Next NHL defensemen in line for huge free-agent contracts

After the most frenzied part of 2021 NHL Free Agency, there are plenty of takeaways. One of them: so much for that flat salary cap slowing down NHL spending, huh? But, to get more specific, there’s another thought: it’s a great time to be an NHL defenseman.

That goes for mid-grade and depth defensemen, who’ve signed one eye-popping free-agent contract after another.

Most crucially, though, we’ve seen a staggering array of free-agent mega-deals for prominent defensemen. Your mileage will vary based on which defensemen have a prayer of making those contracts worthwhile. But there’s no denying that NHL defensemen, their agents, and accountants got a lot, lot richer lately.

Let’s review some of the biggest recent free-agent contracts for NHL defensemen

Think of some of the NHL free-agent contracts (either for UFAs, or extensions on previous deals) that demanded people to reach deep into the reserves of shocked emojis:

  • We all felt so young-and-innocent when the Stars signed Miro Heiskanen (eight years, $8.45 million cap hit). When the Stars signed that Heiskanen deal on July 17, it seemed steep — even considering the hype he’s generated. Now it looks downright responsible.
  • Things really started to ramp up around Seth Jones. After paying a pretty penny to trade for Jones, the Blackhawks opted to give Jones an eight-year extension with a whopping $9.5M cap hit. That’s before Jones played a single shift for Chicago. If the troubling underlying numbers Jones put up are not an accident, well … too bad. The deal’s already in place.
  • Soon after, the Avalanche swooped in and signed Cale Makar to a contract that’s both big and easy to justify. The supremely talented (and beyond-his-22-years) defenseman signed for six years at a $9M clip. While that price follows a pattern, Makar breaks some of the other trends by being undeniably worth it. In fact, it was almost a trope to see “[Less of a sure thing] is making more than Cale Makar!”
  • Late-ish on the first day of 2021 NHL Free Agency, the Devils landed the big fish in Dougie Hamilton: seven years, $9M AAV. While Jones is the “Hockey Men” choice despite bad underlying stats, Hamilton’s the opposite. His work is off-the-charts, but old-school types tend to sour on Hamilton for a variety of reasons. It’s a big chunk of change, whether it looks smart, foolish, or somewhere in the middle.
  • Finally — for now — the Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by signing Zachary Werenski to a six-year contract with a mammoth $9.583M million cap hit.

In the span of a couple weeks, the ranks of the hyper-rich NHL defensemen swelled like Werenski’s wallet.

So, to paraphrase poet Bill Goldberg, “Who’s next?”

Between the rest of this offseason, all the way through 2022 NHL Free Agency, we could see more big free-agent contracts for NHL defensemen. Let’s see who’s in line for new deals.

First, we’ll begin with players who don’t have contracts for the 2021-22 season. Then, we’ll move onto defensemen entering contract years, who can sign an extension. (Will it be for Werenski money, though?)

Dahlin, Hughes, could be up for big free-agent contracts, RFAs or not

Quinn Hughes

During this key offseason, Canucks GM Jim Benning faced a difficult balancing act. His goal was to make the Canucks better, while also opening up room to sign star RFAs Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson.

From a making the Canucks better standpoint, it’s been a mixed bag. (Signing Travis Hamonic for nearly $6 million over two years? That’s certainly a choice.)

As far as signing Hughes and Pettersson goes? Also kind of a mixed bag.

Cap Friendly estimates the Canucks’ cap space at about $14.06 million. That’s without signing Pettersson and Hughes, and Jason Dickinson also sticks out as an RFA.

Evolving Hockey’s wonderful contract projection tool estimates the most likely Quinn Hughes contract at six years with a $7.017M. But could Werenski and other extensions raise the bar for Hughes? By certain metrics, Werenski is a more well-rounded player:

Which other NHL defensemen could sign massive free-agent contracts? Hughes Werenski ev comp
via Evolving Hockey

But, as we’ve seen from the Blackhawks defiantly paying Jones before he played a single shift in their uniform, all that really matters is what one team will pay for a player. Both Werenski and Hughes have parallels in the broadest senses: offensively adept, mixed feelings about their defense, young and left-handed. Naturally, it’s not a one-to-one comparison (Hughes is younger; the Blue Jackets were desperate not to lose another big name). Yet, it’s still interesting to wonder if Werenski and other big-money contracts might push Hughes’ asking price above that $7M-ish estimate.

(Shorter, “bridge” deals prompted lower guesses.)

Again, Hughes’ situation is made more complicated by Pettersson being in a similar boat. For what it’s worth, Evolving Hockey leans toward a “bridge” deal for Pettersson, specifically, at about $5M.

If those predictions are correct, then the Canucks could probably make this work.

In a smarter, bolder, more aggressive NHL, someone might swoop in with an offer sheet to make things more uncomfortable. Luckily for the Canucks, Hughes is not eligible for an offer sheet (but Pettersson is).

Rasmus Dahlin

On one hand, hockey analysis — including in NHL front offices — has become a lot more sophisticated.

That said, some of the surprising contracts remind us that reputation and narratives matter a lot. When people decide Seth Jones is a $9.5M defenseman, they’ll ignore any number of charts and footage of mildly troubling tendencies.

Generally, teams still get lured in by big point totals, too. Even if those points sometimes feel like empty calories (sorry, Tyson Barrie and Mike Hoffman).

