NHL Free Agent Frenzy Provides Little For Defensemen

Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar
Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar
Apr 5 2013 Buffalo NY USA Sergei Gonchar 55 during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center Sabres beat the Senators 4 2 Kevin Hoffman USA TODAY Sports

This summer marks a fairly busy free agent (and trade) season in the NHL. There are numerous reasons for this, most of them tied into the salary cap going down nearly $7-million this year as part of what was agreed upon in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This has meant high-priced players being shipped out of town essentially for a bag of pucks and compliance buyouts—a two-year window a team has to buyout any two contracts without it counting against the salary cap. Compliance buyouts are being used all over the place. It should have meant a stronger-than-usual free agent pool and it has.

Then there’s the blue line.

Going through the more notable names signed to contracts in the last month, we see: Sergei Gonchar, Mark Streit, Jordan Leopold, Andrew Ference and Marek Zidlicky. Seeing as Ference is mostly a defensive-minded defenseman—he hasn’t cracked 25 points since 2005-2006—there are four notable names for fantasy hockey purposes.

Sergei Gonchar – Dallas Stars

Despite lacking the Ottawa Senators’ two top offensive weapons for most of the season in Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, Gonchar managed to put up a personal three-year high in assists/game (0.53) and points/game (0.60). He finished the year with 12 power-play points and all this was good for him being a top-20 fantasy hockey defenseman last year.

Gonchar signed a free agent deal back in June with the Dallas Stars for two-years at $5-million per season as a reward. This is a team that is rebuilding its franchise and has a lot of parts to like. The Stars acquired potential superstar Tyler Seguin and somehow finagled the underrated Rich Peverley into the deal, they traded for Shawn Horcoff as a third line center and already had Jamie Benn, Ray Whitney and Erik Cole in the mix. This is a team that shouldn’t have trouble scoring next year and were nearly a top-10 scoring team this year.

Gonchar was the recipient of a lot of power-play time last year and there’s no reason to think that will be any different this year. They’re not paying him $5-million a season to be a stay-at-home defenseman. His shooting percentage has been well below normal for a couple years now, so there’s optimism that he can manage at least seven to eight goals next year, hopefully double-digits. I have no reason to think he’s not a top-25 defenseman again this year.

Mark Streit – Philadelphia Flyers

A player who has been one of the best offensive defensemen over the last several years (he posted at least 47 points in every season from 2007-2008 through 2011-2012) found a new home, the offensively-charged Philadelphia Flyers.

The move was a bit strange, he’s not a good possession defenseman anymore and the Flyers haven’t been a good possession team for a while. Luckily for us, outside of the obvious plus/minus issue this presents – he was (-14) last year playing for a good possession team, largely attributable to bad goaltending, something that’s not going to get better playing for Philadelphia – this should mean a boon for his fantasy value.

The Flyers were an excellent power-play team last year and the year before and this bodes well for a player who posted at least 22 power-play points every season he played in from 2007-2012. He should get loads of time as well because outside of Kimmo Timonen, there’s really not much for puck-moving defensemen in Philly.

Streit also does well at filling up other categories too; he’s been a top-30 defenseman in shots on goal each of the last two years and should push for 40 penalty minutes. Other than plus/minus, there’s no reason to think he can’t produce elsewhere. Along with Gonchar, I would say Streit is a lock for a top-25 defenseman next year.

Jordan Leopold – St. Louis Blues

Primarily known as a defensive defenseman, it’s easy to forget that Leopold is just two seasons removed from a 35-point campaign and scored double-digit goals every season from 2009-2012.

The question with Leopold remains what his usage will be with St. Louis. With Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk taking the bulk of the power-play time, he’s a lock to be in the second pairing on the man advantage. To be a really effective fantasy defenseman, you need to excel in one area or be good across several. Leopold has never cracked 140 shots in any season (that goes back over a decade), he hasn’t cracked 40 penalty minutes since 2005-2006 and has cracked 10 power-play points just once since that season (he had 11 in 2010-2011).

Leopold is going to a strong 5 on 5 team. Usually, that would be a bonus for plus/minus. However, he’s probably going to be in the top two pairing for St. Louis, which means he’ll attract top competition, as he did this year. With a team that could struggle to score at 5 on 5, and being stuck on the second power-play pairing, Leopold’s offensive production could be iffy. I’m not as high on him as I am the other two but Leopold could still be a top-60 defenseman when all is said and done (which means he’s fantasy-serviceable).

Marek Zidlicky – New Jersey

Zidlicky, in fantasy hockey terms, is much the same player as Jordan Leopold is; he’s an older player playing for a good possession team who has had offensive success in the past. He, like Leopold, doesn’t shoot a lot (he’s never cracked 150 shots). However, unlike Leopold, he has a penchant for taking penalties; he cracked the 60 penalty minutes mark each of his first six seasons in the NHL and would have been close in the last couple had it not been for injuries (for the record: his 0.79 penalty minutes per game mark this year would be good for 64 penalty minutes in an 82-game schedule).

With the declining Martin Brodeur in net, plus/minus will be an issue for him this season – there were only three Devils players last year who finished plus-five or better—and no, I don’t think Cory Schneider is taking over this year, Brodeur is not sitting on the bench. On the bonus side of things, the Devils blue line is so thin that he will see first-pairing minutes on the power-play like he did this past season. With the news that Ilya Kovalchuk would be retiring, this isn’t as prolific a position as it was a week ago. All the same, any defenseman with first-pairing power-play minutes should be on everyone’s fantasy hockey radar.

As you can see, it was a thin crop on the blue line this offseason, especially considering that Streit and Gonchar were both signed before the official offseason began. Thin doesn’t mean irrelevant, and hitting a home run (maybe even a double) in the later rounds of a draft on a defenseman can go a long way into giving you fantasy hockey success.

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Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions. !function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');