Roman Polak

NHL free agent defensemen Dustin Byfuglien Andy Greene
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Byfuglien and other veteran NHL free agent defensemen with unclear futures

After covering forwards and goalies, let’s close things out with a look at fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen.

Before we start, note that this isn’t about top defensemen available. Alex Pietrangelo likely only stands on the fringe between a huge contract or just a very big contract. Also, the sheer glut of defensemen means a lot of borderline players will either be off this list, or merely mentioned in passing.

A lot of stuff to consider with Buff

Going to an earlier post, health questions limit Corey Crawford‘s earning potential. Those issues loom even larger for very large defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

After missing the 2019-20 season, it’s unclear how close Byfuglien can be to full-strength. Most of all, Byfuglien must decide if he even wants to come back. And at what cost.

Being that Byfuglien turned 35 on March 27, he’d need a 35+ contract. That could be a Byfuglien-sized sticking point if the defenseman wants term in any deal.

All of that aside, even a compromised version of Byfuglien towers over many of the fringe options.

Other reasonably prominent fringe NHL free agent defensemen

Let’s go over a few of them, while Cap Friendly features a more expansive list that drives home the glut.

  • Mike Green — There were times when it felt like criticisms were way, way too harsh for Green. (Maybe it was fury at the fauxhawk?) The temperature’s changed in 2020, though. Most of the people who bashed Green have moved on to (insert latest offensive defenseman who might win a Norris). But there are just enough teams with nostalgia for Green that he might get a chance in his reduced, 34-year-old form. Consider the Oilers trading an actual draft pick for Green during the past deadline if you need evidence.

While Green’s defensive game slips with age, he also doesn’t provide that zip on offense, either.

It’s sadly not too surprising to see Green — and some other fringe veteran NHL free agent defensemen — at the bottom of the ranks of this GAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

worst GAR NHL free agent defensemen Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey
  • While Green’s fellow 34-year-old defenseman Roman Polak plays a different style, he also finds himself in the dregs of that list. It’s even more common for some NHL GM to talk themselves into a hard-nosed Polak than it is for them to believe Green could rekindle his scoring touch, too. Both ideas seem ill-advised, although if you need to appease an old-school coach, maybe you throw them a bone by giving Polak a very cheap contract (that you can bury or get rid of)?
  • It was tough not to chuckle when the Islanders spent a second-round pick to acquire Andy Greene.

That’s not really a knock against Greene, generally speaking. He has some value as a defense-first defensemen. Instead, it’s just that the Islanders felt the need merely to add more of the same.

This isolated impact chart from Hockey Viz reinforces those points well enough:

Andy Greene iso NHL free agent defensemen
via Hockey Viz

Regardless, if the Islanders are willing to spend a prominent pick on Greene, the 37-year-old will probably draw some attention. By the muted expectations of this quantity-over-quality group, you could do worse … if you don’t pledge much money or especially term.

(There’s an argument that Greene is viable enough not to be fringe. Still, his advanced age makes it seem reasonable to list him.)

  • If your team must have someone like Polak, how about Justin Braun? The 33-year-old doesn’t bring offensive value, but he’s more useful defensively.
  • My guess is that there will be at least some market for Ron Hainsey. At 39, it’s fair to wonder how much Hainsey has left in the tank. That’s also a fair question for most of the veteran NHL free agent defensemen we’re discussing.

Veteran free agent NHL defensemen lightning round

  • I usually cut these lists off at 30+, but Dmitry Kulikov and Zach Bogosian are two 29-year-old defensemen who’ve garnered more attention than I’d usually expect. Maybe they will again? Teams can get pretty desperate for defense.
  • I haven’t mentioned Kevin Shattenkirk until now because I feel like anyone who observed his work in 2019-20 would give him a low-risk contract. But just in case, the 31-year-old would be a standout if he’s “fringe” material.
  • There are plenty of defensemen who might retire as much for health reasons as a lack of interest. Factor in age, too, and you could mark that box for defensemen including Jonathan Ericsson, Jay Bouwmeester, Deryk Engelland, and maybe Andrej Sekera.
  • Again, there are quite a few middling options who may ride meager name recognition. Teams have regularly inflated the value of 33-year-old Michael Stone, for instance.
  • Are Matt Irwin and Yannick Weber still NHL defensemen? GMs will decide that too.

(In case you’re wondering, Zdeno Chara‘s calling his own shot, and expected to be back. So that’s why he didn’t get a mention only now.)

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.

Long-term outlook for Dallas Stars: Free agents, prospects, and more

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Dallas Stars.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn stand as the Stars’ highest-paid players (almost $10M per year for each), and management’s most sought-after scapegoats. If CEO Jim Lites & Co. had issues with Seguin (28, contract expires after 2026-27) and Benn (30, 2024-25) already, one can only imagine how nasty things might get as Father Time really rubs it in.

