Niklas Kronwall

Free agent market for defensemen looks thin without Karlsson

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After the Sharks signed Erik Karlsson to that megalodon of an extension on Monday, the already-thin free agent market for defensemen dried up that much more. It’s tempting to depict that group as a tumbleweed rolling through a dusty town.

Of course, that’s not totally fair.

There are a few good defensemen available, at least if teams find the right combination of contract and role.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always so sober when demand simply can’t meet supply, as there simply aren’t a lot of great UFA options when it comes to defensemen. Scratch that: there simply aren’t a lot of passable UFA options, at least when you consider likely price tags.

With some help from Cap Friendly’s UFA tools, let’s look at the most prominent potential UFA defensemen, and try to get an idea regarding whether they’re worth splurging on.

Let’s start with Jake Gardiner, who in my opinion is the best option potentially available, and then contrast Gardiner with Tyler Myers, who stands out as a huge risk for less savvy NHL teams.

Also, a quick note: there’s a chance that some of these defensemen will just return to their current teams, rather than hitting the free agent market. So keep that in mind, too.

  • Jake Gardiner: The 28-year-old has been the Maple Leafs’ second-best defensemen for some time now, which may rank as a curse more than anything else. Every mistake is magnified, and every wart shines under the spotlight.

Overall, Gardiner is a very productive scoring defenseman – throwing out lockout seasons, he’s only failed to reach 30+ points once – and tends to check out pretty well from a possession standpoint.

Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he’s every good, particularly when you realize just how tough it is to land quality blueliners. If I were a GM who absolutely needed to get better on defense now, and couldn’t pull off a trade, Gardiner would be far and away my target. But, if he gets paid too much, then Gardiner will be a go-to scapegoat. Sadly, that’s just how sports work.

Looking at Evolving Wild’s salary projections spreadsheet, a potential Gardiner contract would clock in at seven years, with just less than $7 million in AAV. That term leads me to believe that Gardiner would eventually become a source of harsh scorn, but really, giving scary term away is just the nature of the beast. (I’m a huge proponent for Erik Karlsson, but that deal adds a huge block to what was already a wobbly Jenga puzzle that is the Sharks’ salary structure.)

I don’t know if $7M-ish is ideal for Gardiner, and big term would scare me, but teams could do worse, especially if they’re really opening up their wallets.

[More: Sharks’ salary cap challenges after Karlsson extension]

  • Tyler Myers: While Gardiner tends to shoulder too much blame, Myers sometimes gets a free pass from hockey people.

Those hockey people see a massive 29-year-old defenseman who can score, and who can skate remarkably well for his size. For whatever reason, many look away from Myers’ mistakes more than they would with Gardiner, and that’s a problem since Myers takes away more from the table than someone like Gardiner does.

The red flags become flashing neon signs the deeper you look.

Sean Tierney’s Visualization uses Evolving Wild’s GAR metrics to provide a snapshot of certain player values, and it’s eye-popping to see how poorly Myers checks out, including looking worse than Dmitry Kulikov, a defenseman the Jets should be eager to trade away for cap space:

Via Sean Tierney, with Evolving Wild data

To be clear: I’m not saying that Myers can’t be the type of player who would help a team. Instead, I’m saying that he profiles as someone who will cost way too much, and thus will be asked to do too much, and there’s a strong chance that an expensive mistake would be made.

Again, there are a lot of red flags, and I’m not alone in seeing them with Myers.

  • Alexander Edler: For the second season in a row, the veteran defenseman scored 34 points, and this last time he did so in just 56 regular-season games. The 33-year-old generally brings a respectable two-way game to the table, too, so there’s some appeal there.

Edler’s an interesting choice if a team can stomach forking over a fairly beefy cap hit, but doesn’t want to hand out the sort of term Gardiner-types likely will demand.

At 33, there’s definitely a risk of a plummet, especially if Edler mainly looks promising compared to a rough group of Canucks defensemen, and might not be that much of a difference-maker on a contender.

So, there are some worries … but Edler is one of the better options beyond Gardiner, at least if you’re talking about more prominent choices (assuming he makes it to UFA status).

  • Anton Stralman – There was a time when Stralman was underrated, but now the risk is that a team’s view of the Swede would be steeped in the past. Stralman’s not the same player at 32, and the projected cost of $4.5M AAV for three years is downright scary for a potential suitor.

Now, could Stralman be a reclamation project if he fell into a PTO-type situation? That would be a fair question to ask. Actually, most of the veterans on this list should be approached that way. If you like a guy, don’t splurge early and heighten your risks. Instead, hope for a tepid market, and strike. If not? Chances are, you saved yourself money and a roster spot.

  • Jordie Benn, Patrik Nemeth – On one hand, you could make bigger mistakes. On the other hand … are you sure that you can’t get similar value from a prospects climbing to the NHL?
  • Braydon Coburn – At 34, an older version of Benn/Nemeth.
  • Niklas Kronwall, Dion Phaneuf – Name recognition might let them hang around, but your team is likely better off looking elsewhere.
  • Ron Hainsey, Deryk Engelland – Two players who’ve generally exceeded low expectations lately. Unfortunately, that only means so much, and you can’t ignore just how old they are. Hainsey is 38, and Engelland is 37. Veterans like these can get a salary boost because of past accomplishments, and that could be enough to drop them from “Eh” to “Oh no.”
  • Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Adam McQuaid – More former Rangers defensemen teams might ponder, and more “Meh.”

