The price of a shutdown defenseman

One positive thing the Canes have (or “had” I should say at this point) was the emergence of Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason as a shutdown defense pairing. When these two were paired together, they took over 60% of their draws in their own zone, were constantly matched up against the opposing team’s top lines and had 50% of the team’s scoring chances go in the Canes favor. That pairing has since been split up with Allen being regulated to third pairing minutes (for whatever reason) but the Canes are going to have a big decision coming up within the next year as both players contracts are expiring and they might be forced to keep one or the other. Both are having great seasons and could have solid trade value in a few months for a team looking for a shutdown defenseman but the idea of losing these two is very troubling when you consider how big of a role they play.

That’s when it hit me. Just how much is the going rate for a shutdown defenseman in this league? Even better, just how hard is it to replace a shutdown defenseman? I’m talking about guys who are more one-dimensional because guys like Drew Doughty, Nicklas Lidstrom, Shea Weber and Zdeno Chara are signed to large contracts due to their great play at both ends, but what about a guy who is more of a defensive stud who contributes little offense? That description fits Allen and Gleason to a T and it made me think that replacing these two may not be as big of a hassle.

Whenever I think of the Gleason/Allen situation, I’m reminded of when Mike Komisarek was set to become a free agent after the 2008-09 season and appeared to have suitors all over the league looking to ink him to a big deal. However, a hockey mind that respect mentioned that he would not pay Komisarek big money because he believed that a stay-at-home defenseman like him could be found in other places for half the cost. An alternative option was Greg Zanon. Komisarek was a stud that year with -1.1 corsi rel. with a 39.8% OZone rate while Zanon had a worse -11.7 corsi rel with 42% of his draws coming in the offensive zone. Komisarek signed with the Leafs to a contract worth $4.5 mil per season while Zanon signed with the Minnesota Wild for about half that. Since then, Zanon has continued to play in a shutdown role for the Wild while Komisarek was hurt for the majority of the first year of his contract and was used in a lesser role in the second year. The Wild signed Zanon to play the same role as Komisarek was supposed to play on the Leafs for half of the cost. What is even more interesting is that the Leafs had guys on cheap contracts like Keith Aulie, Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson play the shutdown role and make Komisarek expandable, making his contract look like an albatross.

Is this just a one time thing or are other teams replacing their highly-touted shutdown defensemen for less money? What does this mean concerning the future of Allen and Gleason? We’ll explore things further after the jump.

I have been doing a study over the past few days where I looked at every team’s “shutdown defensemen” over the past four and a half seasons to determine how much they cost and how they were replaced over the years. Before we get into that, I need to explain what qualifies a player as a “shutdown defenseman.” It’s fair to say that a defenseman who is pegged as a shutdown guy would be someone that’s matched up against the other team’s top lines and starts more draws in their own zone than his peers. To figure out who those guys were for each team, I went to Gabe Desjardins’ Behind The Net site to look at the quality of competition and zone start data for every defenseman in the league since the 2007-08 season and compiled data from the players who were the team’s top 2-4 in BOTH quality of competition and zone starts. After that, I noted their salary for that year, how they were acquired, how many points they scored and their age. This is a way to weed out the two-way guys who are worth a lot more than just a shutdown defensemen.

All of that data can be downloaded here, if you are interested. Although, it isn’t fully complete because there were some players who I couldn’t find any contract information for. Cap Geek and NHL Numbers only go back so far in history, unfortunately.

A good place to start is looking at the big time heavy-lifters and how much they were making. Every player sampled here is a “heavy-lifter” by definition but there were quite a few guys who have really been thrown into the wolves by their coaches.

There are a few players from this season in the group so I woulnd’t put too much thought into them as it’s only a half season worth of data, but for the most part, we have players that cost in the 2-4 mil. range. The only guy on here who has a huge contract is Kim Johnsson and he was a 40+ point player, which is partially why he earned that $14.9 mil. contract from the Wild. Since then, he’s been more of a stay-at-home defender but anyone who can put up 25+ points with over 60% of his draws in the defensive zone is worth a good chunk of change in my book. Barrett Jackman also got nice pay day after the 2007-08 season with a 4 year contract worth $14.5 mil but his cap hit is pretty low compared to his salary here.

