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.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced Wednesday.

The Knights termed the procedure Tuesday as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested early Wednesday morning in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released later Wednesday on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.