A look at potential free agent defensemen for the Caps to target
New Caps GM Brian MacLellan is on record saying that he will be more likely to upgrade the Caps through trade than free-agency this off-season. While the class of pending free agents certainly isn’t spectacular, there are still some players who the Caps should take a look at, especially if the trade market doesn’t pan out in the manner MacLellan seemed to indicate he hopes it will.
I had a long paragraph here about why the Caps need to acquire a top-4 defender, but I figured I’d save you the time of reading it since we all know it’s true.
(If you are unfamiliar with the stats below, there are a few places where you can read up on them. One is Extra Skater, which is where the stats for this article were pulled from. Fenwick Close % (FenClose) is the one used the most heavily. Before dismissing Fenclose as too nerdy, consider that the league leader in FenClose for the 2013-14 regular season season was the LA Kings. Here is a chart of how well the best regular season FenClose teams since 2007-08 have fared in the playoffs. For the more curious reader, go here or here to see how FenClose has been shown to be an excellent predictor of a team’s future success.)
There are conflicting reports as to whether Anton Stralman(1 goal, 12 assists, 19:25 TOI/G in 2013-14) turned down a 3 year-$9 million deal, but nonetheless, he is a pending free agent at the end of the year. Stralman is not a guy who will satisfy the crowd that want the Caps to bring in a hard-nosed defender, but he will satisfy the crowd that wants the Caps to possess the puck more than their opponents. Stralman’s FenClose has risen steadily over the past 3 seasons, from 48.4 to a monstrous 55.7, and continuing to rise to 58.3 this past season. The 58.3 was good for 3rd among all NHL defensemen. Stralman was also 3rd in the NHL in FenClose rel, which measures a player’s FenClose relative to his teammates. According to QoC TOI, Stralman faced the 4th toughest competition among the 7 defenders who appeared in more than half of the Rangers games this past season. Stralman also ranked 4th in defensive zone starts (the amount of Stralman’s shifts that started in the defensive zone) among those 7 D.
Of the Caps D who played 54 games or more this past season, Stralman would easily rank 1st in FenClose. Stralman’s QoC TOI would fall 3rd, behind only Alzner and Carlson and his zone starts would be 4th among qualifying D, behind Alzner, Carlson, and Orlov. (This article was drafted at the end of the regular season. With the Rangers deep playoff run, Stralman’s price, while hopefully still in a range that makes sense for the Caps, will be higher than it would have been.)
Unlike Stralman above, Matt Greene (2g, 4a, 15:52 TOI/G) would satisfy those who want to see the Caps add more “toughness” on the blue line. Greene played in 82 games 3 years ago, posting a FenClose of 55.4. Greene’s 2012-13 numbers aren’t really worth discussing because, due to injury, he only appeared in 5 games during the lockout shortened season. Staying on the ice was again a concern for Greene in 2013-14, but he posted a glowing FenClose of 60.7% in 38 games. In the limited time Greene saw this year, his QoC TOI ranked 6th out of the 7 Kings defenders who played in at least as many games as him. He finished 5th among the same 7 Kings defenders the percentage of shifts he started in the defensive zone. Greene has been a bit injury-prone and has, at times, fallen out of the top-6 on the Kings depth chart. However, a healthy Matt Greene would certainly help a much shallower blue line here in Washington.
Greene’s FenClose would rank 1st among Caps defenders who played at least as many games as him (38) this past season. If you compare Greene to John Erskine (since they 1) played a similar amount of games and 2) are both thought of as “tough”), who played one less game than Greene this year (37), Erskine had a FenClose of 45.1, compared to Greene’s already mentioned 60.7. However, the Kings are a much better possession team than the Caps, so looking at how each fared in relation to their teammates would be a better comparison. Erskine’s 45.1 is 6.7% lower than the Caps FenClose when he was not on the ice. The Kings FenClose was improved by 4.3% when Greene was on the ice. They faced the same level of competition (27.7) in terms of QoC TOI. Greene’s zone starts also weren’t particularly tough, with only 27.7% of them starting in the defensive zone. This is not to say that simply because a player compares favorably to Erskine that he should be targeted by the Caps, but Greene was not just a little better than Erskine (and the majority of the Caps blue line), he was significantly better. He comes with injury risk but that, combined with being a bit buried on the Kings depth chart, could help get him at a cheaper price.
Kyle Quincey (4g, 9A, 20:48 TOI/G) is 28 years old, and is headed for free agency after playing for Detroit since being traded there during the 2011-12 season. Quincey, like Stralman, is not the tough-nosed, hard-hitting, no-nonsense type defender that many Caps fans have long-called for, but the Caps could do (and have done) much worse than to give a player like Quincey 20 minutes per game. Quincey is a quick, puck-moving defender who boasts solid possession numbers over the past few seasons. His FenClose over the last 3 seasons has been 51.7, 57.2, and 50.2, respectively. This past season, Quincey faced the 4th toughest Qoc TOI of the 7 Red Wings defenders who played 48 games or more. Of these 7 defenders, Quincey started the highest percentage of shifts in the defensive zone.
Of the Caps D who played 54 games or more this past season, Quincey’s FenClose woulds rank third, behind only Green and Orlov. In terms of QoC TOI, Quincey played tougher minutes than any Caps defender not named Alzner or Carlson while his zone starts would fall 4th behind Alzner, Carlson, and Orlov amongst Caps D who played 54 games or more.
All three of these players likely benefit from playing on teams with more defensive depth than the Caps, and therefore would almost certainly draw tougher assignments if they came to Washington. However, I still think the numbers above suggest that any one of these three players could strengthen the Caps defense and, obviously depending on the cost, should be considered when free agency opens.