013-2014 and he’s certainly nothing like his former self in 2007-2008 when he had 8-54-62 totals in 83 games for the Buffalo Sabres and the San Jose Sharks.
Although age doesn’t appear to be an issue for his competitiveness.
With proper balance on a lineup with some already mature defensemen, like the Chicago Blackhawks, where he has a distinct interest in returning, Campbell could have his minutes easily distributed and become a clutch asset for an organization in the waning years of his career. Because of that, a short term contract only seems logical.
In 82 games this season, Campbell had 6-25-31 totals with the Florida Panthers. That’s only five points shy of Aaron Ekblad’s sophomore season 36 points in 78 games, but one defenseman is sure to shine and the other will soon decline. Though it can’t hurt to take on Campbell while he’s still capable of producing.
3. D Luke Schenn (4-12-16 totals with the Philadelphia Flyers/Los Angeles Kings)- $3.600 million, 26 years old
Chalk Luke Schenn up as one of the best “why not, maybe he still has something to prove” potential UFA defensemen. Schenn’s been in the league since the 2008-2009 season and has played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Kings.
Although he was kind of an afterthought in the late season acquisition by the Kings in the Vincent Lecavalier trade, we’re talking mostly depth guys that can solidify your top-6 defensive scope on the blue line this offseason.
Schenn usually ends up with somewhere around 20 points a year, ranging from a career low 3-8-11 totals in 47 games played during the 2012-2013 lockout shortened season to a career high 22 points in 2010-2011 (82 games played) and 2011-2012 (79 games played). His numbers this season could have been around 20 points or more, had he not played in only 72 games. Maybe there’s still hope if you find him the right pair.
Whatever you do, just don’t over pay or let him over stay. Give Schenn another chance to prove his worth and maybe things will work out. If not, he’ll be trade bait once again around the trade deadline, when teams are searching for just about any depth defenseman.
4. D Patrick Wiercioch (0-5-5 totals with the Ottawa Senators)- $2.000 million cap hit, 25 years old
Highly underrated and touted as a “should have been traded at the deadline while you still could’ve gotten an asset in return,” Patrick Wiercioch is a defenseman that might be able to help you now, but still has plenty of room to grow, develop and be groomed properly.
If you’re the Ottawa Senators you have got to be kicking yourselves for not trying. If you’ve seen the asset management around the league lately when it comes to trades, who knows, maybe the Senators would have been able to walk away with two or three decent draft picks and maybe even a roster player had they moved Wiercioch in March. I mean, I’m sure Don Sweeney would’ve taken that deal, based on how the Boston Bruins acquired John-Michael-Liles.
But enough about other guys, more on Wiercioch’s playing ability.
If there’s one positive for sure to signing Wiercioch in free agency it’s that he’s 25 years old. Defensemen normally start to reach their prime around 27 years of age and until then are very malleable in the right circumstances. The question is how much are teams willing to pay and how much is he going to drive the price up for his services because the ball is in his court— or should I say the puck is in his zone?
His services were dismal this season though, notching five assists in 52 games played. Granted, Ottawa juggled him in and out of the lineup more times than he could have been able to get any rhythm going. In 53 games in 2013-2014, Wiercioch had 4-19-23 totals as a young 23-year-old hungry for more.
5. D Kris Russell (4-15-19 totals with the Calgary Flames/Dallas Stars)- $2.600 million cap hit, 28 years old
In this year’s “bound to be overpaid, but since there’s no one else available, he’ll easily get overpaid and sign a long contract, reminiscent of Brooks Orpik’s deal with the Washington Capitals” category, we have Kris Russell.
In 62 games played he had 4-15-19 totals among his time with the Calgary Flames and the Dallas Stars this season. The trade deadline pickup by Stars GM Jim Nill didn’t pan out as well as he had been performing in Calgary, though, when Russell went from a top-4 to a top-6 defenseman (if that in Dallas).
Yes, his scoring was up in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 from 29 points to 34 points, however, the secondary assist is still a thing that exists and the Flames as a whole have dramatically improved their offense with Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and company.
Buyer beware, Russell might be a top-5 pending UFA defenseman, but he’s really one of the worse options and has traveled around the league a bit from his rookie year with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007-2008. He’s since made visits with the St. Louis Blues, Flames and Stars as the 28 year old has yet to play a full 82 game season and faces a shaky performance.
D Eric Gryba (1-5-6 totals with the Edmonton Oilers)- $1.250 million cap hit, 27 years old
In 53 games played with the dismal Edmonton Oilers, Eric Gryba put up 1-5-6 totals, which is not good, but not bad either. If anything, it shows you that Gryba is an average guy, who, when not injured or out of the lineup as a healthy scratch, can be a dependable top-6 defenseman when you need a quick fix.
He’s no end all solution to any problem, by any means. He’s just a guy that in the right environment, could really take his career best 0-12-12 totals in 2014-2015 and at least match it, if not improve it and/or double it. A lot of teams see no more second chances in Gryba, but clearly Peter Chiarelli wanted him for something in Edmonton when he acquired him. Maybe now Gryba can find a better roster at his discretion.
D John-Michael Liles (6-15-21 totals with the Carolina Hurricanes/Boston Bruins)- $3.875 million cap hit, 35 years old
When you’re in a jam like Sweeney was, you go out and get a veteran defenseman to give you a better chance than a bunch of pylons. Okay, jokes aside about the Bruins defense, John-Michael Liles actually had a lot to contribute, before missing the last game of the regular season due to injury.
Liles floats around 20 points a season as one of those sturdy top-6, bottom pair, defensemen, that can play top-4 minutes when you need someone to step up. In 2010-2011 with the Colorado Avalanche, Liles had 6-40-46 totals in 76 games played. Likewise, his career best 14-35-49 totals in 82 games came back on a very different looking Avalanche roster of the 2005-2006 season. Liles was also a lot fresher then and highly underrated. But nowadays, he’s that quality veteran defensive voice on your roster that absolutely still has a place in this league for a few more years.
D Zach Trotman (2-5-7 totals with the Boston Bruins)- $625,000 cap hit, 25 years old
If you’re willing to take a risk on any pending-UFA defensemen and you don’t get one of the highly coveted players already mentioned, why not take a risk on young Zach Trotman? It’s perplexing when one analyzes Boston’s depth chart and their use of Trotman as to why they are not giving him at least one more year, but maybe he’s the next Matt Hunwick.
Disregarded as a potential top-4 defenseman, Hunwick and Trotman have a lot in common. They weren’t utilized properly. Hunwick’s now found his stride, albeit older and as a top-6/depth defenseman with the Maple Leafs, while Trotman has the chance to double his career totals, if only someone would let him play more than the 38 games he played this season. Perhaps the last pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft could be more valued than the top six picks of that draft year? Only time will tell, but one thing remains for sure, all six of those guys got traded.