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NHL Free Agent Defensemen: Who Should Colorado Pursue?

Cole Hamilton Avatar
July 1, 2015

 

Yesterday we took a look at which UFA forwards the Avalanche should pursue when NHL Free Agency opens later this afternoon but today, with just a few hours left before “Free Agent Frenzy” we turn our attention to the defensemen available in this UFA class.

As one of the worst possession teams in the NHL last season, the Colorado Avalanche’s woes on the defensive side of the puck are well documented. The Avalanche ranked 26th in the NHL last season in shots against per game, allowing their opponents 33.2 shots on net each night. While strong goaltending seasons from Semyon Varlamov and Calvin Pickard helped the Avalanche hover at just 21st in goals against per game, a resurgent 2016 season from the Avalanche will depend on the team’s ability to decrease the number of shots and scoring chances they surrender.

While the trade for Nikita Zadorov is extremely promising for the Avalanche down the road, thrusting the 20 year old blue liner into a top pairing role with Erik Johnson next season would be a mistake, both for the team and for Zadorov’s personal development. As a result, the Avalanche enter free agency in much the same way they did last summer: searching for a top pairing defensive partner for Erik Johnson.

With Jan Hejda a likely summer departure for the Avalanche and players like Nate Guenin, Brad Stuart, Nick Holden, and Zach Redmond overextended in their roles last season, the Avalanche could even choose to double down and sign two UFA defensemen. A second defenseman would force the Avalanche to scratch or demote two of their regulars from last season, but would also give the Avalanche the best defensive depth they’ve had in a decade.

After last week’s Ryan O’Reilly trade, the Avs have just under $17 million in salary cap space, and while they have some of their own contracts to worry about next summer, they have more than enough cap space to be aggressive with their blueline. Let’s take a look at the players the Avalanche might pursue today at noon Eastern.

1. Andrej Sekera

Regardless of any other moves the Avalanche make on July 1st, Andrej Sekera should be the team’s #1 priority. The 6-foot 200 pound defenseman is a left-handed shot capable of playing big minutes in all situations. Last season Sekera scored 3 goals and 23 points in 73 games with the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings, averaging over 22 and 19 minutes per game respectively.

Sekera isn’t a flashy defenseman when it comes to offense, nor is he an explosive checker, but he is an excellent two-way player who’s had a significant, positive effect on possession for every team he’s played for. His HERO Charts show Sekera as an excellent puck mover who generates possession for his team at a top pairing pace.

Sekera is an excellent fit for the Avalanche on all fronts. He addresses the team’s largest need by giving Erik Johnson a  partner on the top pairing, and at just 29 years old, Sekera has plenty of good years ahead of him in that role. In this case, the Avalanche are also a fit for the player in question. The Avalanche can offer Sekera money and ice time commensurate with his ability, and have the young pieces in place to make Sekera confident in their competitive future. Simply put: a match made in heaven.

Underrated for the majority of his career, it’s easy to see the similarities between Sekera and 2014 UFA Anton Stralman. Like Sekera, Stralman’s game was not flashy nor his point totals particularly impressive, but his underlying numbers were very strong. After the impact Stralman had on the Eastern Conference Champion Tampa Bay Lightning last season, Sekera should be a hot commodity tomorrow afternoon. Luckily for the Avalanche, they have the cap space necessary to make a top bid on this class’s top defenseman.

2. Johnny Oduya

Fresh off his second Stanley Cup in three years, the Blackhawks #4 defenseman has been forced out of Chicago thanks to rising salaries for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Like Sekera, Oduya is a 6-foot left handed shot capable of playing big minutes in a variety of situations. Oduya turns 34 in October, but if last season was any indication, he has plenty of hockey left in the tank. On a depleted Blackhawks defensive corps, Oduya ranked fourth in ice time, averaging 20 minutes per game in the regular season and over 24 minutes in the playoffs.

Unlike Sekera, Oduya wont bring much to the team offensively, and instead makes his money as a defensive defenseman who suppresses shots against. That said, Oduya still makes a good, smart first pass in his own end and should help the Avalanche with their struggles transitioning the puck up ice.

