Teams looking for defense should seek trades, not free agents
The bad news is that the free agent market for defensemen looks downright pitiful, especially after Erik Karlsson signed that big extension with the Sharks. The good news is that, if NHL GMs are bold and creative, they could make waves by adding defensemen via trades, instead.
Update: It didn’t take long for a big domino to drop.
The Jets sent Jacob Trouba’s rights to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and the 20th pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, which was originally Winnipeg’s pick. This post goes deep on what that trade means for both teams.
Sharks GM Doug Wilson himself stirred the pot about there at least being a bunch of trade discussions, and we’ve already seen interesting moves like the Matt Niskanen - Radko Gudas swap between the Capitals and Flyers.
While there could be a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” element to Wilson’s comments ... c’mon, it’s still fun to hear this, and ponder the possibilities:
Interesting trade market observation from Doug Wilson during his call today: "There’s been more conversation and communication between GMs in the last month than maybe ever since I’ve been a GM."— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) June 17, 2019
Craig Custance laid out some of the potential trade scenarios at The Athletic (sub required), and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has also gone into plenty of detail regarding possible swaps, among others. It’s not a guarantee that any big trades will happen, but if they do, there’s a solid chance some will happen around draft weekend.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting names that have circulated. With all apologies to Jake Gardiner, you’ll notice that this list is infinitely more appealing than the potential crop of free agents.
P.K. Subban - The Predators are coming off of a disappointing season, and it was a pretty rough one by Subban’s lofty standards.
There’s a mixture of sound and queasy logic to Nashville trading Subban. After all, P.K. is 30, and his $9 million cap hit is expensive. Moving that money out could allow the Predators to sign Matt Duchene, and Nashville is also eyeing Roman Josi’s future, as the Swiss defenseman only has one year left at his current $6M clip. The queasy part is also that some don’t enjoy Subban’s personality, maybe because he cut a promo on them.
There are a lot of warning signs that the Predators could outsmart themselves here, particularly if Roman Josi is overrated - as some have intimated - but that’s a post for another day. Besides, those are worries for the Predators, not the potential team trying to swindle them out of Subban.
For a team with cap space, trading for P.K. could be a glorious investment.
Frankly, would it be that surprising if Subban rebounded in a big way next season? For all we know, his relative struggles in 2018-19 could just boil down to bad injury luck, rather than P.K. being hit by the aging curve.
The Devils stand out as an especially interesting trade party, as I’d argue that they should accelerate their growth process both to entice Taylor Hall to re-sign and to take advantage of the savings they’ll get with Jack Hughes’ (or Kaapo Kakko’s) entry-level contract.
But, really, any team with a glut of cap space and an urge to get better should pounce while Subban’s value is low.
Jacob Trouba - Speaking of taking advantage of a should-be Central Division powerhouse’s desperation, there are plenty of rumors about the Winnipeg Jets shopping Trouba’s RFA rights because of their cap crunch.
Those rumors start to blow my mind when you combine them with at least some talk of the Jets trying to retain Tyler Myers while losing Trouba, but much like the Predators possibly making a bad call, that’s not particularly relevant to teams who might try to land Trouba’s rights.
The New York Post’s Larry Brooks notes that area teams like the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils rank among the teams trying to trade for the right to sign the 25-year-old defenseman, and understandably so. Trouba-level players just do not become available that often.
My suspicion is that Trouba might not have truly reached his ceiling, as he’s sometimes had to battle for opportunities with other Winnipeg RHD like Myers and especially Dustin Byfuglien. If I were the Jets, I’d try to bribe a rebuilding team to take on Dmitry Kulikov, or something of that nature, to find a way with Trouba.
That simply might not be in the cards, and other NHL teams should go the extra mile if Trouba’s rights are available.
Kris Letang - It’s tough to imagine a contender with an unclear window sending away a guy who’s easily their best defenseman, but Letang is one of the many prominent Penguins whose name has at least come up in rumblings, so he absolutely deserves a mention.
Yes, his injury history is a little scary and he’s already 32, but Letang brings so much value to the table, and at an affordable $7.25M cap hit through 2021-22, the potential rewards outweigh the risks. It would be surprising if the Penguins made this blunder, especially after they already thinned out the ranks with the (largely beneficial) Olli Maatta trade. Teams should check in with Jim Rutherford just in case, though.