If you’re like me, you’ve grimaced at quite a few names on this list, or at best shrugged your shoulders.

To reiterate, not every hypothetical situation ends in disasters. PHT will monitor this offseason for that very reason: maybe a team will be creative in making something work, or conversely, make huge mistakes based on faulty assumptions.

As far as moves that can be truly substantial, Gardiner stands out as the most appealing option; even then, handing Gardiner big money and big term is pretty scary. So … the UFA route ultimately seems like a perilous one, at least for defensemen.

That’s just one person’s opinion, however. Would you want your team to go after any of the above defensemen, or other options on this list?

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.

Red Wings’ Kronwall delivers devastating, questionable hit on Islanders’ Lee

Sportsnet
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No one walks the clean hit/dirty hit tightrope like Niklas Kronwall.

There are several montages on YouTube of Kronwall Kronwalling opponents. Some of them are hard but clean hits. Others are, well, questionable at best and there’s another one to add to that column from Saturday night.

With the Detroit Red Wings up 2-0 in the first period, Kronwall lined up Anders Lee of the New York Islanders, who was picking up a loose puck on along the boards in the neutral zone. Like many of Kronwall’s hits, it was a devastating thump.

Here’s the hit:

Lee’s head appears to be the principal point of contact and he was forced to leave the game.

UPDATE: Lee did not come out to start the second period but returned later in the frame

The comments section is going to be full of, ‘Lee needs to keep his head up.’

That is true. The player has a responsibility to protect himself.

But what is also true is this: Just because a guy’s head is down doesn’t mean there’s free rein to pulverize his brain.

Kronwall had some time to change how he was going to hit Lee, either the angle or the magnitude of the force of it.

Josh Bailey went for retribution later in the period, first getting a slew foot in on Kronwall and then fighting Dylan Larkin.

Lee leads the Islanders with 11 goals and is tied with Josh Bailey for the most points with 22.

Time will tell, but you have to imagine that George Parros and the Department of Player Safety will give this one a long look.


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

Datsyuk’s rehab taking longer than expected

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When Pavel Datsyuk underwent ankle surgery in June, there was hope he’d be ready to start the regular season.

That hope appears to have faded.

Via MLive and Puck Daddy, the 37-year-old told SVT.se that the rehabilitation time has proven to be considerably longer than first thought. As a result, he may be out of action four or five months, which could push the start of his season into November.

Datsyuk only has two years left on his contract. While he still has the ability to dazzle, his injury log is only growing longer as his time in the NHL winds down. He hasn’t played more than 70 games since 2009-10.

That Henrik Zetterberg, the Wings’ other great center, and Niklas Kronwall, still their best defenseman, are each 34 years old only adds to the urgency to make a run at the Stanley Cup, before the reins are officially handed to the next generation.

Related: On the difference between ‘good’ and ‘big-time’ players

Detroit signs Smith to two-year, $5.5 million extension

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The Red Wings have reached an agreement with RFA blueliner Brendan Smith, signing him to a two-year, $5.5 million deal with a $2.75M average annual cap hit.

Smith, 26, was Detroit’s first-round pick at the 2007 draft and appeared in a career-high 76 games last year.

Despite that games played total, it wasn’t an incredibly successful campaign; Smith’s numbers took a dip (in points and minutes per game, specifically) and former head coach Mike Babcock made him a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the club’s opening-round series against Tampa Bay.

Still, Smith figures to be a fairly key cog of Detroit’s defense moving forward.

He’s scored himself a pretty decent raise — up from the $1.26M he was making annually on his old deal — and should be firmly planted in the top-six group alongside Niklas Kronwall, Kyle Quincey, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl and Danny DeKeyser next season.

Hedman’s stellar play draws attention to Olympic omission

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Defenseman Victor Hedman need some time to develop into a player worthy of the expectations thrust upon him when he was taken with the second overall pick of the 2009 NHL Entry, but he’s certainly been a big part of the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

In fact, Hedman has been playing at an elite level for a little while now and it’s gotten to the point where it’s encouraged of a reexamining of Sweden’s 2014 Olympic roster decisions. He was left off that team as they went with a defensive core of Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya, and Henrik Tallinder. That group is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but was there really no room in there for Hedman?

Swedish coach Par Marts was the one to reject Hedman and he doesn’t regret that decision, per Aftonbladet. As he pointed out, it’s easy to criticize in hindsight and he argued that Hedman wouldn’t have gotten the ice time he deserved if he was put on the roster, in part because they leaned towards the defensive pairings in Detroit (Ericsson-Kronwall) and Chicago (Hjalmarsson-Oduya). At the same time though, plenty of star players go into the Olympics with the understanding that they won’t get the minutes that they’re accustomed to.

“I was surprised that he didn’t make the team,” Blackhawks defenseman Hjalmarsson said during Tuesday’s press availability. “Obviously he’s a good player.”

Hedman admitted to being disappointed, but he said it wasn’t difficult for him to switch his focus to Tampa Bay’s next game after finding out he wouldn’t make the team. Certainly he has plenty to be pleased about at this point as he took another step forward in 2014-15 and needs just two more wins to win the Cup.

Marts did leave the door open to him reaching out to Hedman over the summer. The fact that he didn’t make the 2014 team was eyebrow raising, but it will be a far bigger story if NHL players go to the 2018 Olympics and Hedman is once again left off the roster.