NHL Free-Agency Rankings: Top defensemen

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com
Suter will have tons of suitors, no doubt. (Getty Images)

Once upon a time, the free-agent defenseman class didn't look that terrible for this summer. You had a few guys who were worth taking a look at like Dennis Wideman, Brad Stuart, Johnny Oduya and Barret Jackman. Not exactly the best group of blueliners you've ever seen, but not dearth of talent.

All of those guys have signed before free agency, though, thinning out the class a bit. However there is still one very big fish and a couple other nice catches to be had.

A few housekeeping notes: These rankings might differ a bit from the top 50 free agents as those were compiled by consensus while these are my personal rankings. The predictions are just that, my best guesses. I'd rather go on the limbs and look like a fool than not step on the limbs at all. Point being, have your grains of salt handy.

The feeding frenzy that is free agency opens on Sunday, July 1.

1. Ryan Suter , Nashville Predators
Age:
27
2011-12 stats:
79 games played, 7 goals, 39 assists, +15
2011-12 cap hit:
$3.5 million
Potential suitors:
Every team, but the top contenders are Detroit, Nashville, Minnesota potentially Pittsburgh and every other team in the league will hope

For more than a year now teams and fanbases across the league have been drooling at the idea of signing Suter to a contract. He's an elite defenseman in this league and should be one for many more years to come.

It's not all that often a player like him hits free agency any more, true No. 1 pairing defensemen, All-Stars and potential Norris Trophy candidates usually are locked up before the market opens. But Suter, while all along saying good things about Nashville, obviously never re-signed. He wanted to see that the Predators could win and they have been closer the last two seasons, reaching the second round of the playoffs. Apparently that wasn't enough to convince Suter that he wanted to stay in Nashville, at least without hearing what the rest of the league has to offer.

Suter is an all-around defenseman. He has a solid two-way game, which makes him all that much more valuable to teams. He doesn't score at the rate that his defensive partner in crime in Nashville Shea Weber does, but he can certainly produce and might even play a larger offensive role away from Weber. Of course, the argument could just as easily be made that without Weber, Suter doesn't look so good. We'll find out if he signs somewhere other than Nashville.

Prediction: Detroit. The Red Wings have been the favorite for a long time to sign Suter, more so than the Predators, and they're going to put the full push on him. Between Detroit's defensive needs, the money they have to spend, the tradition and Suter's reported desires to stay in the West, Detroit seems like a safe bet at this point.

2. Justin Schultz, University of Wisconsin
Age:
21
2011-12 stats:
37 games played, 16 goals, 28 assists
2011-12 cap hit:
N/A
Potential suitors:
Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Rangers

Here's what we know about Schultz: He's a highly coveted player who was pursued in some form by nearly every single team in the NHL this week, considering his unique free-agent status. He's a defenseman who comes out of college with a great track record that includes two Hobey Baker nominations and an even better scouting report. The reviews for Schultz are nothing but great.

His numbers in college are obviously pretty outstanding, too. He has clearly demonstrated that he has an offensive game from the blue line with the 44 points in 37 games this season for Wisconsin. Obviously those numbers won't translate equally to the NHL, but the point-producing potential is oozing.

Here's what we don't know about Schultz: If any of it will actually come to fruition. Most everybody thinks that he's a can't-miss prospect and don't forget he was drafted in the second round a few years back by the Ducks. But none of that guarantees that he will be the player people expect and there is certainly a potential for him to fall short and become a bust. Most teams view that possibility as remote, though.

Prediction: Vancouver. Reports have it that Schultz would prefer to play in Canada, hence four of five teams on his list being Canadian, and he is from British Columbia. If it's not Vancouver then it will likely be Edmonton, but I think the allure of home and the competitiveness of the Canucks at the moment will push him there.

3. Matt Carle , Philadelphia Flyers
Age:
27
2011-12 stats:
82 games played, 4 goals, 34 assists, +4
2011-12 cap hit:
$3.4375 million
Potential suitors:
Philadelphia, Washington, Nashville, Many more

Before free agency opens up on Sunday, it's entirely possible Carle will have re-signed with the Flyers. But the fact that he hasn't yet and some reports indicating he's already set on going to the market obviously means he's still open to moving on.

