Need a defenseman? Avoid UFA market – trade instead

With John Carlson off the market and fresh-off-surgery Mike Green the top UFA left, teams looking to bolster their back ends should consider the trade route.
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It wasn’t a major surprise when defenseman John Carlson signed an eight-year, $64-million extension with the Washington Capitals this week. Both parties were publicly hopeful of a reunion throughout the season. They enjoyed a Stanley Cup victory in June, the first in Washington’s 43-season NHL history, with Carlson playing a massive role. In one crucial maneuver last week, GM Brian MacLellan got Brooks Orpik’s $5.5-million cap hit and Philipp Grubauer’s pending RFA contract off the books in a clear effort to create space for Carlson.

So, yes, it was hardly earth-shattering news when Carlson’s contract was announced. But it still had to sting pretty badly for every defenseman-starved team yearning for chance at signing him. The market for UFA defensemen this season is historically bad. There’s no Kevin Shattenkirk this time around. Not even close.

The best option, easily, is now Mike Green. He remains a high-end puck-mover at 32 and played in his second All-Star Game this past season, but a neck injury slowed him in February and scared teams away from acquiring him at the trade deadline. He returned to the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup in March, but the injury eventually ended his season early. He required cervical spine surgery to repair it.

It’s not unheard of to discuss a veteran coming off surgery who qualifies as a boom-bust choice in free agency – but let it sink in for a moment that Green is the top available option. That should scare teams desperate for right-shot help on defense. Green has also reportedly received some offers to return to the Red Wings anyway, so it’s possible he stays. Per The Athletic's Craig Custance, The Wings have tabled a one- and two-year deal, so it may take a three-year commitment to lure him elsewhere. He’ll be 33 when the season starts. Who’s willing to take a three-year risk given his health situation?

Green averaged roughly 22 minutes of ice time last season, and no other UFA D-man topped 20:13. After Green, we get a see of specialists, maybes and unprovens. Calvin de Haan is rugged and serviceable but coming off season-ending shoulder surgery. Ian Cole has good playoff experience but plays a stay-at-home game fit for a bottom pair. John Moore brings sandpaper and should have his share of offers given the weak market, but no one will confuse him with a Norris Trophy candidate. Michal Kempny was a phenomenal value acquisition for the Capitals, but the sample size was small, and he’s keen on re-signing anyway.

It stands to reason, then, that even the most desperate of teams are better off using the trade market to find help on defense.

The Carolina Hurricanes moved Noah Hanifin, as expected – but since Dougie Hamilton came their way in the trade and they also netted prospect Adam Fox, their surplus of blueliners is even greater than it was last week, with Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk on board and Fox joining Hadyn Fleury and Jake Bean in the up-and-comers department. Faulk, 26, is likely just as available as he was a week ago. He has two years left on his contract at a $4.83-million cap hit, which might be what it costs to land Green, who is seven years older.

Faulk isn’t the only coveted offensive blueliner potentially available. Mathew Dumba’s name keeps popping up in Minnesota. He’s an RFA due a huge raise after a 50-point breakout, and the Wild have RFA Jason Zucker to re-sign. There’s room for both with the cap lifting to $79.5 million, as GM Paul Fenton has more than $11 million to work with, but it may take all that money to retain both, as they’ve earned long-term extensions.

Tyson Barrie’s name is perpetually on the block in Colorado. Trading him makes more sense than it did before given the emergence of mobile Samuel Girard and the fact mega-prospects Cale Makar and Conor Timmins are on the way. The Bruins’ Torey Krug, the Blues’ Colton Parayko and the Kings’ Jake Muzzin have been mentioned in trade chatter by various reporters this off-season, too. All are important players on their teams, but their teams have major needs to address elsewhere in their lineups and may have to make sacrifices.

Oh, and some guy named Erik Karlsson may or may not be on the block, ready to stop playing hockey for the tirefire franchise that is the Ottawa Senators.

The trade market seems richer than it has been in years for defensemen, while the UFA market has reached an all-time low. It thus makes sense for GMs to put down their wallets and pick up their phones this summer. Trading is the better path.

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