At least both remain effective if you keep expectations fair — especially Seguin. Even if the Stars’ staunch and stingy system does little to goose their counting stats.

By investing quite a bit of term in Esa Lindell, the Stars figure to lean on Lindell, Miro Heiskanen, and John Klingberg for the foreseeable future. Heiskanen’s rookie deal runs out after next season, while Klingberg will only be a bargain through 2021-22.

Ben Bishop continues to provide fantastic goaltending, easily exceeding his near-$5M AAV so far. At 33, it’s fair to wonder if a big slide is coming, so that might go from a bargain to a burden before Bishop’s contract expires after 2022-23.

It will be interesting to see who else joins the core. Looking at the list of pending free agents alone, the Stars face interesting contract challenges with Hintz, Faksa, and Gurianov. The hope is those forwards can pick up the slack for aging players like Alexander Radulov, Joe Pavelski, and Andrew Cogliano.

One would think that a goalie-needy team would drive Khudobin out of the backup goalie price range, but if not, Dallas would be wise to see how much longer their two-headed monster over 33-year-old goalies can keep this up.

Seeing Hanzal’s cursed contract ($4.75M AAV) come off the books must be a massive, Hanzal-sized relief.

Long-term needs for Stars

Khudobin and Bishop delivered shockingly strong results, even for those who favored the two, but again, they’re both 33. Getting younger in net needs to be an emphasis, whether that means a younger (cheaper) backup, or someone on the horizon. Maybe prospect Jake Oettinger could be the answer to a number of questions?

Finding a better balance between risk and rewards lingers as a more abstract key.

Does that mean finding a different coaching option other than interim bench boss Rick Bowness? Perhaps. Seeing Seguin languish with a modest team lead in points at 50 is already a bummer. No one else reaching 40 points in 2019-20 is downright alarming.

There are some nice supplementary pieces in guys like Hintz, but if Seguin and Benn continue to sink from superstars to stars, do the Stars have enough star power? If not, they’ll need to manufacture goals by committee.

Long-term strengths for Stars

A different chef might be able to put together a winning recipe with the ingredients on hand.

In particular, there are pieces to ice a modern, mobile defense. Heiskanen already hovers somewhere between star and full-fledged superstar. Klingberg suffered through a disappointing 2019-20, yet he still has a lot of talent, and could rebound in a more creative setup.

While Lindell is a bit more meat-and-potatoes, prospect Thomas Harley provides potential for more explosive offense from the Stars’ defense.

Speaking of prospects, Ty Dellandrea and Jason Robertson might eventually help the Stars improve their depth on offense. If those two work out, they could help Dallas patch up slippage for Benn and Seguin alongside the likes of Hintz.

The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler ranked the Stars’ farm system 18th overall in January (sub required), while his Athletic colleague placed Dallas’ sub-23 group at 15th. That’s not world-beating stuff, but it’s also pretty solid for a team that’s becoming a fairly consistent playoff squad.

Goaltending might remain a strength if Bishop ends up being one of those goalies who ages well. We’ll see.

Overall, Heiskanen stands out as the player Stars fans should be most excited about. There are a decent number of others, especially if Seguin gets better puck luck than the 6.9 shooting percentage that made his 2019-20 season far from nice.

MORE STARS:
• 2019-20 season summary
• Surprises and disappointments

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.

WATCH LIVE: Stars host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Stars meet for the second and final time this season as each club is coming off an extended break. Both Tampa Bay and Dallas enjoyed their bye weeks last week leading into All-Star Weekend. Tampa last played on Jan. 17 (a 7-1 at WPG), while Dallas last played on Jan. 18 (a 7-0 at MIN).

Both the Lightning and Stars enter the second half of the reg. season locked in tight division races. In the Atlantic, Tampa is second with 62 points, eight points behind the Bruins but with three games in hand. Behind the Lightning though are the Panthers (61 pts) and Maple Leafs (57 pts) – each within striking distance of Tampa’s spot. In the Central, Dallas is thirrd with 58 points, four points behind Avalanche in second and 10 points behind the Blues in 1sr . Below the Stars though, the Central is tight. Just seven points separate Dallas in third and Nashville in seventh. Fortunately for the Stars, they have games in hand on the three teams immediately behind them in the division.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of the two Lightning players in the All-Star Game this past weekend. The honor was well deserved as he leads the NHL with 24 wins to go along with a 2.54 GAA and .917 SV%. While he’s been great all year, the 25-year-old comes into Monday’s game as hot as any goalie in the NHL.

