Justin Braun

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.

Flyers’ playoff hopes take a hit with Gostisbehere injury

Flyers Gostisbehere out three weeks
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If the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs began before Thursday’s games, the Philadelphia Flyers would make it. The Flyers face a challenge in maintaining their grip, and that hill got steeper with Shayne Gostisbehere sidelined.

The team announced that Gostisbehere is expected to miss about three weeks thanks to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. (The actual procedure is set to take place on Tuesday.)

The Flyers defense already started 2020 on a down note, as Justin Braun could be out through the All-Star break as he deals with a groin injury. Combine those defense injuries to Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer and Nolan Patrick‘s continued migraine issues and the losses start to pile up.

Philly nonetheless stands as the East’s final wild card team thanks to a 23-15-6 record (52 points in 44 games played). The Flyers hold at least a two-point edge over teams underneath them, which isn’t a huge buffer, but it certainly could be worse.

What Flyers lose in Gostisbehere

Look, there’s no denying that Gostisbehere’s seen a significant drop in production.

Clearly, Gostisbehere played a little over his head when he reached 65 points in 2017-18. Otherwise, “Ghost Bear” fell in the 37-46 point range during recent seasons.

Unfortunately, his defensive lapses become tougher to stomach when that offense dries up. And, boy, did it ever dry up this season.

Gostisbehere managed just 12 points in 40 games so far in 2019-20. You can’t really blame puck luck, either; five of his points are goals, and his on-ice shooting percentage actually increased from 2018-19. Gostisbehere’s ice time follows similar patterns. He set an average he may never match in 2017-18 (21:27 TOI per game), settled down last season (19:40) and hit a new low as a full-timer this season (18:21).

Those stats are troubling, and honestly, a little bewildering … but the Flyers will miss even a struggling Ghost.

Without Gostisbehere, Flyers may need to lean on inexperienced players

Gostisbehere averaged 2:36 of his 18:21 TOI on the power play, so that stands out as the first riddle Alain Vigneault must solve.

Judging by Left Wing Lock’s combos, Ghost’s loss could be Travis Sanheim‘s gain. Sanheim only averaged 27 seconds of his 19:52 minutes on the power play, so it will be interesting to see if he plays a bit less in other situations, or merely carries a heavier burden.

In pondering the impact of Gostisbehere’s loss, NBC Sports Philly’s Jordan Hall noted the defense’s inexperience:

Including Wednesday night’s contest, [Matt] Niskanen has played 924 career games, while the other five healthy blueliners have combined to play 692 games — Ivan Provorov at 290, Hagg 178, Travis Sanheim 175, Philippe Myers 47 and [Mark] Friedman two.

It could have been worse

Honestly, when I hear “knee surgery” of any kind, I expect an absence of more than three weeks (or so). Tip your cap to modern medicine, in this case.

The damage seems less severe when you consider mitigating factors like off time, too.

Of course, things are tight for the Flyers. They can’t merely shrug their shoulders at six games. All things considered, it could have been worse, though.

Also, if Gostisbehere has been slowed by a nagging knee issue, maybe he’ll bounce back? Expecting too big of a rebound in 2019-20 might be foolish, but … hey, modern medicine has come a long way.

This absence will test how far Sanheim, Vigneault, and other Flyers have come, too.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: The Sharks lost a lot this offseason, with Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Braun all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of talent (and goals) leaving, and while Braun wasn’t one of their top defenders he still played 20 minutes per night. That is a lot to replace in one summer and it would be awfully difficult to say right now that the Sharks, on paper, are better than the team that ended the 2018-19 season. They are still really good, but they have a lot to replace.

Strengths: It is the defense. How can it not be the defense? The Sharks have two Norris Trophy winners in Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns leading their blue line, and both look to be contenders for the award for the foreseeable future. Their No. 3 defender, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, is no slouch either. That is as good of a top-three as you will find anywhere in the NHL. The biggest key will be Karlsson staying healthy as he has missed 40 games over the past two years, including 29 a year ago.

Weaknesses: Until they show otherwise this team’s Achilles Heel will be in net. The Martin Jones and Aaron Dell duo was the league’s worst a year ago, and it remains a testament to how great the rest of the team was in front of them that the goaltending performance did not completely ruin their chances. Teams that get the level of goaltending the Sharks received tend to miss the playoffs. The Sharks not only still made the playoffs, they were a contender. With the team around them looking a little thinner in some areas it just puts even more pressure on the goalies to perform.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor | Three Questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The most vulnerable coaches at the start of each season tend to be the ones that have been with a team for a few years, have high expectations, and have not yet won it all. That pretty much describes Pete DeBoer’s situation in San Jose. He would not seem to be in immediate danger, but if the Sharks get off a slow start or regress this season he might start to feel a little more pressure, if for no other reason than the old “shake things up” coaching change. He is a 6 out of 10 on the hot seat rating.

Three most fascinating players: Jones, Joe Thornton, and Kevin Labanc.

There is no way to sugarcoat Jones’ performance a year ago — it was bad. But for as bad as it was, his overall track record in the NHL is a mostly solid one. He backstopped the Sharks to a Stanley Cup Final appearance a few years ago, he has received Vezina Trophy votes in two different seasons (finishing 6th and 7th) and his overall numbers are at least a league average level. He is definitely capable of better than he showed. Was last year a fluke? Or was it a sign of things to come for him in the Sharks’ net? Not to put too much pressure on one player, but the answer to those questions will play a big role in what the Sharks are capable of this season.

