It’s the last week of June, and the anticipated countdown to July 1st is well underway for NHL free agent defencemen. While the market for them may have taken a hit with the re-signings of players like Erik Karlsson and Alexander Edler, there are still plenty of solid names out there for teams to pursue. This year’s market sees some much-maligned players looking for new starts. Some are looking to prove themselves after not being issued qualifying offers by their teams. The Last Word on Hockey team today turns their attention to the top ten unrestricted NHL free agent defencemen.
Top 10 NHL Free Agent Defencemen
#1 – Jake Gardiner (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $4.05 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs
Starting the NHL Free Agent Defencemen list is Gardiner. There are very conflicting opinions among Maple Leafs fans about Gardiner hitting the open market. Even taking into account his well-documented defensive mishaps, Gardiner is the most talented of the NHL free agent defencemen on this list. While a back injury limited him to only 62 games this season, he still put up 30 points. This is a small decrease from his point per game production the season before, but he was playing through the back issue for much of the season.
Another first-round exit for Toronto certainly hasn’t changed many people’s tune about Gardiner. With Gardiner expected to net more than $6.5 million annually on the open market and the impending cost of RFA forward Mitch Marner, there simply isn’t room under the salary cap for Toronto to keep his services.
Jake Gardiner is still in his prime at only age 28. He’s a solid bet for at least 40 points in a season when he’s fully healthy. He would also be a good complement for a team with a solid defensive base looking for some more offensive power. Another Canadian team in the Canucks have been in hot pursuit of Gardiner, and it’s rumoured that the team will meet with him before July 1st.
#2 – Tyler Myers (RD)
Previous Cap Hit: $5.5 million with the Winnipeg Jets
Tyler Myers is not expected to stay with Winnipeg as the team enters a cap crunch of their own. The former Calder Trophy winner has dealt with some serious injuries over his career, only playing in 11 games in 2016-17. Since then, he’s proven that he’s still a big, all-around presence on the blue line and has put up 36 and 31 points in his last two seasons for the Jets. He’s playing second fiddle to Gardiner, as he’s slightly less impressive offensively but stronger in his own end and less prone to defensive faux pas.
While a minimal increase at around $6 million a year is projected for Myers, he has also met with the Canucks and the rumour is that they may offer him a long-term contract closer to $8 million a season. While the thin market for defenseman increases his value, $8 million is a gross overpayment for a 30 point a year defenseman already at his ceiling.
Myers is still in his prime at age 29. However, with his history of injuries and his massive size, any long-term contract could look like a bad one near the end if Myers regresses. It is certainly a possibility.
#3 – Anton Stralman (RD)
Previous Cap Hit: $4.5 million with the Tampa Bay Lightning
Stralman is a very interesting player to consider. His new contract should be around the same amount as his current cap hit, but Tampa can’t afford to pay that much as they need to pay RFA Brayden Point. He’s not an elite player and a tad past his prime, but Stralman is still an above-average puck-moving defenseman at age 32. He’s got experience and certainly knows what he’s doing.
Stralman’s play took a bit of a dip this year, and for a variety of reasons, only got into 47 games with the Lightning. He still netted a very respectable 17 points, about a 0.36 point per game pace (30 points over a full season). A $4.5 million cap hit is pretty fair for this type of production, though anything more than a two or three-year deal would be risky as Stralman enters his mid-30s.
The best thing about Stralman is that he’s not talked about very much. The team that gets him is getting an effective, underrated player. He should provide solid help to any teams defence.
#4 – Ron Hainsey (RD)
Previous Cap Hit: $3 million with the Toronto Maple Leafs
Ron Hainsey isn’t done yet, despite being one of the oldest on this list of NHL free agent defencemen. After winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017 for the first time, he signed a 2-year deal with the Maple Leafs in hopes of winning again.
While Toronto didn’t even win a playoff series, Hainsey performed in a top-pairing role with Morgan Rielly in which he was grossly overused by coach Mike Babcock. He was Toronto’s best penalty killer. If used more appropriately, he could have been a lot more effective and a lot more worth the $3 million cap hit.
However, the same story goes here as with Gardiner. Unless Hainsey is willing to take a significant pay cut, he isn’t staying in Toronto. Hainsey, like Stralman, is projected to stay at around $3 million. Anything more than a one-year deal is quite risky as the chance of significant regression is strong at age 38. Hainsey would fit in well with a young team looking for a veteran presence on the blueline.
#5 – Jordie Benn (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $1.1 million with the Montreal Canadiens
Montreal’s season was the season of the unexpected, barely missing the playoffs after finishing near the bottom of the conference the year before. Players put up unexpected individual performances, one of them being Jordie Benn. Benn put up 22 points in 81 games, a career high at age 31. His possession statistics were also very good, posting a 53.4% Corsi For and a 53.1% Fenwick For.
