The Carolina Hurricanes will have to make do with a slim crop of free agents to make much-needed improvements to their defense this summer.
After finishing fifth-to-last in the NHL in shots against and second-to-last in goals against this past season, an offseason restrengthening is certainly warranted in Raleigh.
"The main priority is going to be our defense," GM Jim Rutherford stated in his end-of-season press conference last month. "We’d like to look at somebody, a veteran player not in the organization now."
However, Rutherford's options for unrestricted free agent (UFA) defensemen who fit the right roles could be rather costly and limited. July 5's market opening will unveil a relatively underwhelming class of available blueliners, especially after the recent signings of Robyn Regehr with the Kings and Sergei Gonchar with the Stars.
The following graphic, courtesy of data analyst Corey Sznajder via Twitter, provides an objective summary of the upcoming UFA defensemen class. Players are charted by playing time (average TOI on Y-axis), role (percentage of shifts that began in the offensive zone on X-axis) and Corsi rating (red bubbles are positive, white bubbles are negative and bubble size indicates value).
Given the 'Canes' focus on defensive defensemen, those on the left side of the chart would be most desirable. Conversely, only a few of those players were red (positive in Corsi rating) this season—emphasizing the dilemma the franchise faces this summer.
Rutherford will have to turn to someone, though, if the team is to significantly improve their back end next season. Which free agents have the highest odds of being targeted by and signing with Carolina this July? We examine five particularly good candidates below.
2013 cap hit: $2.25 million (Bruins)
A three-time conference champion and two-time Stanley Cup champion, 34-year-old Andrew Ference would certainly fulfill the veteran label spelled out by Rutherford.
Ference brings an underrated balance of both offense and defense; he registered a respectable 13 points and 66 shots in 48 regular season appearances in Boston, yet also ranked fourth on the team in both hits and blocked shots.
His 874 games of experience—a whopping 114 of which have come in the postseason—would be great alongside a young 'Canes blueliner like Ryan Murphy, Bobby Sanguinetti or Brett Bellemore.
2013 cap hit: $4.5 million (Jets)
His $4.5 million salary cap hit from this past season definitely seems overpriced, but—at a reasonable price—Hainsey is one of the most versatile defensive defensemen around.
The 6'3", 210-pound 32-year-old ranked third in the NHL in blocked shots (his 123 fell just two short of league leader Dan Girardi) in 2013. That sacrificial willingness led to an Winnipeg-leading 2:57 of average shorthanded ice time per game.
Hainsey also chipped in with 13 assists and took only five minor penalties in 47 games.
Given the Hurricanes' ranks of 20th and 28th in blocked shots and penalty-kill efficiency, respectively, this past season, Rutherford should be expected to pursue Hainsey diligently this offseason.
2013 cap hit: $3.0 million (Ducks)
Toni Lydman will be 36 by the start of next season, but that advanced age doesn't seem to be yet taking its toll.
The 6'2", 213-pound rearguard is as reliable as they come—in three consecutive years in Anaheim, he's ranked fourth on the team in hits, first or second in blocked shots and among the top four in shorthanded ice time every season. He sports an incredible plus-67 rating since 2003-04, including a plus-32 mark in 2010-11 alone.
Although Lydman isn't much of a weapon on the box score (he scored only six points, all helpers, in 35 appearances in 2013), he'd be a inexpensive veteran addition for the Hurricanes' second or third pairing.
2013 cap hit: $2.5 million (Sharks/Penguins)
Shot-blocking specialist Douglas Murray, 33, is as offensively inept as they come, but his large presence would be welcomed on the 'Canes bottom pairing next fall.
The massive—6'3", 245-pound massive—defenseman didn't fully break into the league until 2007-08 and boasts only 11 career goals. Nonetheless, Murray's combined 2013 totals (between 29 games in San Jose and 14 in Pittsburgh) would've ranked him sixth on the Penguins in hits and second in blocked shots. He placed sixth and fourth in those categories, respectively, in the Pens' 15-game playoff run.
Murray could likely be signed in the reasonable $2 to $2.5 million range and would be a solid addition the Hurricanes' back-end depth.
2013 cap hit: $3.4 million (Kings)
Rob Scuderi arguably trumps all of the free agents listed above.
He's experienced—at 34, Scuderi has appeared in 585 regular and 99 postseason career games.
He's good at what he does—Scuderi has ranked first or second on the Kings in blocked shots for all four seasons he's been there and led the team in 2013 with 3:13 average shorthanded ice time.
He's reliable—the 6'1", 213-pound defenseman hasn't missed a game since February 2010, playing in 283 consecutive matches since then.
He's familiar with success—the former fifth-round pick holds two Stanley Cup rings ('09 with Pittsburgh and '12 with Los Angeles) and boasts four playoff runs of 18-plus games.
And he's affordable—Scuderi's $3.4 million cap hit certainly wasn't overpriced this past year, and it's bound to drop at least a little (due to age alone) in his next contract.
There's absolutely no excuse for the Hurricanes not to pursue Scuderi persistently this summer.
For a look at free-agent forwards the 'Canes should target this offseason, read last week's column.
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