All of these factors make it difficult to tell what’s going to happen between Rasmus Dahlin and the Buffalo Sabres.

On one hand, Dahlin’s produced some decent counting stats. He generated 44 points as a rookie in 2018-19, and 40 points in 59 games in 2019-20. Last season wasn’t as pretty, as Dahlin produced 23 points in 56 games.

As far as his overall work, though? It’s been a little disappointing — at least for a defenseman who’s been as hyped as any top blueline prospect in recent memory.

Does some of that come down to the Sabres? I’d argue yes. His usage has been a bit erratic, and the team didn’t always play to his strengths.

Still, it’s difficult to shake the impression that expectations are much, much lower for Dahlin. He’s definitely struggled defensively at times.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projection tool forecasts a six-year deal between Dahlin and the Sabres, at about $6M. Would a “prove it” deal be likely? How much are the rebuilding Sabres willing to commit? It could be an interesting situation all-around.

Adam Pelech, plus a few other free-agent NHL defensemen of note

Last offseason, the Islanders struggled with their cap crunch. That pain shined brightest when they had to trade Devon Toews in what ended up being a steal for the Avalanche.

This season, they’re far better positioned to deal with the challenge of signing a defenseman who’s better than most people likely realize.

At 26, Adam Pelech is on the older end of this group of RFA defensemen. He also lacks the flash of Hughes’ and Dahlin’s scoring numbers. Yet, the combination of Pelech and Ryan Pulock quietly gave the Islanders one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL.

If the Islanders manage to land Pelech in the projected four-year, $4.324M cap hit range, it would be a steal. We’ll see if a rabid NHL free-agent market moves the goalposts at all.

Some other noteworthy NHL defensemen in need of new contracts as RFAs:

NHL defensemen entering contract years, who could sign extensions

Naturally, there are a lot of NHL defensemen entering contract years, who could sign extensions. That net could get really wide, then, if we mention a veteran like Mark Giordano.

To keep it simple, let’s consider potential big raises for younger defensemen most likely to sign Werenski/Jones-type extensions.

Adam Fox

Imagine Adam Fox, 23-year-old reigning Norris Trophy winner, watching the big-money deals fly in.

You’ve got to think he could ask for something comparable to what Norris runner-up Cale Makar received, right? Maybe a bit more? Earlier rumors indicated that Fox might want to wait, rather than sign a contract extension. Would an offer be too much to resist if it was in the Makar range? Could he somehow drive his value even higher by playing out the 2022-23 season?

(Good thing he has that Harvard brain to figure this out.)

The Rangers need to be careful here. Like Fox, Kaapo Kakko approaches a contract year. Meanwhile, Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his ELC. Mika Zibanejad‘s bargain $5.35 AAV runs out after next season. The core of this team could get expensive, quickly, and Fox might be the most expensive piece of them all (outside of Artemi Panarin … we think?).

Charlie McAvoy

Slowly, but surely, people are catching on to just how great Charlie McAvoy is. With that in mind, the Bruins might want to bite the bullet and sign the 23-year-old to a contract extension now. If not, it wouldn’t be outrageous to imagine McAvoy having a Norris Trophy on his resume. (Or at least a bullet point about being a finalist.)

Granted, injuries have been an issue at times. Also, with defense being his biggest calling card, he might not have the same selling ability as some of the higher-scoring, more porous comparison points.

Peruse the Bruins ‘roster, and marvel at how often they’ve convinced their best players to accept less than market value. That happened back with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. They got a steal with David Pastrnak, and Taylor Hall‘s a pleasant surprise. If the Bruins don’t pay much more than McAvoy’s current $4.9M cap hit on his next deal, then they might be magicians, or wizards. Super powers may be involved.

Pending UFAs who may be in line for extensions and/or big raises

  • Maybe the Islanders should just sign Pulock and Pelech now? While Pelech needs a new deal as an RFA, Pulock enters 2022-23 as a pending UFA. Might be wise to lock them up before people truly catch on to their own-zone dominance.
  • Will the Flyers echo the Blackhawks extending Jones by locking down Ristolainen prior to his contract expiring? They haven’t yet. If they do before learning how Ristolainen fits, there will be plenty of criticisms.
  • Morgan Rielly‘s great offensively, but suspect defensively. That’s the sort of summary you hear about a defenseman who signs a perilous contract. Will that happen with Rielly? What’s his future with the Maple Leafs?
  • Could Darnell Nurse be another quality defenseman whose next contract looks scary?

High risk, mystery rewards

When it comes to big NHL free-agent contracts (and extensions), you don’t always get what you “pay for.”

Just about anyone cringes at Erik Karlsson‘s contract. People should cringe basically just as much at the Drew Doughty deal. Even one people haven’t soured on could quickly turn that way — does it really behoove the troubled Predators to pay Roman Josi $9M per year?

Despite many red flags, and adjacent albatrosses like the Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract, teams clearly believe that risky free-agent contracts are simply unavoidable for NHL defensemen.

Simply put, they’re betting that they’re right. Considering some of the names in this post, that casino will be buzzing with activity during the next year or so.

(Hey, at least it’s not your money, right?)

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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.

David Krejci leaving Bruins to return to Czech Republic

Th Bruins are losing a significant member of their core as longtime center David Krejci announced on Friday that he is leaving the NHL to return to the Czech Republic.

