Breaking Down the Remaining UFA Defencemen Using Analytics

With the season fast approaching, who's worth taking a flier on?

How appropriate is it that the announcement of the shortened NHL season has reportedly sparked a pre-Christmas rush to the bargain bin for teams looking to pick up a heavily discounted last-minute gift? According to Chris Johnston and Pierre Lebrun, the teams that didn’t max out their credit cards on Black Friday are feverishly working the phones to fill in the holes in their lineups and agents are trying to make sure that their guys don’t have to play in the Austrian second league this spring.

A few days ago I took a look at some forwards who remain available, including multiple players who scored thirty goals within the past three years. I’ll be doing the same here, checking out the class of unsigned defencemen using statistics like Patrick Bacon’s WAR model, Corey Sznajder’s tracked microstats, and EvolvingWild’s contract projections to pick out who might be a good value pickup, who fits where, and who should probably be left on the shelf.

Sami Vatanen - RD

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.9M

Sami Vatanen is the biggest name available. He’s played over 21 minutes a night in each of the past seven seasons and has garnered a reputation as a strong offensive defenceman with the Ducks, Devils, and… Hurricanes? Oh yeah. But that rep hasn’t been well-earned lately according to the underlying numbers. Vatanen is shot-happy and scores goals at an above-average rate, but he’s been well below-average at both ends of the ice for the past three seasons at even strength. He also isn’t very efficient in transition either. The only area where he is a real asset is the powerplay, where his point shots tend to generate solid rebound chances.

It’s tough to find a good fit for him because the teams that might have been willing to overlook his limitations for the sake of his powerplay ability (Edmonton and Anaheim, for example) signed other players to fill that role. Maybe Winnipeg?

Travis Hamonic - RD

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.5M

Hamonic is tough to get a read on because his stats have varied so dramatically in the past three seasons. One thing is certain - he’s one of the league’s best penalty killers. And he’s at least been good at something in each of the past three seasons. His goal-scoring rates have been surprisingly solid, the result of a tendency to shoot a good amount from the point. He’s a pretty unremarkable transition player and plays a loose gap against the rush (although there’s reason to believe that this has at least something to do with the Flames’ system.)

So he’s a bit of a wild card. He should slot in as a serviceable #4 or #5 defenceman on a team with depth issues on the right side of the blueline who could use some PK help.

Who should sign him? Ottawa, Winnipeg, Minnesota

Zdeno Chara

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $2M

Zdeno Chara is on the wrong side of 30. And the wrong side of 40. And the wrong side of 42. But at least as of nine months ago, he could still play. His defensive game has remained quite steady in the past three seasons even as his offensive contributions dropped precipitously in 19-20. Z played some of the toughest minutes in the league in terms of competition and was impressively reliable nonetheless. The big concern with him is obviously his age, which seemed to be an issue in the bubble. He was the worst regular Bruins defenceman in the playoffs, finishing last by a longshot in relative Corsi and relative expected goals.

Is he finally washed up, or was the restart an unusual situation ill-suited for a player who has been in the NHL for 92% of my life? It seems as though somebody might get the chance to find out. The Bruins apparently still want to bring him back, and they have the space to do it. Looking around, I don’t see many better options for him out there - I’m assuming he would like to compete for a Cup, and Boston’s his best bet. His minutes should be heavily limited, but I’d like to see him return.

Who should sign him? Boston, New York Rangers

Andy Greene

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.4M

Speaking of golden oldies, Andy Greene is a perfectly capable #5 defensive-minded defenceman who’s great on the penalty kill and dealt respectably with pretty tough minutes last season. He doesn’t do a lot (or really anything) with the puck - doesn’t shoot it, doesn’t pass, doesn’t move it in transition, etc. But he generally helps keep it where it needs to be and does well at preventing opponents from entering his zone.

Like Chara, Greene appears to have a standing offer to rejoin his previous team once Lou Lamoriello somehow signs Mat Barzal to a league minimum contract. His playoff numbers were fine and the team does seem to have a hole on the left side that might otherwise be filled by a tweener like Sebastian Aho (the other one) or Thomas Hickey.

Who should sign him? New York Islanders, Ottawa

Slater Koekkoek - LD

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.4M

Koekkoek is the equivalent of the new-with-tags size XS NHL jersey you stumble upon at a thrift store for $3. Is it the best find ever? No. Will you wear it all the time? No, it doesn’t even really fit. But it’s so inexplicably cheap that you do kind of feel the need to get it.

He’s as close as this group gets to an Analytical Darling™, having put up average or better results in the past three seasons and really nice ones this year in a bottom pair role with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s not a factor in transition but he seems to be pretty effective at playing within the offensive zone.

Who should sign him? Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose

Ben Hutton - LD

Evolving-Hockey 1-Year Contract Projection: $1.5M

Ben Hutton had a real nice season for the Kings this year which nobody noticed because it was on the Kings. He’s an elite penalty killer who’s been around average defensively in two of the past three seasons. Something notable about him is that he has been one of the most aggressive defencemen in the league in terms of defending his blueline, ranking near the top of the league in entry denials, denial rate, and dump-ins forced this season. He would be a nice depth addition for sure.

Who should sign him? Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose