Kevin Shattenkirk

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.

Mikhail Sergachev thinks Lightning will find a way to work out his next contract

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev contract salary cap
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By just about any standard, it sure doesn’t look like it will be easy for the Lightning to sign pending RFA defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a new contract. Sergachev told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen that he believes it will all work out, though.

“It’s a little different obviously right now, but I’m trying to leave it to my agent (Mark Gandler),” Sergachev said on Thursday, via Rosen. “He’s going to deal with it, I guess. But for me, I just want to continue the season, play and get better and see what happens. I feel like they’re going to work out something. I have a good agent.”

Here’s why this is an interesting situation to watch, considering Sergachev’s potential, and also the Lightning’s larger cap challenges.

What is the right contract?

Sergachev, 21, really earned more trust — and playing time — from the Lightning this season.

Sergachev’s ice time climbed from 15:22 per game in 2017-18 to 17:55 in 2018-19, and finally 20:22 on average this season. Despite the pause, Sergachev set career-highs in goals (10) and points (34).

The Lightning see improvements in his all-around play, too, as Victor Hedman noted to The Athletic’s Joe Smith in January (sub required).

“He’s evolved into a great two-way defenseman,” Hedman said. “ … He’s an unbelievable talent offensively, we all know that. But the shot blocks, the hits, the way he plays in his own end, it’s fun to watch.

“I’ve said this many times before, the sky is the limit for this guy. This is just the start.”

During certain stretches, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lightning were holding Sergachev back a bit.

Such a thought makes you wonder if we haven’t really seen his offensive ceiling yet. On the other hand, theoretically, veteran defenseman Hedman and Ryan McDonagh could also insulate Sergachev defensively.

So what’s a fair contract for Sergachev? Again, it’s tough to tell.

Using Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool while adjusting for an $81.5M cap hit, the anticipated deal might be for eight years with a $6.5M cap hit. While Evolving Hockey’s model puts an eight-year deal at a 32-percent chance, other most likely outcomes sit at six years (25 percent) or a two-year bridge (13%).

Let’s zoom out, though, as the Lightning’s overall situation and history could factor into Sergachev’s individual value.

Can the Lightning pull off salary cap magic again with Sergachev, Cirelli, Cernak?

Time and time again, we’ve seen the Lightning pull off serious wizardry in tight cap situations. All of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman signed for less than market value.

Watching Alex Killorn zoom around Tampa Bay docks on his jet ski provides a reminder of why they took discounts, along with the “playing for a really good team in a state with tax breaks” factors.

Financial blowback from COVID-19 might make this offseason the trickiest one yet for Tampa Bay. After all, they were already anticipating some challenges if the cap went up to, say, $84.5M or so.

When rating all 31 NHL teams’ salary cap situations, The Athletic’s James Mirtle ranked Lightning dead last (sub required).

(You’d think it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be compared to a “deep-fried pickle,” but alas.)

Via Cap Friendly, the Lightning already have $76.16M devoted to 15 players for 2020-21. That’s before you factor in new contracts for Sergachev, but also dark horse Selke candidate Anthony Cirelli, and useful defenseman Erik Cernak.

Going back to Evolving Hockey’s projection tool, hypothetical estimates combine the three at $14-$15M. Even Mirtle’s more generous estimate would tack on $11M.

(Frankly, if the Lightning signed Sergachev and Cirelli for $11M, let alone Cernak, they’d be getting great deals.)

But, yeah, we’ve seen players accept less than they might otherwise get with the Lightning. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this happen again, especially if Sergachev is OK betting on himself by taking a shorter “bridge” deal.

Even so, expect painful losses for the Lightning. It’s tough to imagine bargain bin free agent Kevin Shattenkirk squeezing in again, and you’d expect Tampa Bay to lose one or more of Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde.

Yes, there are worse problems to have … which is probably why Sergachev will just relax and do cat-centric exercises rather than worrying too much.

More on the Lightning:

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.

What is the Lightning’s long-term outlook?

Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning
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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 Tampa Bay Lightning.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Lightning have been favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the past few seasons due to their cornerstone pieces at every level. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov lead the forward group and are the top two point scorers on the Bolts roster through the first 70 games. Victor Hedman is the most prominent name on a well-balanced blueline and Andrei Vasilevskiy was in the discussion for the Vezina Trophy.

In addition to the stellar building blocks, the Lightning also have secondary offensive firepower. Brayden Point is close to becoming a foundational player, if he is not there already. Alex Killorn was closing in on a 30-goal season, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde and others contribute in a meaningful way.

Tampa Bay also hasn’t seen the true impact of trade deadline acquisitions of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

The Lightning have all the pieces needed to accomplish their goal of winning a championship but remain in limbo until society solves the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-Term Needs

The wish list in Tampa Bay is quite short. The organization has accomplished a lot in recent years but still needs to get over the final hump and win a Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Lightning’s regular season performance had little impact on the judgment of this team as long as they reached the postseason.

The long-term needs for the franchise are essentially the same as other teams that have a core in place and compete for a championship year in and year out. Find value in the NHL Draft process and continue to produce prospects that can contribute in one way or another to the varsity team. General manager Julien BriseBois also needs to manage the salary cap effectively and not fall into the trap of paying for past performances but rather remain focused on the future.

Long-Term Strengths

The best asset of the organization is their current core group of players. Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Vasilevskiy are all locked up for the next several seasons. Point’s contract does not expire until the end of the 2021-22 season and is close to becoming an integral part of the team, if not already.

If the NHL season does not return, the Lightning will be one of the more fascinating teams to watch this upcoming offseason. Will they blow it up as if they didn’t achieve their goal? Does Jon Cooper remain coach? Or, do they take another shot at a championship next season and reevaluate at that time?

The pause in action created a murky situation for the future of several NHL teams and the Lightning are near the top of that list.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning biggest surprises and disappointments so far


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Biggest surprises, disappointments

Lightning surprises disappointments Shattenkirk Vasilevskiy
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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 surprises and disappointments for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lightning disappointments were mostly mild ones

If there’s one overwhelming disappointment for the Lightning’s season, it’s that it came to a pause, and may not end. That’s the elephant in the room for any credible contender, really, but the Lightning rank among the teams with the biggest reasons to gripe about the pandemic interruption.

Otherwise, finding deeper Lightning disappointments requires some probing. Allow a few attempts:

  • The Lightning stumbled out of the gate, for sure. At least by their standards.
  • In struggling early, they ceded the Atlantic Division to the Bruins. Home-ice advantage could be significant if the two titans meet in a second-round series.
  • Some seemingly promising players struggled. Let’s begin with Mathieu Joseph.

While Joseph wasn’t spectacular in 2018-19 (13 goals, 26 points), he was a useful contributor, especially considering modest ice time. Those contributions dried up in 2019-20, to the point that he played almost half of his games in the AHL.

  • Yanni Gourde didn’t suffer to the same degree as Joseph. Even so, Gourde only managed 10 games so far in 2019-20 after scoring 25 and 22 during his previous two seasons.
  • Also, it was kind of disappointing that Jon Cooper benched Nikita Kucherov during the season. Personally, I never dig it when a star player seems to get scapegoated.
  • It would be a letdown if the Lightning didn’t get to take advantage of “rentals” in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, even if they’re extended rentals anyway (since both are under contract through 2020-21).

Lightning enjoyed some pleasant surprises in players exceeding expectations

Count me among those who really liked the Lightning making a low-risk signing with Kevin Shattenkirk. Even so, I didn’t necessarily anticipate Shattenkirk enjoying this strong of a rebound year.

Along with tying Mikhail Sergachev — another bet who’s paying off nicely — with 34 points, Shattenkirk provided all-around value for the Lightning. Consider where Shattenkirk ranks on this team GAR chart at Evolving Hockey:

Lightning surprises disappointments GAR

That above chart provides a quick rundown of other Lightning players who enjoyed better-than-expected seasons. Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat also enjoyed strong seasons, sometimes riding plenty of friendly bounces.

Cirelli, Vasilevskiy end up even better than expected

As mentioned earlier today, Anthony Cirelli makes his way on plenty of analytics-leaning Selke Trophy lists.

His potential candidacy is also starting to earn a bit more attention beyond those niche circles. Ken Campbell featured Cirelli’s Selke credibility for The Hockey News in March, for example.

Cirelli’s teammates notice, too. The Athletic’s Joe Smith reports (sub required) that Tyler Johnson said Cirelli’s nickname is “Selke,” and maybe only half-jokingly. Reigning Selke winner Ryan O'Reilly can see why Cirelli is turning heads, too.

“Oh yeah, you can see it playing against him,” O’Reilly said, via Smith. “Seeing the way he frustrates and skates and does little details. We don’t really see him enough. But I know the times we have played against him, definitely, he’s a very impactful player.”

Let’s roll out that Cirelli backchanging GIF one more time, huh?

Just as importantly, Andrei Vasilevskiy enjoyed another splendid season.

This marks Vasilevskiy’s fourth season of at least a .917 save percentage, which was his mark in 2019-20. But people sometimes chalked up Vasilevskiy’s successes mostly to the team in front of him before.

Lately, though, he’s been standing out nicely in advanced stats, such as various websites “Goals Saved Against Average” formulas.

Being that the Lightning face salary cap crunches in trying to keep their impressive assembly of talent together, Vasilevskiy faces credit in justifying his upcoming $9.5M AAV — even before that salary actually kicks in.

If you ask me, Vasilevskiy certainly made a strong argument for his value in 2019-20. That’s a promising development for the reigning Vezina winner, whether you rank that sparkling work among the Lightning surprises or merely expected it.

MORE ON THE LIGHTNING
• Looking at the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning
• Lightning’s long-term outlook

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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.