Which UFA defensemen should the Hurricanes pursue?

It's no secret that defense has been a huge problem for Carolina over the last couple of seasons. They may have been a better team this year in terms of controlling possession at even strength, but they were still near the bottom of the league at preventing shots and killing penalties. Part of the problem relates to Kirk Muller's system because the Hurricanes played a very high-risk style this year with a lot of emphasis placed on aggressive forechecking and defensemen pinching to keep the puck in the offensive zone. However, the execution was just as big of an issue because while the Hurricanes managed to get a lot of shots on goal, they also gave up a lot at the other end and most of them were quality chances. 

The Hurricanes were constructed to be a team that relies on their offense to win games rather than shutting down their opponents and while that kind of system can work, it can also go terribly wrong if you go through a dry spell in scoring or don't have the right players. Both of these were a problem for the Canes last year as they had basically no secondary scoring, their second line had trouble finding the back of the net and their defense was prone to a lot of screw-ups on a nightly basis. 

It's my opinion that there is a lot for the Hurricanes to worry about on the goal-scoring front because I see both Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner having better offensive seasons next year, but there is a lot that can be improved with their defense corps. Defensive responsibility extends to the entire team and not just the defense corps, but there were a lot of flaws with how the Canes D was assembled last season. The first thing that a lot of people are going to point to is that they had "too many" puck-movers and not enough "stay-at-home" players on their blue-line, but having a lot of players capable of moving the puck is not always a bad thing. 

Something that gets overlooked in today's NHL is that you need to be able to possess the puck well and control territorial play to succeed and having puck-moving defensemen can help teams accomplish this. It's why a defenseman who can handle the puck well and make good first passes is probably more valuable than one whose primary value is blocking shots and delivering big hits. The former player is going to have the puck more often and spend less than 50% of his ice time in his own zone, which makes him more beneficial to have around than someone who is useless with the puck. The Chicago Blackhawks built a successful defense around this strategy and the Hurricanes tried to do the same last year.

The problem wasn't that they had too many puck-movers and not enough "shutdown" defensemen, though. It was more of that they didn't have enough guys who were capable of playing top-four minutes. Justin Faulk, Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason were the only players capable of this, as I outlined in my review of Carolina's defense corps. The rest were borderline top-four guys who could fill in for a few games if needed, but not permanent solutions. This best describes guys like Joe Corvo, Jay Harrison and Jamie McBain, who are all good defensemen but would be 5-7 guys on a contending team. Each of them had to play in the top-four at some point with Carolina and neither of them had the speed, mobility or endurance to do it on a game-by-game basis.

This is why the main priority for the Hurricanes this summer is going to be signing a top-four defenseman but it doesn't necessarily have to be strictly a stay-at-home player because there are a lot of "shutdown defensemen" who are nothing more than third-pairing defensemen on contending teams. Getting someone to help the PK would definitely fill the Canes needs, but they should not rule out a two-way defenseman because one could be valuable if he's available at a decent cost. Are there any players like this available through free agency, though? After the jump, we'll look at what the Hurricanes options if they choose to go this route.

The Hurricanes will find themselves in a similar roster situation as last year as far as defensemen go. They have five players under contract, three of which being top-four players (Faulk, Gleason & Pitkanen) and the following two being 4-6 players (McBain & Harrison), so adding another 3/4 guy is going to be the top priority. They are probably going to want someone who can contribute on both special teams units, too because Corvo is leaving and he was a regular on both the power play and penalty kill. Although, more emphasis will be placed on the PK since Ryan Murphy might be on the club next year and running the power play is kind of his "thing."  There is also the possibility of someone like McBain being traded, but even if that happens, the Canes will need another top-four defenseman.

After perusing Capgeek's free agent finder, I've come up with a list of defensemen who I believe the Hurricanes will look at this summer along with some stats to show their performance from this most recent season. Below is their age, even strength & power play ice time, quality of competition ranking on their respective teams, offensive zone start percentage at even strength, Corsi ON rating and even strength points per 60 rankings. This will give us an idea of everything they bring to the table and how well they fit Carolina's needs. Their even strength ice-time and quality of comeptition ranking being among the most important.

