The opening of NHL free agency season is only about a month and a half away, and at this point there are 3 players headed for unrestricted free agency who will likely command top-dollar: Alexander Semin, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter. Of the three, Ryan Suter has been the one whose potential free agency has garnered the most discussion, both among fans and media personalities. Fans of many teams hope that their squad is able to sign Suter this summer, and Leafs fans are among them. While Carl Gunnarsson has provided excellent value on an inexpensive contract this past season, he's not a top pair defender on the kind of defence that you usually need to win the Stanley Cup, and with Suter headlining this summer's crop of UFA defenceman, Leafs fans have turned their attention to him. Would the Leafs be wise to make a major push to try and sign him? Follow me after the jump, where I won't give a very decisive answer.Ryan Suter is likely going to be offered some very big contracts this summer. He should easily command $6 million a year, and it's not out of the question that he may get offered the kind of money Zdeno Chara got in the summer of 2006 ($7.5 million per season). Between Suter and Phaneuf, that would tie up an awful lot of money in just two defencemen. I wanted to know how much money the best teams in the league have spent on their defences in the salary cap era to see if there were any comparables and whether they were outliers or the norm.
To test this out, I collected data on the top 4 defencemen of each of the Stanley Cup finalists since 2008-09 in addition to the 4 teams which still have a shot to play in the finals this season. I chose 2008-09 because that's about as far back as Capgeek has consistent salary cap data, but it has the convenient side effect of giving this study precisely 10 teams.
I counted a player as a "top 4" defender if he was among the top 4 defenceman on a given team in regular season ice time during the season in question, not including players acquired part-way through the season via trade (so no Marek Zidlicky, Tomas Kaberle, etc.). I added up the cap hit that each of those players had to determine total team spending on their top 4 D. It's true that the top 4 D in ice time are not necessarily the 4 highest paid defenders. That's fine for our purpose though because the Leafs will enter next season with at least one highly paid defender (Mike Komisarek) not in their top 4 either so I think the idea is valid for the sake of this comparison.
Here are the results:
Let's say that Suter makes somewhere in the middle of the range I estimated above - $6.5 million, equivalent to Dion Phaneuf - that would leave the Leafs with a top pair making $13 million per season. That's not unprecedented; the Red Wings had a top pair making $13.45 million in 2008-09 and Philadelphia had a top pair making $12.58 million the next season. Those teams were also both working with smaller salary caps, so in salary-cap adjusted terms the Leafs wouldn't be spending an obscene amount in comparison to those two.
Who would the other two players in the Leafs top 4 be? It pains me to say this, but if the Leafs somehow acquire Ryan Suter I have to imagine Carl Gunnarsson is out the door. At left defence right now (which Suter plays) the Leafs have Gunnarsson, John-Michael Liles, and Jake Gardiner. I can't imagine that the Leafs would trade Gardiner unless someone like Matt Duchene becomes available, and it's hard to see Burke trading Liles right after signing him to a new deal with a partial no-trade clause. That leaves Gunnar the odd man out. Based on ice-time this season, Liles and Gardiner would be the two defenders taking up the most minutes after Suter and Phaneuf. That would leave the Leafs defence looking like this:
That may not seem like that much money - it's actually less than Detroit spent on its top 4 D three years ago and roughly the same as what Philadelphia spent two years ago. But the trend seems to be spending less on defence, not more. Three of the four conference finalists this season and two of the Stanley Cup finalists in the previous three years spent less on their entire top 4 than the Leafs would spend on just Phaneuf and Suter.
You might point out that some of these teams have achieved inexpensive defences on account of the entry level deals that guys like Letang or Ekman-Larsson were on, but I actually think that's an important point - cap efficiency is extremely useful. That's not a side-effect, that's a cause; having great players on great deals makes it easier to win.
So signing Suter would put the Leafs a bit on the high side of top 4 D spending, but it wouldn't be unprecedented for a successful team to have a top pair making that kind of money. On the other hand, it would be a more unusual route to take, as Detroit in particular spent significantly more than most recent Cup/conference finalists. It's also worth looking at how Toronto's defence would break down (see what I did there?) after those two. Toronto's right defencemen after Phaneuf are Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek. After Suter and Phaneuf the next two pairs are Gardiner/Schenn and Liles/Komisarek. Is spending $6-7 million on Ryan Suter and then leaving no money to upgrade elsewhere really the wisest decision?
I would argue that it's not. I think a better route to take would be to find a good shutdown defender this off-season to pair with Phaneuf, a guy like Barrett Jackman who could probably be signed for about $4 million per season. Then the Leafs can use the $2.5-3 million saved by not signing Suter either to work on upgrading our 2nd pair RD or to spend upgrading on either Tyler Bozak/ Tim Connolly or Joffrey Lupul. The Leafs aren't just one top-pair defender away from being a contender, and I think it would be more useful right now to find smaller upgrades at multiple positions than one big upgrade. I also think defence can be found for much cheaper than offence, so I'd rather the Leafs focus on allocating money to top line forwards (Parise, Semin, someone else found via trade, etc.) than on defenders.
How about you? Would you tie up $13 million in one defensive pair if it meant adding a top flight defender like Ryan Suter or would you look to save that money to find upgrades elsewhere in the lineup?