Shayne Gostisbehere - P.K. Subban getting traded after a “down year” makes some sense because the aging curve is hovering as a threat, and Subban’s also very expensive. The Flyers selling low on “Ghost Bear” could be a borderline disaster ... and thus, one other teams should go out of their way to facilitate.
Gostisbehere is still in the meat of his prime, and he’s not only a bargain at $4.5M per year, but he’s also cost controlled for some time, as his steal of a deal runs through 2022-23. It’s honestly almost a little bit offensive that Gostisbehere trade talk has circulated with credibility, rather than just being something you’d screengrab and mock from a message board.
Now, Custance notes that the Flyers aren’t that likely to trade Gostisbehere, but if there’s even a trace of smoke, other teams should try to fan those flames.
Justin Faulk / Dougie Hamilton - Now, the Hurricanes might just stick with their surplus of right-handed defensemen, as a Faulk extension has reportedly been discussed.
Yet, it still seems like a matter of time. Faulk’s getting a raise one way or another from his $4.833M after it expires next season, and Hamilton’s $5.75M cap hit only runs through 2020-21. It’s easy to see why Carolina might value swapping Faulk or Hamilton for a comparable forward (perhaps someone like Mike Hoffman?).
Personally, I prefer Hamilton, as he’s produced impressive numbers even though he inexplicably rarely finds himself as his team’s top power play QB. Like with Trouba, I wonder if another team or coach might get a little bit more out of Hamilton if they put them in the right situations.
Either way, both Faulk and Hamilton can improve a team’s blueline, and maybe at a comfortable price.
Colin Miller - While I can see situations where teams who trade for the players above would win the trades, possibly to a significant extent, I also acknowledge that you’d have to give up something substantial to land them.
Miller might be one of the most prominent candidates who could be landed in a pretty one-sided trade.
Miller, 26, found himself in Gerard Gallant’s doghouse at times in 2018-19, including being a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. After spending big money and assets to land Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty over the last year or so, the Golden Knights are now in a serious cap crunch, as they’ll need to find room to lock down William Karlsson and Nikita Gusev.
An opportunistic team could offer Vegas the chance to save Miller’s $3.875M (through 2021-22) and maybe get back some of the futures they coughed up in those deals -- don’t forget all they gave up for Tomas Tatar. Such a scenario would be awfully appealing to Vegas, especially since it sure seems like Gallant won’t use Miller enough to justify that near-$4M price tag.
If you’re an NHL team aggressive to improve, but you don’t have the cap space for the bigger names (or want to spend less in a trade), then Miller could be a fantastic find.
Jared Spurgeon: In my opinion, the Wild would be wiser to go into a full rebuild.
That just doesn’t seem to be the case, as they’ve instead been making more “player-for-player” moves. Not all of those trades have been as bad as losing Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask, but either way, Minnesota’s strategy seems to be about half measures. They want to half-rebuild, and half ... limp into the playoffs? It’s not ideal, is what I’m saying.
So Spurgeon (29, $5.188M) is a tricky expiring contract. The Wild want to be semi-competitive, so they might just want to re-sign him. If not, they also might want more than a poaching team would want to give up for Spurgeon, although a Hoffman-type expiring forward contract could make a swap somewhat reasonable.
A Spurgeon trade seems less like a “bang for the buck” deal, but he’s another interesting name, if truly available.
T.J. Brodie: Honestly, it’s tough to tell how good Brodie is, vs. how much he benefits from being glued to Mark Giordano at even-strength, as you can see from Natural Stat Trick’s teammate stats.
So, much like with Spurgeon, a lot of the trade appeal hinges on what the Flames are asking for Brodie (or, similarly, Travis Hamonic).
Brodie’s worth mentioning one way or another, because he’s a bit like Miller in being cheap, as Brodie’s at $4.65M for one more season. There are scenarios where trading for Brodie could make a lot of sense, if the Flames are more focused on freeing up cap space than they are getting maximum value for the defenseman.
Nikita Zaitsev: Tip to NHL GMs: don’t trade for Nikita Zaitsev.
Again, it’s possible that none of these defensemen get traded, or totally different, star-level ones move on instead.
For the sake of our collective entertainment, it would certainly be cool if there were some splashy trades to consider. So, get to it, NHL GMs.