Written by Greg Stamper, who can be found on twitter @g_stamp91.
After taking a look into what is left in the scarce free agent forward market yesterday, as promised, today we turn our attention to the top remaining defensemen and goaltenders.
The defense and goalie positions are extremely valuable in the NHL, that’s why most of which (some more deservingly than others) were scooped up right away once free agency opened up on July 1. Packaged together into one list, you can already imagine just how bare these positions are this far into free agency.
Never-the-less, here are the top 8 (10 if you include the honourable mentions) UFA defensemen and goalies still searching for work.
Honourable mentions: J.S. Giguere – At 37 years old Giguere is simply looking for back-up work on a playoff team. He has posted respectable numbers (.914 save percentage, 2.51 goals against average in 72 games) over the last three seasons with the Avalanche as Semyon Varlamov’s counterpart.
Joni Pitkanen – On top of missing all of last season with a broken heel, Pitkanen only appeared in 52 of a possible 164 games in the previous two seasons combined. When healthy, Joni is an exceptional puck mover who logs a lot of minutes. If it weren’t for injuries Pitkanen would certainly be on this list, but, clearly they are cause for concern as proven by the fact that he still can’t put on a skate almost a year and a half after breaking his heel, according to reports.
Now on to the top 8 remaining UFA defensemen and goaltenders.
8. Tim Thomas – G
Three years Giguere’s senior, 40-year old Tim Thomas will be looking to fill the same void as him with only so few places to go. I wouldn’t be surprised to finally see Thomas, and his unorthodox style, out of the NHL with him calling it a career.
However, last season with a .908 save percentage and a 2.88 goals against average over 48 games between Florida and Dallas, Thomas was actually pretty decent; especially for a 39-year old who took the previous season off.
He still has value and just might yet catch on with someone before or during the season.
7. Derek Morris – D
Derek is an experienced NHL defenseman, at 35-years old, who provided five even strength goals and played 19:27 per game through 63 games with the Coyotes last season. At this point in his career, he would be best served providing a team looking for depth on defense with 15 – 20 minutes a night on a third-pairing.
6. Raphael Diaz – D
Diaz bounced around between three different teams last season, but, despite that he managed to stay in the NHL and play an average of 17:59 through 63 games. Diaz is a third-pairing, quality puck moving defenseman who can be utilized on the second power-play unit and has put up 13 assists in each of his three seasons in the NHL (in 59 games, 23 games, and 63 games). Except a team to take a flyer on him, possibly with a two-way contract, or for him to return to Zug in the Swiss League where he excelled for many years prior to his move to the NHL.
5. Jaime McBain – D
Still just 26-years old, McBain is a young, capable, two-way defender who can provide insurance to almost any team. Being right handed increases his value, as does being able to score a few goals (19 in 206 games) and help teams out on the second power-play. He should have no problems sticking with a team on a one-way deal.
4. Andre Benoit – D
Last season, with 29 points in 79 games for the Avalanche, Benoit was the most productive blue-liner out of the group of defensemen who remain unsigned. Benoit lead all remaining UFA defensemen in goals with seven and assists with 21 in 2013-14 and ranked first in ice time, averaging 20:21 per game. The 30-year old is a relatively unknown around the NHL, having spent most of his career in the AHL, also with one-year stints in the KHL and the Swedish and Finnish Elite Leagues.
Regardless of his journeyman status, Benoit proved last year he can contribute at the NHL level and will end up on a team there.
3. Tomas Vokoun – G
Another player that spent all of last season on the injury list. At 38-years old, Vokoun’s career seems to be coming to its end sometime soon. It’s unknown what he can bring to the table after sitting out last season due to life-threatening blood clots in his leg, but one has to assume he still has some game left in him.
Vokoun has posted a .917 save percentage or better in all eight seasons since the NHL lockout in 2004-05, so it’s extremely hard to count him out. Those numbers prove he is one of, if not the most, consistent goalies over the past decade.
It’s worth noting that despite the personal regular season success, Vokoun has only appeared in 26 playoff games over his 16 NHL seasons, so joining a cup contender to try and get one Stanley Cup before retiring will be in Vokoun’s plans.
2. Martin Brodeur – G
As the NHL’s all-time leading goalie in both wins and shut-outs, Brodeur deserves the right to be ahead of Vokoun by status alone. Sure, he is 42-years old and his numbers are dropping year by year, but as a back-up goaltender on a contending team, choosing Brodeur seems like a no-brainer.
If your starting goalie faltered or got injured in a playoff series who would give you more comfort than having Martin Brodeur sitting there to replace them?
1. Michael Del Zotto – D
The most perplexing free agent still available, the 24-year old Del Zotto was just two short years ago thought to be one of the Rangers top young pieces going forward. With 9 goals and 37 points in his rookie season in 2009-10 and 10 goals and 41 points two years later in 2011-12, Del Zotto looked to be well on his way to NHL stardom as a great offensive defenseman.
Last season, however, Del Zotto was pushed down the Rangers depth chart by new head coach Alain Vigneault to the tune of a measly 17:45 of ice time; down from 23:10 the season before. About halfway through last season Del Zotto was traded to Nashville (a team that is all about defensive hockey) for Kevin Klein, and the trade didn’t exactly help Michael’s stock as he played even fewer minutes there (16:18).
The fit with Nashville was never a good one, as Del Zotto has many holes in his defensive game, yet, remains an upper-class offensive defenseman with upside.
It’s not often that someone as gifted as Del Zotto is offensively from the backend makes it to free agency at such a young age. It’s even less often that a player like that is still available weeks after July 1, it’s strange indeed.
Ultimately Del Zotto should end up on a young, offensive minded team like Florida, Edmonton, Tampa Bay or the Islanders to really get the most out of his skill-set.