Krejci, who’s contract expired after the 2020-21 NHL season, said in a statement that he made the important decision to return home where he can play in front of his family who have sacrificed so much to help him achieve his professional dreams. Along with that he said it is very important for him that his children spend time where he grew up and get an opportunity to meet Czech family members.

Krejci, 35, has been a member of the Bruins since 2006-07 season, scoring 215 goals and 730 total points in 962 regular-season games. He has also been one of the best playoff performers in franchise history with 124 points in 156 playoff games, helping the franchise to three different Stanley Cup Finals and one championship.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

In the short-term this is a big loss for the Bruins because they were almost certainly expecting him to again center their second line between Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. That line was outstanding last year after Hall was acquired at the trade deadline, and it gave the Bruins a great complement to their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.

For years the Bruins had Krejci centering a second line that was weak on the wings. Now they have the wings to form a great second line and (for the time being) nobody to center them.

One option to consider: It might put them in the running for Sabres superstar Jack Eichel. It would be costly to get Buffalo trade him within the division, it would require some salary cap maneuvering, but it would be intriguing. But whether it is him or somebody else the Bruins definitely have a need for that spot in their lineup.

Blue Jackets re-sign Werenski to monster 6-year, $57.5 million contract

The Columbus Blue Jackets have had a problem retaining star players over the years. It seemed possible that Zach Werenski could be the next to be on the move in the not too distant future. Well you can forget about that for now because on Thursday night the Blue Jackets announced the team has signed Werenski to a whopping six-year, $57.5 million contract that will make him one of the highest paid defensemen in the entire NHL.

The $9.583 million salary cap hit is the third largest among NHL defenseman, trailing only Erik Karlsson and Drew Doughty.

He is under contract for this season at a $5 million salary cap hit with his new deal kicking in for the start of the 2022-23 season.

The signing comes just a week after the Blue Jackets traded his long-time defense partner, Seth Jones, to the Chicago Blackhawks where he promptly signed an eight-year contract that pays him $9.5 million per season.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Werenksi appeared in 35 games for the Blue Jackets this past season, scoring seven goals to go with 13 assists. During the first five years of his career he has already proven to be one of the best offensive-minded defensemen in the entire NHL. Based on that they were always going to have to pay to keep him, but there had to be added incentive and pressure to make sure he stayed in Columbus after so many other players before him have left town.

Is it an overpay by the Blue Jackets? Maybe. But Werenski is an outstanding player, the Blue Jackets have the salary cap space, and they needed to keep a star.

The contract reportedly has a full no-movement clause in years two through five of the contract, while the sixth year includes a modified no-trade clause.

What to expect from Seattle Kraken after early free-agent moves, draft

Like tangling with a mythical Kraken, it’s dangerous to assume too much about Seattle’s expansion NHL team. Yet like a wayward crew of pirates (picture them with hackneyed accents), hockey writers must forge on. Those takes aren’t going to heat up by themselves.

These are treacherous waters, though.

Consider, for instance, the pitfalls of comparing the Kraken and Golden Knights without going overboard. There’s also the impossible battle between the real-life Seattle Kraken, and the versions that live on in our imaginations.

Down the line, we can grumble over grievances about missed opportunities. Deeper comparisons between the first days of the Kraken and Golden Knights have merit, too.

For now, though, let’s spend less time looking at what the Kraken should have done, and focus more on what they actually did. Then we can ponder the perilous question of how we think they’ll do.

Solid, unspectacular performance re: 2021 NHL Draft, adding future picks

Overall, the Kraken scored decent reviews for their 2021 NHL Draft haul. In particular, pundits approved of the Kraken playing it safe with Matty Beniers at No. 2 overall. Broadly, they hit a “double” rather than homering. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman gave them a B-, while Elite Prospects graded them with a B.

Solid enough. But, yeah, it would’ve been nice if the Kraken made more than seven draft picks.

As of this writing, the Kraken racked up some extra 2022 and 2023 NHL Draft picks by trading the likes of Vitek Vanecek and Tyler Pitlick:

Extra 2022 NHL Draft picks for Kraken: Flames’ fourth-rounder
Extra 2023 NHL Draft picks for Kraken: Jets’ second-rounder, Avalanche’s fourth-rounder

For the sake of their greater ambitions, let’s hope — and assume — that the Kraken will load up more for future drafts. In these early days, they deserve a grade that fits with a larger Kraken theme: generally inoffensive, but uninspiring.

Maybe a little baffling, too, honestly. Kraken fans should feel some jealousy about how other teams “weaponized” their cap space.

An early view of the Kraken’s likely style, starting with Hakstol as head coach

Speaking of uninspiring, that was the wider reaction to the Kraken hiring Dave Hakstol as their first head coach. Despite what looked like a crowded pool of more exciting coaching candidates, the Kraken opted for Hakstol.

Countering some of that “meh,” energy, there is this larger point about coaches learning from previous mistakes. Maybe Hakstol’s changed more than just his facial hair?

An overwhelming focus on defense

Intriguingly, the Kraken are set up to be “coachable,” even if Hakstol ends up being a bland bench boss.

While their expansion draft haul wasn’t thrilling, the Kraken invested plenty in defense, and even focused on forwards with serious defensive acumen. Jaden Schwartz also meshes with Yanni Gourde, Jared McCann, and others as two-way-minded forwards. Their defense corps is responsible, if not very flashy.