While Oduya’s 2015 accomplishments are impressive, it’s important for suitors to distinguish Oduya as an individual from Oduya as a cog in the Blackhawks machine. As the number four dman in Chicago, Oduya got plenty of support both from his defensive stalwart partner Nicklas Hjarlmarsson and from the possession savvy Blackhawks forward group.

Ties between Oduya and the Avalanche are strong leading into Free Agency with Bleacher Report’s Adrian Dater reporting the Avs’ interest in Oduya and fan site Eurolance spotting the defenseman in Denver yesterday. Oduya would certainly be an upgrade over veteran defensemen Jan Hejda and Brad Stuart, but the Avalanche are likely overselling him if they peg him for top pair duty with Erik Johnson. On the right contract, Oduya is an excellent fit for the Avalanche, but they must be cautious not to overpay him because of his age and more protected role in Chicago last season.

3. Christian Ehrhoff

Another left-shooting defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff is the largest of the bunch at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds. Ehrhoff turns 33 this week, and after a disappointing, injury riddled season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ehrhoff is still searching for his first Stanley Cup and looking to sign with a contender.

Concussions limited Ehrhoff to just 49 games during the 2014-2015 season and saw him post his worst offensive season since his rookie year. That said, the smooth skating German defenseman is probably the most complete defensemen available if he can come back healthy and find a second gear in what is likely the final third of his career.

Ehrhoff is an excellent fit for the Avalanche if healthy, but the cup-chasing blueliner with a clock ticking on his career may not be interested in joining the 21st place Avalanche. If he sees the potential for rapid growth in Colorado, the Avalanche could easily afford to match Ehrhoff’s $4 million salary from last season on a multi-year deal.

4. Cody Franson

Unlike the other players on this list, defenseman Cody Franson is a right-handed shot. With right handed shots Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie already locked up for next season, Franson may not seem like a logical fit for the Avalanche, but the big two way defenseman may be too good to pass up on regardless. According to David Pagnotta at The Fourth Period, the Avalanche are one of a number of teams that have contacted Franson in advance of free agency this afternoon.

At 6-foot-5, Franson not only has imposing size, but is also an excellent skater with a heavy shot from the point. His underlying numbers are strong, and while Franson struggled in a reduced role on his off-side in Nashville, he played very well in Toronto and averaged over 21 minutes per game.

Franson’s struggles on the left side in Nashville are a concern for an Avalanche team flush with right-shooting defensemen, but if the Avs envision more success moving Erik Johnson or Tyson Barrie to their off-side, then Franson could still make for a good fit. With so few right-handed defensemen on the market Cody Franson will be a hot commodity at a high price. If the Avalanche land the former Leafs defenseman, he will surely be too expensive for their third pairing and the team will need to find a way to fit him into their top four rotation.

5. Matt Irwin

Matt Irwin is the lowest impact defenseman on our list of Unrestricted Free Agent targets, playing just 53 games for the Sharks in his third NHL season. The 27 year old left-shooting defenseman averaged 17 minutes per night and had some strong underlying numbers in his lower pairing role, but had a hard time sticking in the Sharks lineup at some points in the season. At various points Irwin was a healthy scratch in favor of former Avs defenseman Scott Hannan, now 36 years old, and former Lake Erie Monsters defenseman Karl Stollery.

Mike Chambers from the Denver Post has floated Irwin’s name in connection to the Avalanche many times in the months leading up to free agency, and while he could make a decent depth addition for an Avalanche team which struggled to ice a quality bottom pairing all season, he shouldn’t be expected to make an impact on higher pairings or fill the spot next to Erik Johnson.

After scoring 8 goals last year Irwin is sure to ask for a healthy raise on his $1 million salary, and with Brad Stuart and Nick Holden starting new contracts this fall and Nick Holden taking over a $1 million raise, the Avalanche should be cautious about how many bodies and dollars they commit to their bottom pairing.

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