At this point, I think everyone can agree that this years crop of defensemen who are UFA's would most charitably be described as slim. It's a situation that is regrettable, especially given that the most important area the Leafs need to address this offseason is the defense. Personally I feel that an addition to the top-four would help this team greatly, given that it would allow Dion Phaneuf to, you know, not play half a game.
With this in mind I went and searched every defenseman in the league who had a CorsiRelQOC which was greater than 1.0 and searched through that list for players I thought would be worthwhile investments. It should be noted that probability that these players end up in Toronto was taken into account, though it was definitely a lower priority. Mainly I wanted to compose a list of players who could fill in as top-four shutdown defensemen.
Note: Despite his being an RFA this year, Alex Pietrangelo did not make the list. Although I do feel obliged to say, that if there's anyone in the league worth submitting an offer-sheet for this year, he would be it.
So without much further ado, let's proceed through the list. These names are merely for discussion sake, and are ranked in no particular order.
1. Mark Giordano: 29 years old, 6' 0", 200 lbs, Cap hit of $4.02 million
Mark Giordano was listed as an untouchable by the Calgary Flames front-office but I felt obliged to list his name because of the persistent rumours about his availability. If Giordano were to be moved his price would probably be at or around the same as Jay Bouwmeester (two prospects and a first). It would be a lot to give up, but given Giordano's age and pedigree he would be a contributor for at least the remainder of his contract (3 more years at $4.02 million).
As for measurables, Giordano is listed at 6' 0" and 200lbs, which is a little below average for defensemen. Despite his size, he is capable from a physical standpoint. Offensively, Giordano has shown in the past to be a solid, if unspectacular contributor. This year was something of a down year for Giordano as he recorded 15 points in 47 games (4G 11A) but he has had one 40 point year in the past, and spent the two seasons before this year at approximately 0.49 points per game, a very respectable total for a defenseman.
Giordano's possession numbers are excellent and arguably the best amongst the defensemen who made the list. Giordano played some very tough minutes for Calgary, sporting a CorsiRelQoC of 1.728 as well as an Off Zone Start% of 41%. The minutes he played are not just the toughest amongst Calgary Flames players, but some of the toughest minutes in the league, and Giordano came out of them with a more than respectable CorsiRel of -1.6 (on a mediocre possession team to boot).
Suffice to say, Mark Giordano is a very good defensemen, and if he is available (he may very well not be) then the Leafs should definitely give Calgary a call. He can play tough minutes, contribute offensively, drive possession and is regarded as a leader in Calgary. The price to get him may be expensive, but his cap hit of $4.02 million is comparatively cheap. The odds that he actually gets traded seem slim, but I still think his name is one that should be discussed.
2. Niklas Hjalmarsson: 26 years old, 6' 3", 207 lbs, Cap hit of $3.5 million
Quick! Name the Chicago Blackhawks defenseman who led the team in CorsiRelQoC! Duncan Keith? Nope. Brent Seabrook? Wrong again. Johnny Oduya? Nada. For those of you who have already read player number two's name it should be getting obvious by now... It was Niklas Hjalmarsson (Don't believe me? See for yourself.)
For those of you who looked over those numbers, it should be pretty clear that Niklas Hjalmarsson had a very good season. For one, after being expected to be the fifth defenseman going into the season, Hjalmarsson grabbed a top-four spot, rotating between playing with Duncan Keith and Johnny Oduya, and essentially played the season as the Blackhawks no. 1 shutdown defenseman. In addition to having the highest CorsiRelQoC of all Blackhawks defensemen, Hjalmarsson also had the lowest Offensive Zone Start %, sitting at 48% on the season and the second best CorsiRel amongst top-four defensemen (Keith, Seabrook, Oduya and Hjalmarsson).
What Hjalmarsson offers is a strong-skating and cerebral presence on the back-end who has an underrated physical game. His offensive contributions are minimal (he would have tied his career high of 17 points had he continued this season at his current pace) but what he brings is a defensive presence that seems comparable to Carl Gunnarsson.