If you squint hard enough, you could picture the Kraken echoing the Canadiens’ playoff run.

Ideally, that defensive structure would help the Kraken to get the most out of unexpected free-agent splash Philipp Grubauer, not to mention another interesting goalie risk in Chris Driedger.

Can the Kraken score enough goals? Fair question, but they’re wagering that they’ll shut opponents down often enough to succeed.

An older team with quite a bit of term

Around the expansion draft, Ron Francis emphasized that the Kraken valued cap space most of all.

Technically, that’s still true — even after free-agent investments in Grubauer, Schwartz, and Alexander Wennberg. Via Cap Friendly, the Kraken maintain about $16.94 million in cap space, with 19 roster spots covered. (RFA Vince Dunn may eat some of that space, but still.)

That said, while there aren’t huge cap hits on the Kraken roster, there’s already a surprising number of risks. Look at the terms they threw around on players with some “aging curve” concerns. (Contracts that the Kraken signed themselves are underlined.)

Six years (through 2026-27): Grubauer, 29, $5.9M cap hit.

Five years (through 2025-26): Schwartz, 29, $5.5M; Jamie Oleksiak, 28, $4.6M.

Four years (through 2024-25): Yanni Gourde, 29, $5.17M; Brandon Tanev, 29, $3.5M; Adam Larsson, 28, $4M.

Three years (through 2023-24): Jordan Eberle, 31, $5.5M; Alexander Wennberg, 26, $4.5M; Chris Driedger, 27, $3.5M.

That … doesn’t exactly look like a team that had a totally clean slate a few weeks ago, does it? Curious.

The scariest contracts, like that of Sergei Bobrovsky, get the most attention. Teams can get themselves into trouble with mid-range deals, though — at least when the mistakes pile up. The Kraken already must grapple with those questions.

That includes rolling the dice by spending $9.4 million in cap space on relatively unproven goalies.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about both Chris Driedger and Philipp Grubauer. Personally, I would’ve preferred to dip my toe in that pool, rather than dive right in.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Handing Driedger $3.5M for three years is risky, considering he’s only played 41 NHL games. He was fantastic in those games, but that’s not much of a sample size.

Philipp Grubauer boasts a larger body of work, yet he hasn’t proven that his body can hold up to the work of a No. 1 workload. As strong as he’s often been, Grubauer’s never played more than 40 games in a season.

Again, both Grubauer and Driedger have been very good. Plenty of the players ranked as “analytics darlings” over the years, too. There’s even a larger vision of a puck-hogging, defensive-minded team.

It’s just difficult not to feel a nagging sense that the rewards might not justify the risks. The Kraken didn’t really load up on “side deals” to absorb risky contracts like that of Tanev and Eberle, so if they disappoint, there’s no sweetener. Many of those deals might actually prompt the Kraken to be the ones to bribe other teams to take on problem contracts.

(Eight players have either a no-trade or no-movement clause, according to Cap Friendly’s listings.)

Generally speaking, the Kraken look like a team with a “high floor, but a low ceiling.”

A playoff path in a possibly pathetic Pacific

The bad news for budding Kraken fans is that this team doesn’t look very dynamic. At least on paper.

The good news is that they’re in a nice position to snag one of the potentially-lowly Pacific Division”s three playoff spots.

Let’s consider how the Kraken’s Pacific Division competition looks, at least early in 2021 NHL Free Agency.

  • Whether the Golden Knights make another big splash or not, they loom as an obvious favorite.
  • The Canucks spent like a favorite, and there’s talent. Hmm.
  • At times, the Oilers’ offseason felt comical enough to warrant a laugh track. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can still drag them far, though.
  • Losing Mark Giordano hurts an already-hurting Flames team. There are pieces of a respectable team here, but they’re kind of a mess.
  • The Ducks might be in partial rebuild denial, yet they’re expected to play like a team that’s tanking.
  • The Sharks are like an expensive version of the Ducks. They’re really banking on goaltending being the answer to their many problems. (Coughs nervously.)
  • Of the California teams, the Kings pose the biggest threat to make a big step. They’re no guarantee to actually be ready, though.

Not a bad situation for the Kraken to nab one of the three Pacific Division playoff spots, eh? There’s at least a chance that the Central Division wouldn’t absorb the two wild-card spots, either.

Purgatory risk?

That optimism dims thanks to the threat of ending up in “puck purgatory.” The Kraken could end up good enough to finish ahead of the California teams, but fall short of the playoffs.

Being respectable as an expansion team is nice enough, even post-Golden-Knights. Still, this is the Kraken’s “honeymoon period,” and tanking could make a lot of sense with all of the hype around the 2022 and 2023 NHL Drafts classes.

So, a mediocre Pacific Division could be a double-edged sword.

Months ago, it felt like the Kraken would either:

A: Tank, choosing short-term pain in hopes of long-term gain.

B: Choose the “Why wait?” route and compete ASAP. (This seemed more feasible when some big names ended up exposed in the expansion draft.)

Instead, it seems like the Kraken chose choice C: something closer to “middle of the road.”

There’s time for the Kraken to veer toward a different path. After all, while the Golden Knights made big expansion draft gambits, their boldest moves came later. For now, though, it’s fair to question the Kraken’s vision, while also expecting them to be respectable.

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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.

Ryan Getzlaf, Gabriel Landeskog and the lure of staying home

The NHL free agent experiences for Ryan Getzlaf and Gabriel Landeskog were very different. 

