FA Defensemen & the Devils: Nick Boynton & Karlis Skrastins

e first unrestricted free agent defenseman I took a look at was Florida's Jay Bouwmeester. The highly skilled young stud defenseman who is about to get a ridiculous amount of money this summer.  However, he is not the only Panther defenseman available through free agency.  Nick Boynton, Karlis Skrastins, and Jassen Cullimore are unrestricted free agents as well.  With many of the "big names" already reviewed, taking a look at players like these three are still worthwhile to take a look at.  Under the radar free agents, if you will. The worst that happens is that we learn that they would be terrible signings and knowing that isn't really a negative.

Now, before getting into the "headline players," I have a few quick thoughts about Jassen Cullimore.  He's real cheap, as he made $830,000 last season.  He's massive at 6'5", 220 pounds, and he has plenty of experience at age 36.  Whale4ever rates him pretty well as a fill-in player for the Panthers in this past season.   However, he's old (36), he's not a scorer by any means, and he's mainly a third pairing defenseman, as he only averaged 16:47 of ice time in this past season.   Moreover, the shots against per 60 in even strength situations rises from 31.1 to 32.2 when Cullimore hits the ice, according to Behind the Net.    Given that the Devils don't need another third pairing caliber defenseman, I don't think Cullimore should be considered. 

Now that is out of the way, let's talk about super stars Nick Boynton and Karlis Skrastins!


Nick Boynton

#44 / Defenseman / Florida Panthers

6-2

210

Jan 14, 1979

2008-09 Salary: $2.95 million



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Nick Boynton 68 5 16 21 7 91 0 0 1 0 104 4.8

Nick Boynton is a player who just screams "second pairing."  As an up-and-coming defenseman through Boston, with rising point totals of 18, 24, and 30 in his first three full seasons, you'd think Boynton would develop into a solid two-way defenseman.   Unfortunately, his career never ended up that way.   He has yet to come close to the 30 point plateau since 2003-04. Since that career year in points, his shots on goal have dramatically dropped.  He moved on to Phoenix and then ended up in Florida as part of the Olli Jokinen deal.  

While he put up more points in Florida this past season than he did in Phoenix, apparently he and the coach, Peter DeBoer did not get along.  Whale4Ever at Litterbox Cats notes that his relationship with him is "toast."   I don't know what the situation was on that or what started it; yet it makes me wonder about how Boynton's personality would fit on the team.   More distressingly, he also notes that Boynton's temper also gets him into penalty trouble.  That's always a problem for any player, especially a defenseman.  The numbers back this up as in every season he has played in, he has had at least 90 penalty minutes. Personally, I like my defensemen disciplined because A) you can't make plays in the box and B) you're actually helping the opposition out by putting your side temporarily down a man.

Other numbers regarding Boynton's 2008-09 season are also worrisome.  He played an average of 16:35 per game, which is the lowest among regular defensemen on Florida - even less time than Jassen Cullimore.  I'm sure his relationship with DeBoer had something to do with it; but even before any blow ups, was he getting significant minutes?   The even strength numbers on Boynton at Behind the Net may have been affected by this development as well.  Boynton played against the weakest quality of competition on the team last season and the goals against per 60 minutes rose from 2.16 to 2.66 when Boynton did make it to the ice.   Ouch.  In his favor, though, the goals for per 60 minutes also rose from 2.32 to 2.92 when Boynton was out there.  Moreover, the shots for and shots against per 60 made positive developments with Boynton on the ice - the shots for rose from 25.5 to 27.7 and the shots against fell from 32.2 to 31.4.   Of course, keep in mind this is against relatively, statistically weak competition as well as with relatively, statistically strong teammates -  the second best on the team behind Bouwmeester.

In any case, the scouting report on his player page as well as the scouting report by the Hockey Writers (found via this post at Litterbox Cats) both claim Boynton as a second pairing defenseman or a top 4 defenseman.  I don't doubt that the man has the tools to do so.  I don't doubt that he can be physical and aggressive (though is 52 hits in 68 games a sign of being "physical?"), which can be positives.  However, the amount of penalty minutes, the lack of ice time (again, that could have been DeBoer, but who knows), and that he's not putting up the points like he did in Boston or coming up with big stops all give me pause. All this for just under $3 million?   Which he may get about that or more on the market next year?

