Dallas Stars Free Agency: The #1 Defenseman and Where to Get One

Harry How

The hunt for the elusive #1 defenseman may not be as elusive as you think according to DBD reader, Chris Lewis.

Editor's note: This is a long and detailed article sent to us by longtime reader Chris Lewis, and we felt this was much too good for just the FanPost section.

With the season over, and the Draft and FA rapidly approaching, much of our attention has naturally turned to how the Stars need to improve in order to take another step forward next year. As has been the case for several years, many of us are pointing to the defense, and specifically how much better it would be if everyone could slide down just one spot. We want someone who can come in and be THE guy. We want a number one.

Of course, if it were easy one would have been obtained the moment Zubov retired. Obviously it isn’t. With all the discussion that’s gone on the comment threads over the last few weeks about who to trade for who with what teams or who we should move up for in the draft, I thought it would be wise to take a look at this last season to see who the top defensemen were for each team, how they got there, their ages, where they went in the draft, and their cap hit. We can use this information to figure out what would likely be the optimal path for the Stars to find our own mythic creature of the blue line.

Additionally, we’re gonna take a short statistical look at each defensemen drafted in the top five overall since 1995. This is to give us an idea of how often highly drafted defensemen actually become the stalwarts they’re expected to. And finally, we’ll look at a few names that might be able to improve the Dallas blue line, because even if they can’t actually fill that number one role you can still win if your top 6 is all made up of 2s and 3s.

Below is a spread sheet that looks at the top D-man for each team in the league for the 2013-2014 season (let me emphasize that this does not take any previous season into account). I picked these primarily with the "duh" method, ie "everybody knows this is the guy on this team", but there are certainly teams for which there is no clear cut player above the rest.

This tends to happen with both very good and very bad defensive teams. In these cases, I had to make a judgment call based on a combination of points, Corsi, and if necessary, whether the points came at even strength or not. I have marked the names I believe to be most open for debate with a * and placed the names I believe to worthy of discussion instead on the end of the chart. Feel free to disagree to your heart’s content.