Getzlaf had never been through the process, and now at 36 years old he wanted to experience other teams trying to convince him to leave. With his career winding down, going through free agency was an opportunity to see what it was like to be pursued. He had no strong desire to leave the Ducks, he just wanted to see what was out there.

“I’ve never had other teams pursuing me, which was a great feeling,” said Getzlaf after signing a one-year, $4.5 million extension. “I’m not going to lie. It was a good feeling to be able to talk, and I think, for me, it was more understanding what other players go through. There are a lot of players who go through this many times in their career, and I think it gave me a better understanding of what it’s like.”

Landeskog was a different story. Once the youngest captain in NHL history, he did not want to hear from other teams. He wanted to stay with the only franchise he’s ever known. But as unrestricted free agency approached, and with the flat cap ceiling putting a squeeze on teams, there was no guarantee the Avalanche captain would be back.

[NHL Free Agency 2021: Every signing by all 32 teams]

Negotiations, which Landeskog has said hoped would have led to a deal last summer, dragged out, but a $56 million deal was completed close to the deadline for teams to offer the eight-year maximum term to their own players.

Landeskog quickly went from “disappointed” to one “happy” captain.

“For me, the most important thing was term and being able to be here for a long time,” Landeskog said. “That was my goal, and that’s a dream of mine to sign another long-term deal with the Avs. This is my home, and I feel the connection with the city and connection to the fans and the team and obviously my teammates. That’s very important to me, and that’s why I wanted a long-term contract. Even though it took to the last few minutes, it got done and I’m very happy about it.”

No place like home

Ultimately, free agent decisions come down to comfort — for the player, their families, and their careers. Getzlaf and Landeskog have been with their teams long enough to know what their respective markets can provide and how it all fits with their individual lifestyles. 

“At this point in my career, being wanted is a great thing,” said Getzlaf, who’s entering his 17th NHL season. “That proves that someone still believes in you and is interested in you, and ultimately that’s what the Anaheim Ducks said to me at the end of the day.”

Greener pastures are always on the horizon, especially in today’s NHL given the spending spree that took place on Wednesday. Getzlaf could have easily chased another Stanley Cup elsewhere on a team looking for a veteran presence. Landeskog could have moved on to a different contending team to try and win there. But sometimes you just cannot beat the comfort of home.

“My heart is in Colorado, Denver is my home,” Landeskog said. “That’s where we put down our roots and that’s where I’ve always wanted to be. So coming down to it, I was very certain about where I wanted to be and my heart was nowhere else. There is no place I would rather be than in Denver and playing for the Avs, so I am very happy that we got it done.”

————

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.

Trade: Avalanche pay big price to get Kuemper; Coyotes rebuild soars

The Colorado Avalanche balked at a big free-agent price for Philipp Grubauer, but they still made a big goaltending investment on Wednesday. The Coyotes confirmed that they traded Kuemper to the Avalanche, getting Conor Timmins and a 2022 first-rounder in return. There’s also a conditional 2024 third-rounder involved.

Trade: Avalanche receive Kuemper as Grubauer replacement

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that the Coyotes will retain $1 million of Kuemper’s salary in the trade with the Avalanche.

If true, that means that Kuemper will carry a $4.5M cap hit with the Avalanche in 2021-22. Kuemper, 31, is entering a contract year, and is eligible to become a UFA after this season.

With Kuemper and Pavel Francouz both under contract for 2021-22, the Avalanche have some clarity about their goaltending situation. Will they extend one or the other? If not, free-agent goalie departures could become a recurring theme for the Avalanche as they hope to win a Stanley Cup with Nathan MacKinnon.

[More on the NHL free-agent goalie carousel; Read up on Grubauer with Kraken]

It’s a steep price for the Avalanche to pay, although they might argue that it’s worth it to maintain some roster flexibility. Unlike other teams, they didn’t commit themselves to a medium or long-term free-agent goalie contract.

They also saw up-close how strong Darcy Kuemper can be in net. While he didn’t pull off an upset against the Avalanche during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kuemper kept the Coyotes in some one-sided games. For all we know, Kuemper could end up being a huge part of what the Avalanche are building.

(Or he could be a useful stopgap. We’ll see.)

Kuemper trade adds more useful building blocks in Coyotes rebuild

It’s remarkable how much rebuilding teams managed to snag from trades for players entering contract years.

The Blue Jackets landed an incredible haul for Seth Jones, who’s expected to sign an extension with the Blackhawks. It sure seems like the Coyotes sold-high on Darcy Kuemper, too.

Between taking on bad contracts and shipping out Kuemper, Conor Garland, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Coyotes are generally saving money in the short-term, while speeding up their rebuild. If they make the right choices in the upcoming drafts, and develop those talents properly, they could be dangerous in the future.

Not bad for a team that lost a ton of futures thanks to that strange recruiting violation under John Chayka.

It remains to be seen if Conor Timmins, 22, will be a key asset. The RFA has struggled with concussion issues, but has been hyped as a prospect. So far, he’s played in 33 regular-season games with the Avalanche, including 31 last season.

Simply enough, Timmins will receive a better chance to prove himself with the Coyotes than he would with the loaded Avalanche.

Overall, strong work from the rebuilding Coyotes, even if they have a very, very long way to go before they can look anything like the Avalanche.

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.