Whether or not Hjalmarsson is available is impossible to say at this point. His departure was considered a near certainty at the start of the last offseason but it seems likely that he is now viewed as a much more valuable piece for the organization going forward. That being said, I hardly think that Hjalmarsson falls into the untouchable category, and if the price was right I think Chicago would move him. Chicago has a somewhat tight cap-situation (though not as serious as 2010) and as it was the last time they were serious contenders, they may be willing to part with some good players. If that sort of situation arises, I'd hope that Niklas Hjalmarsson would be someone Dave Nonis looks at.
3. Zbynek Michálek: 30 years old, 6' 2", 210 lbs, Cap hit of $4.0 million
While most of the hockey world has talked about where coveted Phoenix Coyote defenseman Keith Yandle will end up next year (Detroit, the answer is Detroit) I'd like to focus on the less well known, though generally well regarded Zbynek Michálek. Michálek played alongside Oliver Ekman-Larsson this year and together they formed a minute-crunching duo that played what are undoubtedly the toughest minutes in hockey (Ekman-Larsson is #1 in CorsiRelQoC, Michálek is #2).
Michálek is the another substance over style defenseman who made the list and is known for his ability to block shots and just generally being good in the shut-down role. The likelihood that he is actually available this offseason is slim, but he plays in Phoenix so you really never know what might happen. Suffice to say that he'd probably be available for less than Mark Giordano (or even Keith Yandle if we come to that). Aside from the shot-blocking he doesn't tend to exhibit all that many other traits associated with gritty, physical hockey (which may be a good thing given that he has a bit of an injury history) and suffice to say that lack of face-smashing goodness may be a turn off to the Leafs brass.
Overall Michálek is a possession driving player, who the Leafs could really use to stabilize their top-four. His CorsiRelQoC was mentioned above, and it really is insanely high (and probably a reason against him leaving Phoenix). As well as QoC stats, he had a CorsiRel of -2.4 and an Offensive Zone Start % of 46.3%, which when looked at holistically, paints a picture of a very good defensive defenseman.
Zbynek Michálek has proven that he can handle Dion Phaneuf-esque minutes with aplomb, and I would be more than happy to see him in blue and white next season. That being said, much like the previous two names, I don't seriously expect him to be a Leaf come 2013-2014. On the other hand, I think it's time to introduce someone who could very well end up with the Leafs next season...
4. Ron Hainsey: 32 years old, 6' 3", 210 lbs, UFA, last season cap hit of $4.5 million
Ron Hainsey is an interesting player. On one hand, he is solid in puck-possession, he's a savvy veteran who could help mentor a fairly young defensive corps. On the other, he was over-paid in Winnipeg, and given the lack of quality defensemen available in free agency, it's quite possible that Hainsey will net a big deal.
I'm going to start with Hainsey's possession metrics, which are a bit hit and miss. He did play some of the toughest minutes on the Winnipeg blue line with a CorsiRelQoC 1.144 and an Off Zone Start % of 44.2%, but his CorsiRel is a poor -8.7 (worst amongst Winnipeg defensemen with 30+ GP) and his CorsiON is -6.53, another worst on Winnipeg's blue line. At best you can say that it was playing on a mediocre possession team that caused Hainsey to have bad numbers, at worst you can point out that Dion Phaneuf had better numbers playing against harder competition with worse teammates.
In the end, Hainsey would be a solid addition to Toronto's blue-line if we could get him at the right price. Personally, I think paying him anything higher than $11 million over 4 years would be a mistake. Ideally Hainsey would come in for 2-3 years at around $3.25 million per. Do I think that's likely to happen? No. Guys like Hainsey are often going into the offseason knowing that this will be their last big contract, and I fully expect Hainsey to wait for the absolute best deal he can get. The Leafs should be wary about signing Hainsey, he's a solid addition to the back end, but give him to much and he could easily become Mike Komisarek 2.0.
This concludes this post. I decided about midway through to turn this into a two-parter (part 2 should come sometime next week). Please leave thoughts in the comments as well as other players you think the Leafs should pursue. Any feedback is welcome. Cheers!