Next NHL defensemen in line for huge free-agent contracts

Next NHL defensemen in line for huge free-agent contracts
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After the most frenzied part of 2021 NHL Free Agency, there are plenty of takeaways. One of them: so much for that flat salary cap slowing down NHL spending, huh? But, to get more specific, there’s another thought: it’s a great time to be an NHL defenseman.

That goes for mid-grade and depth defensemen, who’ve signed one eye-popping free-agent contract after another.

Most crucially, though, we’ve seen a staggering array of free-agent mega-deals for prominent defensemen. Your mileage will vary based on which defensemen have a prayer of making those contracts worthwhile. But there’s no denying that NHL defensemen, their agents, and accountants got a lot, lot richer lately.

Let’s review some of the biggest recent free-agent contracts for NHL defensemen

Think of some of the NHL free-agent contracts (either for UFAs, or extensions on previous deals) that demanded people to reach deep into the reserves of shocked emojis:

  • We all felt so young-and-innocent when the Stars signed Miro Heiskanen (eight years, $8.45 million cap hit). When the Stars signed that Heiskanen deal on July 17, it seemed steep — even considering the hype he’s generated. Now it looks downright responsible.
  • Things really started to ramp up around Seth Jones. After paying a pretty penny to trade for Jones, the Blackhawks opted to give Jones an eight-year extension with a whopping $9.5M cap hit. That’s before Jones played a single shift for Chicago. If the troubling underlying numbers Jones put up are not an accident, well … too bad. The deal’s already in place.
  • Soon after, the Avalanche swooped in and signed Cale Makar to a contract that’s both big and easy to justify. The supremely talented (and beyond-his-22-years) defenseman signed for six years at a $9M clip. While that price follows a pattern, Makar breaks some of the other trends by being undeniably worth it. In fact, it was almost a trope to see “[Less of a sure thing] is making more than Cale Makar!”

  • Late-ish on the first day of 2021 NHL Free Agency, the Devils landed the big fish in Dougie Hamilton: seven years, $9M AAV. While Jones is the “Hockey Men” choice despite bad underlying stats, Hamilton’s the opposite. His work is off-the-charts, but old-school types tend to sour on Hamilton for a variety of reasons. It’s a big chunk of change, whether it looks smart, foolish, or somewhere in the middle.
  • Finally — for now — the Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by signing Zachary Werenski to a six-year contract with a mammoth $9.583M million cap hit.

In the span of a couple weeks, the ranks of the hyper-rich NHL defensemen swelled like Werenski’s wallet.

So, to paraphrase poet Bill Goldberg, “Who’s next?”

Between the rest of this offseason, all the way through 2022 NHL Free Agency, we could see more big free-agent contracts for NHL defensemen. Let’s see who’s in line for new deals.

First, we’ll begin with players who don’t have contracts for the 2021-22 season. Then, we’ll move onto defensemen entering contract years, who can sign an extension. (Will it be for Werenski money, though?)

Dahlin, Hughes, could be up for big free-agent contracts, RFAs or not

Quinn Hughes

During this key offseason, Canucks GM Jim Benning faced a difficult balancing act. His goal was to make the Canucks better, while also opening up room to sign star RFAs Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson.

From a making the Canucks better standpoint, it’s been a mixed bag. (Signing Travis Hamonic for nearly $6 million over two years? That’s certainly a choice.)

As far as signing Hughes and Pettersson goes? Also kind of a mixed bag.

Cap Friendly estimates the Canucks’ cap space at about $14.06 million. That’s without signing Pettersson and Hughes, and Jason Dickinson also sticks out as an RFA.

Evolving Hockey’s wonderful contract projection tool estimates the most likely Quinn Hughes contract at six years with a $7.017M. But could Werenski and other extensions raise the bar for Hughes? By certain metrics, Werenski is a more well-rounded player:

Which other NHL defensemen could sign massive free-agent contracts? Hughes Werenski ev comp
via Evolving Hockey

But, as we’ve seen from the Blackhawks defiantly paying Jones before he played a single shift in their uniform, all that really matters is what one team will pay for a player. Both Werenski and Hughes have parallels in the broadest senses: offensively adept, mixed feelings about their defense, young and left-handed. Naturally, it’s not a one-to-one comparison (Hughes is younger; the Blue Jackets were desperate not to lose another big name). Yet, it’s still interesting to wonder if Werenski and other big-money contracts might push Hughes’ asking price above that $7M-ish estimate.

(Shorter, “bridge” deals prompted lower guesses.)

Again, Hughes’ situation is made more complicated by Pettersson being in a similar boat. For what it’s worth, Evolving Hockey leans toward a “bridge” deal for Pettersson, specifically, at about $5M.

If those predictions are correct, then the Canucks could probably make this work.

In a smarter, bolder, more aggressive NHL, someone might swoop in with an offer sheet to make things more uncomfortable. Luckily for the Canucks, Hughes is not eligible for an offer sheet (but Pettersson is).

Rasmus Dahlin

On one hand, hockey analysis — including in NHL front offices — has become a lot more sophisticated.

That said, some of the surprising contracts remind us that reputation and narratives matter a lot. When people decide Seth Jones is a $9.5M defenseman, they’ll ignore any number of charts and footage of mildly troubling tendencies.

