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Steer: Identifying undervalued defensemen ahead of free agency

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June 30, 2016

The NHL is a league of winners and losers, haves and have nots, and its free agency period is no different. The Steve Yzermans of the world are able to extract good value amidst the chaos, while your Paul Holmgrens often make catastrophic mistakes that have franchise-altering implications. Savvy teams walk away from free agency improved, their pockets brimming with impactful players (or cap space), while other teams are unsuccessful in their search for that final piece, struggle to attract talent, or negotiate ill-advised contracts from positions of weakness.

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COL’s pre-free agency depth chart. One-way contracts are in blue, two-way contracts are in green, and RFAs are in red.

Heading into the July 1 weekend, Colorado has eight forwards, four defensemen, and one goaltender signed to one-way contracts for the 2016-17 NHL season, and an additional three players (Nikita Zadorov, Chris Bigras, and Mikko Rantanen) still on their ELCs who should be considered highly likely to make the team this October. Colorado has also qualified Restricted Free Agents Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie, Calvin Pickard, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Duncan Siemens, and barring an unforeseen offer sheet, the first 4 are locks to make the team. As such, Colorado will be entering the July 1st weekend with the room to comfortably add two forwards and a defenseman, and perhaps more if they move John Mitchell, or decide that a player like Andreas Martinsen or Chris Bigras would be better served playing AHL minutes to start the season.

Colorado has approximately $21 million in projected cap space which is 5th most in the NHL, trailing only Boston, Carolina, Arizona, and New Jersey. While a significant portion of this money will be allocated to the previously mentioned RFAs, they will still enter free agency with a reasonable amount to spend, and will certainly have more to play with than most.

Colorado is, in my opinion, still several years away from being a Stanley Cup contender, and as such the pursuit of big-name free agents is most likely a foolhardy venture. GM Joe Sakic seems to be in agreement, and has stated that Colorado will be fairly quiet on July 1 this year. That said, there is still some work to be done. In the wake of Stammergeddon there will be several distinct tiers of players, addressed in order of perceived value, all vying for new contracts. Colorado’s strategy should be to contact 3rd and 4th tier players during the initial stages of free agency, and get them to put pen to paper before competition becomes stiff.

My colleague Cole Hamilton will be covering this year’s UFA forward crop later today, so this piece will focus on the available defensemen that I feel would be a good fit for Colorado.

Defensemen

In my mind, there are two acceptable scenarios for Colorado to explore. In scenario A, Colorado brings in a left-shooting defenseman who has the ability to play on the top pairing, and Francois Beauchemin slides to the right side on the bottom pairing, alongside either Bigras or Zadorov. In scenario B, Colorado signs a right-shooting defensemen with the intent of playing them on the bottom pairing, hopefully alongside Beauchemin, but more realistically alongside Bigras or Zadorov. Regardless of the direction Colorado chooses to take, it’s clear that they need to bring in someone who can play on the right, or allow Beauchemin to.

I’ve seen several people throw Jason Demers’ name around, and he’s a right shot, but Colorado already has Barrie and Erik Johnson lining up on the right side on the ice in their top-4. Demers’ opening ask was also rumoured to be $5.5 million, which is fairly rich for a player who figures to be a supplementary piece in Colorado before too long. Combine these contextual factors with the relative scarcity of right-handed defensemen in the NHL, and I don’t think Demers is a fit for Colorado. That said, there are still a number of diamonds to be found in the rough of this year’s UFA class, and timely action from Colorado is all it will take to mine them.

Evgeny Medvedev (LD)
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Player Card: How-To

Medvedev was charged in May for driving under the influence, possession of controlled substances and use or possession of drug paraphernalia, which is both recklessly irresponsible and reminiscent of something DMX might have boasted about in the 90s. However, in a year where the crop of UFA defensemen is scant at best, it’s entirely possible that NHL teams will be willing to overlook Medvedev’s poor judgement and give him another shot.

