Finding Value in Free Agent Defensemen


The NHL salary cap is dropping from $70.2M to $64.3M, and the Flyers currently find themselves projected to be $6+M over that figure. As such, the franchise faces a major dilemma this summer, one in which cap space will be tight and shrewd, bang-for-buck additions will have to be made through free agent acquisitions and trades. Thankfully, in free agency the front office will be handcuffed in a saved-from-itself way and unable to sling around long-term, big-money contracts that almost immediately turn into albatrosses. That strategy hasn’t exactly been advantageous for the franchise recently anyway, and thrifty shopping should be emphasized as a foundational principle. With Peter Luukko recently telling Howard Eskin that Ilya Bryzgalov will not be an amnesty clause target, for better or worse, that minuscule cap space becomes even more restricted. While Bryzgalov perhaps getting bought out was still a thing, I was interested in signing Anton Khudobin, Tuukka Rask’s backup in Boston, to team and compete with Steve Mason. Now it appears the Bryzgalov/Mason tandem — circus? — will remain in tact for 2013-2014 (at a total cap hit of $7,166,667). Joy.

Though Bryzgalov is emerging unscathed, it’s a virtual certainty that Danny Briere will fall victim to the amnesty clause and open up some financial breathing room in the form of a $6.5M cap hit. Even so, a chunk of that cap space will be quickly eaten up when Claude Giroux inevitably signs his long-term, big-money contract extension, which will be coming soon as he enters the final season of a very team-friendly three-year, $11.25M deal (though he’s still RFA status). Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn also enter the final year of their entry level contracts and will be RFA next offseason. It’ll be a tricky balancing act for Paul Holmgren, a general manager who hasn’t proven himself the savviest salary cap navigator. But what the Flyers need most is depth on defense, even with guys like Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros and Niklas Grossmann all returning from injury. With the amount of money the team is already spending on the blue line, it’s in desperate need of a player who can sign for a lower amount and perhaps go on to outperform his salary. Here’s a look at some possible bang-for-buck options on the free agent market:

Alexander Sulzer ($725K) – Someone who I thought was a low-risk/high-reward free agent candidate last summer. Played really well for the Sabres and showed a number of flashes after being acquired last year as a throw-in from Vancouver as part of the Cody Hodgson trade. Sulzer only played 17 games for Buffalo in 2013 and was lost for the season due to a torn right knee ligament in late February. I’ll put him in the low-risk/high-reward bin again.

Ian White ($2.875M) – Tough season to follow up a career campaign in 2011-2012. For the right price, he presents value as a potential bounce-back player.

Andrew Ference (2.25M) – Older option, just turned 34. Stanley Cup champion and steady contributor, veteran presence along the blue line.

Grant Clitsome ($1.25M) – Thick, stout defenseman with a low center of gravity who’s been quietly solid and productive for the past few seasons. Just had another nice season, this time as a regular with Winnipeg after four seasons with the Blue Jackets’ organization. Is due a raise from his $1.25M salary, but not by much. Perfect bottom-pairing, depth signing with upside.

Ty Wishart ($843,413) – Former first round pick (picked six spots ahead of Claude Giroux in 2006) who’s bounced around and only played in 26 NHL games. Big and mobile, just turned 25 and is still at an age, especially for a defenseman, where his development might continue. An AHL veteran who was a leader for the Islanders’ affiliate in 2012-2013. At least worth a look as a UFA and potential bottom-pairing guy. At worst, you’re getting someone who can play big minutes for the Phantoms and be a call-up candidate for the Flyers.

A few forwards who fit the “value” tag, if they don’t get significant raises: Damien Brunner ($1.35M), Clarke MacArthur ($3.25M), Mason Raymond ($2.275M), Tyler Bozak ($1.5M), Pascal Dupuis ($1.5M; try not to puke)

I’m actually really intrigued by the idea of Brunner, who’s been key for the Red Wings in the playoffs, as a potential trigger man on one of the top two lines since he has the talent to be an impact goal scorer. For the right price, I’d definitely be on board.