Another thing to notice here is the number of players who were signed to big contracts after they were established as shutdown defensemen. The previously mentioned Mike Komisarek is one of those players on here and some other guys are Roman Polak (signed a 5-year, $13.75 mil. contract with the Blues last year), Keith Ballard (signed a 6-year, $25.5 mil contract with Florida after 2009 season), Zbynek Michalek (signed a 5-year, $20 mil. contract with Penguins as a UFA in 2010) and most recently Victor Hedman (re-signed with Tampa for 5 years at $4 mil per year) so players like this are obviously valued a lot. That brings me to my next question; how easily replaceable are tough-minute defensemen? If a team were to lose a player like Michalek, does that leave them devastated on the blue line for the next year. To figure this out, I looked at teams who lost a key piece on defense in recent years and how they replaced them.

We’re going to start with the Anaheim Ducks because they have lost two Hall of Fame defensemen over the last few years in Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermeyer, which has left their defense a shell of what it was when they won the Cup in 2006-07.

Pronger and Niedermeyer fall into the tier of defensemen who I didn’t want to include in this study because they contribute at both ends of the rink. They are two incredible players who are going to take the Ducks years to replace, but we are more concerned with how the Ducks replaced their defensive contributions. When Pronger was traded they promoted James Wisniewski to a more defensive role, where he excelled. Wisniewski doesn’t fit the “shutdown” role because he’s more of a puck-mover but he played it well in Anaheim and the Ducks had him at a low cost before they traded him to the Islanders. After Nieds retired, they had a piece ready to take his place in Lubomir Visnovsky, who is expensive but much more of a two-way player to be considered a shutdown defenseman. The two who fit that role more are Francois Beauchemin and Toni Lydman, the former was signed by the Leafs as a UFA and later re-acquired by Anaheim in a trade involving Joffrey Lupul. Anaheim had to give a bit to get Beauchemin back but neither his or Lydman’s cap hit are too steep for shutdown defensemen.

The bad part is that Anaheim’s defense fell off a cliff when Pronger left (SA/60 dropped from 28.5 to 31.3) and it’s stayed in the bottom-10 in every year since then. Anaheim has two pretty good stay-at-home guys for a decent cost and a fantastic two-way player in Visnovsky, but Pronger and Niedermeyer were way more than just shutdown guys so it’s going to be awhile before this defense is repaired.

Another team that’s had a defensive overhaul the last few years is the Colorado Avalanche. Their tough minute group once consisted of Adam Foote, Ruslan Salei (RIP), Brett Clark, Kurt Sauer and Scott Hannan. All of these players are no longer with the team anymore and, for the most part, the Avs went the cheap route to replace them.

It seems that the Avs had someone else lined up to replace their tough minute guys. When Sauer and Salei left, they used Clark in a tougher role and then lightened his workload a bit next season as they replaced him with Kyle Quincey, who was making near the league minimum. After Hannan was tradeed and Clark left for Tampa Bay, they acquired Ryan O’Byrne in a trade with Montreal and used him along with AHL call-up Ryan Wilson as their shutdown guys along with Foote. Now that Foote has retired, they are using O’Byrne and FA acquisition Jan Hejda for tough situations. Hannan and possibly Clark are the only ones that were signed to expensive contracts as Foote took a paycut in his last three seasons, so the Avs are not breaking the bank for their tough minute defensemen. They did give Hejda a long-term deal but it wasn’t anything lucrative and it was the right call with him. Hejda is a good defenseman but he’s one-dimensional in the sense that he’s mostly a defensive stud, similar to Allen and Gleason, so $3.25 mil. per year is a fair price for him.

The Avs might be paying lose to the minimum for their defensive d-men but that’s one of the reasons why they are struggling right now. Another team that had this problem were the Washington Capitals, but they might be finding their way out of it.

Before the days of Carlzner, the Caps were not paying a lot of money for their stay-at-home guys and the closest thing they had to a shutdown defenseman was Tom Poti, who actually had a pretty good season in 2009-10. As time went on, the Caps younger blue-liners like Alzner, Schultz and Carlson began to emerge and it made guys like Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina expandable. Neither of these three have entered their expensive contract years either, so that is a huge plus for them right now. However, GM George McPhee still needed to open up his wallet a bit acquire some veteran blue-liners to accommodate their younger ones. Cheaper players like Morrisonn, Jurcina and Sloan were not cutting it and that’s one of the reasons why he traded for the most established blue-liner Scott Hannan last year. He also spent a good amount of money on Roman Hamrlik this year to replace Hannan, but not so much that I would consider it overpayment. The Caps tried to go the cheap route in years past, but they did learn that you’ll need to spend a little more to stabalize your blue-line. 

