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Behind The Numbers

Overlooked free agent defensemen offer value

Christian Ehrhoff, Barret Jackman among those who deserve another chance

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Now that most NHL teams have settled on their top four defensemen for this season, it's a good time to shore up depth at the position with experienced, cost-effective free agents.

Coming off an injury or a disappointing season, there are some overlooked veterans who can provide valuable depth at a discount and deserve one more chance to be part of an NHL organization.

Though the mainstream focus is on more prominent free agents Kris Russell and Kyle Quincey, keep an eye on the following four veterans who have the proven ability to contribute, whether killing penalties, providing secondary scoring or helping to develop younger teammates.

Christian Ehrhoff

Ehrhoff, 34, struggled after signing a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 23, 2015. He was pushed down the depth chart and was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Rob Scuderi on Feb. 26.

Video: PIT@LAK: Ehrhoff snaps puck over Fleury's shoulder

Ehrhoff may gain momentum from playing for Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. 

In his prime, Ehrhoff finished in the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting in 2009-10 and 2010-11 with the Vancouver Canucks. In the right situation, he can shore up the power play and could match the 33 points he had in 79 games with the Buffalo Sabres in 2013-14. 

He is responsible defensively, and his team's share of shot attempts has improved from 48.3 percent to 50.9 percent when he has been on the ice during the six seasons such data has been recorded.

Barret Jackman

At 35 years old, Jackman's best years are behind him, but he can add grit and experience to a defense and shore up the penalty kill.

Jackman won the Calder Trophy in 2002-03 and spent most of the next 11 seasons as the top shutdown defenseman for the St. Louis Blues. Never an offensive-minded player, Jackman had an NHL career high 27 points for the Blues in 2006-07, and five points in 73 games last season for the Nashville Predators.

Jackman effectively transitioned into more of a secondary role with the Predators and helped develop their younger players. He played with Seth Jones prior to Jones being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen on Jan. 6, after which Jackman was paired with Anthony Bitetto or Ryan Ellis.

The Predators had more shot attempts that their opponents (902-722) when Jackman was on the ice, increasing their share of shot attempts from 51.5 percent to 55.5 percent. 

Despite this success, Jackman's average ice time was cut to 12:58 at even-strength and 0:50 shorthanded, and his contract was bought out June 30 with one season remaining at $2 million.

James Wisniewski

Having missed all but the first 47 seconds of last season with the Carolina Hurricanes because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, it's easy for Wisniewski, 32, to get overlooked in free agency. He could be the ideal veteran presence in the bottom half of a young defense, especially for teams looking for a defenseman with a right-handed shot.

Wisniewski's primary contribution would be to provide secondary scoring. His NHL career high is 51 points in 2010-11 with the New York Islanders and the Montreal Canadiens (10 goals, 41 assists), and then matched with the Blue Jackets (seven goals, 44 assists) in 2013-14. He followed that with 34 points (eight goals, 26 assists) in 69 games with the Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks in 2014-15.

More than a scoring threat, Wisniewski can be effective on the penalty kill, where he has averaged 1:52 of ice time per game during the past three seasons. 

His strong shot-based metrics suggest he can help drive possession. During the past three seasons combined, his team's share of all shot attempts increased from 48.4 percent to 51.8 percent when Wisniewski was on the ice. The resulting Relative SAT of plus-3.4 percent ranks in the top 20 defensemen who have played at least 100 games during that span. 

Marek Zidlicky

For teams searching for a veteran right-handed shot to work with the man-advantage, Marek Zidlicky is an alternative to Wisniewski.

Video: DET@NYI: Zidlicky beats Howard with a backhander

More of a purely offensive weapon, Zidlicky, 39, spent last season with the Islanders, where he mostly played with Thomas Hickey or Brian Strait. In and out of the lineup, and with his average ice time per game cut to 13:39 at even-strength, Zidlicky had 16 points in 53 games, the lowest total of his 12-season NHL career.

From 2012-13 through 2014-15, Zidlicky had a combined 95 points (23 goals, 72 assists) in 213 games, which tied Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers for 27th among defensemen during that span. That's why Zidlicky conceivably could have 30 points in the right situation this season.

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