NHL Team #1 D-man GP G A Pts Pts/G +/- TOI/Gm 5 on 5 Corsi Close 5 on 5 Corsi Close Rel 5 on 5 Fenwick Close 5 on 5 Fenwick Close Rel Age Cap Hit Draft Pos Acquired
Anahiem Cam Fowler* 70 6 30 36 0.514 15 23:52 48.8% -1.8% 49.8% -1.4% 22 $4,000,000 12 Draft
Boston Zdeno Chara 77 17 23 40 0.519 25 24:39 56.3% 1.3% 56.2% 2.9% 36 $6,500,000 56 Trade
Buffalo Christian Ehrhoff 79 6 27 33 0.418 -27 23:55 43.6% 4.4% 44.0% 5.4% 31 $4,000,000 106 FA
Calgary Mark Giordano 64 14 33 47 0.734 12 25:14 53.3% 10.7% 53.3% 9.2% 30 $4,020,000 Undrafted FA
Carolina Andrej Sekera* 74 11 33 44 0.595 4 23:41 51.4% 3.2% 50.1% 3.0% 27 $2,750,000 71 Trade
Chicago Duncan Keith 79 6 55 61 0.772 22 24:39 57.6% 3.3% 56.5% 2.0% 29 $5,538,462 54 Draft
Colorado Tyson Barrie* 64 13 25 38 0.594 17 18:33 50.0% 4.3% 49.4% 4.6% 22 $2,700,000 64 Draft
Columbus James Wisniewski 75 7 44 51 0.680 0 22:37 54.1% 4.3% 54.2% 4.7% 30 $5,500,000 156 Trade
Dallas Alex Goligoski 81 6 36 42 0.519 9 24:19 52.0% 1.2% 52.8% 1.5% 28 $4,600,000 61 Trade
Detroit Niklas Kronwall 79 8 41 49 0.620 0 24:19 50.5% -0.9% 50.7% -0.5% 33 $4,750,000 29 Draft
Edmonton Jeff Petry* 80 7 10 17 0.213 -22 21:35 46.9% 5.6% 45.7% 3.5% 26 $1,750,000 45 Draft
Florida Brian Cambell 82 7 30 37 0.451 -6 26:57 50.7% 1.7% 50.8% 2.2% 34 $7,142,875 156 Trade
Los Angeles Drew Doughty 78 10 27 37 0.474 17 25:43 59.4% 3.6% 58.6% 3.2% 24 $7,000,000 2 Draft
Minnesota Ryan Suter 82 8 35 43 0.524 15 29:25 47.9% -0.6% 48.3% -0.6% 29 $7,538,462 7 FA
Montreal PK Subban 82 10 43 53 0.646 -4 23:39 50.0% 4.6% 50.0% 2.6% 24 $2,875,000 43 Draft
Nashville Shea Weber 79 23 33 56 0.709 -2 26:54 47.5% -3.3% 49.6% -1.6% 28 $7,857,143 49 Draft
New Jersey Marek Zidlicky* 81 12 30 42 0.519 -3 21:39 52.9% -2.8% 51.7% -3.3% 37 $4,000,000 176 Trade
NY Islanders Lubomir Visnovsky 24 3 8 11 0.458 -1 20:32 53.5% 5.6% 52.0% 2.1% 37 $4,750,000 118 Trade
NY Rangrtd Ryan McDonagh* 77 14 29 43 0.558 11 24:49 50.8% -3.7% 51.6% -3.0% 24 $4,700,000 12 Trade
NY Rangers Erik Karlsson 82 20 54 74 0.902 -16 27:04 54.4% 3.9% 53.0% 4.0% 23 $6,500,000 15 Draft
Philadelphia Kimmo Timonen 77 6 29 35 0.455 5 20:20 53.7% 5.8% 52.5% 5.8% 39 $6,000,000 250 Trade
Phoenix Keith Yandle 82 8 45 53 0.646 -23 24:09 50.6% 1.2% 49.7% -0.4% 27 $5,250,000 105 Draft
Pittsburgh Kris Letang 37 11 11 22 0.595 -8 24:14 49.5% -1.4% 51.0% -1.9% 27 $3,500,000 62 Draft
San Jose Dan Boyle* 75 12 24 36 0.480 -8 21:17 52.2% -2.9% 53.1% -2.8% 37 $6,666,667 Undrafted Trade
St. Louis Alex Pietrangelo* 81 8 43 51 0.630 20 25:22 54.9% 2.8% 53.9% 1.1% 24 $3,225,000 4 Draft
Tampa Ba Victor Hedman 75 13 42 55 0.733 5 22:26 53.0% 2.9% 52.3% 1.7% 23 $4,000,000 2 Draft
Toronto Dion Phaneuf* 80 8 23 31 0.388 3 23:34 40.0% -2.9% 40.5% -1.2% 29 $6,500,000 9 Trade
Vancouver Dan Hamhuis* 79 5 17 22 0.278 13 23:57 52.5% 0.9% 52.3% 0.4% 31 $4,500,000 12 FA
Washington Mike Green 70 9 29 38 0.543 -16 22:44 52.4% 6.5% 52.0% 6.4% 28 $6,083,333 29 Draft
Winnipeg Dustin Byfuglien 78 20 36 56 0.718 -20 23:05 49.9% 0.9% 49.8% 0.4% 29 $5,200,000 245 Trade

In this group, 14 were drafted by the team they play for, just one shy of half the league. Not real surprising, considering how everyone’s been saying that’s what you’ve got to do, writers and commenters here at DBD included. 12 were acquired through trade. This seems a bit high, until you realize that some of these guys aren’t really meant to be a top defenseman. There certainly aren’t 30 in the league. 4 were obtained through free agency. This also makes sense. Teams don’t let players of 1D potential or status walk away. All in all, this mostly seems to confirm what most of us have thought all along. Either you draft the right guy, or you trade some surplus to fill a need.

But let’s dig deeper. First, let’s look at when these guys were drafted. Of the 30 names there, the average draft position is 70th. That’s not until the 3rd round. Only 5 guys were taken in the top 10. Only 11 in the 1st round. 20 before the end of the 3rd. Names that show up outside the first round include Subban, Weber, Keith, Chara, and Letang, as well as our own Goligoski. All of this to say, it is by no means imperative to be picking super early in order to find "the guy." Now, I’m sure that if you were merely looking to compare draft rank to any form of successful/serviceable career in the NHL, you would still see a correlation for the higher picks, but when it comes to finding a number one guy, it’s practically a crapshoot.

