Christian Ehrhoff’s buyout makes him the best defenseman available. (Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
The Caps didn’t acquire any NHL players at the draft, so they now look to fill empty roster spots in free agency, which begins at noon.
The team’s primary need is a top-four defenseman who can play with Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and John Carlson. Dmitry Orlov did an okay job at that role last season, but the Caps may want to see a more seasoned player there, especially if playing away from Mike Green might mean Orlov could better utilize his offensive tools.
Here’s my take on four options for defense on the open market.
Christian Ehrhoff, Buffalo
Ehrhoff is a two-way defenseman who carried a cap hit of $4 million on his front-loaded, long-term contract with Buffalo. The Sabres reportedly shopped Ehrhoff around, but in the end they decided that no trade offer for the German blueliner could justify taking on the salary recapture penalty that would follow his retirement.
- Throughout his career Ehrhoff has outperformed his team in possession– no matter how horrible they were.
- His left-handed shot and power play skill would give the Caps a new look, one that might be good on the nights when the 1-3-1 power play designed for the right-handed shots of Ovechkin, Brouwer, and Green doesn’t click.
- Ehrhoff has playoff experience with six postseason appearances– including going all the way to the finals with the Canucks in 2011.
- The demand for Ehrhoff will drive his price way up. The Caps may find it difficult to sign Ehrhoff and fill their other needs.
- What’s even more alarming: the demand for Ehrhoff will affect the term of his new deal. Ehrhoff will turn 32 in one week. Overpaying Ehrhoff on a six- or seven-year contract may haunt his new team in the long run.
Projection: Seven years, $6 million AAV to a team that is all-in for next season.
Anton Stralman, NY Rangers
The 27-year-old defenseman’s price tag jumped after the Rangers’ conference-winning playoff run. Stralman has been a bargain for the New York, earning an average of $1.7 million during the term of his previous contract. After taking a top-four spot playing next to Marc Staal, he looks for a big raise this summer.
- Stralman’s age will mean teams can invest in him with more confidence. While he had health problems earlier in his career, he missed just one game over the course of the past two seasons.
- The Swedish defenseman was a clutch player during the Rangers’ postseason run.
- Stralman has become more well-rounded. He’s significantly improved the defensive side of his game and while he doesn’t produce offensively like he did early in his career with Columbus, he can still chip in at that end too.
- At 5-foot-11, 190 lbs, Stralman will not be a dominant physical presence on the back end, and if the Caps will be looking to add that dimension to their blue line, Stralman may not be the right fit.
- Stralman didn’t thrive everywhere he played. He was not a big factor with the Rangers under John Tortorella after they signed him prior to the 2011-12 season. While it’s crazy to compare Tortorella to Barry Trotz, we know little about the strategy he’ll be looking to employ in Washington.
Projection: Six years, $4 million AAV to a team with a lot of size already on the blue line.
Matt Niskanen, Pittsburgh
Niskanen is coming off a breakout year with the Penguins in which he made the most out of long-term injuries to Paul Martin and Kris Letang. Niskanen led all Pens defensemen who played more than half of the games in powerplay ice time. While in Pittsburgh, Niskanen worked under powerplay and defense coach Todd Reirden, who has since joined the Caps following Pittsburgh’s house-cleaning.
- Niskanen stayed on the right side of relative corsi every year since 2009, meaning the team did better in puck possession with Niskanen than without him.
- His familiarity with Reirden could work to Caps’ advantage.
- There’s a concern that the offensive numbers posted by Niskanen, who was an average NHL defenseman through most of his career, were inflated as he was playing next to a Hart-winning center Sidney Crosby on the best PP unit in the league in three years.
- Niskanen was 25th in the league among players with 62+games in PDO and 17th in on-ice shooting percentage, meaning he had tremendous puck luck last season, further questioning sustainability of his offensive performance.
Projection: Six years, $5 million AAV to a team that may regret it, and soon.
Tom Gilbert, Florida
After struggling and eventually getting bought out by the Wild a year ago, Gilbert quietly had a bounce-back season in Florida, where he signed after attending their training camp as a free agent. Now, Gilbert is ready for a contract much more hefty than the $900k he made in 2013-14– and probably from a better team.
- Gilbert is well under the radar, despite being the second-best free agent in time on ice per game and recording a respectable 28 points despite getting below-average puck luck.
- He is a two-way, jack-of-all-trades type of defenseman that the Caps currently lack in their top-four.
- Like Stramlan, Gilbert isn’t a very physical player.
- There are questions which Gilbert we will see next year: the one who wallowed in Minnesota or the one who was among the best in Florida. This makes him a risky pick.
Projection: Three years, $3 million AAV to a team desperate after missing out on Ehrhoff.
There are no perfect solutions at free agency. Teams try their best to retain their top players, and all reasonably-priced candidates have significant downside to go along with the positives.
And there are more than a few teams looking for help in their top four, thus driving up prices for the top free agents. While the Caps are likely to be aggressive, they may still lose out to the GMs who will be overly aggressive.