Five bargain-bin defensemen who could be hot commodities come deadline day

Contending clubs that find themselves up against the cap come deadline day will have to look for budget-friendly options if they want to bolster their blueline. So, where do they look? These five rearguards could be a starting point.
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The trade deadline is upon us, little more than three weeks away, and with it comes speculation about which big names will be on the move. But unlike recent years, when there were a few top blueliners who were potential deadline day prizes, this seasons sees many of the big names locked in with their current clubs.

Case in point, Erik Karlsson would have been the brightest star on the market, but his summer move to the Pacific Division powerhouse San Jose Sharks ensures he'll be sticking with his current club through the deadline. Likewise, Tyler Myers won't be moved along by the contending Winnipeg Jets. The same goes for other unrestricted free agent-to-be defensemen such as the Toronto Maple Leafs' Jake Gardiner and Tampa Bay Lightning's Anton Stralman. Chances are we won't even see veterans the likes of Vancouver Canucks defender Alexander Edler move along, and even veteran Niklas Kronwall probably won't have many — or any — suitors looking to pry him away from the Detroit Red Wings with his deal set to expire.

So, who does that leave? Well, one potential deadline-ready defensemen is St. Louis Blues rearguard Jay Bouwmeester. However, his $5.4-million cap hit means he doesn't make the cut for this list of cap friendly blueline targets. This is a look at those who will fit teams looking to add on a budget, and much like the similar list of forwards, we've restricted it to rearguards who carry a cap hit below $3 million. Here's who fits the bill:

Carl Gunnarsson, St Louis Blues
Though the Blues are charging up the Western Conference standings and starting to slide into legitimate wild-card contention with the deadline approaching — St. Louis is a mere three points back of the Colorado Avalanche with a game in hand — failing to sneak into the second spot by the deadline might give GM Doug Armstrong reason to shuffle the deck. And one of those long-time pieces who could be moved out if Gunnarsson, who has spent the past five seasons in St. Louis but has slid down the depth chart and consistently plays a bottom-four role.

Gunnarsson, 32, hasn’t played a whole lot this season as he’s been sidelined for all but 16 games due to a variety of ailments, but he could be a nice pickup at the deadline. Offensively, he can be a contributor, but what’s most to like about Gunnarsson’s game is that he can move the puck efficiently and he’s not a high-risk player. His underlying numbers have been good this season, as well, and teams looking to shore up the middle of their blueline could do worse than Gunnarsson. The only drawback is that his $2.9 million cap hit is the largest on this list. That said, he’s also probably the most reliable hand.

Nick Jensen, Detroit Red Wings
This might come down to whether or not Jensen signs an extension before the deadline. He hasn’t received much fanfare this season for his play in Detroit — or any, really — but the 28-year-old has made the most of his opportunity this season with the Red Wings. A second-pairing rearguard through his first two seasons in the NHL, Jensen has stepped into top-pairing minutes this season and has been more successful than most might realize.

In 50 games, he’s scored two goals and 11 points, but it’s his underlying numbers that are more impressive. Despite a heavier slant of defensive zone to offensive zone starts, Jensen has a positive Corsi percentage, 51 percent, a positive expected goals for percentage, 51.3 percent, and has faced some pretty tough competition all year long.

While Gunnarsson might be the best budget addition on name value, the best dollar-for-dollar value might come in acquiring Jensen, who carries an incredibly palatable $812,500 cap hit. Even teams right up against the cap on deadline day will likely be able to sneak Jensen into their salary structure. The only problem might be beating out the other teams interested in his services…should he be available come deadline day, that is.

Jordan Oesterle, Arizona Coyotes
It’s sometimes said that offense from the back end can be what makes all the difference in the post-season, and if a team is looking to add some extra firepower to their blueline, Oesterle might be the most cap-friendly addition a contending team could make. While he’s not going to be spoken of in the same breath as top offensive defensemen — and rightfully so — Oesterle has managed to piece together a quality campaign with the Coyotes this season. In 41 games, he’s notched four goals and 13 points. That works out to a nine-goal, 26-point pace across an entire campaign.

Here’s the thing, too: when it comes to getting an offensive blueliner on a budget, Oesterle’s the best bet. No defenseman on an expiring contract has had better cost-effectiveness than Oesterle, who has been paid out just $50,000 per point. His $650,000 cap hit makes him a fit on just about any club. However, the difficulty with acquiring Oesterle could be Arizona’s willingness, or lack thereof, to part with the rearguard. The Coyotes’ blueline is banged up and Arizona, still in wild-card contention, needs all the healthy bodies they can get.

Ben Lovejoy, New Jersey Devils
Don’t go mistaking the 34-year-old blueliner with the kind of rearguard who is going to come in and be an instant upgrade on the first or second pairing. But if it’s a serviceable defender a team is after then Lovejoy should be on the shortlist. While he’s had his share of injury troubles and is currently sidelined with an upper-body ailment, Lovejoy is mobile enough to get the job done as a third-pairing defenseman and he’s put together some favorable underlying numbers on a New Jersey club that has struggled throughout the campaign. Despite heavy defensive zone starts, Lovejoy has a positive relative Corsi percentage, as well as positive goals and expected goals percentages. The only other Devils defender who can make that claim is Will Butcher.

The only drawback when it comes to Lovejoy is that his cap hit, when compared to his production and likely spot in the lineup on a contender, might make for a tougher fit. At $2.67 million, he’s the second-most expensive defenseman on this list. That said, the Devils have boatloads of cap space and chances are they’d be willing to retain salary if the pot was slightly sweetened by an acquiring team. That might mean a mid-round pick instead of a later draft choice.

Bogdan Kiselevich, Florida Panthers
Demoted to the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds earlier this week, Kiselevich was an off-season signing who hasn’t quite panned out for the Panthers. That doesn’t mean he’s not worth checking in on as a depth option for a team in post-season contention, however.

The 28-year-old is an especially interesting option for teams who desire a touch more offensive output from their third pairing or need a puck-mover to add to a steady, stay-at-home type who already mans the bottom pairing. In 31 games with Florida this season, Kiselevich managed eight points, all assists, and he has a history of similar production over the course of his time spent in the KHL. What makes Kiselevich worth considering beyond his offense, though, is that he drove play fairly well with the Panthers and he had a far better expected goals for percentage relative to his teammates.

The bonus with Kiselevich is that he comes cheap and can probably be had for next to nothing. His cap hit is a mere $925,000, which should make him an easy enough addition for any team interested in bringing him aboard, and the Panthers made it clear with their recent swap of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan that they’re selling. A pick will be all it takes to pry Kiselevich out of Florida.

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