This doesn’t even begin to consider the other defensemen that were taken ahead of the studs listed above. The fact is defensemen are simply harder to project than forwards, so you end up with a lot of guys not living up to their draft positions, even if they still end up being useful players. For this reason, making deals to trade up for the sake of drafting a particular defender would seem to be unwise. If anything, you’d be better off trading down for more picks.

The rest of the statistics listed are so we can judge these players effectiveness versus each other. What you personally prioritize will determine which guy you think is the best. If you want points, Karlsson is your man. If you care about minutes, you want Suter. Still think +/- is the way to go? You want Chara. Personally, and mostly thanks to the work of DBD’s very own Josh Lile, I prefer the #fancystats. I’m looking at the 5 on 5 Close Corsi and Fenwick numbers. They tell you which players slant the ice the most, even if it doesn’t always result in points. This year, that’s Doughty and Keith. Which teams made the WCF again? Oh right.

I’m also a fan of the relative versions. For those that don’t know, these tell you how a player performs in terms of puck possession relative to the other players on his own team. This is how you find surprises or sleepers in the league. For example, if a player’s 5v5 Corsi close is 40%, the first inclination is to say that he’s not a good possession player. However, if you see that his Corsi close relative is +10% (which is absurdly high, btw), that means that his team is 10% better with him on the ice than without.

This is the sign of a good player stuck on a really bad team. Exiting our example and returning to our real data, our eyes are drawn to Giordano’s +10.7%. That’s a full 4.2% higher than anyone else on our list of defensive demi-gods. At a reasonable age 30, a very kind cap hit of just over 4 million, and playing on a team that needs to rebuild, he would seem to be the ideal candidate to pluck away and fix some of our issues, at least if possession is what you value most.

Now let’s switch gears and look at draft history. Below is a chart of every player defenseman drafted in the top 5 overall since the 1995 draft, the number of seasons they played in the NHL, and their basic career statistics. Active players are in bold. Those that are highlighted are players that I believe the majority of people would say are capable of being a number one.

Career Stats
Year Player Name NHL Seasons Draft Position Games Played Goals Assists Points +/-
2013 Seth Jones 1 4 77 6 19 25 -23
2012 Ryan Murray 0 2 - - - - -
Griffin Reinhart 0 4 - - - - -
Morgan Rielly 0 5 - - - - -
2011 Adam Larsson 3 4 128 3 24 27 -4
2010 Erik Gudbranson 3 3 169 5 16 21 -48
2009 Victor Hedman 5 2 333 29 115 144 -3
2008 Drew Doughty 6 2 442 59 162 221 35
Zach Bogosian 6 3 352 37 77 114 -39
Alex Pietrangelo 6 4 305 37 135 172 45
Luke Schenn 6 5 436 21 77 98 -20
2007 Thomas Hickey 2 4 121 5 21 26 14
Karl Alzner 6 5 345 7 55 62 10
2006 Erik Johnson 6 1 409 36 134 170 -26
2005 Jack Johnson 8 3 490 44 146 190 -97
2004 Cam Barker 8 3 310 21 75 96 -29
2003 None - - - - - - -
2002 Jay Bouwmeester 11 3 846 76 268 344 -34
Joni Pitkanen 9 4 535 57 225 282 -8
Ryan Whitney 9 5 481 50 209 259 -30
2001 None - - - - - - -
2000 Rostislav Klesla 13 4 659 48 111 159 -46
1999 None - - - - - - -
1998 Brad Stuart 14 3 985 77 245 322 14
Bryan Allen 13 4 710 29 105 134 28
Vitaly Vishnevski 8 5 552 16 52 68 -29
1997 Eric Brewer 15 5 965 74 186 260 -94
1996 Chris Phillips 16 1 1143 71 214 285 67
Andrei Zyuzin 10 2 496 38 82 120 -40
Ric Jackman 7 5 231 19 58 77 -54
1995 Bryan Berard 10 1 619 76 247 323 -98
Wade Redden 14 2 1023 109 348 457 160
Aki Berg 9 3 606 15 70 85 -12

Notice, there’s only 4. Repeat: in the last 19 drafts, only 4 had the franchise number one type of defender taken in the top 5. This is to emphasize the point I made earlier with where this year’s number one defensemen for each team were each taken. It isn’t worth it to trade up to take a defensemen. It’s far, far from sure thing.

Yea, you’ll probably get a guy you can bank on playing in the NHL, but you just can’t bank on him being the guy that fixes the blue line for the next decade. The smart thing to do is to trade your assets for known commodities, assuming you can find a partner. If not, you’re better off standing pat, or taking advantage of another team’s infatuation with a particular player to get yourself more pieces of the pie. At least with regards to defensemen.