Player Age GP EV TOI/G SH TOI/60 QoC Rk Corsi ON OZ% P/60
Mark Streit 35 48 17.53 1.32  3/6 -0.93 56.4% 1.1
Sergei Gonchar 39 45 17.16 2.17  4/6 7.69 55.8% 1.09
Marek Zidlicky 36 48 20.99 0.2  6/8 15.19 59.8% 0.53
Grant Clitsome 28 44 15.81 1.45  5/7 -1.94 49.4% 0.95
Andrew Ference 34 48 16.57 2.09  4/7 5.36 50.3% 0.91
Ron Hainsey 32 47 18.76 2.73  1/7 -6.35 44.2% 0.75
Rob Scuderi 34 48 17.66 2.95  3/7 1.42 48.9% 0.78
Michal Rozsival 34 27 16.07 0.5  6/7 19.64 63.4% 1.38
Andre Benoit 29 33 13.8 0.63  6/6 14.36 55.4% 0.92
Jordan Leopold 32 39 15.67 1.33  3/7 -4.12 52.7% 0.44
Ben Lovejoy 29 35 17.83 0.79  5/7 1.4 48.2% 0.65
Mike Kostka 27 35 17.37 1.43  4/8 -6.22 42.9% 0.3
Ryan O'Byrne 28 42 15.56 2.42  5/8 -17.44 48.0% 0.55
Davis Drewiske 28 29 11.75 2.59  7/7 17.78 58.2% 1.06
Douglas Murray 33 43 14.29 2.64  6/8 -12.6 46.5% 0.59
Mark Fistric 27 25 13.13 2.06  7/7 -7.13 45.7% 1.1
Toni Lydman 35 35 16.55 2.11  4/7 -3.83 47.7% 0.52
Alex Sulzer 29 17 14.69 1.03  7/8 3.36 53.8% 0.96
Ian White 28 25 16.3 0.03  5/8 2.36 55.2% 0.44
Adam Pardy 29 17 14.98 1.18  5/8 -14.96 46.1% 0.94
Tyson Strachan 28 38 16.6 1.83  5/8 0.57 54.2% 0.38
Steve Eminger 29 35 12.21 0.51  6/10 -1.96 54.6% 0.9
Tom Poti 36 16 13.57 1.21  9/9 -9.4 48.5% 0.42
Mike Lundin 28 11 13.78 0.9  6/8 1 45.1% 0.28
Scott Hannan 34 33 15.99 2.31  8/8 -7.86 45.1% 0.4
Mark Eaton 36 23 15.72 1.95  1/9 -14.27 43.0% 0.23

This is a lot of data to sort through, so to make things easier, I borrowed an idea from Robert Vollman and developed a usage chart for each of these players. However, using quality of competition for usage across different teams can be dicey, so I'm going to plot their even strength ice time against their offensive zone start percentage instead. Also shown on the chart is their Corsi ON rating, which is shown by the color and size of each player's circles. A red circle indicates a positive Corsi rating and a white circle is a negative rating. So given that, players with red circles in the upper-left section of the graph are who fits Carolina's needs the most. Unfortunately there aren't many of these players available.

It's slim pickings in in the free agent market if you need a defenseman and this chart illustrates that well. There aren't many top-four guys capable of beating tough-minutes out there, but there are a few who I think the Canes should consider taking a look at.

Possible Targets

One guy who the Hurricanes, and a lot of other teams, could try to sign is Rob Scuderi of the Los Angeles Kings. If you are looking for a rugged, shutdown defenseman who can kill penalties and play big minutes, then he should be one of the first guys on your list. What makes Scuderi more attractable than other options is that he has plenty of experience with playing against some of the league's best forwards and he fits the Hurricanes needs well. He wasn't the Kings go-to guy for shutdown minutes this season, but he did very well in a secondary role and that might be all he needs to do in Carolina if Gleason & Faulk playing the toughs.

However, there are some concerns about Scuderi. The first of which being that he is going to be 35 next season and defensemen like him tend to worsen as they get older (see: Douglas Murray). Scuderi has proven himself capable enough to play in a top-four role with the Kings, so this might not be an issue but I always have the concern of a "crease clearing" defenseman turning into an anchor in an uptempo system. Scuderi's track record with the Kings suggests that this might not be a problem since he has been able to be a solid possession player over the last three years. Although, it's worth mentioning that Scuderi's had the luxury of playing with Drew Doughty for most of his career in LA and that has boosted his numbers a little. I'm not sure if Scuderi will have the same success in Carolina if he is paired with someone like Faulk or Pitkanen. That being said, Scuderi is probably the top option this summer for a stay-at-home defenseman. 

Another player who could be on the Hurricanes radar this summer is Ron Hainsey of the Winnipeg Jets. Hainsey's scouting report isn't too different from Scuderi's. They are both stay-at-home defensemen who play big minutes, kill penalties and make life tough for opposing forwards. The difference between the two is that Hainsey is inferior to Scuderi in terms of keeping the play out of his own zone. Hainsey's actually been trusted with a pretty big workload since joining the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise and his results aren't terrible, but they aren't very impressive either. I would be suspicious about him turning into an albatross, but Hainsey's ability to play top-four minutes and kill penalties makes him a fit for Carolina. I'm not sure how he would fare in Carolina's system but he might be worth a shot.

There are a few other players who Carolina could target and none of them are very desirable options, Andrew Ference being one of them. Ference is a fine defensive player who will at least help Carolina's penalty kill but he doesn't provide much of an upgrade beyond that. He is similar to Jay Harrison in the sense that he can fill in the top-four fi needed but is probably best suited as a third-pairing guy. His raw numbers look solid, but they were among the worst on the Bruins defense last year and they might decline even more when he isn't being sheltered by Zdeno Chara. Ference won't need to play the toughs in Carolina, but they don't have a workhorse like Chara, so Ference will likely have to play some tough minutes if the Canes were to sign him.

