Dustin Byfuglien

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 the Winnipeg Jets

Long-term outlook Winnipeg Jets Laine Connor Hellebuyck
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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 Winnipeg Jets.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With the exception of Patrik Laine — who they could theoretically extend during the offseason – the Jets locked down most of their core over the years.

Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck possess two of the “shorter” long-term contracts among that core group, and their affordable contracts run through 2023-24. (Blake Wheeler‘s does, as well, but that’s a little more troubling being that the often-underrated winger is now 33.)

Beyond that Wheeler worry, there’s a lot to like, especially since Wheeler is comfortably the highest paid at $8.25M AAV.

(Actually, Bryan Little‘s contract was troubling from day one, but sadly, he might go on LTIR quite credibly.)

If Kevin Cheveldayoff can extend Laine at a reasonable price, this group could be cost-conscious enough for Winnipeg to even take advantage of other teams possibly facing cap squeezes. It makes me wonder: could the Jets go after another core piece in free agency? Signing, say, Alex Pietrangelo would make them stronger and weaken Central Division rival St. Louis.

Even as a “budget” team, the possibilities are intriguing for the Jets to improve upon their long-term core. That said, improvements might be needed for the Jets to truly soar.

Long-term needs for Jets

It’s remarkable that Hellebuyck (and some star scorers) dragged Winnipeg to playoff contention, because that group was rough this season.

Neal Pionk turned out to be an extremely pleasant surprise, to the point that he might be able to join the core to an extent. And, for sure, Josh Morrissey is a steady presence. But things dry up quite a bit beyond that, and an ideal contender probably would ask less of both of them, particularly Morrissey.

So, can Ville Heinola eventually be a key defender? How will Sami Niku’s development go?

Getting steps in development, overall, is a long-term key for the Jets. Jack Roslovic strikes me as someone who can do more, but he needs opportunities. What, exactly, is Laine’s ceiling? Will the Jets actually boost him up to reach it?

The Jets have to hope that they can mitigate the eventual drop-off for Wheeler, who’s already sinking a bit at 33. (By his standards.)

They could also use some more depth. It’s probably not a coincidence that, year after year (Paul Stastny to Kevin Hayes to even Cody Eakin), they seem to need to burn assets to add 2C and/or 3C help. Laurent Brossoit had a tough season, casting some doubt on the backup position.

I’ll also endlessly wonder if Paul Maurice is all that far above your average coach. But, hey, give the dude credit for being a long-term bench presence even with … meh results more often than not.

Long-term strengths for Jets

The sheer youth of this team is something to get excited about. Laine just turned 22. Kyle Connor seems to be jumping another level at 23, while Nikolaj Ehlers is a transition menace at 24. Hellebuyck is 26, Mark Scheifele is only 27, and Morrissey is 25.

I mentioned possibly pitching a deal at Pietrangelo because the Jets see a lot of space opening up.

Losing Dustin Byfuglien hurts, but his age was making his contract risky anyway. The Jets signing Kulikov furrowed my brow, yet now they can use that money toward … uh, someone good? (Sorry, Kulikov.)

It’s not always easy to lure free agents to Winnipeg, but a) they’ve become a consistent winner and b) might be one of the only winners with cash to burn during the uncertain, upcoming offseason.

That mixture of prime-age talent, solid maneuverability, and a steady-and-solid front office should put the Jets in a solid position to compete for some time. They do need Cheveldayoff to make the right moves to get back at a high level again, as Hellebuyck camouflaged a steep decline — one that quietly brewed even toward the end of 2018-19.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

Byfuglien-sized surprises, disappointments for Winnipeg Jets

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 surprises and disappointments for the Winnipeg Jets.

Hellebuyck surprises with heck of a season for Jets

Depending on your interpretation of “most valuable player,” you can make a strong argument that Connor Hellebuyck deserves the Hart Trophy, not just the Vezina.

With injuries and the absence of Dustin Byfuglien dealing huge blows to the Jets’ defense, it’s truly remarkable that Winnipeg entered the pause in playoff position. To that, I offer a simple remark: it’s mainly because of Hellebuyck.

Hellebuyck managed a 31-21-5 record, but of course, it was about more than that. For one thing, you can break down Hellebuyck’s .922 save percentage compared to backup Laurent Brossoit‘s .895.

