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NHL Free Agent Frenzy Preview: The Defensemen

The NHL’s free agency period gets back to its usual date of July 1st this year and there are, as always, a multitude of names for teams to target. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of those players and what they could offer to teams in terms of both impact and salary. In part one, we examined the goalies and here, in part two, we’ll look at some of the top free agent defensemen available.

The collection of players available on the blueline this year could be described as thin, at best. While last year’s crop of UFA defensemen was relatively weak, this year’s might be even worse. Mostly it’s some older players who, while still maintaining some usefulness, aren’t likely to receive big money or long terms. Likewise, the younger players, who could be more lucrative signings, are mostly gap-fillers. Those teams looking to add some depth on the backend could do well for themselves, but there certainly aren’t many top-flight blueliners available this year. Here’s our picks for the top ten impact defensemen available.

NHL Free Agent Frenzy: The Defensemen

1) Dan Boyle, New York Islanders

2013-14 Salary: $6.66 million

2013-14 Stats: 75 GP, 12 G, 24 A, 36 Pts, 32 PIMs, -8, 21:16 TOI

Boyle is the best of the bunch available and, even at 37 years old, will be coveted by many teams around the league. The long-time Shark was the first victim of the potential purge coming in San Jose after a monumental collapse against the Kings in the post-season, and was likely more the victim of a culture change than anything to do with his own play. His 12 goals (6 on the power play) was his highest total since 2010, and he can clearly still bring the offense for any team looking for a solid puck-mover. Largely known as a one-dimensional player, his offensive prowess is both the only thing he has going for him, and the largest knock against him. Age is catching up to the four time 2nd Team all-star, and expect a team (not the New York Islanders, who traded for his rights a few weeks ago, but appear as though they won’t be able to entice him to sign) in need of some firepower from the back end to give him a shot, albeit in a limited role with a reduced salary and term.

2) Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh Penguins

2013-14 Salary: $2.5 million ($2.3 cap hit)

2013-14 Stats: 81 GP, 10 G, 36 A, 46 PTS, 51 PIMs, +33, 21:17 TOI

Simply put, Niskanen was a steal at $2.3 million last year, and he stands the best chance for a huge payday on July 1st. There’s no doubt that the Penguins would LOVE to keep him in the fold, as he handily led the offense from the blueline in Pittsburgh while Kris Letang was out for most of the season dealing with various ailments. He also had easily his best season since his sophomore campaign with Dallas way back in 2009 (and made the Alex Goligoski for James Neal and Niskanen trade look incredibly lop-sided in the process). One could say that he was playing for a new contract, or that he was the beneficiary of a solid team around him, but it could also be argued that at 27 years old, Niskanen is just beginning to enter his prime. If the Penguins can’t afford to keep him due to their own cap problems, expect a huge bidding war for Niskanen’s services.

3) Andrei Markov, Montreal Canadiens

2013-14 Salary: $5.75 million

2013-14 Stats: 81 GP, 7 G, 36 A, 43 PTS, 34 PIMs, +12, 25:14 TOI

Say you’re a team that’s struggling on the power play and looking to land some offense from the point; look no further than Markov. 21 of Markov’s 43 points this season were on the power play, as he posted his best offensive campaign since 2009.The 35-year-old has been plagued by injuries for many years, put proved that last season (when he played all 48 games) was no fluke by sitting out only one game this season. That’s a sigh of relief for both the Canadiens, who would love to retain Markov, and also for the player, who might have been looking at a much smaller contract had he struggled through another injury ravaged year. However, the Habs will have their hands full with PK Subban’s new contract, and Markov may just slip through the cracks to another team.

4) Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins

2013-14 Salary: $3.75 million

2013-14 Stats: 72 GP, 2 G, 11 A, 13 PTS, 46 PIMs, -3, 21:11 TOI

While the first three players on this list are the cream of the crop when it comes to offense, Orpik is surely the best available for those looking for a strong, tough presence on the blueline. He won’t give you much in terms of goals, but the 2010 Olympic silver medalist racked up an impressive 221 hits this season and is an imposing figure in his own zone at 6-foot-2 and 219 pounds. However, at 33 years old, he’s lost a step and seems to be growing increasingly injury-prone (likely the result of many seasons full of hard minutes). It seems as though Pittsburgh can’t afford both Orpik and Niskanen, and one or both could be heading to a new team this summer. Orpik won’t command the same salary as Niskanen on the open market (by virtue of NHL general manager’s insane tendency to overpay for offensive blueliners), so any team looking for a bit of snarl to add to their defense corps would do well to target the cheaper Orpik.

5) Matt Greene, Los Angeles Kings

2013-14 Salary: $3.25 million ($2.95 cap hit)

2013-14 Stats: 38 GP, 2 G, 4 A, 6 PTS, 47 PIMs, +6, 15:53 TOI

At first glance, there’s really nothing exciting about Greene. He doesn’t produce anything on offense, he makes zero contribution to the power play, and he struggled through serious injuries that limited his games played over the last two seasons. However, when you dig a bit deeper, Greene’s true value can be seen: he’s a penalty killing and shot-blocking dynamo that hits anything that moves. Oh, and he’s also won two Stanley Cups in three years with Los Angeles, and anyone in the Kings locker room will tell you how crucial a piece Greene has been for them. Unfortunately, it looks like the Kings may be forced to let him walk if they want to improve their forward group. He averaged 5.87 blocks per 60 minutes last season, 2:41 per game on the penalty kill, and had more than 200 hits in four consecutive seasons before his injury trouble. He’s also a menacing figure at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds. He’s the epitome of the defensive defenseman and could potentially be had for cheaper than the older Orpik. If the 31-year-old can avoid the injury bug, he might provide the most value of any blueliner available this year.

Honorable Mentions:

Andrej Meszaros – Boston Bruins (28 years old, $4 million), Willie Mitchell – LA Kings (37 years old, $3.5 million), Nikita Nikitin – Columbus Blue Jackets (28 years old, $2.15 million), Anton Stralman – New York Rangers (27 years old, $1.7 million), Tom Gilbert – Florida Panthers (31 years old, $900,000).

That’s it for the defensemen, check back soon for the next installment of the series: The Forwards.

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