Thornton is back for yet another run at that elusive championship. He may be 40 years old, but he showed a year ago he can still play a big role for a contender with 50 points and dominant possession numbers. The Sharks lost a lot over the summer, but being able to bring back Karlsson and Thornton were big wins for the front office.

Labanc has shown steady improvement every year he has been in the NHL and is coming off an impressive 56-point season that made him one of the team’s top scorers. That is why it was so surprising to see him sign a one-year, bargain contract as a restricted free agent this summer. It was a big bet on himself and if he can continue to develop into a top-line scorer he should be in line for a significant contract this summer. With Pavelsi, Donskoi, and Nyquist out the door he should get a pretty big opportunity to play an increased role in the offense.

Playoffs or lottery: They may not be as strong on paper, but this is still not only a playoff team, it is one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. They lost some talent, but they still have Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and Labanc up front, they have an elite defense, and while the goaltending is a question mark and a potential problem, Jones’ track record in the NHL suggests he should be better. Still one of the best teams in the Western Conference and the entire league.

MORE:
Sharks open camp with new captain after Pavelski’s departure
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers’ Fletcher continues to be the anti-Hextall

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When the Philadelphia Flyers fired Ron Hextall back in November it was pretty obvious the organization had become fed up with his patient approach to building the roster.

During his time as the team’s general manager, Hextall completed just 14 (mostly) insignificant trades and made only a handful of headline grabbing free agent signings (bringing back James van Riemsdyk).

Among the trades he made…

  • One of them involved nothing but draft picks as he moved down four spots in the 2016 first round.
  • Two of them were done for the purposes of dumping significant amounts of salary still owed to the likes of Chris Pronger, Luke Schenn, and Vincent Lecavalier.
  • There were a couple of minor trade deadline deals involving rentals and mid-round draft picks. Nothing that was ever going to move the needle. The most significant trade was probably moving Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera and two first-round draft picks.

This type of inaction was never going to sit well with a team like the Flyers whose entire existence is synonymous with chaos, whether it be on the ice or making bold moves to re-shape the roster.

When discussing the firing of Hextall, Paul Holmgren (who had his share of completely insane roster overhaul as the team’s general manager) said the front office and Hextall “no longer share the same philosophical approach concerning the direction of the team,” while CEO Dave Scott literally said they were looking for a GM that had a “bias for action.”

Well, Chuck Fletcher has certainly been that, and he continued it on Monday afternoon when he traded restricted free agent Ryan Hartman to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Tyler Pitlick.

It is by no means an earth-shattering trade, and is really only noteworthy for two reasons.

The first being that it shows just how far Hartman’s stock has fallen in a short period of time. Keep in mind, he was traded (from Chicago to Nashville) for a first-round pick not even 18 months ago, and was then sent to the Flyers at this year’s trade deadline in the deal that sent Wayne Simmonds to the Predators.

Now he is off to Dallas for in a one-for-one swap for a fourth-liner that is three years older than him.

The second reason is that it is already the ninth trade that Fletcher has made since December when he was hired by the Flyers, and that number is not counting the two trades he made at the NHL draft over the weekend where he moved down from the 11th pick to the 14th pick in the first round, and then later completed a swap of seventh-round picks with the Montreal Canadiens.

There is your bias for action.

This is already Fletcher’s fourth trade this offseason involving NHL roster players after trading Radko Gudas to the Washington Capitals for Matt Niskanen, trading draft picks to the San Jose Sharks for Justin Braun, and giving up a draft pick for the rights to unrestricted free agent Kevin Hayes and then signing him to a massive contract to keep him off the open market.

When it comes to roster moves and action he is already the anti-Ron Hextall.

But what does this mean for the results on the ice?

Until the offseason most of the trades Fletcher completed were lateral moves, like trading Anthony Stolarz for a few months of Cam Talbot, or dumping veterans at the deadline in what had quickly become a lost season.

But the summer trades have become a little more meaningful and costly.

Adding Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun to your blue line would have probably been a good idea if it was still 2015. But it’s not still 2015. Neither player is what they were a few years ago, their additions added some pretty significant salary to the Flyers’ cap situation, while there is a pretty strong argument to be made that Gudas is better than both new players at this very moment in their respective careers.

As for Hayes, well, he is a pretty good player and would have probably received a similar contract on the open market had he reached free agency, but he is now the third-highest paid player on the roster and currently has one of the 45 biggest cap hits in the league … all for a 27-year-old that has topped 20 goals and 50 points in a single season exactly one time. It seems almost inevitable that within four years (maybe less) they are going to be eating salary in a trade when trying to move that contract to another team.

At the risk of overusing a tired sports cliche when it comes to roster construction, there is a “rearranging the deck chairs” kind of vibe to what is happening with the Flyers so far under Fletcher.

The names and faces are different, but the overall outlook is still pretty much the same.

It was clear that Hextall’s patient approach was not moving the Flyers forward because keeping the same roster in place was only maintaining the mediocrity the team had sunk into.

Fletcher has definitely been more aggressive and proactive in trying to improve the team, but it remains to be seen how much better they are after all of the dust settles.

They are a very different team, yes.

But are they a better team in any sort of meaningful way?

That answer will largely depend on how much Niskanen and Braun still have remaining in the tank and how much you like Kevin Hayes.

More from the Flyers
Flyers acquire Justin Braun as Sharks shed salary
Flyers trade Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen
Flyers, Hayes agree to seven-year, $50 million contract 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.