When you factor in the leaky Jets defense in front of him, Hellebuyck really shines.

Looking at Hockey Reference’s Goals Saved Against Average stat, Hellebuyck (22.40) only trails Tuukka Rask (22.51). Anton Khudobin sits in distant third at 17.75, while Darcy Kuemper (16.65) is the only other goalie who reached 14+.

Hellebuyck saved a lot of goals. He saved the Jets’ bacon.

If you choose MVPs based on the most indispensible player of a season, you’d probably pick Hellebuyck.

It’s not shocking that Hellebuyck ended up playing well, but carrying the Jets on his shoulders ranks as one of the bigger surprises of the season.

Neal Pionk > Jacob Trouba?

People understood that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had to trade Trouba’s rights. While one can only wonder if there was a better way to settle the situation, that moment passed.

Even so, plenty of people scoffed at Pionk being part of the return. Yes, Pionk scored a mind-blowing goal for the Rangers, and showed some scoring skill. But just about every other metric pointed to Pionk being … pretty bad.

Well, the Jets certainly can puff their chests out, because Pionk’s been crucial to their defense.

Now, it’s probably still true that you don’t necessarily want Pionk to be featured this much. An ideal blueline probably won’t lean on Pionk for a team-leading 23:23 per night. Sometimes things aren’t ideal, though. In reality, Pionk delivered incredible value for Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, Trouba looks like an $8M mistake for the Rangers. Pionk’s younger and cheaper than Trouba, and the Jets also nabbed a first-rounder in the deal. It’s remarkable just how similar Pionk and Trouba come across in this even-strength RAPM comparison chart via Evolving Hockey:

Wow. Pionk being arguably better than Trouba is quite the surprise for the Jets, and a massive disappointment for the Rangers.

Disappointments abound for Byfuglien, Jets

So, Pionk ended up being important to the Jets. And Hellebuyck cleaned up the many messes made by Pionk and that shorthanded blueline crew.

But none of it really washes down the disappointments involving Dustin Byfuglien and his now-former team, the Jets.

The COVID-19 pause creates extra uncertainty, but Byfuglien’s future seems like it would be cloudy either way. It’s also fuzzy figuring out what, exactly, happened. The situation ended up disappointing for Byfuglien’s accountant, at minimum, being that he walked away from a lot of money.

Hopefully we’ll get the pleasant surprise of an awkward-but-entertaining game whenever Byfuglien suits up for a different team against the Jets. The point being: it would be deeply, deeply disappointing if we never see the towering, one-of-a-kind defenseman ever play again. Especially since there would be no warning that we’d already seen his last game.

Either way, it was a highly disappointing end to Byfuglien’s lengthy, important stay with the Jets. The connections between the Thrashers days just keep fading away.

MORE ON THE JETS:

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Neutral sites no longer in discussion if NHL play resumes?

Excel Energy Center instead of neutral sites for NHL play
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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski cites sources who say that the NHL is no longer considering using neutral sites like North Dakota to resume play. Wyshynski explains that a revised plan would involve regional NHL arenas used for the games, aligned by arenas instead of neutral sites. In this scenario, the Hurricanes’ arena would be for the Metro, Oilers for the Pacific, and Wild for Central. According to Wyshynski, there isn’t an Atlantic arena frontrunner just yet. (ESPN)

• Multiple NHL GMs discussed how they’ll be watching the remote NFL Draft closely. There’s also some interesting speculation about how the 2020 NHL Draft will look and feel. Senators GM Pierre Dorion believes that trades will still be doable, even with on-the-draft-floor moving and shaking unlikely. (The Canadian Press)

• Add Jimmy Howard to the list of NHL players who’ve made a big contribution to healthcare workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Howard is donating $50K worth of N95 masks to the Detroit Medical Center. This includes multiple Red Wings helping out, as the list includes at least both Howard and Dylan Larkin. (NBC 25 News)

• In what sounds like a pitch for a sitcom, Keith, Matthew, and Brady Tkachuk are all living under one roof during the pandemic pause. That’s a lot of pesty behavior and antagonism in a small space. (KSDK)