This has a lot of fan bases intrigued about Benn joining their blue line. There is still a chance of him re-signing with Montreal, but he could also be helpful to a lot of other teams.
Benn would be a valuable veteran depth addition to any blue line. He’s expected to get a raise to put him at 3-3.5 million dollars annually. If he’s able to replicate his successes this season, that deal could be good. One year of outperforming expectations may not be worth that much cash, but general managers in shallow markets have been known to slightly overpay.
#6 – Patrik Nemeth (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $2.5 million with the Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche blew doors off the hockey world by easily disposing of the Calgary Flames in the First Round and taking the San Jose Sharks to seven games in the Second Round. Due to the emergence of Cale Makar, Nemeth’s spot in the lineup was compromised in the playoffs. With Colorado’s newfound logjam on the blueline, it’s unlikely that Nemeth returns to the team.
Patrik Nemeth, like most others on this list, is a very understated defender with an inflated projected price tag. He’s expected to go in the same price range as Jordie Benn, but he only tallied ten points last year in 74 games with the Avs. However, his shutdown game is very strong, and dependable defencemen like Nemeth are at a premium in this league.
He’s a good pick for a team looking for added depth or some penalty killing ability. When healthy, he’s effective at shutting down any player and getting the puck up ice to the offence. He’s 27 years old, so he is younger than some of the names on the list and has less chance of a heavy regression.
#7 – Nathan Beaulieu (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $2.4 million with the Buffalo Sabres and Winnipeg Jets
Beaulieu is the second of three Winnipeg defencemen on this list. Nathan Beaulieu has bounced around a lot over the past couple seasons, despite already having solid NHL talent and mobility. If the Jets were not willing to give him a home as shown by his non-qualification, Beaulieu should be able to make an impact elsewhere.
He’s a very interesting case, having already played more than 330 NHL games but still being viewed as a work-in-progress. He’s certainly a gamble. Still, he has the upside of solid two-way play and 25-30 points if he’s playing at his best. He will certainly play like he has something to prove after already being given up on by three teams.
His contract should end up being around where it is now, but given the Jets’ unwillingness to qualify him, he might have to take less if he wants to stay in the NHL. He had a 28-point campaign with Montreal two short seasons ago but followed it up with nine points on a bad Sabres team next year. Putting a “work-in-progress” player with nobody else to help him succeed is not exactly the best option. He has some of the most upside on this list, but he might have to take a gamble on himself.
#8 – Ben Chiarot (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $1.4 million with the Winnipeg Jets
Ben Chiarot is coming off the best and most consistent season of his career, netting 20 points in 78 games (both career highs). While 20 points may be high for him and shouldn’t necessarily be expected, we were shown a glimpse of a more all-around player than Jets fans maybe have come to expect.
Chiarot pretty much fits the stereotypical stay-at-home defenseman bill. He’s big at 6′ 3″, 219 lbs and had 171 hits and 139 blocks. His first priority is keeping the puck out of the net and keeping it from going anywhere near the net. Seeing a player this young adopt that playing style is a rarity today. He fits a team looking for effective depth defending.
He really would be able to fit anywhere, given that a team can take him. Around $2.5-$3 million is his price tag, pricey for a defenseman like him. It’s possible that Winnipeg takes the hit to re-sign him. But again, they are entering a cap crunch of their own.
#9 – Niklas Kronwall (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $4.75 million with the Detroit Red Wings
Niklas Kronwall, surprisingly, has not let his age and injury history catch up to him completely. Detroit has been his home for all 953 games of his NHL career. If he opts to continue his playing career, it will undoubtedly be with them. He has netted 27 points the past two seasons, in 79 games each. As a true veteran defenseman, he would give quality play to the Wings. He’d also provide mentorship and leadership to their wash of young blue-liners.
It’s expected Kronwall will take a pay cut of around $2 million to stay with the Wings, and that it will be on a one-year deal. If Kronwall is to return, he doesn’t want to play anywhere else but Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. He’s one of the last reminders of their former glory, and the organization would welcome him back in open arms.
#10 – Ben Hutton (LD)
Previous Cap Hit: $2.8 million with the Vancouver Canucks
Ben Hutton is the second player on this list to hit unrestricted free agency after not being issued a qualifying offer. He was good for the Canucks this year, getting 20 points in only 69 games. He’s ready to step into a full-time role as a solid, middle-pairing puck-moving defenseman.
However, Hutton’s play doesn’t call for the cap hit that a qualifying offer would tender, and Vancouver has to let him go. It’s entirely possible that Hutton re-signs at a cheaper price, but if he does hit the open market, he should be getting between $2-$2.5 million, not the $2.8 he was making.
He would fit right into the bottom two pairings on most teams. He would also help create some offence for any team that wants him. Hutton still has some upside left at a young free agency age.
While the market may be thin, there are still plenty of effective NHL free agent defensemen out there.