Dallas’ lone All-Star representative Tyler Seguin tallied a goal and assist in the Central Division’s loss in the All-Star Game. The Stars are hoping their top centerman will bring the scoring back home when they take the ice Monday. Seguin has zero goals in the last nine games. With 11 goals through 48 games, he is on pace to score just 18 goals this season, which would be his fewest in a non-shortened season since 2010-11, his rookie year.

The Stars average just 2.56 goals/game, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NHL. But they also allow just 2.46 goals/game, which is best in the league. Seguin maintains his lack of offensive output has to do with the team’s defensive frame of mind rather than a lack of production.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars
WHERE: American Airlines Center
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven StamkosBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Ondrej PalatAnthony CirelliTyler Johnson
Alex KillornCedric PaquettePatrick Maroon
Yanni GourdeMitchell StephensCarter Verhaeghe

Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

STARS
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov
Denis GurianovJoe PavelskiRoope Hintz
Andrew CoglianoRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Mattias JanmarkJason DickinsonCorey Perry

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Miro HeiskanenRoman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak – Stephen Johns

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop

Brendan Burke will handle play-by-play duties alongside analyst Pierre McGuire at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Anson Carter and Keith Jones.

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

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.

Q&A: Ben Bishop on Stars’ summer, lessons from 2019 playoffs

Ben Bishop grew up in St. Louis and has a family filled with Blues fans. So imagine how awkward it was during the Dallas Stars’ Round 2 seven-game series defeat at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

“I think it was a little different,” Bishop told NBC Sports. “My poor family, they’ve been Blues fans their whole lives. Obviously, when they win it they have to go through their brother or son, so I think it was a little bit different for the family, but I know they were happy for the Blues. Just a little different feeling having gone through the Stars to get there.”

The Stars took a big step last season and have reason for higher expectations in 2019-20. The rising Miro Heiskanen, the emergence of Roope Hintz, the addition of Joe Pavelski, and banking on another strong performance by Bishop should make Dallas a tough out in the NHL’s most difficult division.

We spoke with Bishop about lessons learned from last season, the Stars’ summer, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. The success the first year with Jim Montgomery, is that a product of what he brought or a product of what you guys brought?

BISHOP: “A little bit of both. I think you look at Jim’s resume, he’s won everywhere he’s been — in the USHL, in college he won as well at the University of Denver, he won a championship. So, he’s got that winning pedigree that comes with him, so, I think coming into this year everyone was excited and we have some talented players and the combination it equaled a pretty good year.”

Q. How did that feel being back in that situation where you’re “Ok now we are there?”

BISHOP: “It was great, I mean that is what you train all summer for, the preseason games the regular season games, to get a chance to you know give yourself that opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. You know you have to get into the playoffs first so, I think being in the playoffs there is not a better experience or feeling. A seven-game series, there really isn’t much better as you play the games, kind of get a little monotonous and then when you get into the postseason and every game is all or nothing. So, every game is a lot of fun to be a part of it.”

Q. What do you take from the first round victory? Is that something you guys can build on?

BISHOP: “Absolutely. I think we had a lot of young guys [last] year kind of getting their first taste of playoff hockey and when you get in the playoffs to win a round and to have that feeling what it is like to go onto the next one, it’s contagious and you want to strive for it, to get that feeling again, so when we get there guys know what it takes to get to the next round. I think also the hurt of losing will stick with you knowing you don’t want to go through that again.”

Q. What have you done to ensure that you’re available to play more games perhaps than you have in the past?

BISHOP: “I think as you get a little bit older you have to kind of learn your body and know what has made you successful and unsuccessful in the past. I think I did a pretty good job looking back and seeing what happened last year and where I can improve as far as the nutrition reset and working out and what not, so hopefully we have taken care of all of that and looking forward to a long healthy season.”

Q. Jim Nill went out and added some veteran leadership in Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

BISHOP: “Well, I think anytime those guys are available I am pretty sure all of the teams out there wanted those guys. I think it just speaks a lot of Jim Nill and then the organization to be able to go out and get these guys and giving us the best opportunity to win. It’s really exciting and I think anybody would love to have those guys on their team.”

Q. With the additions, and the playoff success last year, what are the expectations for Dallas this season?

BISHOP: “Well, I think there is going to be the high expectations, but at the same time I think for myself you always set the same goal it is to win the first game of the season. You can’t talk about the playoffs without going through the regular season and you can’t talk about where you want to finish in the regular season without going through the games, so it is a pretty easy goal. You have to win the first game and then after that win the second game and then you kind of go from there because when you start looking too far ahead you kind of forget about what is going on right in front of your face. I think you have to take care of business and on a day to day basis and get to that first goal, which is making the playoffs.”

(The Stars are 0-3-0 and face the Capitals Tuesday night.)

MORE:
Roman Polak suffered ‘small fracture’ of sternum
Stars seek playoff repeat after ouster by Cup champion Blues

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.