Jordan Leopold is also similar to Ference in the sense that he doesn't offer much of a solution for the Hurricanes if they were to sign him. There was a time when Leopold was one of the more underrated defensemen in the league, but he seemed to take a step back last season. He played fewer minutes at even strength than he did in previous seasons and finished with a negative shot differential rate despite favorable territorial assignments. That might scare some teams away from signing him but Leopold is also a fit for Carolina in a few ways.

Leopold is a lot more mobile than he gets credit for and is good enough to lead breakouts and be somewhat useful offensively. He also contributes on both special teams units and has been a top-four defenseman for six different teams over the last few years. He isn't a long-term solution by any means, but he provides somewhat of an upgrade for Carolina's defense and that's the most you'll get out of this year's free agent class.

One other thing about Leopold that will make teams want to sign him is that he has a proven track record in the NHL, which isn't so much the case for Anaheim's Ben Lovejoy. With only 130 games played at the age of 29, Lovejoy isn't going to excite a lot of teams but had had some fairly solid possession numbers on an Anaheim team that was one of the worst in the NHL in this category. He also played over 17 minutes a game at even strength, so he could be an underrated signing for teams looking for a 4/5 defenseman and don't have much cap space to work with. Is he a fit for Carolina, though? I'm leaning towards "no" because he wasn't used against other team's first lines much and doesn't have a history of killing penalties. The Hurricanes might want to go after one of the more "proven" options.

Unfortunately, with only $7-8 million in cap space, a shallow free agent pool and 29 other teams to bid against, the Hurricanes might end up having to settle unless they can clear space. They wont have to break the bank to sign someone like Scuderi or Leopold, but it might be tough to get them to come to Raleigh if they want 3+ years and more than $4 mil. per year, because that's too big of a contract to give to a player who could only help for one or two years. However, that might be a risk the Hurricanes have to take if they plan to be a playoff team next season because while some people wouldn't mind taking a chance on Mike Kostka or Tyson Strachan on a cheap deal, neither offer much of a solution for this defense.

With that in mind, someone like Strachan, Kostka or Lovejoy would be interesting low-risk/decent-reward options for the Hurricanes if they strike out elsewhere. At the very least, they present a potential upgrade for Carolina, which is more than you can say for a lot of other names out there.

Players to Avoid

Most of the players who the Hurricanes shouldn't even bother wight are in the bottom left-hand portion of the graph and most of these players are stay-at-home defensemen who don't have much use beyond the third-pairing and are forced to block a lot of shots because the puck is always in their zone whenever they are on the ice. No one exemplifies this more than Douglas Murray, who was traded to Pittsburgh before the deadline for two second round picks. The Sharks didn't have a lot of use for Murray anymore because he was too slow, was constantly making bad plays when he had the puck and they had more skilled defensemen at their disposal who they could use. Ever since he was traded to Pittsburgh, he hasn't been able to get beyond the third pairing, as evidenced by his ice-time and usage in the playoffs.

If the Hurricanes needed a third-pairing defenseman, then someone like Murray, Scott Hannan or Ryan O'Byrne might have some use but they don't. Harrison, McBain and Murphy can all be very good third-pairing defensemen, so there is no point in adding another to the fold and overlsot one of them with the second pairing. It's essentially the same move they made by signing Corvo last year, if not worse because Corvo isn't a liability at even strength. The only use someone like Murray, Hannan, O'Byrne, Pardy or Eaton would have is on the penalty kill but that won't matter much if they can't hold their own at even strength. This is why it's best for the Hurricanes to pass over these players.

I also think the Hurricanes should stay away from Mark Streit because while he is still very useful, he is going to want too much money and is more known for his offense than anything else. Sergei Gonchar isn't exactly a safe option either due to his age and suspect defensive play, although he wouldn't be a terrible signing if the Canes want to bring in another power play quarterback. Gonchar can at least kill penalties, which is more than you can say about either Michal Rozsival and Marek Zidlicky. Both of them crushed soft minutes last season and were good offensively, but neither are fits for the Hurricanes given their usage. If you look at the first table I posted, you'll see that neither of them were given the tough assignments. Same can be said for Andre Benoit, Davis Drewiskie and Alex Sulzer, who would make solid third-pairing guys but weren't trusted with bigger minutes, so that rules them out as a fit for Carolina unless McBain is traded.

There could be more players hitting the market this summer through buyouts and whatnot, but the market is going to be very slim no matter what. The Hurricanes defense isn't going to be fixed or rebuilt through free agency so I wouldn't get your hopes up for a huge signing on July 5th because it won't happen. However, there are some solid complimentary pieces out there who can least upgrade Carolina's defense from what it was last season. How much money and cap space the Hurricanes will have to shell out to get them remains to be seen, though.