Dougie Hamilton signs massive 7-year contract with Devils

The New Jersey Devils entered the offseason with salary cap space to burn and they used a significant portion of it on Wednesday by signing free agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a massive seven-year, $63 million contract.

That comes out to a salary cap number of $9 million per season and is the biggest contract signed so far among unrestricted free agents.

It is a significant move for a Devils team that is trying to build something around its recent top picks, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

Hamilton was the top free agent defenseman on the market (and one of the top players in general) and will bring a ton to the Devils defense. And while long-term contracts in free agency are generally massive risks, Hamilton is at least a bonafide top-pairing defender and one of the best players in the league at his position. He is an elite possession driver that can also score a ton from the blue line while playing in every situation. He is a 15-goal, 45-point player over an 82-game season.

Given that his contract is smaller, both in term and average annual value than the contract signed by Seth Jones, is a pretty big win for the Devils given that Hamilton is the better player.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

He has played a Norris Trophy level the past two seasons, finishing seventh and fourth in the voting respectively. Had he not missed so much of the 2019-20 season due to injury he would have almost certainly been higher in that voting.

Hamilton is the second significant addition to the Devils defense this offseason after the team previous acquired Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche.

The Devils defense in the short-term will now feature Hamilton, Graves, P.K. Subban (final year of his contract), Will Butcher, Damon Severson, Ty Smith, and Jonas Siegenthaler, all playing in front of Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier (also signed on Wednesday) in net.

In related news, the Devils also traded Will Butcher to the Sabres.

NHL Power Rankings: Updated 2021 free agent rankings

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take an updated look at the top unrestricted free agents that willl be available when the free agent signing period begins on Wednesday.

In recent days we have seen a handful of players re-sign with their current teams, including most notably forward Taylor Hall with the Bruins, and several potential free agents get taken by the Kraken in the NHL Expansion Draft (Chris Driedger, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak).

We have also seen a few additional players hit the open market due to buyouts, including Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Keith Yandle.

Here we will take a look at the top remaining players entering the week.

Who all makes the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

Players Most Likely To Re-Sign

1. Alex Ovechkin. His 13-year contract is over and that technically makes him eligible for unrestricted free agency. But we all know he is going to end up in Washington, right?

2. Tuukka Rask. Bruins fans have had a long-time love-hate relationship with Rask, but it would probably be in their best interests if the team can get him re-signed. He is still one of the league’s best goalies.

3. David Krejci. With Hall already re-signed it would be a huge win for the Bruins to get Krejci back as well to reunite that second line that played so well together. Hard to envision Krejci in a sweater that is not a Bruins sweater.

4. Gabriel Landeskog. You would like to think Colorado can get its captain signed, but those talks have been difficult to this point. Landeskog brings a rare combination of grit, skill, and defensive excellence to the top of any lineup. The Avs want to keep him but it is starting to look like a real possibility that he could leave.

5. Philipp Grubauer. Grubauer has been an excellent starter since joining the Avalanche three years ago and took a huge step forward this season, finishing as a Vezina Trophy finalist. If the Avalanche can not get him and/or Landeskog re-signed they are going to have two significant players to replace.

Moving On For A Bigger Payday

6. Dougie Hamilton. Of the players that actually have a chance of changing teams Hamilton should be at the top of the list given his all around ability on defense. He can play every situation, is a dominant possession driver, and an impact player offensively. Every team should want to sign him. Carolina is going to try, but it will be difficult and it seems likely that he is moving on.

7. Phillip Danault. An outstanding shutdown center with better offensive skill than he sometimes gets credit for. Along with being a Selke-caliber defender he can also be a 50-point center. Extremely valuable player.

8. Blake Coleman. He should get a massive contract on the open market. The rare player that both analytics and eye test people rave over equally, and he also has the Stanley Cup winner reputation (back-to-back Cups as a key player for the Lightning) that GMs love.

9. Zach Hyman. He seems destined to end up with the Oilers. Good player that is about to get a contract that everybody will hate, and probably for good reason. Never want to sign a 29-year-old second-tier free agent to a seven- or eight-year contract.

Time For A Change

10. Ryan Suter. It was very surprising to see him get bought out along with Zach Parise, not only because of the impact it has on Minnesota’s salary cap, but also because he is still a pretty good player. He is no longer a serious Norris candidate, but he is a legitimate top-four defender in the NHL and will probably be a good value on his next deal.

11. Kyle Palmieri. Very underrated player for most of his career. He will score 25-30 goals over an 82-game season and give you solid play away from the puck. If the Islanders could get him re-signed that would be a nice move for their offseason.

12. Jaden Schwartz. Really good second-line forward that will score 20 goals and help drive possession. A good Plan B for any team that does not get one of the top forwards.

13. Tomas Tatar. Tatar has been the top scorer on the Canadiens over the past three seasons, has dominant underlying numbers, and plays great next to Danault and Brendan Gallagher. But he still seemed to fall out of favor in Montreal this season. Some team should try to sign him and Danault together.

14. Brandon Saad. Saad never became the superstar the Blackhawks hoped he would when he first entered the NHL, but he has become an excellent middle-six winger. His underlying numbers are fantastic, and on the right team and in the right situation he could definitely be a 20-30 goal scorer.

15. Paul Stastny. He is not going to be a foundational player anymore but if you have him centering your second or third line you are going to be in pretty good shape.

