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Market for defensemen drying up quickly (Trending Topics)

The days before the draft brought important moments for NHL teams, especially those who traded for the rights of outgoing free agents.

Arizona, after giving up a low pick for his exclusive negotiating rights, quickly locked up Alex Goligoski on a five-year deal that will pay him a little less than $5.5 million against the cap. Solid deal.

Then late Thursday night, word started to get out that the Panthers were able to sign Keith Yandle, whose rights they also acquired for a low pick, for seven years at $6.35 million per. Not as solid a deal, but he can clearly still play and his time in New York is painted with far less flattering strokes than it probably deserves. At worst, you have to think this is one of those "perfectly fine for the first few years, but unlikely to be anything other than ugly on the back end” deals. Fortunately, the CBA has an opt-out before the 2019-2020 season, and that might mean another round of amnesty buyouts after Yandle Year 3.

But here's the real issue that comes with those signings for everyone who is not Arizona or Florida: If you need blue line help, you're now officially running out of useful options. Those two were the jewels of a very shallow defensive free agent class, and options that can actually help you are otherwise very slim.

Maybe you take a chance on 37-year-old Brian Campbell, because he's still quite good, but obviously he's not any sort of long-term solution at that age. Moreover, you almost certainly run the risk of overpaying for a guy who could have the wheels come flying off at just about any point in whatever contract you agree.

Or perhaps you think a guy like Jason Demers is your best option. Certainly, he's the last actually useful right-shot defender on the market. If Jason Demers is your big pull in free agency, well, you're not getting a whole lot of help, but it's better than nothing.

Because, honestly, after that you're getting into guys whose skills are, shall we say, specialized. At best. For instance, you have Recent Cup Champion Justin Schultz, who Edmonton learned the hard way can't be counted on in most situations, but who also was used to somewhat effectively in an extremely limited role by Mike Sullivan. Maybe you're the team that also feels like John-Michael Liles has something left in the tank, a subject on which the jury is still out, but clearly thinking of coming back with an unfavorable verdict. 

The only other guy I might really have time for is pending UFA Jakub Nakladal out of Calgary, who came to the club late in the season but made all his teammates better. The observed sample of his on-ice impact is small (just 27 games) but if you can get him for $1 million he's probably going to prove worth that investment at the very least. That is, obviously, contingent on Calgary allowing him to get to July 1 at all, which it absolutely should not.

So maybe — maaaaaybe — there are three or four teams that will get blue line help via free agency. And even then, probably not middle- or top-pairing help. When a handful of guys on whom you might roll the dice are now the highlights of the class, that's a real problem, and it highlights a direction in which the league has been heading for some time: Pretty much all defensemen, and particularly defensemen in anything resembling their prime years, now get locked up long-term in the mid-20s more or less regardless of quality. Everyone else looks for scraps who have aged into their mid-30s.

In this way, Schultz and Demers — borderline-useful mid-20s defenders hitting the market — are exceptions, rather than the rule. And really, Schultz is unique in that you almost never see players with his number of games played not even get tendered in restricted free agency, but it seems likely that Pittsburgh won't qualify him. At least Demers got to UFA status the old-fashioned way. 

Look at the other names here: Dan Hamhuis, Nikita Nikitin, Kyle Quincey, Willie Mitchell (if he doesn't just retire), Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann, Jared Cowen, Tom Gilbert, Roman Polak, Kris Russell, Matt Bartkowski. Yeesh. If you sign any of those guys, it's because you're backed into a bit of a corner and just need warm bodies with NHL experience. You don't sign a single one of those guys because you think they actually help your team.

Well, maybe someone takes that big, insane-o flyer on Russell that we've been talking about for the last little while, but if Goligoski isn't even pulling $5.5 million for five years while being worlds better than Russell at literally everything related to being an NHL defenseman, one can't imagine Russell even approaching his desired payday. That's as it should be, but it really does speak to how troublesome this D class is.

After all, even Don Sweeney, who has not exactly proven himself a reasonable evaluator of defensive talent, has been out here saying for weeks that he'd much rather get a defender via trade than the UFA market. That's a pretty good indication that the market inefficiencies it provides are in many ways drying up, which is good for the league overall, though not for the defenseman seeking new contracts this summer.

The only real areas where teams can improve on the blue line without overpaying this summer, it seems, are by trade (the Sweeney system), by finding real bargain opportunities a week or three into July, and by getting whoever's left to agree to dirt-cheap contracts or training camp tryouts as August wears on. If New Jersey can get David Schlemko — as good a third-pairing defenseman/depth power play specialist as there is in the league, but not much more than that — for basically nothing, it's a process other teams should at least try to replicate.

It won't be easy, of course. As everyone gets smarter, the opportunities to find useful depth players the competition hasn't identified as impactful in terms of on-ice value per dollar. That's likely to become increasingly true on the blue line in particular. Then your best options start becoming 29-to-33-year-old players looking for one last big payday, that's a problem for teams trying to gain a competitive edge.

It's why you have even smart, low-budget teams like Florida and Arizona giving guys deals that will pay them into their mid- and late-30s for tickets they probably won't actually live up to by contract's end. That's just the way the league is going.

It all just highlights once again the importance of developing young talent at every position, so you control their rights long enough that you don't have to make these kinds of decisions until they're not worth paying anymore anyway.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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