With the news that Kevin Bieksa has re-signed in Vancouver, one of the hottest UFA prospects dropped off the market, making the issues for Scott Howson that much more complex as he attempts to remake the Blue Jackets' defensive corps.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean he was the only option available - we've got a look at more UFA d-men who would provide a welcome improvement in skill on the Jackets' blue line: New Jersey's Andy Greene, Phoenix's Ed Jovanovski, and San Jose's Ian White.
The Case For Greene:
Breaking into the NHL in the 2006-2007 season, Andy Greene started slow, posting only 25 points in his first three seasons in New Jersey, then the 28 year old caught fire in 2009-2010, scoring 6 goals and 31 assists in 78 games in the regular season, and a goal and an assist in five playoff games. This past season he took a slight step back with 4 goals and 19 assists (and his first ever negative +/- rating at the NHL level), but it's worth considering just how wretched New Jersey was for much of this season, and how that likely affected his production. He also lead all New Jersey defensemen in PP time on ice, and was second only to Henrik Tallinder in even strength and shorthanded TOI. In his career, he's put up 8 goals and 20 assists with the man advantage, and averages .053 scoring percentage out of 288 shots on goal. Weighing in at 5' 11" and 195, he's a -12 for his career, but the bulk of that occurred this season, while coming off a 2 year $725,000 deal. An undrafted player who was signed by the Devils out of the NCAA, he's a product of Miami of Ohio, where he played from 2002-2006.
A very mobile defenseman, Greene has a lot of skill in his passing game, and has a great touch with that critical "first pass" out of the zone. Though he's a bit undersized compared to some of his peers, he's hard to take off the puck and shows a lot of poise, defensively. He's got some good offensive gifts, but much of last season he seemed to have trouble getting the puck to the net. The guys at In Lou We Trust did an entire series wondering if the Devils can replace Greene from within, and their evaluation suggests that they might fill in his defense, but his offense is going to be hard for them to part with, and he's been a big part of their PK.
So, in that case, why are we talking about him? Because New Jersey is hard up against the cap thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk, and there's indications that Lou Lamoriello simply cannot spare the cash. In fact, a report from NJ Devils Beat write Tom Gulitti indicates the two sides aren't talking. That's a nice opportunity for Scott Howson.
At this point, it seems near certain that Greene will hit the open market, and he's exactly the kind of defenseman Howson appears to be looking for - good on and off the puck, able to eat minutes, a strong puck mover, and able to put up a lot of points when things go right. On the other hand, a lot of other teams are going to be wanting the same thing. Greene is certainly due a raise, and the bidding could easily go into the $2-3 million per year range. The question is if Greene will consider coming back to Ohio, and if Scott Howson can offer a package that puts Columbus ahead of teams like San Jose, Florida, and Detroit.
The Case for Jovanovski
One of the older defensemen available this offseason, Jovanovski is an old dog, but one with a pretty good selection of tricks. Drafted first overall in 1994 by the Florida Panthers, he put in four seasons in South Florida before heading to Vancouver from 1999-2000 until 2006-2007, when he signed with the Phoenix Coyotes. He broke the 50 point line once, in 2008-2009, but he's had three 40+ point seasons in Vancouver and four 30+ point seasons in the last six years.
Missing 30 games to injury this season, his numbers suffered accordingly, only putting up 5 goals and four assists, but he has 133 career goals and 348 career assists (and over a third of those - 56/145 - on the power play). Averaging 20 minutes a game, he's an imposing 6'2, 220" and a left handed shot, coming off a 5 year $32,500,000 deal.
"Jovo-cop" is one of those guys who always seems to know where to go. A naturally gifted PPQB, aggressive and happy to deliver punishing hits with his size, he's been a stalwart member of some very good blue line corps, and meshed very naturally with Dave Tippett's systems in Phoenix. On the other hand, he's getting older, and though he's been a fixture of Phoenix's PK and Power Play units, he's been losing his step and has been beaten in some nasty odd man rushes - you may recall this one.
If Jovanovski had been available two years ago, I'd say that this signing was a no-brainer. Veteran leadership and scoring ability? Why not. But with his numbers on the decline, it's a bit trickier - it seems likely that Jovanovski is looking for one last deal that will, finally, put a cup ring on his finger, and I don't think Columbus is going to be high on his choice of destinations for that. Also, Scott Howson has said he's done with putting veterans in the room just to provide leadership - I think that Jovanovski could be a great mentor for a team, but I'm not sure Columbus is the right one.
One would think that Jovanovski will be taking a pay cut, given that teams will be very hesitant to provide big money to a player over the age of 35 under the current CBA. If Jovanovski can come out of this past season and rebound to form, great, but I don't think Scott Howson would be knocking on his door unless he strikes out on other options. Even with a pay cut he's still likely looking for 4-5 million a year, and I think that's a bit too rich for our blood.
The Case For White:
27 years old, Ian White is a journeyman puck mover who has gone from Toronto to Calgary to Carolina to San Jose over the past three seasons. Regarded as a bit undersized at 5'10 190 lb, the 2002 6th round pick has been a fairly reliable option to get you 20+ points, and was having a breakthrough season with Toronto in 2009-10 before being traded to Calgary as part of the Dion Phaneuf deal. This year, in addition to 4 goals and 22 assists in the regular season, White delivered a goal and 8 assists during San Jose's playoff run. Playing around 20 minutes a night, White tended to be used more in 5 on 5 and PK situations than the power play, but he still has a .048 scoring percentage when he unloads his shot. White was previously on a three year, 2.5 million dollar deal before selecting for Salary Arbitration last season, where he was awarded a 1 year, 2.9 million dollar deal.
White was one of the more in-demand blueliners at the deadline, with several teams interested in his services because of his mobility and skilled passing. The guys at OTF, in particular, were very high on him. Calgary used him as a PPQB after he arrived to replace Dion Phaneuf, but his success was mixed - he did have 4 goals and 8 assists in his first 27 games, but only one goal and three assists came with the man advantage, and he only had 1 goal and two assists on the man advantage this season before being shipped to Carolina. A +18 in his career despite all the hops, he's solid defensively and willing to throw hits and get physical in board battles despite his "undersized" frame. Oh, hey, and he's a right handed shot.
White clearly has a lot of puck moving skill, and he has a reputation for being a fairly firey guy on the ice, but you have to wonder if his various moves around the NHL are a sign of some possible attitude problems, and how he'd mesh with the room. He's a fast skater, and seems like he'd be a great fit in the Arniel system, but we need to make sure he'll fit into the changing culture of the Columbus locker room.
White had said at the end of the season that he'd like to stay in San Jose, but the acquisition of Brent Burns makes it likely that the Sharks will allow him to walk. If that's the case, we'll probably see him looking for a 3-4 year deal, probably in the 3.5-4 million range. If Scott Howson wanted to gamble, perhaps throwing him a deal structured similarly to Kevin Bieksa, with a 4-5 year term to spread out a cap hit?