Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Top 5 2009 UFA Defensemen and Goalies

Last time, we looked at the top five unrestricted free agent forwards that will be able to negotiate with any team starting July 1. Now, we'll take a gander at the top five UFA blueliners, and then the top five UFA goaltenders (which is a pretty lousy list, just to warn you). Without anything resembling ado:

5. Rob Blake - San Jose - 2009 stats: 73 GP, 10 G, 35 A, 45 PTS - 2009 salary: $5MM
The only reason why I have the veteran defender fifth on this list is because he'd almost assuredly going to be re-signing with San Jose. Blake's going to be 40 by the time next season ends, but he's been remarkably consistent even in his advanced years. He signed a one-year, $5 million contract last summer in an attempt to win another Stanley Cup with the veteran Sharks. Paired with another new acquisition, Dan Boyle, things didn't go as planned once the playoffs came around.

Blake is one of the sport's best leaders, and if Patrick Marleau is dealt it wouldn't shock me to see Blake leapfrog Joe Thornton and become captain. I expect Blake to sign for something similar to $5 million he earned last season, and will perhaps even do so in a two-year pact. That will probably do it for Blake's career once that contract runs out.

4. Jordan Leopold - Calgary - 2009 stats: 83 GP, 7 G, 17 A, 24 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.5MM
This former University of Minnesota standout and Hobey Baker winner ended this past season where his career began, helping round out a strong core of defensemen in Calgary. He'd spent most of the previous three seasons with Colorado, but as an impending free agent and the team going nowhere, Leopold was shipped out at the trading deadline for a couple young players and a second round pick. The Flames were defeated in the first round by Chicago, and Leopold didn't help himself this summer by playing relatively sloppy throughout.

Since his glory days in college, Leopold hasn't really ever lived up to expectations, mostly due to injuries. He'll definitely get a raise somewhere this summer, and while he probably wants to get paid like a #2 blueliner, odds are that won't happen. If the Flames lose Adrian Aucoin, they will certainly take a look and bringing Leopold back at a reasonable price. Otherwise, plenty of teams should be in on Leopold. He was fully healthy this year and his number may have been depressed from playing most of the year on such a lousy team.

3. Mike Komisarek - Montreal - 2009 stats: 66 GP, 2 G, 9 A, 11 PTS - 2009 salary: $1.7MM
I'm not going to lie. I really hate this guy. He's a shit-stirrer, he plays for an evil team, and he proved himself to be a little bitch over and over again last year. I hope he stays in Montreal so he can continue to take beatdowns like this and this at the hands of Milan Lucic, the former being a seminal moment in the Bruins' season of re-birth. Of course, he might retaliate like this, and that wouldn't be good, but that's what we've come to expect from Mike Komisarek in his career. I don't care that he played for Michigan. I really hate this guy.

That being said, at 27 he's probably going to be paid handsomely at some point this summer. When he doesn't go overboard, Komisarek can be an asset to any team. The Canadiens have all the cap space in the world this summer, and because they're looking at having absolutely no depth behind Andrei Markov, keeping Komisarek on board would probably be a wise choice. Or not, since he sucks. OK, I can show my bias on here once in a while, right?

2. Scott Niedermayer - Anaheim - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 14 G, 45 A, 59 PTS - 2009 salary: $6.75MM
It's definitely been a long, strange trip for Niedermayer. Drafted third overall 18 years ago, he won the Cup four times in a span of 12 seasons. He's been a hero, and he's been a villain. That legendary playoff beard has gained a salt-and-pepper hue as the years have dragged on. After winning the Cup with the Ducks in '07, he seemed ready to walk away, and missed nearly 30 games in '08 before finally coming back.

The Ducks were just about out of the playoffs at the deadline this year, with Niedermayer's name bandied about in potential trades. But Anaheim persevered, outlasted top-seeded San Jose in the opening round, then took Detroit to the brink before succumbing in Game 7. During the playoffs, it seemed like Niedermayer and Chris Pronger were on the ice 60 minutes a game.

Niedermayer proved throughout the season and playoffs that he can still play as an elite NHL defenseman. For a third straight year, however, he's contemplating retirement. His intentions should be known before the draft, and if he does decide to continue expect him to stay in Anaheim.

1. Jay Bouwmeester - Florida - 2009 stats: 82 GP, 15 G, 27 A, 42 PTS - 2009 salary: $4.875MM
This puck-moving, bruising 25-year-old Edmonton product might be the most sought-after free agent this summer after Marian Hossa. He's an elite #1 defenseman, a true treasure who's been buried deep in Florida for his entire career. Bouwmeester only settled for a one-year tender as a restricted free agent last year with an obvious desire to get the hell out of Miami as soon as possible.

Bone-headed GM Jacques Martin (who I'm happy to say is now the Habs' head coach) should have dealt him for something at the deadline, but refused. The Panthers missed the playoffs, and will now see him go for nothing unless they trade his rights before July 1. It came out on Tuesday that Bouwmeester "has made it known he wants to play somewhere hockey is taken more seriously than in South Florida." Ouch.

The team I've heard most in connection to J-Bouw so far is Philadelphia, who can afford to move some of their forward depth either as a means of acquiring his rights or clearing cap space to sign him (I imagine Bouwmeester will make close to $7 million annually in his new deal). The above report mentioned Joffrey Lupul as a potential chip, and don't count out UNH star James van Riemsdyk as a possibility too. Watching them against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, I felt the last piece they needed was a big defenseman. Kimmo Timonen is excellent, but adding Bouwmeester could catapult them into the top tier in the East.