Generally, teams still get lured in by big point totals, too. Even if those points sometimes feel like empty calories (sorry, Tyson Barrie and Mike Hoffman).

All of these factors make it difficult to tell what’s going to happen between Rasmus Dahlin and the Buffalo Sabres.

On one hand, Dahlin’s produced some decent counting stats. He generated 44 points as a rookie in 2018-19, and 40 points in 59 games in 2019-20. Last season wasn’t as pretty, as Dahlin produced 23 points in 56 games.

As far as his overall work, though? It’s been a little disappointing — at least for a defenseman who’s been as hyped as any top blueline prospect in recent memory.

Does some of that come down to the Sabres? I’d argue yes. His usage has been a bit erratic, and the team didn’t always play to his strengths.

Still, it’s difficult to shake the impression that expectations are much, much lower for Dahlin. He’s definitely struggled defensively at times.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool forecasts a six-year deal between Dahlin and the Sabres, at about $6M. Would a “prove it” deal be likely? How much are the rebuilding Sabres willing to commit? It could be an interesting situation all-around.

Adam Pelech, plus a few other free-agent NHL defensemen of note

Last offseason, the Islanders struggled with their cap crunch. That pain shined brightest when they had to trade Devon Toews in what ended up being a steal for the Avalanche.

This season, they’re far better positioned to deal with the challenge of signing a defenseman who’s better than most people likely realize.

At 26, Adam Pelech is on the older end of this group of RFA defensemen. He also lacks the flash of Hughes’ and Dahlin’s scoring numbers. Yet, the combination of Pelech and Ryan Pulock quietly gave the Islanders one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL.

If the Islanders manage to land Pelech in the projected four-year, $4.324M cap hit range, it would be a steal. We’ll see if a rabid NHL free-agent market moves the goalposts at all.

Some other noteworthy NHL defensemen in need of new contracts as RFAs:

NHL defensemen entering contract years, who could sign extensions

Naturally, there are a lot of NHL defensemen entering contract years, who could sign extensions. That net could get really wide, then, if we mention a veteran like Mark Giordano.

To keep it simple, let’s consider potential big raises for younger defensemen most likely to sign Werenski/Jones-type extensions.

Adam Fox

Imagine Adam Fox, 23-year-old reigning Norris Trophy winner, watching the big-money deals fly in.

You’ve got to think he could ask for something comparable to what Norris runner-up Cale Makar received, right? Maybe a bit more? Earlier rumors indicated that Fox might want to wait, rather than sign a contract extension. Would an offer be too much to resist if it was in the Makar range? Could he somehow drive his value even higher by playing out the 2022-23 season?

(Good thing he has that Harvard brain to figure this out.)

The Rangers need to be careful here. Like Fox, Kaapo Kakko approaches a contract year. Meanwhile, Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his ELC. Mika Zibanejad‘s bargain $5.35 AAV runs out after next season. The core of this team could get expensive, quickly, and Fox might be the most expensive piece of them all (outside of Artemi Panarin … we think?).

Charlie McAvoy

Slowly, but surely, people are catching on to just how great Charlie McAvoy is. With that in mind, the Bruins might want to bite the bullet and sign the 23-year-old to a contract extension now. If not, it wouldn’t be outrageous to imagine McAvoy having a Norris Trophy on his resume. (Or at least a bullet point about being a finalist.)

Granted, injuries have been an issue at times. Also, with defense being his biggest calling card, he might not have the same selling ability as some of the higher-scoring, more porous comparison points.

Peruse the Bruins ‘roster, and marvel at how often they’ve convinced their best players to accept less than market value. That happened back with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. They got a steal with David Pastrnak, and Taylor Hall‘s a pleasant surprise. If the Bruins don’t pay much more than McAvoy’s current $4.9M cap hit on his next deal, then they might be magicians, or wizards. Super powers may be involved.

Pending UFAs who may be in line for extensions and/or big raises

  • Maybe the Islanders should just sign Pulock and Pelech now? While Pelech needs a new deal as an RFA, Pulock enters 2022-23 as a pending UFA. Might be wise to lock them up before people truly catch on to their own-zone dominance.
  • Will the Flyers echo the Blackhawks extending Jones by locking down Ristolainen prior to his contract expiring? They haven’t yet. If they do before learning how Ristolainen fits, there will be plenty of criticisms.
  • Morgan Rielly‘s great offensively, but suspect defensively. That’s the sort of summary you hear about a defenseman who signs a perilous contract. Will that happen with Rielly? What’s his future with the Maple Leafs?
  • Could Darnell Nurse be another quality defenseman whose next contract looks scary?

High risk, mystery rewards

When it comes to big NHL free-agent contracts (and extensions), you don’t always get what you “pay for.”

Just about anyone cringes at Erik Karlsson‘s contract. People should cringe basically just as much at the Drew Doughty deal. Even one people haven’t soured on could quickly turn that way — does it really behoove the troubled Predators to pay Roman Josi $9M per year?

Despite many red flags, and adjacent albatrosses like the Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract, teams clearly believe that risky free-agent contracts are simply unavoidable for NHL defensemen.

Simply put, they’re betting that they’re right. Considering some of the names in this post, that casino will be buzzing with activity during the next year or so.

(Hey, at least it’s not your money, right?)

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.