While their long standing coach, Jacques Lemaire stepped down and their GM, Doug Risebrough, was fire, the Minnesota Wild have had a tradition of excellent defensive play. So when I saw that they have three UFA regular defensemen available, my first thought was, "One of these guys must be really good."
Unfortunately, that is not clearly the case as the three UFA defensemen weren't even in Minnesota's top four this past season. There is talent among Martin Skoula, Kuris Foster, and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Yet, they may be seen as attractive options since they haven't earned a whole lot of money according to NHL Numbers, they are all currently under 30, and two of them have various skills that could be harnessed as a benefit for the Devils.
Let's consider the eldest of the three first, Martin Skoula. A man known in some circles for his puck poise (those same circles suggest that Taylor Pyatt is slow), Skoula definitely has an edge in experience - he won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001.
#41 / Defenseman / Minnesota Wild
Oct 28, 1979
2008-09 Salary: $1.9 million
|2008 - Martin Skoula||81||4||12||16||-12||10||0||0||0||0||55||7.3|
The word on Skoula is that he's a two-way defenseman. He's got good size, he has remained healthy throughout his career, and he takes very few penalties. He played 19:57/game on average last season, so the minutes justify a top 4 position as stated by his report. Yet, there's not a whole lot to like about Skoula beyond all that.
For starters, that same scouting report notes his weaknesses include "Still gets himself caught out of position too often, or makes the wrong play at the wrong time." If it's so noticible that it's in a scouting report, that's bad. Furthermore, Skoula hasn't put up more than 20 points in a season since 2005-06, so I question whether he can really produce (and before you say it's a result of him being on Minnesota, read on for Bergeron and Foster).
His even strength numbers at Behind the Net provide evidence against him being a productive two-way defenseman. When he's on the ice, the goals for per 60 minutes drop from an already-low 2.15 to an even worse 1.93. Shots for per 60 minutes drop from 24.5 to 23.6 when Skoula hits the ice. Yes, the shots against per 60 minutes do fall from 28 to 27.2 when Skoula is out there; yet the goals against per 60 minutes rise from 2.01 to 2.61. All this for someone who isn't facing the best opposition, the quality of competition for Skoula is fourth among regular defensmen. These numbers are not really endearing me to the idea of Skoula as a Devil, admittedly.
Most of all, though, is the opinion of the Wild faithful who had seen Skoula all season. At Hockey Wilderness, when Nathan questioned whether Marek Zidlicky was their worst defenseman, it was revealed that worst relative +/- belonged to Skoula - along with an agreement that Skoula was poor. This sentiment returned when buddhafisch evaluated whether or not Skoula should be re-signed, the answer was essentially a "hell no."
Other than the fact that Skoula may be had for $2.5 million for less, I don't see any real reason why the Devils should make a move to sign him. Maybe if no one else is left who can play 18-20 minutes a night, though I'm sure Wild fans would argue that he can't really do that anyway. He's about to turn 30 this season, so it's not as if there would be any expectation he should get better.
The Wild fans, especially buddhafisch also had a poor opinion of Marc-Andre Bergeron. However, there's a big reason why he's should definitely be considered.
#47 / Defenseman / Minnesota Wild
Oct 13, 1980
2008-09 Salary: $1.691 million
|2008 - Marc-Andre Bergeron||72||14||18||32||5||30||7||0||3||0||140||10.0|
First, the criticism. As buddhafisch points out, Bergeron strength is not on defense. He doesn't play on the penalty kill, he's not big, and he's not physical. The fact that Bergeron got 16:54 of ice time on average per game last season suggest he was mainly used for the power play and limited even strength minutes. This claim is backed up at Behind the Net, where he had lowest time on ice per 60 on even strength situations at 12.06. The scouting report at his player page even notes that his small size holds him back.
OK. That's the bad side. Here's the good one: he's an offensive defenseman who probably won't cost $3+ million.
Look at his numbers in the past season. Even with limited minutes, he put up 140 shots, 14 goals, 7 on the power play, and 32 points. Those are superior numbers to all the Devils defensemen in this past season, except in points - Paul Martin had 33. And these aren't recent numbers, even in seasons cut short due to injuries and call ups, Bergeron has a history of putting up points from the blueline. That's definitely a plus. A plus with an exclamation mark when you consider he was the only defenseman to score more than 10 goals and not average more than 17 minutes a night.
