Before we delve into those who will test the free agent market come July 1st, I would like to congratulate the Los Angeles Kings on winning their second Stanley Cup in three years. In this day and age, that may be as close to becoming a dynasty as a team can get.
In terms of making changes to their teams defensive squad, there are a few clubs who will be unlikely to make significant changes to their defense units, whether that be due to already having their back-end mostly in place for 2014-15, a lack of potential UFA’s/RFA’s, or salary cap issues. These include the Ducks, Bruins, Blackhawks, Flyers, Sharks, Blues, and Capitals.
The Ducks and Blues are fortunate to have an enviable mixture of youth and experience with their “D,” and it is likely both will look to improve their depth scoring instead. The Hawks have their top six locked up through next season, and there isn’t much reason to change the scenery in Chicago anyways. The only notable UFA the Bruins have is Andrej Meszaros, and now that Dennis Seidenberg will be back at 100% health, there is no room for Meszaros, as the B’s are almost guaranteed to bring back RFA’s Torrey Krug and Matt Bartkowski, meaning their unit is set. The same situation is possible to play out in San Jose, as their core is virtually set, with UFA veteran Scott Hannan potentially being replaced by rookie Mirco Mueller. Unless it’s via trade, don’t expect either the Flyers or Capitals to be busy changing the defense. With the re-signing of Kimmo Timonen last week, the Flyers are pressed right up against the cap (they will also wave goodbye to UFA Hal Gill). The Capitals may look to improve, but with their top-6 d-men all signed for next year, they may have to move either Dmitry Orlov or Karl Alzner to get a sizable return to improve.
Photo credits to: zimbio.com
While the aforementioned teams may not make many changes, the rest of the league is fairly wide open to possible movement for defensive free agents. Here are other storylines that will play out regarding defensive UFA’s/RFA’s
Buffalo: Jamie McBain will likely be re-signed, but what will the Sabres do with UFA Henrik Tallinder? He was brought back to help Tyler Myers game, but others could be interested in the dependable veteran.
Carolina: Three older UFA’s available in Joni Pitkanen, Ron Hainsey, and Mike Komisarek. Hainsey could be back after a decent offensive season by his standards, but the oft-injured Pitkanen and hands-of- stone Komisarek are likely gone.
Colorado: Tough decision’s to make for Avs’ management. They would like to improve the unit in front of Semyon Varlamov, but money may be tied up with Ryan O’Reilly and possibly Paul Stastny, meaning affordable UFA’s Cory Sarich and Andre Benoit could be back.
Columbus: Nikita Nikitin is one of the more underrated, young, shutdown D-men in the game. He could end up nabbing a nice contract to play a shutdown/third-pairing role.
Edmonton: Look for the Oilers to be buyers on the free agent market. Pressure is on to perform after eight consecutive non-playoff seasons, and with two good goalies in place, they should surround Andrew Ference with a few more efficient pieces. Their UFA’s are Mark Fraser and Anton Belov, both of whom could be gone, and there’s a possibility to move RFA’s Jeff Petry and Philip Larsen, though high scoring Justin Schultz will most likely return.
Florida: With plenty of cap space, potentially even more if they buyout Brian Campbell, the Panthers could have a very deep defensive core in a few years. If they take Aaron Ekblad with the #1 pick, that could give them a group that also features Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, and Dylan Olsen. Only problem: those last three names are all RFA’s, and Kulikov’s name has been involved in trade speculation.
Los Angeles: What will the defending champs do? Do they A) Use what little cap space they have to re-sign Marian Gaborik or B) Use the cash to re-ink UFA’s Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell. While Mitchell has been a dependable veteran, Greene has battled injuries and may be expendable.
Minnesota: With only about $12 million in cap space and a number of forwards to deal with, UFA’s Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner could be cap casualties, not to mention Matt Dumba will probably take a roster spot next year as well. Also, will RFA Jonathon Blum be back?
Montreal: GM Marc Bergevin has a few difficult choices to make. P. K. Subban is an RFA, while Andrei Markov, Francis Bouillon, Mike Weaver, and Doug Murray are all UFA’s. Bouillon and Murray could be replaced full-time by Jarred Tinordi and Nathan Beaulieu next season. Also, I wonder if someone gives Subban a ridiculously high offer sheet, forcing the Habs to match it, meaning they won’t have enough cap space left for Markov.
New York Rangers: The Rangers are in potentially the worst situation in terms of cap space, with no less than a combined 10 UFA’s/RFA’s, one of which being Anton Stralman, who could receive a high offer after an excellent playoffs. Other defensive UFA is Raphael Diaz, and RFA’s include Justin Falk and John Moore.
Ottawa: While the Sens are concerned right now with the imminent Jason Spezza trade, they need some changes on their backend. They had great offensive production from Erik Karlsson and Pat Wiercioch on the PP, but also gave up the second most shots per game as a team. Change will be easier said than done, with no UFA’s and only Eric Gryba as an RFA. I wonder then if Ottawa package a defenseman with Spezza in return for a centre, defenseman, and draft pick.
Phoenix: With a new owner and about $20 million in cap space, lets see if the Coyotes make a splash and land a major defenseman to ease the load on Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle. Derek Morris is a UFA, but he may be let go in favour of someone younger.
Pittsburgh: Matt Niskanen may be the most targeted defenseman on the market, and the Pens may not be able to keep him, as they may be in the second-worst salary cap position behind New York. with his offensive production, Niskanen could easily fetch between $4.5-5 million a season, a price the Penguins cannot afford. Not to mention they have Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland as UFA’s as well, and virtually every player in their bottom-six.
Toronto: While UFA Paul Ranger is almost certainly gone, the Leafs are left with two RFA’s on defense: Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson. Gardiner’s offensive upside is too high to send him away (there’s an idea of moving him to forward), Franson could be dealt. He led the Leafs defensemen in points, but also carried the worst +/-. Changes need to be made for arguably the leagues worst defense, but it will likely have to be through trades, not the free agent market.
Vancouver: With no compliance buyouts left and four defensemen with no-trade or no-movement clauses, the Canucks may not be able to tinker much. UFA Andrew Alberts may not be back, and the cap space saved from buying out David Booth could go towards re-signing RFA’s Chris Tanev and Yannick Weber.
Photo credits to: zimbio.com and fannation.com