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The NHL’s top free agents: Defencemen

Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews controls the puck in front of San Jose Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

No Andrei Markov. No Kimmo Timonen.

Or Marek Zidlicky or Ron Hainsey or Matt Greene.

They're hardly the biggest of names, but when you subtract them from the already thin free agent crop on defence there's really not a whole lot left.

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Those five blueliners were all re-signed in the last few days by their former teams to contracts of various sizes, forgoing the potential big money on July 1 for the certainty of a contract now.

That leaves NHL teams searching for help on the back end likely to be stuck in a bidding war for the few top-four options still out there, which means some of these contracts will be talked about for years to come.

And probably not in a good way.

Here's a look at the best of the rest:

1. Matt Niskanen: It was a breakout year for the 27-year-old in Pittsburgh, as with Kris Letang out for long stretches, he logged 21 minutes a night and put up 46 points, both highs among available D this off-season. Colorado could be one fit here, but the reality is his asking price is going to skyrocket: If Nikita Nikitin is getting $4.5-million in this market, Niskanen's looking at $6-million plus and plenty of term.

2. Dan Boyle: Part of the Sharks housecleaning, Boyle still has some game left, but teams are going to have to be wary of his age (he turns 38 shortly after free agency opens) and price tag (mainly on the term side). Boyle's a right shot that can quarterback a power play so some contending team is going to be interested.

3. Tom Gilbert: Left on the free agent bargain heap last season before eventually signing in Florida for just $900,000, Gilbert is due a raise after helping anchor the Panthers top pairing all season. There aren't many solid possession D available for what he'll cost, and his work very well may be overlooked given how much Florida struggled to win games.

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4. Anton Stralman: One of the playoffs big time beneficiaries when it comes to July 1. GMs around the league saw Stralman could play top four minutes on a contending team given that's what he did with the Rangers, pairing with Marc Staal to shutdown Sidney Crosby and other top lines. Not much of a point producer, Stralman is a smooth skating puck mover and after all the uncertainty in his career, he's looking for security. Could be a shocking number here.

5. Willie Mitchell: Battled injuries in the postseason but settled into a top four role on the Stanley Cup champs for the second time in three years, which has to get the attention of teams desperate for experience on the back end. Hugely popular around the league, Mitchell would be a great fit for a team looking for depth in the short term.

6. Kyle Quincey: Was forced into big minutes as the Wings suffered plenty of injuries all year and kept his head above water for the most part. Nothing too exciting here but it's worth noting Ken Holland gave up a first-rounder for him just two years ago. Still only 28 so a bounce back is possible.

7. Mark Fayne: Here's one name those in the analytics community are intrigued by. Yes, Fayne played with the Devils, a ridiculously good shot suppression team, but he's basically a complete unknown with a 55 per cent possession rating who can log big minute killing penalties and in his own zone. On a day when there won't be a lot of value buys, Fayne could be one.

8. Andre Benoit: One of the leaders on the Avs no-name defence core, the undrafted 30-year-old logged 20 minutes a night on a team that won a pile of one-goal games. Colorado also used him plenty on both special teams so he may well have some value, especially as a third-pairing option.

9. Stephane Robidas: Getting up there in years and battling plenty of devastating injuries, Robidas remains highly capable of playing on a second pair on a good team, provided his health holds up. A bonus-laden 35-plus contract may be the best way to go here.

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10. Mike Weaver: He was a revelation when he landed in Montreal at the trade deadline but probably shouldn't be: Weaver's been quietly playing effective defensive minutes for years, albeit in obscurity in Florida. A good penalty killer and shot blocker, he doesn't mind eating defensive zone starts and doing a lot of the little things that help a team keep the puck out of its end.

Honourable mentions: Christian Ehrhoff (*added to list after buyout), Chris Butler, Brooks Orpik, Derek Morris, Henrik Tallinder, Sami Salo, Andrej Meszaros, Scott Hannan, Francis Bouillon, Paul Ranger, Brett Bellemore

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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