According to Behind the Net, the guy has positive numbers in even strength play so it's not all happening on the power play. In terms of goals for per 60 minutes, it rose from 2.11 to 2.44 when Bergeron is out there; and the shots for per 60 massively increase from 22.6 to 29.2 when Bergeron is out there. His CORSI of 6.7 is by far the highest among the Wild defensemen. All this on a team that scored only an average of 2.61 goals per game, 22nd in the league. And he only got paid $1.691 million for this.
Oh, by the way, despite his questionable defense, the shots against per 60 dropped from 27.7 to 26.7 when Bergeron is on the ice. Not a big drop, but still a positive value on even strength situations.
There are two questions the Devils will have to answer in considering Marc-Andre Bergeron. The first is whether his defensive problems can be improved. The second is whether the Devils are the team to do it. Do I think Bergeron can replace Mike Mottau right now? Due to those defensive issues, I can't confidently say yes. But Mottau was a marginal NHL player who eventually worked his way onto top 4 with Colin White. The possibilty of improvement for the soon-to-be-29 year old defenseman is there, depending on the types of issues. Would he provide more use on a third pairing than Andy Greene or Jay Leach right now? I think so, and given the Devils' style, he can remain "protected" as it were.
If buddhafisch's thought that Bergeron won't command a lot of money (he said $1.5, I can see it being $2 million) holds up, then the Devils should at least seriously consider the player. He fills the need for points, he won't cost so much so cap space will still be there for Oduya and others, and if there's one team that can help a defenseman improve their game in their own zone, it's New Jersey. I'm not saying he's a definite pick-up, but he's definitely worth interest.
The third player is someone like Bergeron but in a bigger body, a little younger, and one gigantic red flag. The Wild fans may want him to stay, but it's all up to Kurtis Foster.
#26 / Defenseman / Minnesota Wild
Nov 24, 1981
2008-09 Salary: $1.025 million
|2008 - Kurtis Foster||10||1||5||6||7||6||0||0||0||0||10||10.0|
The word on him is that he's a two-way defenseman with potential. Foster will be turning 28 in this coming season I can't really use Behind the Net for this past season so it's a little tough to get some numbers. Though, I question whether he could step into the top 4 as his average ice time as a member of the Wild has dropped with every season. Yet, you cannot deny his size or the fact that he shoots quite a bit. He doesn't have Bergeron-like numbers, but he tends to put up at least 100 shots a season when he's healthy. So he would fit the need for a more offensive presence on the blueline.
And that's the big problem. Even when he's "healthy," he's not really. Forget about playing a full season, Foster has yet to play more than 60 games in a season. I understand he was called up initially from Houston as a member of the Wild in 2005-06. But the man has a laundry list of injuries at his player page and he's not even 30 yet! He's had prior injuries to each of his legs at separate times, a broken finger, and multiple injuries to the head and face. It's no wonder the Wild keep signing him to only one year deals, they can't risk committing money long term to Foster for his health.
The scouting report and what buddahfisch stated about Foster is that he has the potential of being a very good defenseman, yet one cannot become a good player unless he actually plays. He has the size, but he does not hit all that much - his career high in hits is 60. He has not earned more than 30 points in a season like Bergeron has. He has played an average of more than 18 minutes in a season once and that was back in 2005-06. He may have the potential, but at age 27, I feel that time is running short on hitting that potential and a third pairing player may be what he ends up as.
Foster made just over a million last year, I don't see him getting much more than that for next season for the longevity reasons alone. Maybe Foster would have more hits, more goals, more points, and more accolades if he can play 70+ games in a season. If he can do that, he'll be a bargain for whoever signs him. I don't think it should be New Jersey unless they are prepared for the risk that he's not going to be available for a significant portion of the season.
While neither of the three stick out as "must-sign" players, among the three, I think Bergeron would be the best choice. While the potential and size favors Foster, the Devils really could use a more offensively skilled player on the blueline and Bergeron has that skill and has proven that he can use it effectively. I'd rather have the Devils risk having to teach Bergeron to be better defense than risk having money committed to a Foster, who has a long history of being on the IR, and helping him try to reach this "potential" he has. I wouldn't recommend a long term deal, but I would be fine with the Devils picking up Bergeron for $1.8-2 million - especially if they can keep Oduya at the same time.
Have your say in the comments on the three Wild free agent defensemen. Do you agree that Bergeron would be a good choice; or would you rather have Foster? Perhaps you think the Devils should all three and spend their money elsewhere? By the way, I'm starting to run low on defensemen to review; so feel free to suggest any UFAs I haven't covered so far. Otherwise, this feature will likely end by next week - moving onto centers (I'm not even looking at wings unless you all really want me to do so.)