• Breaking down the possible hiccups in the Blackhawks possibly bringing back Dustin Byfuglien. Even with those limitations in mind, a Byfuglien return would be fascinating. Especially since, if I remember correctly, Byfuglien didn’t solidify himself as a defenseman until he left Chicago. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• The Golden Knights signed Nic Roy to a two-year extension that carries a $750K AAV. Roy turned out to be a pretty nice find for the Golden Knights. Could Roy end up being even better than a solid depth player? (Golden Knights)

• Speaking of the Golden Knights, the Devils are interviewing former coach (still strange to type) Gerard Gallant for their head coaching position. Gallant would likely bring assistant Mike Kelly with him. (Sportsnet)

• Hayley Williams is instructing youth hockey players virtually — and from Russia. (WGRZ)

• A look back at the underrated career of forward Joe Mullen. (Greatest Hockey Legends)

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Devante Smith-Pelly sees how COVID-19 disrupts KHL

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Devante Smith-Pelly experienced quite the coronavirus-related disruption. As a member of Beijing-based KHL team Kunlun, he’s had quite the couple of months. William Douglas continued his great “Color of Hockey” feature for NHL.com by looking at Smith-Pelly’s journey, including “the road trip became a 35-day odyssey that contributed to Kunlun spending 58 of the last 67 days of the season outside of Beijing.” Wow.

Looking forward, DSP hopes to return to the NHL in the future. (NHL.com)

• Penguins GM Jim Rutherford discussed the team’s contingency plans for various scenarios, and how the organization is communicating during the pause. Stories like these can also be fun when you find out a little bit more about the person involved. In Rutherford’s case, he said that he also really misses baseball. While watching decades-old Pirates games brings Rutherford some joy, it’s not the same as new games live. (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

• If play resumes, there are a lot of potential hiccups, including the loathed rust. But Avalanche GM Joe Sakic sees the benefits of rest, too: namely, players getting healthier. (Mile High-Sticking)

• What if the NHL allows teams compliance or “amnesty” buyouts, what with the cap ceiling possibly staying flat or even shrinking? Blue Seat Blogs takes an interesting look at hypothetical buyouts for the Rangers. The choices range from obvious (Marc Staal, Brendan Smith) to tricky but logical (Henrik Lundqvist) to a bold mulligan in Jacob Trouba. Fascinating. (Blue Seat)

• Plenty of teams should consider adding a big, talented, right-handed defenseman like Dustin Byfuglien if he isn’t simply going to retire. Here’s a look at how such a setup might work with the Coyotes. By Five for Howling’s parameters, I’m not sure if that would be the right fit for Big Buffy. (Five for Howling)

• The Senators hired Anthony LeBlanc as their new president of business operations. You may remember LeBlanc from his lengthy run as co-owner of the Coyotes. LeBlanc seems to be a busy fellow, as he’s also trying to bring a CFL team to the Halifax area. (Ottawa Sun)

• As someone who misses the brief-but-brilliant days where the Dallas Stars were aggressive and fun with Tyler Seguin on the roster, it’s nice to see other observers asking for the team to change their style from the current, very defensive-minded leaning. Could such a plan require an outside-the-box (and outside of North America) coaching hire? (Defending Big D)

• The Devils face tough decisions, including on two “interims” (GM Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Alain Nasreddine). They also must figure out what to do with Cory Schneider. Would a buyout or trade make sense, or should they just see what he can accomplish in 2020-21? (NJ.com)

• Meghan Chayka helped organize Zoom sessions cheekily titled “Hockey (Analytics) Night in Canada.” Read more about it at Sportsnet. (Sportsnet)

• Rotoworld held a mock draft for the 2020-21 season. Check out the results, along with interesting insight from Ryan Dadoun, who has frequently contributed to PHT. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost takes “All-Decade Teams” a step further. Rather than merely picking a handful of players from around the league, Yost targets selections for each NHL squad. While that’s a more expansive effort, it will provide people with an opportunity to argue about picks. That’s what is really important, right? (TSN) Sznajder

• Corey Sznajder provided a very detailed breakdown of a memorable 1996 Game 7 between the Blues and Red Wings. This stuff goes much deeper than that iconic Steve Yzerman goal, as you’ll quickly realize. (The Energy Line)

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.