2009 NHL Free Agency: Who Should the Thrashers Target at Defense?

Thrashers GM Don Waddell has stated that his off season goals were to acquire a top six forwards (preferably with some size) and a top four defenseman (who can help shore up the PK). The team could trade one of their goalies to fill one of those roster holes. Assuming the Thrashers intend to find their top four defenseman on the free agent market--whom should the team target? Before I get into specific names, let me establish some parameters to cut down the field.

  1. The player should have played top four minutes last year in the NHL. There are quite a few 3rd pairing and fringe defensemen on the free agent list. Assuming a current 3rd pairing guy can step up to 2nd pairing minutes could be a big mistake.
  2. Defensemen who played "soft minutes" against the opposition's weaker lines should be avoided. The Thrashers defense needs someone who can withstand the pressure of playing against Ovechkin, Lecavlier, Booth, Crosby and Malkin. Using the Quality of Competition ratings I eliminated all the defensemen who were protected by their coaches and not put out against the other team's better players.
  3. Age is a very important factor. Most of these free agents will be seeking multi-year deals.Most players have their peak year between the ages of 25-30. Hall of Fame level player can remain quite productive until their late 30s, but players who are not at that Hall of Fame level can crash and burn as early as 33-35. If you're going to award a 3 or 4 year deal, any team would be wise to keep the age curve in mind and target players 30 or younger.

Once you eliminate 3rd pairing guys, players who skated versus weak opposition and players over 30 that leaves a pretty small list of top targets. Who makes the cut? That will be revealed after the jump.

And without futher delay, here's the list of players who made the cut listed in order of age.

Mike Komisarek 25 (MON). With Jay Bouwmeester off the market Komisarek is probably the premier D available. Some team will almost certainly overpay for his services (NYR or TOR) and likely push him out of the Thrashers price range. Montreal PK posted surprisingly poor numbers when he was on the ice Short Handed.

Nick Schultz 26 (MIN). On paper he looks like a perfect fit for the Thrashers. Played tough minutes the last two years. He also played a lot at ES (good partner for Hainsey) and got lots of time on the Wild PK unit. He will not contribute much on offense which could keep his price low. Played lots of minutes on a good defensive team. One of the better PKers on the Wild the last two seasons.

Greg Zanon 27 (NSH). A purely defensive defenseman coming out of a franchise that seems to mint NHL D with ease. The coaching staff leaned on him hard to help out their PK (94% ranking in SH TOI) the last two years. He brings essentially zero offense to the table. Because of his weak offense, he should be rather affordable. If the Thrashers desire to spend big on a RW like Cammaleri or a C like Antropov adding Zanon to the blueline for a modest sum could allow them to fill both holes and not blow the budget.

Francois Beauchemin 29 (ANA). Some positives here, played a lot of tough minutes both years. Played lots of ES and SH ice time. His scoring rates were poor. As a Stanley Cup winner he will almost certainly be overpaid. How will he look when not paired with great defensemen (Niedermayer, Pronger)?

Martin Skoula 29 (MIN). Has played against average opponents the last two years.  His ES TOI was quite high in 2008 and slid down a bit in 2009 but was still above average. Receives regular PK time, but is not the leader on his team, no significant PP time. His offense is quite tepid (35% ES Scoring Rate Ranking, 26% Overall Scoring Rate Ranking). Played regularly on good defensive team in Minnesota.

Paul Mara 29 (NYR). Has faced average opposition the last two seasons, and has often been out on the ice with inferior teammates. Despite this unfavorable situation, Mara manged a positive Corsi number (Net shots attemped when he was on the ice) and a positive Plus/Minus. His ice time distribution is quite unusual as he coaches played him in ES, PP and SH situations. He was a "jack of all trades but master of now" the last two years. His offensive scoring efficiency is slight above average. Put up extremely good short handed GAA the last two years--was clearly one of the best PKers on his team.

