It’s rare when a true top pairing blueliner is among the top 10 NHL UFA defensemen, and 2016 will follow suit. Keith Yandle and Alex Goligoski were recently locked up by the Florida Panthers and the Arizona Coyotes, respectively, weakening the pool of available players.
However, there are still a number of second pairing and depth options available, with a variety of skill sets for the choosing as well. NHL general managers should be wise with their offers to the crop of blueliners this year, as while the pool looks shallow, there are a number of quality players available, however a market correction on their salaries is needed for most of them.
Top 10 NHL UFA Defensemen 2016
#1 Brian Campbell
2015-16 Cap Hit: $7.142 million
Campbell might be one of the finest wines in the NHL, as the 37-year-old has aged incredibly well and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s spent the past five seasons with the Panthers and remained consistent offensively, scoring no less than 27 points over that span, while not missing a single game.
While his minutes have dropped slightly in recent seasons (from 26:57 in 2013-14 to 22:17 last season), Campbell is still a defenseman that can be relied upon heavily at both five-on-five and on the power play (with five goals and 13 points on the power play last season). He also proved an invaluable mentor in helping Aaron Ekblad take the next step to stardom.
Report: Brian Campbell considering return to Blackhawks in free agency https://t.co/Pw2RLFYco7 pic.twitter.com/ugT6pLUfVs
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) June 23, 2016
The 2012 Lady Byng winner and 2010 Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks still has plenty of gas left in the tank, and a team in need of a veteran puck mover should have Campbell at the top of their list (perhaps a return to Chicago is in the cards).
#2 Dan Hamhuis
2015-16 Cap Hit: $4.5 million
Hamhuis’ bread and butter thus far in his career has been his dominant defensive zone play, with a modicum of offense thrown into the mix. He showed flashes of that shutdown presence early in his career with the Nashville Predators and really flourished after signing as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks. He played a massive role in the Canucks run to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and also made the 2014 Canadian Olympic team off the back of his stellar own zone play, helping Team Canada win a gold medal.
Hamhuis has taken a slight step back over the last two seasons, though he has been hit by injuries, including a grisly broken jaw, and a Vancouver squad slowly crumbling around him. The question is, how much does Hamhuis have left to give? Have the last two seasons been an aberration caused by uncontrollable factors, or is he truly on the decline?
ICYMI @patersonjeff on the #Canucks admittedly telling Dan Hamhuis to prepare to be a UFA: https://t.co/10CkT20iZD pic.twitter.com/Q9tlBYakO2
— CanucksArmy (@CanucksArmy) June 26, 2016
He remains a solid possession player and a positive possession player relative to his teammates, so the stats indicate there might be something there still. Hamhuis could be a great addition to a contending team looking to shore up their defensive play.
#3 Jason Demers
2015-16 Cap Hit: $3.4 million
Demers has gone from a 7th round (186th overall) draft pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2008 to a solid puck-moving defenseman who can be counted upon to produce offense. Demers posted a career-high 34 points for the Sharks in 2013-14 and continued to produce after going to the Dallas Stars mid-season in 2014-15. He scored seven goals (second among Stars blueliners) and 23 points this past season while averaging 20:52 minutes a night and an impressive 54.1 Corsi for percentage, despite starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Jason Demers is a solid defenseman target and would be near the top of my UFA board for blueliners. pic.twitter.com/EWOw1jpSj1
— Nicholas W. Goss (@NickGossNESN) June 24, 2016
There has however been questions about Demers’ decision-making and positioning in his own zone, concerns that were exacerbated after he came back from a shoulder injury and struggled in the Stars playoff series loss to the St. Louis Blues.
That was a bad last impression, and NHL general managers now have to wonder if Demers is the defenseman who played a big role for Dallas earlier in the season, or if his best days are starting to appear in the rear view mirror.
#4 Kris Russell
2015-16 Cap Hit: $2.6 million
It’s funny how quickly things can turn for a player, as Russell went from the belle of the ball at the 2016 trade deadline to a one-dimensional whipping boy for fans by the conclusion of the season.
Russell had long showed potential of being a good, if not great, two-way defenseman whose mobility would allow him to be successful on both sides of the puck. Over two seasons with the Calgary Flames, that reputation appeared accurate, as he produced decent offensive numbers while playing more than 23 minutes a night. However, as the wheels fell off for Calgary last season, so too did Russell, as his possession numbers and offensive counting stats plummeted.
Talks quiet between Dallas and Kris Russell. Not interpreting Goligoski trade as Stars picking Russell over other UFA defensemen.
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) June 17, 2016
The trade to Dallas did little to help, as he still posted negative possession numbers relative to his teammates, while failing to produce a single goal for the Stars over a combined 23 regular season and playoff games. Russell is a shot-blocking extraordinaire, on that there is no debate, and he has an admirable work ethic, but there are concerns at this point he might not be much more.
#5 Luke Schenn
2015-16 Cap Hit: $3.6 million
When you’re drafted 5th overall (2008) by the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s expected you’re going to be a target of intense criticism. Despite falling short of expectations, Schenn has carved out a decent NHL career.
Schenn is a solid, strong, physical shutdown defenseman who seems to revel in the defensive aspects of the game. He proved in his early years in Toronto to have little in the way of offensive instincts (his career high is 22 points), however he possesses a heavy point shot.