16. Keith Yandle. At this point you probably need to shelter him a little in a role where he can focus on offense. There is still value in that.

17. Zach Parise. Parise is not totally finished, but his production did take a noticeable drop this season when the Wild used him. Still, he is just one year removed from a 25-goal season (in less than 70 games) and can still score a little. Is he a good fit for the Islanders?

18. Alec Martinez. Martinez had one of his best years ever during the 2020-21 season with the Golden Knights, and it could not have happened at a better time for him. Do not expect a repeat of that offensive performance, but he can still contribute.

19. Mike Hoffman. Hoffman is a one-dimensional player that does one thing well: score goals. Fortunately, that is an important dimension. He is not going to make much of an impact without the puck on his stick.

20. Tyson Barrie. Barrie signed a one-year deal with the Oilers for this past season and definitely did a lot to help is value for this free agent class. He picked the right team to get a sheltered role, power play minutes, and time on the ice with two of the best offensive players in the world (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl). Do not let that trick you into thinking he is a top-pairing player, though. Good player. Just needs to be put in the right role.

Signing Hart and more: Flyers’ work not done after draft, big trades

After a slew of (sometimes jaw-dropping) trades, there’s no denying that the Philadelphia Flyers will look different in 2021-22. It remains to be seen if they’ll be much better — or at least if they’ll be much better because of those big Flyers trades.

(Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine their goaltending being the flat-out worst in the NHL again. They were the worst by a shockingly comfortable margin in 2020-21.)

Despite Chuck Fletcher seemingly squeezing an offseason’s worth of work into those big trades, the Flyers still have work to do. Let’s review their big run of trades, then ponder what else they need to accomplish — and there will be some focus on Carter Hart.

After looking at trades, entry/expansion draft, a mixed bag for the Flyers

If there’s one big “statement” from all of the Flyers’ trades, it might be Fletcher essentially moving a ton of assets to swap Shayne Gostisbehere for Rasmus Ristolainen. When you look at the cap hits involved (“Ghost Bear” at $4.5M with Robert Hagg at $1.6; Risto in his last year at $5.4M) it’s close to 1:1. Consider the pieces involved.

Flyers receive Flyers give up
Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4M through 2021-22) Shayne Gostisbehere ($4.5M through 2022-23)
“Future considerations” Robert Hagg ($1.6M through 2021-22)
2021 first-rounder (14th overall)
2022 second-rounder (Flyers)
2023 second-rounder (Flyers)
2022 seventh-rounder (Blues)

Pretty bold. Again, the Flyers are making a huge statement here. They could’ve kept Gostisbehere, whose underlying stats argue might be better than his “doghouse” status indicates. Instead, they went with Rasmus Ristolainen, largely under the assumption that they can fix what the Sabres failed to address. Consider their multi-season RAPM comparison, via Evolving Hockey:

Signing Hart and more: Flyers' work not done after draft, big trades Ristolainen Ghost
This is without Ghost’s power-play wizardry, too. (Chart via Evolving Hockey)

Credit Chuck Fletcher with this: it isn’t necessarily easy to pigeonhole his way of thinking. For every Gostisbehere – Ristolainen trade, there’s a savvy pickup like the mostly-promising Ryan Ellis trade. Yes, there’s risk that Ellis won’t be the same player he once was after injuries. But he’s quietly been an analytics (and eye test, frankly) darling for years.

If Ellis and Ristolainen weren’t both right-handed defensemen, they’d be total opposites. Ristolainen is the big blueliner people imagine bigger things from, even if the actual on-ice results are often ugly. Ellis, meanwhile, deserved almost as much Norris buzz as his former teammate Roman Josi.

Meanwhile, the Jakub VoracekCam Atkinson trade feels like a nice win. It’s not a huge victory (like Ellis), nor will it inspire a big groan (like Ristolainen/Gostisbehere). Instead, two veteran forwards (who can still play) get refreshing changes of scenery. Plus, the Flyers save money.

Looking at the rest of their offseason to-do list, the Flyers could benefit from those savings.

The tricky case of Carter Hart’s RFA status

Despite covering some bases, the Flyers face one huge free-agent situation (Carter Hart, 22), and one other notable one (Travis Sanheim, 25). Both Hart and Sanheim are RFAs, with Sanheim eligible for arbitration.

Getting Hart’s contract situation right is huge, and tricky. Through his first two NHL seasons, Hart might have gotten a bit over-hyped, but his work was still solid (.917 save percentage in 2018-19; .914 in 2019-20).

Last season, Hart’s game plummeted to a shocking, season-sabotaging degree. He went 9-11-5 with a catastrophic .877 save percentage. While those Rangers meltdowns might make you think that the Flyers’ defense is mostly to blame, that’s mostly untrue.

By various metrics that isolate a goalie’s performance, Hart was putrid. His -22.57 Goals Saved Above Average was by far the worst in the NHL. Disturbingly, fellow Flyers goalie Brian Elliott was a distant second-worst with -14.01.

(Braden Holtby ranked third-worst with a -12.97 mark. Only eight goalies were in negative double digits by Hockey Reference’s version of GSAA.)

[See where the Flyers fit among “Winners and Losers of the 2021 NHL Draft”]

Based on pedigree and reputation, Hart might argue for a significant contract. That disastrous 2020-21 season should be a red flag for anything too risky, though. All things considered, a “bridge deal” might be wise.