From a hockey perspective, Medvedev would be a good fit in Colorado. He’s 6’3”, mobile, produces at borderline top-pairing rates, and has a significant impact on possession. Medvedev is also admittedly 33, but he’s relatively “low mileage”, having just made the jump to the NHL from the KHL last season, and he’s obviously still effective. Medvedev was a healthy scratch for 14 of Philadelphia’s final 15 games, and Philadelphia’s got money tied up in Andrew MacDonald, recently extended Radko Gudas, and have players like Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov either in the NHL already, or on the precipice. All these signs point to Medvedev being readily available come July 1st, and Ron Hextall confirmed as much earlier this spring.

Medvedev being Russian is also worth of consideration; his countrymen Semyon Varlamov, Zadorov, and Grigorenko all play for Colorado, which would certainly ease his transition.

If Colorado were interested, my preference would be a two year, stop-gap deal that would allow Zadorov and Bigras to be eased into top-4 roles. Medvedev made $3 million last season, but it’s not unreasonable to think Colorado could have him for less than $2 million per year given current circumstances. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that Sakic would be willing to take a punt on a player who’s at risk of being deported, but stranger things have happened.

Jakub Nakládal (RD)

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Jakub Nakladal strikes me as a safe bet; described as “a defensive defenseman who is good around his own net”, he hasn’t shown much in the way of offensive production, but he suppresses shots and draws penalties, all while playing alongside some of the worst partners Calgary has to offer.

Nakladal also plays the penalty kill, which is an added boon for a defensive group that will include youths like Chris Bigras and Nikita Zadorov, as well as Tyson Barrie, who’s something of an Erik Karlsson-lite. At this point, Nakladal would be my preferred addition to Colorado, should they decide to explore scenario B.

Zach Trotman (RD)

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Zach Trotman is another “safe bet”; again, not much of a producer, but shot metrics like him, and he’s proven his mettle while playing alongside poor teammates, and in preventative situations where the Bruins have led. Hockey’s Future reports that though he was “originally seen strictly as a defensive defenseman, he has opened things up a bit and is consistently in the play and involved in the offense.” Think of him as something of a modern defensive defenseman.

Additionally, there have been whispers that Colorado likes what they see in Trotman, and would be thrilled to sign him. Don’t be surprised if you see him in burgundy this fall.

David Schlemko (LD)

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If you weren’t a fan of Zach Redmond I should probably stop you here, but David Schlemko can definitely play. While he isn’t much of a shot suppressor, Schlemko is terrific passer and decision-maker, particularly in the offensive zone, and is a handy producer on the power-play to boot. Schlemko is another player that I’ve heard rumours about Colorado being interested in, but given the combination of his bottom-pairing role and handedness, I’m inclined to think that he’s a less likely target than Zach Trotman.

Patrick Wiercioch (LD)

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Patrick Wiercioch is the “analytics darling” poster child, and for good reason. Despite having a consistently positive impact on both shot and goal differentials, Wiercioch has long been rumoured to be out of favour in Ottawa, who have one of the worst defensive groups in the entire NHL. Wiercioch is a poor skater and doesn’t use his 6’4″ frame to his advantage, two attributes that tend to drive NHL executives crazy, but he thinks the offensive side of the game at a very high level. There have been rumours surrounding Colorado’s interest in Wiercioch for years now, but they’ve never managed to put together a deal for him. Perhaps this is the summer they get him.

Bonus: Stuart Percy

Stuart Percy is one of the most recent victims of the Toronto prospect turnstile, and is a player that I would be very interested in taking a gamble on. The former first round pick was once renowned for his poise and puck-moving capabilities, but a variety of injuries have caused his development to stagnate. There are spots to be had on the San Antonio blueline this season, and Percy strikes me as a low-risk, high-reward pick-up.

Follow Luke Steer on Twitter: @lukeasteer

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