Let’s try to find something similar to what the Hurricanes might be going through this summer, which means we’re looking for a team that lost at least half of their shutdown pair in the off-season. Ultimately, we find ourselves back where we started at the beginning of the article with the Montreal Canadiens and Mike Komisarek.

Komisarek played a huge role on the Habs blue line in the two years before he left for Toronto and the Habs decided to “replace” him by signing Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek, but that wasn’t exactly the case here. Spacek and Gill did play tough minutes but something that’s overlooked here is that Markov was out for most of 2010-11 and when he did play, it was in easier situations than in years past. That’s where Spacek came into the equation. Him and Roman Hamrlik weren’t the “shutdown pair” per se, because they had somewhat of an offensive presence while Josh Gorges and Hal Gill were the defensive-duo who made losing Komisarek much less of a blow than it could have been. Gorges was making next to nothing compared to other players, too. Unfortunately, he went down the next year and so did Markov, which made the Habs rely on rookie PK Subban for their top-pairing role and he did a fantastic job. With Markov still ailing and Hamrlik gone, they have Gorges back in his old role and Hamilton call-up Rapheal Diaz playing though minutes, too. Although, it is worth noting that Montreal is relying on low-price players because of injuries and they have no other choice.

Why does this concern Carolina? Because Komisarek played a similar role on the Habs that Gleason and Allen do on the Canes right now. We have a Hamrlik-type player in Pitkanen who can play top-pairing minutes but finding another shutdown guy might be critical if one of them leaves. Can we find a guy like Josh Gorges to take over their role at a low cost? Our information here says that there are plenty of defensive defensemen that are undervalued in the market and the usual going rate for one is around $3 mil. or so. The players who are making less than that are either on entry-level deal or are still in their first five years in the NHL and teams haven’t noticed the value of these players yet. Keep an eye on that this summer with the potential free agents.

When it comes to retaining Gleason and Allen, it’s obvious that Gleason is going to cost more and his value is probably about $3-3.75 mil. when you consider what he does but it’s possible that some teams might overpay depending on what the market looks like. Allen has already gotten his payday with the Florida Panthers and might take a discount since he is in his 30’s. Also consdier their value when it comes to trades, because we got Allen for an expiring contract and nothing else while the St. Louis Blues were only able to get a third round pick and a prospect out of Eric Brewer, a big time heavy-lifter going by that earlier table. It will definitely be interesting to see what happens with these two but other teams have replaced their shutdown defensemen over the years, so just remember not to overvalue them if they do leave for a huge payday somewhere else. These kinds of players are getting more expensive now but they can be replaced at a lower price if you know where to look. Younger free agents and defensive prospects are usually your best bet for cheap replacements. We’ve seen Justin Faulk taken on tough minutes and if he improves his defensive game, they might have the luxury of having him play tough minutes on an entry level deal, which would make this situation much easier to deal with.

Other notes/observations from this study:

  • Another thing I wanted to see is how the Ottawa Senators replaced their shot-blocking machine, Anton Volchenkov after he left for New Jersey and a $2+ mil. raise. The short answer: they haven’t, or at least not yet. Chris Phillips has been their lone consistent tough minute defender the last two seasons and if you can believe it, their current replacement for Volchenkov is Sergei Gonchar. That is not a joke. He’s actually performed better than Brian Lee and David Hale did in the last two years, though.
  • Mike Weaver has been undervalued for his entire career. He was claimed off waivers by the Canucks in 2007-08 and put up an 11.3 corsi rel. despite starting 44.3% of his draws in the offensive zone. His numbers weren’t quite as good in St. Louis and Florida but he has always played tough minutes, performed respectfully against them and yet, he has never made more than $1 mil. in his career. Is this the true value of a defensive defenseman or is Weaver just an outlier. He’s in his 30’s so we can’t use the entry-level contract as an explanation here, he’s just a journey man who has never been valued that much but has been a quality shutdown guy for his entire career.