Retirement Threat #1: how do you replace Scott Niedermayer?

(Author’s Note: I HAVE NO NEWS IN THIS POST. I figured I’d best say that up front.)
So with Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne both threatening to retire 'on top of the world', I thought I’d spend today looking at Scott’s on-ice contribution, and deal with Teemu's in a separate post.

Over the course of the regular season and playoffs, the captain played over 2,800 minutes, nearly 400 more than the next highest Duck skater. He led Anaheim defensemen in even-strength minutes, power play minutes, and shorthanded minutes, and total scoring, as well. He was also Anaheim’s top-paid player ($6.75 M/year on a deal that has two more years on it), a Norris finalist, and the Conn Smythe winner to boot.

To help measure his on-ice contribution, though, here are the 5 defensemen signed for next year, and their combined regular-season and playoff totals from last year:

Even-Strength:

Player

GP ES min ES +/hr ES –/hr ES +/–/hr
Niedermayer

100

1,803

+2.66

-2.23

+0.43

Beauchemin

91

1,749

+2.44

-2.13

+0.31

O’Donnell

100

1,621

+2.48

-1.96

+0.52

Pronger

85

1,520

+3.00

-1.54

+1.46

Huskins

54

640

+1.97

-1.88

+0.09

What’s staggering here is really the difference in productivity of Chris Pronger from pretty much everyone else (even his regular defense partner Sean O’Donnell). The best goals-for, the best goals-against, and the best differential, all while playing comparable minutes to Niedermayer. I don’t want to knock the captain’s productivity, but Scott is clearly outshined on these metrics.

Power Play:

Player

GP PP min PP +/hr PP –/hr PP +/–/hr
Niedermayer

100

582

+7.94

-0.72

+7.22

Pronger

85

509

+8.25

-0.24

+8.01

Beauchemin

91

286

+6.09

-0.63

+5.46

On the power play, only three defensemen played any significant minutes, and certainly Niedermayer's presence was a huge part. One thing about Niedermayer: he's got a very below-average shot from the blueline, but made himself really useful as a high screen / rover. Again, though, Pronger is the star in terms of net production.

Penalty Kill:

Player

GP SH min SH +/hr SH –/hr SH +/–/hr
Niedermayer

100

415

+0.29

-6.65

-6.36

Beauchemin

91

385

+0.47

-6.08

-5.61

O’Donnell

100

367

+0.49

-3.93

-3.44

Pronger

85

333

+0.54

-5.23

-4.69

Note that these numbers are inclusive of 4-on-5 and 3-on-5 situations, which partially explains why Niedermayer's production looks bad here. Even so, though, his numbers pale again against Pronger's, who also was a fixture on 2-man disadvantages.

Bottom line: Even though Scott is outshined in the production metrics by Pronger, he still plays a huge role minutes-wise and leadership-wise, and his salary is quite favorable compared to other top-earning defensemen. Should Scott announce his retirement, the Ducks definitely need to figure out who their captain will be, and also find a way to replace his minutes for a pretty similar cost. Unfortunately, I really doubt this can be accomplished with one $6 - $7 M defenseman in today's high-priced market (it doesn’t buy you what it used to); this really is the main reason why I’d really prefer Scott to play out his existing contract.

A key question that still needs to be answered will be the production of defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who has played pretty much his entire 2-year NHL career with Scotty as his partner. Certainly the early play of Frenchie has been promising, but it is somewhat easy to look good when you’ve got the smoothest skater in the league leading your rushes and still covering your back.

If Niedermayer does choose to retire, though, I would guess the best way to go about replacing him would be pretty much to build a traditional blueline around the other Norris finalist, Pronger. Rather than have two defensive pairs play nearly all the minutes, the resulting defense would probably have to spread minutes to the third pairing a lot more evenly, so probably Niedermayer would be best replaced by two capable $3M defensemen, preferably not UFAs signed on July 1st, though—those signings usually signify an overcommitment.

Anyway, Scott’s decision is probably the one key thing I’m keeping my eye on this offseason—I don’t think the Ducks are in horrible trouble either way, but definitely there will have to be a huge strategy adjustment if he leaves. Based on the minutes he plays, I would say he’s a tougher hurdle to replace than Selanne, but we’ll be taking a look at that in a later post.

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