Like left-handed pitchers in baseball, right-handed defenseman are always in demand on the NHL’s free agent market. And the short supply means teams must pony up.
A tidal wave of inevitability followed Matt Niskanen into free agency last summer. It seemed the entire hockey universe knew he played over his head in 2013-14, when he obliterated career highs with 10 goals and 46 points. Niskanen did so at 27 in his seventh NHL season. Everything about the performance screamed outlier. Yet none of the red flags mattered. Niskanen was going to get paid, enough to price him right out of Pittsburgh. After all, he was a right-shot, unrestricted free agent defenseman, which is hockey’s equivalent of a left-handed starting pitcher. The low supply and high demand drive up the market value. Niskanen cashed in with a seven-year deal paying him $5.75 million per. Not bad for a guy who’d eclipsed seven goals and 35 points once before. In order to quantify the NHL’s thirst for righty D-men, we compiled the cap hits of every NHL defenseman’s contract active through the end of 2014-15. We excluded entry level deals but not players who lost time to injury (unless they were on Long Term Injured Reserve at the time), as what mattered was how each player was valued the day he signed his deal. We counted 138 left-shot defensemen and 88 right-shot defensemen, for 226 altogether on active rosters. Righties make up just 38.9 percent of rearguards, hence the high demand.
At face value the right-shots don’t have a massive monetary advantage. Their average cap hit is $2,704,329 versus $2,663,485 for lefties. The difference couldn’t buy you a luxury sedan. But as the chart below reveals, the righties attract more mega deals, whether they’re UFAs like Niskanen and James Wisniewski or restricted free agents like P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson. Eleven blueliners average $6 million or more, and seven are right-shots, accounting for 63.6 percent. That’s a disproportionate number considering 61.1 percent of D-men are lefties. Only 11 percent of left shots make $5 million or more annually versus 17.0 percent of right shots. So not only do the top right-handed shooters get paid the big bucks more often, the above-average ones are more frequently overpaid. And who’s the biggest fish in a relatively small free agent pond this summer? Mike Green, a right-shot defenseman. He’s a strong bet to take home the summer’s biggest cap hit, followed closely by Cody Franson and Jeff Petry, who already signed a six-year contract worth $33 million with Montreal. Can you guess which way those two D-men shoot?
This story appeared in June 22 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get features like this one, and much more, delivered to your door all year long by subscribing now.