Jun 072011
 

As it stands right now the Leafs have six NHL experienced defensemen under contract and another three who are restricted free agents.  Assuming all three of the RFA’s get re-signed it leaves the Leafs with 7 defensemen, five of which will be regulars (Phaneuf, Schenn, Gunnarsson, Aulie and Komisarek) and two that are more along the lines of depth defensemen (Lebda and Lashoff).  Phaneuf and Schenn are the top two guys (though they may not end up playing together) and depending on where you see Gunnarsson and Aulie fitting into the mix the Leafs will be looking for a #3, #4 or #5 type guy.  Depending on how much they end up spending on a first line center, it is probably safe to assume they could allocate anywhere between $2-4M and there are enough UFA defensemen available that they can probably acquire what they want via free agency rather than have to resort to a trade.  Let’s take a look at some of the potential UFA defensemen the Leafs could have interest in.

Definitely Too Expensive

Christian Ehrhoff – Ehrhoff is definitely the top potential UFA defenseman.  The Canucks will definitely want to bring him back and if he ever made it to UFA status I am certain the Red Wings will throw some or all of just-retired Rafalski’s money at him.  Ehrhoff is in line for a $6M paycheck and as much as I would like to see him in a Leaf uniform, he is probably out of the Leafs budget so lets take a look at some of the other free agent defensemen.

Probably too Expensive

Kevin Bieksa – Bieksa really had a breakthrough season this year, particularly in his own zone and he ended the season at +32, tops on the Canucks, and is a +9 in the playoffs, again tops on the Canucks.  His +32 in the regular season trailed only Chara’s +33 among defensemen but Bieksa was +32 in just 66 games.  Bieksa is probably a good 2-way second pairing defenseman but his excellent season might push his salary demands beyond what he deserves (unless this past season is the new norm for him which is unlikely) and out of the Leafs budget.

James Wisniewski – Wisniewski started his career with the Chicago Blackhawks and he just seemed like he was that typical #5/6 guy.  He was a decent enough player who did a number of things well but not necessarily a core guy, but when he was given an opportunity to play a more prominent role with the Ducks, and then with Islanders and Montreal his offensive numbers really jumped and he was a strong PP performer.  He’d probably really help the Leafs PP but there will be enough demand for his services that he’ll probably cost more than the Leafs can afford.

Joni Pitkanen – Pitkanen is one of those guys who had #1 potential but never really took the next step and instead has had a career that some might consider a disappointment because he never really reached his full potential.  Pitkanen is a better offensive guy than a defensive guy and would be a nice fit on the Leafs PP unit.  He earned $4M last season and is probably in line to earn about the same on his next contract which makes him probably out of the Leafs budget and I think he’ll be happier staying in a non-hockey market like Carolina.

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May 032011
 

Over the next little while I am going to take a look at the major NHL award nominations and toss in my thoughts on who is deserving and who is not.  Let’s start with the Norris Trophy.

The NHL has announced that the three finalists for the Norris Trophy are Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom and Shea Weber.  While all are good defensemen and all had good season, it is my opinion that of the three, only Zdeno Chara is deserving of a nomination.  Before I get into who I think should have been nominated let me discuss why I don’t believe Lidstrom or Weber should have been.

Nicklas Lidstrom – On the positive side, of all defensemen who played 1250 even strength 5v5 minutes Lidstrom had by far the toughest quality of competition.  On average Lidstrom’s opponents had the highest goals for per 20 minutes and the best goals for percentage.  Lidstrom was call on to play big minutes against the oppositions best forwards.  On the down side, he didn’t perform well as he ended up 52nd of 62 in goals against per 20 minutes which resulted in a HARD+ defensive rating that was 46th of 62. In real stats, he had a -2 rating, the first time in his career he has been a minus player (previous low as +7 in 1992-93).  So while Lidstrom produced offensively, his defensive game took a step back this season and as a result I cannot support him as a candidate for the Norris Trophy.