Finally, as a bonus from the time I spent putting this together, I’ve got some names that stuck out to me personally as guys who could improve the Stars defense. Some would have to be traded for, but just cause a guy’s name isn’t floating through the rumor mill doesn’t mean he can’t be had.

NHL Team Name Games Played Goals Assists Points Points/Game +/- TOI/Game 5 on 5 Corsi Close 5 on 5 Corsi Close Rel 5 on 5 Fenwick Close 5 on 5 Fenwick Close Rel Age Cap Hit Draft Position Acquired Through
Los Angeles Kings Jake Muzzin 76 5 19 24 0.316 8 19:02 62.4% 7.2% 61.3% 6.6% 25 $             1,000,000 141 FA
New York Rangers Anton Stralman 81 1 12 13 0.160 9 19:24 58.4% 7.8% 58.3% 7.1% 27 $             1,700,000 216 FA
San Jose Sharks Marc-Edouard Vlasic 81 5 19 24 0.296 31 20:43 57.4% 5.4% 58.2% 5.4% 27 $             4,250,000 35 Draft
New Jersey Devils Andy Greene 82 8 24 32 0.390 3 24:35 56.5% 3.0% 55.9% 3.3% 31 $             3,000,000 Undrafted FA
Pittsburgh Penguins MATT NISKANEN??????? 81 10 36 46 0.568 33 21:18 54.6% 7.4% 53.9% 5.8% 27 $             2,300,000 28 Trade
Tampa Bay Lightning Michael Kostka 19 2 6 8 0.421 7 15:54 54.5% 5.1% 55.0% 4.7% 28 $                600,000 Undrafted Trade
Minnesota Wild Jared Spurgeon 67 5 21 26 0.388 15 22:38 51.8% 3.2% 52.9% 3.7% 24 $        266,666,667 156 FA

Look at Muzzin. Just look at that. Those possession numbers are incredible. Better than Doughty. In fact, Muzzin actually produced one more even strength point than Doughty did on the year. If there were any reasonable way to pry Muzzin away from the Kings, it’d be worth a very hard look. Unfortunately, I can’t see them being unaware of his value, especially at a cap hit of just 1 million.

Stralman is a name I didn’t know when I started this project, probably because we only see the Rangers twice a year. Thanks to the playoffs though, it seems like everyone now knows who he is. He’s one of the better defenders hitting FA this year, and if the bidding doesn’t get ridiculous, I hope Nill taking at run at him.

Vlasic is a guy I’ve always thought was very underrated, and possession stats would say he’s actually the best defensemen on the Sharks roster. If the Sharks decided to make some major changes after their latest playoff choke job, he’s certainly worth inquiring about.

Greene is another guy I’ve found to be underrated. Every time I’ve seen him play, he seemed like a guy who did a lot of little things right. Usually the kinds of things the broadcast team allows to go unmentioned, but also the kinds of things that are noticed when you fail to do them. Again, possession numbers back this up.

Now, what the heck is Niskanen doing here? His numbers this year are very good. As we all thought was possible, changing scenery has allowed him to continue the growth that got stopped in Dallas. The thing here is that this the first year his numbers have ever looked this good. Anyone willing to risk the possibility that it was just a fluke? Personally, I wouldn’t. Especially with expectation that someone is going to overpay for him.

Kostka is an odd one. He’s never played a lot of games in a season, and the stats below are smaller still since they only include his time in Tampa Bay for this year. However, he has consistently been a positive relative possession player through all the brief stops in his career. He’s not a scorer, so if you give this a chance, it’s likely a one year signing to improve the 3rd pair and while giving the prospects another year to marinate in the AHL. I mean, he can’t possibly be worse than Romchar, right?

Lastly, the Wild’s Spurgeon. If he’d played the full season at the current rate, he’d have produced more points than Suter. His possession stats are already better. The only thing he didn’t do was play as many minutes. Perhaps another guy who’s team wouldn’t realize what he’s worth.

So there you have it. When it comes to finding a true 1D, your options are hitting the draft right, or making a trade. You can’t bank on FA, and you probably shouldn’t draft up because your heart is set on a particular player. Stick with where you are, and if you’re not eyeing a particular guy, being willing to trade down and get more picks gives you better odds.

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