Derek Morris 30 (PHX/NYR). Played really tough minutes for Phoenix Coyotes in 2008 which reverted back the mean in 2009. He brings a really nice mix of skills a team, capable of playing both ES, PP and SH. His ES scoring rate levels are considerably below average and he has been both hot and cold on the PP the last two years. A little below average compared to team mates on the PK.

Rober Scuderi 30 (PIT). A NHL journeyman who had a career year at the perfect time(Stanley Cup and now $$$). I'll be shocked if he doesn't end up being overpaid for what he brings to the table. He has always played tough minutes but his coaches have kept his ice time low at ES--even this year his EST% was just 36% among all regular NHL defenders (barely top 4). He does receive lots of PK play, but for the money Zanon brings a similar skill set for a much cheaper price. Pass.

What if we relax the age cut off slightly? Two interesting defenseman might be worthy of consideration.

Mattias Ohlund 32 (VAN). Played a fair number of soft minutes in 2008, but this went back to average in 2009. Capable of playing in all situations, his ES TOI was cut back in 2009. His offensive efficiency in 2008 fell somewhere between above-average and elite, but his scoring rates took a big decline in 2009. Hard to know what these trends mean. Are falling TOI numbers and scoring rates a sign of impending collapse or just a down year? Better than his teammates on the PK the last two years.

Filip Kuba 32 (TBL/OTT). Kuba was an ice time monster in 2008 with Tampa and put up some impressive scoring rates at Even Strength a year ago. But many of 2008 minutes were soft ones and in 2009 Kuba faced harder opposition and declining ES minutes. He was given a regular role on both the PP unit and the PK units. His ES Scoring rate slipped but he was hot on the PP and he ended up with a higher overall scoring efficiency rate.

Defensemen Who Might Fly Under the Radar.

Two guys come to mind because they played on rosters that were very deep at defense. Ville Koistinen and Francis Bouillon. They each received easier ice time but the coaches on that team had great options. It is possible those two might be capable of handling more tough minutes and could be a good budget fit in Atlanta. I like the upside of both of these guys, but I am nervous about committing long term to a guy without being sure if he can really handle a larger role in the NHL on club that struggles with defensive hockey.

Why Didn't ____ Make Your List?

Too old: Adrian Aucoin 35; Francis Bouillon 33; Boucher 35; Brisbois 37; Chelios 46; Cullimore 36; De Vries 35; Gauthier 37; Hedian 38; Hall Gill 33; Hnidy 33; Klee 37; Malik 33; C. Murphy37: S. Neidermayer 35; Numminen 40; O'Donnell 37; Schneider 39; Seidenberg 35; Skrastins 34; Sydor 36; Zubov 38.

Not top four D on his own team: A. Alberts, M-A Bergeron, Bouillon, N. Boynton, Brisebois, Cullimore, K. Foster, Huskins, Kalinin, V. Koistinen, Leopold, McKee, Montador, C. Murphy, Oystrick, Semenov, Tollefsen, Vaananen, M. Walker.

Played lots of soft minutes: Tollefsen, Woywitka, Schneider, C. Murphy, Montador, Leopold, Koistinen, Huskins, Hnidy, Eminger,  B. Bell, MA Bergeron, P. Bouher, F. Bouillon, N. Boynton, Brisebois, Chelios, Cullimore,

Short Veteran Contract Option

Most of the time older veterans look for playoff caliber teams and one last crack at winning the Stanley Cup. One potential exception to this might be Mathieu Schneider. If the Schneider family enjoyed their time in Atlanta I could imagine a scenario in which he might return to Hotlanta. In Anaheim Schneider was hidden by the coaching staff, but in 2009 he faced better quality opponents. His ES minutes fell along with a sharp decline in his even scoring rate. His PP rate actually improved from the year before.

Conclusion

If I were the Thrashers I think the best looking fit are the two former Wild defensemen, Shultz and Skoula. Greg Zanon could be a very affordable PK specialist. I also like Derek Morris quite a bit, but I suspect he will garner some pricely offers.

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