Shea Weber – Like Lidstrom, Weber played some tough minutes against quality competition (8th highest opposition goals for per 20 minutes and 13th highest opposition goals for percentage) but like Lidstrom, he didn’t perform as well in those minutes as I would want from an Norris Trophy nominee as he was 26th in goals against per 20 minutes on a team with a stellar goalie.  The result is a HARD+ rating of 0.955 and an overall HART+ rating of just 0.978 which really is a little lackluster and puts him well behind defense partner Ryan Suter.  Weber’s 4 year HARD+ rating is just .982 and his 4 year HART+ rating is just 0.957 so Weber might actually be one of the more over rated defensemen in the NHL.

I’ll get to Chara in a bit but if I don’t believe Lidstrom and Weber are deserving of being Norris Trophy finalists, who are the two others that I believe should be?  The answer may surprise you.

Drew Doughty – Last season Drew Doughty was a Norris Trophy nominee but lost out to Duncan Keith but I believe he again should be a nominee.  Doughty played against some of the toughest opposition of any NHL defenseman (10th in opposition goals for per 20 minutes and 6th in opposition goals for percentage) but he finished with a HARD+ rating of 1.005 (which is mediocre) but due to his stellar HARO+ rating of 1.265 finished the season with a HART+ rating of 1.135, well above that of Lidstrom and Weber.  Even though Doughty’s defensive ratings are middle of the pack his offensive production was good enough and his quality of competition tough enough that I think he is deserving of Norris trophy consideration, but I don’t believe he should win.

Toni Lydman – I am sure many of you are asking yourselves what kind of drugs I am on to suggest that Lydman is deserving of Norris trophy consideration but hear me out before you jump to any conclusions.  Next to Lidstrom he faced second toughest quality of competition as his opponents ranked second in goals for per 20 minutes and second in goals for percentage.  When Lydman was on the ice his team produced goals at a rate of 1.028 goals per 20 minutes (good for 5th among defensemen with >1250 minutes) and had a goals against per 20 minutes of 0.675 which puts him 13th best and combined he had the 4th best goals for percentage by a defenseman.  The end result is Lydman had the 5th best HARO+, 10th best HARD+ and 4th best HART+ among defensemen.  He also led all NHL defensemen in short handed time on ice.  In my opinion Lydman is a very deserving candidate for the Norris trophy this season.

What is interesting is this isn’t new to Lydman.  He has been a very good defenseman for quite a while now.  Over the past 3 seasons of 59 defensemen with 3500 minutes of 5v5 even strength ice time, Lydman ranks 15th in HARO+, 10th in HARD+, and 8th in HART+.  Lydman was probably one of the best free agent signings from last summer as the Ducks signed him to a very reasonable 3 year, $9M deal.  He is definitely an under rated defenseman.

Zdeno Chara – In my opinion, Chara is most deserving of winning the Norris Trophy this past season.  His opponents had the 9th highest goals for per 20 minutes and the 11th highest goals for percentage so he lined up against some pretty stiff competition.  He ended the season with the lowest goals against while on the ice and the sixth highest goals for while on the ice resulting in by far the best goals for percentage by any defenseman.  When Chara was on the ice in 5v5 even strength situations the Bruins scored a whopping 64.3% of the goals scored.  The result is Chara had a HARO+ rating of 1.232, good for 9th among defensemen, and a HARD+ rating of 1.248, good for second among defensemen which gave him the best HART+ rating at 1.240.

To summarize, my vote for the best defensemen in the NHL this past season goes to Zdeno Chara with Toni Lydman in second and Drew Doughty in third and I’ll toss out a trio of honorable mentions to Christian Ehrhoff who performed very well albeit against weaker competition, John Carlsson who had a stellar rookie season (I’ll discuss him more when I discuss the Calder trophy candidates) and Alex Pietrangelo who is probably a defensemen to watch for as a Norris candidate in future seasons.