June 29 2012 04:42PM
In a previous piece we looked at top line defensemen and found out two keys facts: there will be very few available through free agency, and some of the most effective top pairing defensemen were elite defensemen paired up with guys who were previously on 2nd or 3rd pairings.
Given the difficulty in acquiring an existing top pairing defenseman, this week we'll use Player Usage Charts to find which 2nd line defensemen are the most likely candidates for top line duty next season.
A few clarifications on the chart before we begin: Zach Bogosian is a small white circle hidden behind Matt Carle, Justin Faulk behind Kris Letang, and Michael Del Zotto behind the big white circle of Ryan Whitney. Sami Salo is a average-sized white circle obscured by Mark Streit, and Alexei Emelin a tiny white dot hidden by Greg Zanon. Hopefully everything else should be reasonably dechiperable.
The Best of the Middle tier
Several of these names leap right off the chart based on their reputation alone. Brian Campbell, Brent Burns, Kris Letang, Mark Streit, Paul Martin and possibly even Matt Carle and Alexander Edler are all fairly obvious candidates for top line defensemen - and in fact many people may be surprised to learn that this is not already the case.
On each of their teams there are two other defensemen braving the more difficult assignments so they can take advantage of their considerable offensive talents to kick start the team's scoring, but all of them are likely capable of shouldering a heavier burden if necessary. Of them, only Matt Carle is available on July 1st, a 27-year-old defenseman who can score 35+ points in the right situation, but is likely for an increase from the $3.5M he's been getting these past few seasons in Philadelphia.
Big name defensemen like Christian Ehrhoff, Lubomir Visnovsky, Alex Goligoski, Andrei Markov, and Kevin Shattenkirk, on the other hand, are successful only because they're playing softer 2nd line duty and should be attractive (via trade) only to teams where they can be left there.
The likeliest new candidate for top line duty could be Calgary's Mark Giordano. Giordano is locked down long-term by the Calgary Flames, but their top pairing of Jay Bouwmeester and Chris Butler paid the price for playing the toughest minutes in the league, and using Giordano more often could help them become more competitive.
Another possible candidate for top-line duty is small 2nd-year Minnesota Wild Jared Spurgeon. He has one more year on his bargain entry-level contract on a team absolutely loaded with young defensemen, and if the team has difficulty attracting another proven top-liner through trade or free agency, Spurgeon could be ready to compete with Tom Gilbert and Marco Scandella for the job.
An even more provocative choice would be UFA Dylan Reese, who at age 27 has just 74 games of NHL experience, all on the questionable New York Islanders blue line He could likely be signed for cheap and, according to the Player Usage Chart, could potentially serve as the Chris Butler to someone's Jay Bouwmeester.
For a more established UFA, there are Phoenix veterans Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival, who proudly toiled top-line duty for significant parts of their careers and might be able to occasionally serve effectively in that role again, in the right situation. They really stand out in a pack of highly-regarded players that actually struggled under comparable playing conditions, like Nicklas Grossman, Toni Lydman, Pavel Kubina, Nick Schultz, Brett Clark and Bryce Salvador - it comes as no surprise that several of them were traded, and those that are available should probably be avoided.
Adrian Aucoin is turning 39 this July, and would likely be available for a short-term contract for less than the $2.0M he earned last season. Michal Rozsival, who earned $5.0M last year and is turning 34 in September, is less likely to be a bargain option, but could serve as a viable top-four option for a couple seasons longer than a more temporary emergency signing like Aucoin.
Though very few of those sound like fantastic options, those may be the best bets. In fact, there are plenty of players who actually struggled in their 2nd line roles last year and should actually be looking for softer assignments, not harder ones. Upper-2nd liners like Jim Wisniewski and David Schlemko are excellent examples, but Marc Methot, Scott Hannan, Keith Aulie, Jack Johnson and possibly Douglas Murray are probably more classic cases of players whose ability to play against top lines was tested and ought to be seen as secondary options only.
Even players like Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Niklas Kronwall, who were once considered strong possibilities for top-line duty, appear today to instead be adequate 2nd-liners who just happened to be playing alongside some exceptional talent.
Other than opening the wallet wide for Matt Carle or trading picks and prospects for an established name, unfortunately combing the league's 2nd lines don't produce very many obvious options for teams looking to upgrade their top pairings.
While the Minnesota Wild and the Calgary Flames have the potential to upgrade their struggling top pairings by digging deeper into the organization with Jared Spurgeon and Mark Giordano respectively, there don't appear to be a lot of great options come July 1st. For the other teams the best bet to upgrade their top four might be to take a low-cost gamble on Dylan Reese or aging veterans Adrian Aucoin and Michal Rozsival.
At the very least the lack of available clear-cut top-four options might drive the prices of defensemen up on July 1st. While this is good news for certain UFAs and teams looking to shed older defensemen on overpriced long-term deals (cough Buffalo cough) it's bad news for teams desperate to fill top-four voids - especially those without shrewd value-seeking GMs.