After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.
Of course, that’s not totally fair.
There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.
Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.
With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.
Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.
Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.
- Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.
Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.
Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.
Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)
I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.
[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]
- Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.
Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.
The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.
Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:
To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.
Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.
- Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.
Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.
At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.
So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).
- Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.
Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.
- Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
- Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
- Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
- Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
- Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”
If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.
To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.
As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.
That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.