I started my NHL Free Agent Watch on Tuesday by looking at Wisconsin product Justin Schultz who is set for free agency. On Wednesday I looked at the RFAs who were not qualified by their respective clubs. Yesterday, I looked at the Top NHL Free Agent Forwards and today I will continue on with the Top Group III UFA defencemen who are scheduled to be available in the NHL’s annual Free Agent Frenzy. Much like the forwards, there is one key UFA defenceman who stands above the rest and is widely considered the prize piece of this year’s UFA defence crop, and that is Ryan Suter. There is a small tier of impact defencemen under the age of 30 right behind him, and after that things thin out quickly.
1) Ryan Suter, Nashville Predators, Shoots Left
2011-12 Salary: $3,500,000
2011-12 Stats: 79 GP, 7 G, 39 A, 46 Pts, 30 PIMs
The former 7th overall pick, Ryan Suter has developped into one of the top 2 way defencemen in the NHL. Suter put up a career high 46 points last season. To put this in perspective, only 11 defencemen in the NHL scored 45 or more points last year. And only 1 defenceman had more than 53 points. Suter is a workhorse defenceman, who plays a ton of minutes, in all situations. He has a great all around game and can be relied upon no matter what the score or who the opponent is. Suter’s biggest asset is his extremely good hockey sense. He reads the play quickly and effectively and makes good decisions all over the ice. Suter has great vision and passing ability, and his first pass is important in kick starting the Predators transition game. These passing skills also translate to the PP where Suter and Shea Weber have formed an outstanding one two punch on the point for the Predators. Suter has a heavy shot which is usually kept low and on target. Defensively Suter possesses great positioning, and while he doesn’t through the big hits of his teammate Shea Weber, he engages physically in battles along the boards and in front of the net. He’s been a key cog for the Predators since being drafted, and will be a major loss should he decide to go to another club on July 1st.
2) Matt Carle, Philadelphia Flyers, Shoots Left
2011-12 Salary: $3,800,000
2011-12 Stats: 82 GP, 4 G, 34 A, 38 Pts, 36 PIMs
The strength of Carle’s game is as an offensive blue liner. Carle is calm and poised with the puck on his stick and he has a great first pass out of the zone, which helps activate the Flyers transition game, and leads to offensive chances. Carle is able to use these passing skills in the offensive zone as well, as he makes smart plays from the point. He pinches in at the right times and keeps plays alive for his team. Carle certainly doesn’t have the hardest point shot in the league, but he keeps it low and accurate which can lead to rebound and tip in opportunities for his team. Defensively, Carle had to play most of this season without his normal defence partner as Chris Pronger missed much0 of the year suffering with post concussion syndrome. While this led to Carle being on the ice for more goals against than he had been the past two seasons, he still acquitted himself reasonably well. Defensively he is good positionally and plays a strong steady game. He continues to improve his skating and agility and is beaten less frequently off the rush than he has been in previous season. He can however have some trouble with big forwards outmuscling him on the boards. Carle is a legitimate top pairing defender playing 23 minutes per game for the Flyers last season, and is capable of being used on both the Powerplay and Penalty Kill.
3) Jason Garrison, Florida Panthers, Shoots Left
2011-12 Salary: $675,000
2011-12 Stats: 77 GP, 16 G, 17 A, 33 PTS, 32 PIMs
Garrison really broke out this season with the Panthers in his second full NHL season. He has an absolute rocket of a point shot, and used it to score 16 goals this year. With Brian Campbell setting him up, Garrison was a major weapon on the Florida powerplay. Garrison is also an underrated passer, as he has decent vision and makes crisp passes both to start the rush and in the offensive zone. Many will look at Garrison’s numbers, and the fact he was not well known before this season and think that he is a pure offensive defenceman and that his defensive game is suspect. This is not the case. Garrison is a physical defender who clears the front of the net and wins a lot of board battles in his own end of the rink. He is also a good shot blocker, and is a sound positional defender. Garrison was used in all situations this year, and was a key contributor to the Panthers’ penalty killing units. He averaged 23:41 in ice time per game this season. Teams may be concerned that he only has two and a half NHL seasons under his belt, but they shouldn’t be. While it will be tough to replicate the 16 goals he scored this season, Garrison is a true top 4 defenceman who would be a valued addition to any club.
At this point in the rankings, there is a very clear drop off in the level of talent available on the free agent market. The following defencemen are flawed in one or two key areas, however they do represent players capable of playing over 20 minutes per game for a good NHL club, and could be used to fill holes for many teams.