Would Luke Schenn suit blue and green? @adam_laskaris‘ latest free agent profile: https://t.co/BKO4wJTpI1 pic.twitter.com/TGMszXEVZv
— CanucksArmy (@CanucksArmy) June 11, 2016
Schenn struggled at times after moving to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2012-13, but a trade to the L.A. Kings mid-season last year seemed to reinvigorate him. At just 26 years old, Schenn could command a long-term deal from a club looking to solidify their back end.
#6 Ben Lovejoy
2015-16 Cap Hit: $1.1 million
Recency bias is a strong motivating factor for many NHL general managers, and Lovejoy’s strong showing in the Penguins Stanley Cup victory could go a long way to securing him a new, potentially inflated, contract.
It was obvious, Pens won’t get Ben Lovejoy back & need a right defenseman or Derrick Pouliot will play off-side: https://t.co/I7BB0wIZEB
— Dan Kingerski (@Budmoonshine) June 27, 2016
Lovejoy joined the Penguins as an undrafted free agent out of Dartmouth College, and after bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL, finally stuck in Pittsburgh during the 2010-11 season. After brief sojourn to the Anaheim Ducks, Lovejoy was reacquired by the Penguins in 2015.
Lovejoy has good size, mobility and puck moving skills, though he can’t be counted upon to produce offensively. He’s also an excellent penalty killer. Most likely he pencils in as a decent bottom-pairing option for whoever signs him.
#7 David Schlemko
2015-16 Cap Hit: $625,000
Schlemko is in many ways a carbon copy of Lovejoy. Like Lovejoy, Schlemko was also an undrafted free agent who has managed to carve out a decent career. He has some size and mobility as well as good puck moving skills, yet makes very little impact offensively. And also like Lovejoy, he may be the beneficiary of a strong contract year.
After an underwhelming 2014-15 season split between Calgary, Arizona and Dallas, the New Jersey Devils took a flyer on Schlemko, signing him to a bargain-basement deal for one season. Schelmko responded by setting new career highs in goals (six) and points (19) while averaging 18:39 a night. He even chipped in with his first-ever regular season power play goal.
Kind of surprised the Devils haven’t re-upped David Schlemko yet. Had a solid season, wouldn’t cost much and the UFA D market is razor thin.
— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) June 22, 2016
At 29 years old, Schlemko isn’t likely to improve upon those numbers, but in the right situation he could be a valuable utility piece to add depth to a club’s blueline.
#8 Kyle Quincey
2015-16 Cap Hit: $4.25 million
Quincey and his career can best be described as a series of shifting expectations. Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings 132nd overall in 2003, he didn’t see NHL ice until the 2005-06, as the club was content to let him develop (as is their wont). However Quincey didn’t help his cause, as he didn’t show he was able to take the next step.
After he was picked up on waivers by the Kings however, Quincey blossomed, scoring 38 points in 72 games in his first full NHL season. Unfortunately for Quincey, that lone season in L.A. would be his best, as he never really recaptured that offensive form after.
2015-16 Red Wings Player Grades: Kyle Quincey: Our end-of-season report cards… https://t.co/AscMbMB8hE via @wingingitmotown #RedWings
— Red Wings News Feed (@RedWingsFeed) June 4, 2016
Like many other players on this list, Quincey is best described as a depth stay-at-home defenseman with good mobility but offensive and defensive questions marks, as well as a worrying injury history.
#9 Roman Polak
2015-16 Cap Hit: $2.75 million
What Polak lacks in flash and sizzle, he makes up with his defensive zone play. Polak is a heavy, stay-at-home type who plays an underrated game. He was a solid depth option for the Blues for years after breaking into the league in 2006-07 as a 20-year-old, however in a “what have you done for me lately” league, Polak’s stock likely took a huge tumble in this past Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I’m so concerned that there are Sharks fans who watched the Stanley Cup Final and think signing Roman Polak is fine “for the right price.”
— Jake Sharkstrom (@jakesundstrom) June 13, 2016
Polak was a part of the Sharks third pairing with Brenden Dillon, a pairing that was considered by some observers to be San Jose’s Achilles Hell during the Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins. Bad defensive decisions by Polak cost the Sharks at least a couple of goals, and while the whole team played poorly at times, Polak certainly didn’t help their cause.
That said, Polak is a heavy hitter (he had over 300 this past season) who blocks shots, and while this is usually indicative of a player who rarely has the puck, more than a few NHL GMs could be enticed by those numbers.
#10 Jared Cowen
2015-16 Cap Hit: $3.1 million
Cowen best serves as a cautionary tale of why massive, projectable defensemen don’t always make the best high draft picks. Chosen 9th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2009, Cowen has done little more than disappoint since.
Jared Cowen clears waivers, can now be bought out by Maple Leafs. https://t.co/PPvuPwgOZT pic.twitter.com/iXOg99f871
— theScore (@theScore) June 16, 2016
At 6’5 with an outstanding reach it’s easy to get lulled away from Cowen’s flaws, namely that he simply isn’t very good at handling the puck or using his size effectively in the defensive zone. Combined with his high draft position and inflated contract, it’s hard to label Cowen as anything other than a bust.
That said, he’s still only 25 years old, and that size for a blueliner is so enticing that at least one general manager is likely to take a chance on him, hoping that a change of scenery and perhaps a shot of confidence will be enough to finally make him a reliable, everyday NHL defenseman.