Carle hasn't received as much attention as some of the other defensemen in this class but that's mostly because people haven't really expected him to be on the move. But if he is truly listening to offers, he wouldn't be the worst fallback option in the world for teams that miss out on Suter.

Like Suter, Carle is capable of giving a team some offensive production from the back end, but not quite as much. Still, throughout his time in Philly he's routinely been a 35-plus points player. You can find players who give him a lot worse than that. He's not the world's most reliable defenseman in his own zone, though he does do a good job passing out of the defensive end.

Prediction: Philadelphia. I don't see them letting Carle get away, the Flyers have been working on the defensive corps for a while now and there aren't too many options better to them at the moment than Carle.

4. Jason Garrison , Florida Panthers
Age:
27
2011-12 stats:
77 games played, 16 goals, 17 assists, +6
2011-12 cap hit:
$675,000
Potential suitors:
Florida, Vancouver, St. Louis, Detroit

Garrison has been one of the more talked-about players in this class. Why? Because he's seen by many as a major risk. That's what happens when you have a big breakout season just before heading to free agency. The term one-hit wonder seems to pop up a lot. Maybe Garrison will be just like the Oneders. Can you commit massive money and term to a player with that much uncertainty?

Well here's the thing with Garrison. He has been playing in Florida, nobody really knew of him before this season when he was playing alongside Brian Campbell, Yes, Garrison had a breakout and a half offensively speaking with 16 goals, nine coming on the power play after never having scored one on the man advantage before. But players, especially defensemen, can't always be defined by their offensive numbers.

Consider that Garrison actually managed to put up a plus-6 for the Panthers this season. Understanding full well it's a flawed stat, he still led Florida with that mark. He was their only defenseman who played more than 15 games that was a plus player. Campbell, for example, was a minus-9. Garrison had 127 hits this season and 124 blocks. Those numbers? They were better two seasons ago with 136 hits and 127 blocks. His defense was underrated before his breakout and still is as people see the offensive output. He's not as much of a one-hit wonder as people think.

Prediction: St. Louis. With the Canucks my pick to get Schultz that pretty much takes them out of the running and the Panthers don't seem to be willing to pay a very high price that is likely to be around $5 million or maybe more per year for Garrison. The Blues reportedly have plenty of interest and I'm expecting them to swoop in and grab Garrison.

5. Bryan Allen , Carolina Hurricanes
Age:
31
2011-12 stats:
82 games played, 1 goals, 13 assists, -1
2011-12 cap hit:
$2.9 million
Potential suitors:
Carolina, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay

Here we have a player who is much more of your true defenseman. If you don't believe me, just take a look at Allen's smile. OK, so a lot of hockey players are missing teeth, but trust me, Allen is more your stay-at-home type.

The Hurricanes elected not to trade Allen at the deadline and now here he is about to get away. It's not as if he's the biggest and best defenseman they've ever had, but he has value. He is tough, especially on the penalty kill, and does a good job shutting down the top players on the other side when on the ice with them. He is pretty fearless in his own zone as well as tenacious.

Since he missed all but two games of the 2008-09 season, Allen has been pretty dependable. In each of the last three seasons he has exceeded 70 games played and when you're looking to commit to a player in free agency, you like to know that he's going to actually be able to play.

Prediction: While my brain thinks that he still returns to Carolina, I'm going to go with the gut which tells me he will continue touring the Southeast Division and join the Lightning. The Bolts have been trying to shore up the defense for a while and have brought in plenty of bodies to do it, but Allen might be better than the others they have brought in.

Next five

6. Filip Kuba
7. Sheldon Souray
8. Michal Rozsival
9. Jaroslav Spacek
10. Sami Salo

More from Eye on Hockey

NHL Free-Agency Rankings: Top Goalies
NHL Free-Agency Rankings: Top Forwards

For more hockey news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnHockey and @BrianStubitsNHL on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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