The market for defensemen eligible to become unrestricted free agents July 1 has looked thin on paper since the end of the season. It became even thinner when Andrei Markov was taken off the board earlier this week by signing a new three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens.
However, teams shopping for defensemen should still be able to find a few gems, a couple of first-time UFAs still on the right side of 30 and several veterans who could fill in depth roles and play valuable minutes next season.
Matt Niskanen headlines the gems and likely will get a big payday based on how he played last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Anton Stralman could rival Niskanen for value if he continues to play the way he did for the New York Rangers this season.
Here are the top nine defensemen who can become UFAs on July 1:
Note: The terms listed in their last contract are from CapGeek.com
Signed with: New York Rangers, 2 years
Last contract: 6 years, $40 million (signed with Sharks)
The Islanders gave up a fifth-round draft pick to acquire Boyle's exclusive negotiating rights, but the veteran defenseman seems intent on going to the market on July 1. The Islanders may still try to move him to recoup the draft pick before the signing period opens.
Boyle, who turns 38 on July 12, had 36 points in 75 games with the Sharks this past season, but it was his least productive full season since he had 22 points in 69 games with the Florida Panthers in 2000-01.
At this stage of his career, Boyle would be a good fit as a middle-pair, right-side defenseman on a contending team. He was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup-winning team in 2004 and won an Olympic gold medal in 2010 with Canada. He still moves well, although not like he used to.
Signed with: Washington Capitals, 7 years
Previous team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Last contract: 2 years, $4.6 million
Niskanen might get the biggest raise among all potential UFA defensemen based off the season he just had and the fact he is 27.
He had career-high numbers almost across the board with 81 games played, 10 goals, 36 assists, 46 points, a plus-33 rating, six game-winning goals and 162 shots on goal. He also had the best Corsi-for rating among all Pittsburgh defensemen (53.4).
Teams could get into a bidding war for Niskanen, driving his price up. However, he isn't a sure thing. Niskanen has not proven to be a top defenseman year after year. In fact, he started this season as a No. 5 in Pittsburgh. He is hitting the market at the perfect time, though.
If Niskanen leaves the Penguins, look for Simon Despres to take his spot in the top six. Despres never excelled under former coach Dan Bylsma, but he is a puck-mover with offensive skills who can become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Previous team: Buffalo Sabres
Last contract: 10 years, $40 million
Ehrhoff was bought out by the Sabres on Sunday and could draw interest from several teams who believe he can regain his form as he turns 32 (July 6). He never really thrived in Buffalo and was a minus-27 last season. Prior to leaving the Vancouver Canucks, he had 94 points (28 goals; 12 power-play) and was a plus-55 in two seasons.
The Detroit Red Wings could have an interest, but they are looking for a right-handed shot and Ehrhoff is left-handed. He reportedly was paid more than half of his $40 million contract in its first three seasons, so he might be willing to play for a contender without breaking the bank again.
Signed with: Washington Capitals, 5 years
Previous team: Pittsburgh Penguins
Last contract: 6 years, $22.5 million
The other potential UFA defenseman who could be on his way out of Pittsburgh is likely looking at one more big payday.
Orpik was the longest-tenured member of the Penguins this season. He was a first-round pick in 2000 (No. 18) and has played 703 games with the club.
However, Orpik might have played his final game as a Penguin because in addition to Despres, the team has several young defensemen who might be NHL-ready, including Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot and Scott Harrington.
Signed with: Tampa Bay Lightning, 5 years
Previous team: New York Rangers
Last contract: 2 years, $3.4 million
Stralman had a team-best 56.5 Corsi-for rating in the regular season. He was arguably New York's most consistent defenseman from start to finish in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when you consider how much Ryan McDonagh struggled in the first 11 games.
He has a lot going for him as a 27-year-old, steady, reliable, right-handed, second-pair defenseman.
The Rangers would like to keep Stralman, but they might have to pass because of an excess of free agents, including Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore. Two other key players, Marc Staal and Derek Stepan, have one year left on their current contracts.
Signed with: Florida Panthers, 2 years
Previous team: Los Angeles Kings
Last contract: 2 years, $7 million
The signing of forward Marian Gaborik took up a chunk of general manager Dean Lombardi's remaining room under the salary cap. The Kings already have five veteran defensemen under contract, and barring a last-minute move, Mitchell looks like he'll have to play somewhere else if he hopes to continue his career.
McNabb is a likely candidate for a promotion. Another possibility is Derek Forbort, who signed in April after completing his junior season at the University of North Dakota.
Signed with: Toronto Maple Leafs, 3 years
Previous team: Anaheim Ducks
Last contract: 4 years, $13.2 million (signed with Dallas Stars)
Robidas had some hard luck this season, but in between injuries he showed he can still be an effective defenseman who can play 20 minutes per night. However, he might be better suited for a smaller role on a contending team, playing 16-18 minutes a game.
Robidas broke his leg during the Ducks' first-round series against the Dallas Stars. He broke the same leg on Nov. 29 when he was playing for Dallas. He didn't return until March 18, after he had been traded to Anaheim.
The Ducks acquired him hoping he'd be the final piece to their blue-line puzzle. It didn't work out for them, but it could for another contending team. Provided the leg fully heals, Robidas is still a capable defenseman worth signing to a one-year contract.
Previous team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Last contract: 2 years, $7.5 million
Salo is in a tough spot. He'll be 40 when the 2014-15 season opens. He doesn't move as well as he used to. His best hockey is clearly behind him. But he can still play and contribute on a contending team.
Salo had 17 points and a plus-11 rating in 71 games with the Lightning this season. He averaged 18:11 of ice time per game and had a 52.0 Corsi-for rating. He was reliable on the back end and helped drive possession for a team that was No. 10 in Corsi (51.5).
Previous team: Calgary Flames
Last contract: 1 year, $1.7 million
Butler might be the ideal candidate for a young team looking to fill out its defensive corps. He's at the right age and figures to come at the right price. There would be no pressure to slot him into a top-pair role. He can fit in on the second pair, but he might be at his best in a third-pair role.
He was minus-23 this past season, but that's a misleading number considering the Flames had problems in goal and were 24th in goals-against at 2.90 per game. The more concerning number is Butler's 42.8 Corsi-for rating, down from 44.1 in 2012-13.
Those numbers are not all Butler's fault. The Flames as a whole had a bad rating (45.8, 27th in the NHL). Butler's possession numbers might rise if he plays on a better team, but he risks being the odd man out if he signs with a contender.
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