I'm not really sold on Boynton as a potential signing.  If he was, say, 27 like Mike Komisarek and he had these issues, it wouldn't worry as much as he could still learn to fix those errors.  Boynton's 30 and I doubt he's going to become a much better player in the future.  What you see is what you get, I fear, and I think the Devils could do better.   I think they can accomplish that with an older Latvian defender from Florida:


Karlis Skrastins

#3 / Defenseman / Florida Panthers

6-1

210

Jul 09, 1974

2008-09 Salary: $2.4 million



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Karlis Skrastins 80 4 14 18 9 30 0 0 0 0 55 7.3

The best way I can put it is what was quoted at Litterbox Cats from the Hockey Writers about Skrastins. It sums up his assets and issues are.  The man is a block machine with 171, 9th most in the league.  He played plenty with Bouwmeester, so he understands the role of being the more defensive man on the pairing.   He is a defensive defenseman, so one should not expect a lot of points and shots (that stat line you see up there? Career high in points); but he is pretty good at it as well as staying out of the box.

The even strength numbers at Behind the Net seem to agree as far as the goals per 60 stats go.  Overall, Skrastins faced the second highest relative quality of competition last season, just behind Bouwmeester; yet he also has a relatively low quality of teammates value.  This may explain why the shots against per 60 rose from 31.1 to 34.0 when Skrastins comes on the ice.   His presence on the ice does not tend to lead to more offense in response, as the shots for per 60 minutes fall from 26.6 to 25.2; and the goals for per 60 minutes falls from 2.55 to 2.42. Yet, the goals against per 60 minutes favor Skrastins on the ice, with the goals against dropping from 2.45 to 2.15.  Maybe the increase in shots aren't necessarily quality shots?  In any case, unlike Boynton, Skrastins has these numbers against relatively strong opposition and not always with the best teammates on the ice.  That's a big mitigating factor.

Moreover, Skrastins can handle the minutes at age 34.  He averaged 20:33 per game with the Panthers last season and he didn't take a break when the Panthers missed the postseason.  No, he went on to not just join, but to lead Latvia at the World Championships.  OK, Latvia didn't exactly light the world on fire at the 2009 WCs but he did average 20:02 of ice time and finished with a goal, an assist, and a +2 for a team that made it to the Quarterfinals and finished seventh overall.   The man has endurance and there's no reason to believe he'll be short of breath next season.

There is a reason to believe he'll be short of speed, though.  Skrastins never was all that fast and the scouting profile on his page says he does struggle with swift players.   While it's not new to him anymore, the East features the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Mike Richards (just to name a few).  He'll continue to be up against fast players one way or another and it could very well become a problem.   At age 34, he's not going to be come a faster, swifter, or more explosive player - and he won't as he turns 35, either.  The Devils can probably compensate for some of that given their propensity for backchecking and keeping defenders back.  Yet, it's one concern I have about the player.  Which is a relief in comparison to the multiple ones I have for Boynton.

Oh, and the money.  Yes, he's made $2.4 million, but he's not going to get a whole lot more than that at age 34.  He could be a good bargain should the Devils need to sign a more than competant defensive defenseman. That could happen if they swing and miss on a number of higher-profile free agents and have to go after whoever is left.  Skrastins for about $2 million for 1-2 years wouldn't be a bad deal should such a scenario arise.

Still, do I think he could step into the Devils' top 4 and be better than Mike Mottau?  Sure, why not?  Skrastins didn't get burned over and over with Florida. He's willing to use his body, he's faced top competition before, and he can definitely handle 18-20 minutes.  He won't fill the need for more offense, however.  He would be another defensive defenseman who isn't all that fast.  While he won't fill any major needs and I don't think the Devils should actively persue him, he could be a decent signing in the right circumstances.  I prefer him over Boynton, really. 

As always, have your say below.  Do you think I'm being too harsh on Nick Boynton? Do you think I'm not being harsh enough on Karlis Skrastins? Do you have any other suggestions for free agent defensemen who warrant a look? I plan on ending this feature this week as I'm starting to run out of players who I can't sum in up in one sentence. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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