4) Filip Kuba, Ottawa Senators, Shoots Left
2011-12 Salary: $3,700,000
2011-12 Stats: 73 GP, 6 G, 26 A, 32 Pts, 26 PIMs
Kuba, now 35 years old, had a renaissance last year with the Senators after a disasterous 2010-11 campaign. At even strength, he teamed with Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and his reliable defensive play allowed Karlsson the freedom to have the season he did. Kuba was also a key contributor to the Senators second powerplay unit, and the most used player on their penalty kill. Kuba was a workhorse last season, who played over 23:30 per game for the Senators. Offensively, Kuba is still a very good passer who can exploit openings given to him by the opposing team. Defensively he is sound positionally, blocks shots, cuts down passing lanes, and gets the breakout started quickly and efficiently. Kuba may not be as quick as he once was, but he did show last season that he still has decent mobility. He continues to have trouble with big, strong forwards and battling them in the corners and in front of the net can sometimes be a problem. Right now, Kuba is still a capable top 4 defenceman, but with a 35+ contract and some signs of decline, teams should be wary of the length of deal that they offer Kuba.
5) Bryan Allen, Carolina Hurricanes, Shoots Left
2011-12 Salary: $3,150,000
2011-12 Stats: 82 GP, 1 G, 13 A, 14 Pts, 76 PIMs
A good old Kingston boy, Allen played solid minutes for the Hurricanes last season, coming in at just under 20 minutes per game. Unlike the other defencemen on this list, Allen does not possess a lot of offensive skill. He is however a top 4 defensive defenceman. At 6’5″ 226 lbs, Allen is a huge physical specimen who is tough to beat in board battles. Allen clears the front of the net, and is not afraid to mix it up with anyone. He brings an element of size and toughness to the table and is an effective shutdown defenceman. Paired with a solid puckmover, Allen should bring a team stability on the back end, and the stay at home defensive presence that will allow the right partner to take more offensive chances.
6) Sheldon Souray, Dallas Stars, Shoots Left
2011-12 Stats: 64 games, 6 goals, 15 A, 21 Pts, 73 PIMs
After being unceremoniously dumped into the AHL by the Edmonton Oilers, and having a bitter, public feud with the organization, Souray joined the Dallas Stars last summer. The now 36 year old defenceman had a resurgent year for the Stars putting up solid offensive numbers and playing over 20 minutes per game for the Stars. Souray still has the rocket of a point shot that made him one of the most feared powerplay weapons in the league a few years ago. In the offensive zone he knows how to get open and to find shooting lanes for his dangerous shot. Defensively Souray is a physical player in his own end of the rink and is willing to battle for pucks down low and clear the front of his net. He does however lack some mobility and can be beaten off the rush by quick forwards. Souray would be a nice addition to any team looking for help on the Powerplay . Another candidate for a 35+ contract, teams should be wary of Souray’s injury history, especially his multiple wrist and hand surgeries.
7) Sami Salo, Vancouver Canucks, Shoots Right
2011-12 Salary: $2,000,000
2011-12 Stats: 69 GP, 9 G, 16 A, 25 Pts, 10 PIMs
Salo’s 69 games played this season were the most for the injury prone defender since the lockout. He averaged over 20:00 per game and was used in all situations by the Canucks. Talent has never been an issue for the Finnish defender as he is clearly a top 4 defenceman when healthy. Now 38 years old though, the questions about his eventual decline and if he will be even more susceptible to injury loom large. Salo still possesses the absolute cannon of a point shot that helped him score 9 goals for the Canucks last year. His big one timer is a weapon that would help almost any powerplay in the NHL. Defensively, Salo plays a smart positional game and uses his strong instincts and quick stick as his best assets. He is also good along the boards, and is able to clear traffic from the front of the net. The key here will be limiting the length of his contract to just one year, as signing Salo for any longer than that is risky given the 35+ nature of the contract.
While there are a number of other decent defencemen available I feel that these seven are the only UFAs who should be relied upon for top 4 minutes in the NHL next season. The early signings of Barrett Jackman, Brad Stuart, and Dennis Wideman have really thinned the crop this year. Beyond Suter there is no other defenceman available who could be the number 1 guy on a cup contending team. And beyond the second tier of Garrison and Carle, we are into a group of players who while they could be nice additions to a club are mainly complimentary pieces.
The rest of the available UFA defencemen not listed here are mainly depth pieces and I will look at them tomorrow in a piece on bottom 6 forwards and bottom parining defencemen available.
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