The Canucks, Flames and his hometown Oilers will also come calling. Whatever team ends up with Bouwmeester will have an terrific young #1 defenseman as their anchor for years to come. I'm excited to see what Bouwmeester will do with a solid team around him.

Onto the top five UFA netminders:

5. Scott Clemmensen - New Jersey - 2009 stats: 40 G, 25-13-1, .917 SV%, 2.39 GAA - 2009 salary: $500K
Like a lot of people, I figured the Devils were pretty screwed when Martin Brodeur went down with a biceps injury that cost him most of the regular season. They looked even more screwed when backup Kevin Weekes struggled as his replacement. Enter Clemmensen, who helped BC win the 2001 national title but had only seen action in 28 NHL games prior to this season. Clemmensen played so well in Brodeur's absence that when the legendary goalie was slated to return there was some consternation in New Jersey about who should really start. The legend won out, and Clemmensen was actually sent back to the AHL before Weekes was injured.

Because of his performance this year, Clemmensen could potentially find a starting job, but at the very least he'll be a backup paid better than $500,000. If I'm GM Lou Lamoriello, I'll fork over a couple million to keep the guy around. Brodeur isn't getting younger (or thinner), and having some security backing up is important. But he may bolt for greener pastures. We shall see.

4. Ty Conklin - Detroit - 2009 stats: 40 G, 25-11-2, .909 SV%, 2.51 GAA - 2009 salary: $750K
Following Dominik Hasek's retirement and Chris Osgood's ascension as Detroit's #1 goalie during their '08 Cup run, GM Kenny Holland worked his magic and signed Pittsburgh's Ty Conklin with the intention of using him as a backup. Conklin, my fellow UNH alum, played very well while Marc-Andre Fleury was injured that season, and getting him for $750,000 seemed like a steal. Osgood was shaky through much of the regular season, to put it nicely. Conklin bailed out the Red Wings time and again, and only after spending 10 days away from the ice did Osgood finally find himself. Had the Wings come through in SCF Game 7, I believe Osgood would have been Conn Smythe, with good reason. Conklin only saw the ice during one period in the whole postseason, and that's just because Osgood got tired during a Detroit blowout.

Conklin wants to stay, but it doesn't appear the 33-year-old return to Hockeytown in '09. Longtime prospect Jimmy Howard is going to finally be given a look as Osgood's backup. A starting gig might not materialize for Conklin, but I believe he deserves it based on his play the last two seasons. Of course, we're both Wildcats, so maybe I'm biased. Here it comes again...

3. Dwayne Roloson - Edmonton - 2009 stats: 63 G, 28-24-9, .915 SV%, 2.77 GAA - 2009 salary: $3.666MM
So, let me get this straight: Roloson is 40, played a lot of games last year, wasn't really any good in '08-'09, and wants the Oilers to give him a multi-year deal? I'm not buying it. Sure, Roloson was pretty solid, especially down the stretch, for Edmonton. And I'm not really sure they can do much better with
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers as the only other option under contract for next year. I think Roloson stays, but only for one year. The Oilers want to make a splash in the free agent or trade market, so keeping their commitment to an aging goalie low is probably in their best interest.

2. Martin Biron - Philadelphia - 2009 stats: 55 G, 29-19-5, .915 SV%, 2.76 GAA - 2009 salary: $3.5MM
You know it's a lousy year for free agent goalies when the second-best netminder on the market gets passed over in favor of Ray Emery. How does that make you feel, Marty? Biron was always a favorite scapegoat for the fans in Philadelphia, and I never really felt that was fair. Sure, the guy was never spectacular, as his numbers this year attest. He kept losing playing time to Antero Nittymaki throughout the season, and it was a tough decision . But I just think it's obvious that Biron should not be expected to be a top goalie on a contending team at this point in his career.

At 31, Biron wants a multi-year contract, which is something the Flyers simply weren't interested in. I applaud them for going with the cost-cutting move in signing Emery, and it also sounds like they're trying to bring back Robert Esche from the KHL to team with up with Emery. It's a risk, but at least it will afford them the chance to go after a big name. Where Biron lands is anyone's guess, and there's no guarantee he'll be a starter.

1. Nikolai Khabibulin - Chicago - 2009 stats: 42 G, 25-8-7, .919 SV%, 2.33 GAA - 2009 salary: $6.75MM
This was definitely not a normal year in the crease for the Blackhawks. Last summer they signed free agent Cristobal Huet to a four-year deal with an average cap hit of $5.625MM, and I always figured that meant Huet would get the starting nod for '08-'09 over Khabibulin. That's why I drafted him in my fantasy league. Dennis Savard was fired early in the season, Joel Quennville came in as a replacement, and decided he liked Khabibulin more as the primary goalie. It was pretty maddening not knowing who was going to start everyday. Khabibulin was hurt for long stretches, but Huet never played well enough to take over the starting role. The "Bulin Wall" took over late in the season, and his steady veteran play led the young Hawks to the Western Conference Final.

Because Khabibulin led the Hawks late in the season, and Huet left a lot to be desired in his absence especially when pressed into playoff action, it would make sense for the Chicago to retain the Russian's services. However, he's 39, and had trouble staying healthy throughout the year. And they certainly can't afford to pay their goaltenders north of $12 million for another year. My guess is they let Khabibulin walk and go with Huet and youngster Corey Crawford. Khabibulin should be able to carve out a starting job somewhere.

So there you have it. Enjoy the draft and the flurry of activity that usually accompanies it.

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