Either way, the Flyers would gain some insight about their cap flexibility if they sign Hart. That said, he’s an RFA, so they don’t need to rush.

If there’s one area where the Flyers failed Hart above all else, it was failing to find a reliable Plan B. Their 2020-21 goalie plan was essentially “Carter Hart or bust,” and bust it was.

Credit Brian Elliott for sticking around in the NHL longer than expected. Yet, that might be a failure of imagination on the Flyers’ part.

Looking at potential free-agent goalies, the Flyers could definitely make an upgrade at the backup spot. Jaroslav Halak and Jonathan Bernier seem like logical, safe options. Since Fletcher loves gambles, Antti Raanta‘s interesting (great results, scary injuries).

Logically speaking, it’s difficult to imagine the Flyers not improving in net this season — even just by default. If their goaltending’s downright strong, it might even make them look smarter in other areas. (In other words, it might soften the blow if Rasmus Ristolainen is what we thought he was.)

Plenty of other key free-agent decisions for Flyers

Via Cap Friendly, the Flyers have about $12.5M in cap space. That’s with 17 roster spots filled.

It’s probably safe to assume that they’ll have some cap space after signing Carter Hart and a backup goalie. Fletcher could supplement the Flyers with supporting cast members. There’s conceivably room for another bold move — via a trade, or free agency — too.

But some of the Flyers’ biggest offseason questions revolve around the larger future. Consider these.

More ripples with Ristolainen?

By forking over so much draft capital for Ristolainen (especially if you count the Gostisbehere bribe, which you should), the Flyers probably don’t want him to merely be a rental.

So, that’s where a risky trade becomes an even scarier gamble. What if the Flyers decide to extend Ristolainen before he even plays a game for Philly? (That appears to be what the Blackhawks will do with their own risky defenseman via trade, Seth Jones.)

Truly, it would probably be smarter to wait-and-see. Yes, it would sting if critics were right that Ristolainen just is less than the sum of his tantalizing-on-paper parts. But at least you wouldn’t dig the ditch deeper with additional sunk costs.

The Flyers may fervently believe that they’re simply right about the big blueliner, though. In that case, an extension may happen during this summer.

Other extension questions: Giroux, Couturier enter contract years

Two faces of the Flyers franchise enter contract years in 2021-22:

With any bold move, the Flyers must consider future costs. Really, they might appreciate the piece of mind that would come with determining how much, exactly, it would cost to keep Couturier in the mix. They also need to ask some tough questions about Giroux’s future. How much less would he accept to stick around?

Such concerns could trickle down into other areas. Deep down, the Flyers might not have been too unhappy if the Kraken took on James van Riemsdyk. JVR was brilliant in 2020-21, but he carries a pricey $7M cap hit for two more seasons. It’s not outrageous to imagine the Flyers trying to shake loose from the 32-year-old before that contract expires.

Interesting either way

Back in the Paul Holmgren era, the Flyers seemed to make mind-blowing moves every other month. It was often a mess — but a fun one. And the Flyers ended up pretty good at times, even though the party broke up once the bill came due.

Ron Hextall ended up throwing out all of the trash and broken glass. He had to be the hall monitor, practicing patience by getting out of bad contracts, and building through the draft.

The last week has been a return to that kegger atmosphere with Fletcher. He’s certainly been willing to take risks beyond that, particularly in signing Kevin Hayes.

Even if you critique the moves, it sure makes it fun to follow league transactions. Flyers’ fans mileage may vary, though.

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.

Avalanche sign star Cale Makar: six years, $54M

Not long after the Blackhawks reportedly agreed to a huge and questionable contract extension with Seth Jones, the Avalanche handed Cale Makar a big deal that’s tough to argue with. That’s the power of someone as brilliant as Cale Makar. Just about any price tag makes you shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, that’s about right.”

Avalanche sign Cale Makar for six years, $9M cap hit

The Avalanche confirmed that Makar, 22, signed a six-year contract. They didn’t officially note Makar’s $9 million cap hit, but multiple reporters did. In fact, Cale Makar’s reps tweeted out the specifics year-to-year:

Makar ranked among the Norris Trophy finalists in 2020-21, and may have won if he didn’t miss some time with injuries. After a brilliant Calder-winning campaign in 2019-20, Makar generated an impressive point-per-game in 2020-21 (44 in 44).

Naturally, it’s about more than those simple counting stats with Makar.

At times, he seems almost superhuman when it comes to “walking the line.” Maybe it would be more accurate to say he waltzes the line? Either way, he’s a tremendous player, and a blast to watch.

You know a player is special when someone notes that they have “no comps.”

At that $9M AAV, Makar carries the Avalanche’s second-highest cap hit. Mikko Rantanen‘s $9.25M AAV ranks a hair higher. Colorado will almost certainly pay Nathan MacKinnon more down the line, but MacKinnon’s remarkable bargain contract ($6.3M cap hit) runs for two more seasons.

With Makar, Devon Toews, and Samuel Girard all signed for three years or more, the Avalanche continue to deploy one of the most enviable collections of defensive talent in the NHL. That they’re paying reasonable (or downright cheap) prices for them is even more impressive.

Beyond how the Avalanche will spend in the future, this is interesting fodder for other defensemen. Could reigning Norris winner Adam Fox be in line for a similar payday? Fox’s contract expires after 2021-22.

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.