Perhaps no 2016 NHL free agent is as perplexing as James Wisniewski. “The Wiz” has had a roller coaster career; his strong offensive production and possession ability have often been overshadowed by his defensive deficiencies, an inability to stay on the ice, and a knack for being traded. The journeyman defenseman finds himself as an afterthought on the free agent market thus far, and was not even included on our Top 50 Free Agents list, despite being just 32 years old and only two years removed from the best season of his career. However, with the demand for right-handed defenseman being as high as it has ever been, Wisniewski won’t be unsigned for long. The only question is whether he is able to command a market-value multi-year contract or if instead some team will get him on a short, inexpensive deal.
When Wisniewski broke into the league during the ’05-’06 season, he was one of the most talked-about prospects in hockey. Despite being selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the fifth round of the 2002 NHL draft, the former Plymouth Whalers captain excelled in his later years in junior hockey. Following an ’03-’04 season in which he scored 70 points in only 50 games, Wisniewski was awarded the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the most outstanding defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League in 2004, and then also took home the title of CHL Defenseman of the Year and First Team All-Star.
After two seasons in the AHL, Wisniewski debuted with the Blackhawks in ’05-’06, but his season was cut short by a torn ACL. It would be the beginning of an injury-riddled career. Wisniewski played well in his early seasons with the Blackhawks, even playing with a toughness and grit (103 PIM in ’07-’08) that has been missing from his game in recent years, but it was not enough to keep him in Chicago. He was dealt to the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline in 2009. Despite scoring 30 points in 69 games for the Ducks the following season, after just a year and a half in Anaheim, Wisniewski was traded again, this time to the New York Islanders. Only 32 games into the 2010 season, Wisniewski was traded for a third time, being sent to the Montreal Canadiens for the remainder of the year. Between New York and Montreal, he scored a career high 10 goals in the ’10-’11 season and totaled 51 points in 75 games. Wisniewski finally had the chance to choose his own destination that off-season, and cashed in on his success with a six-year, $33MM deal to play for the Columbus Blue Jackets. As a leader on the ice and in the locker room on a young Columbus team, Wisniewski finally had a long-term home with the Blue Jackets. In ’13-’14 he matched his career high with 51 points in 75 games, and then started hot again the next season, with 29 points through 56 games. He was playing so well, that Columbus decided to trade him at the deadline, and Wisniewski returned to Anaheim for a second stint with the Ducks.
Going into last season, things were looking good for James Wisniewski. He had put up strong numbers in back-to-back seasons and hadn’t been hampered by injuries the past few years either. He even had a new home, as the Ducks dealt him to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for goalie Anton Khudobin at the 2015 draft. However, on opening night, just 47 seconds into his first shift as a member of the Hurricanes, Wisniewski tore his ACL again and did not play a single for the rest of the season. Carolina made his absence permanent recently, buying out the final year of his contract and making him a free agent.
Wisniewski now finds himself as one of more polarizing players available to teams looking for defensive help. One view point is that he is a dominant offensive defenseman, who has averaged close to 40 points in every season that he has played over 50 games and who consistently has the possession numbers of a top pairing defenseman. The other viewpoint is that in ten NHL seasons, he has played on average in only 55 games per season and has done so on six different teams, indicating that not only does he have trouble staying on the ice, but perhaps teams don’t want him on the ice either. Wisniewski has little leverage, as he is coming off of a serious injury, and is likely to sign a short-term deal for much less money than he’s used to. However, if the former opinion proves to be true, then “the Wiz” could end up as the steal of the off-season as a short-term solution for a D-needy team like the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, or New Jersey Devils and then make his money next off-season. If the latter opinion proves to be true, then the team can always just trade him. He’s used to it by now.