Over the next week, I’ll be going through this summer’s free-agent market position by position. Today, we have left-handed defencemen.
While the majority of talk about how the Oilers can improve this off-season is focused on adding forwards, the team could also use a veteran defender to play on the second pair.
Oscar Klefbom missed the entirety of the 2021 season after undergoing shoulder surgery and there’s no telling how he’ll look when he returns. There’s also a reasonable chance that Edmonton could lose a young defender such as Caleb Jones in the expansion draft.
Ken Holland went out and acquired Dmitry Kulikov ahead of the trade deadline to fill this role mid-season. Assuming Adam Larsson is re-signed, Holland will again want to find a veteran who can play on a shutdown pair with Larsson as a contingency plan for Klefbom.
Let’s go through some names on the free-agent market that could fit the bill.
After playing a role on both of the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup teams, the Vegas Golden Knights acquired Alec Martinez to add some veteran depth and experience to their blueline. He’s currently playing alongside Alex Pietrangelo on the top pair and is averaging 21:15 per game in the playoffs. Martinez had the best season of his career offensively this year, scoring 32 points over 53 games. He would have shattered his career-high of 39 points set back in 2016-17 had the season been a normal length.
Martinez turns 34 this off-season and will likely be able to translate his strong season into a raise from his current $4,000,000 annual salary.
Drafted No. 14 overall in the 2011 draft, it took Jamie Oleksiak a few years to establish himself at the NHL level, but he’s emerged into a quality shutdown defender for the Dallas Stars. Oleksiak was traded for Dallas to the Penguins in 2017 but was then traded back to the Stars just over a year later. He was a rock for the Stars on their run to the Stanley Cup Final last summer and logged a career-high 20:29 per night in 2021.
Given Oleksiak doesn’t provide much offensively (he scored 14 points in 56 games in 2021) he won’t command as large of a salary as somebody like Martinez.
A former NCAA signing by the Minnesota Wild, Mike Reilly quietly put together a very strong season in 2021. He started in Ottawa and nearly broke even in terms of on-ice goal differential, an impressive feat given how deep the Senators were in the red. Reilly was traded to Boston ahead of the trade deadline and took on a large role on a Bruins blueline that was bogged down by injuries. He averaged a career-high 21:04 per night and posted an impressive 14-to-9 goal differential while with the Bruins.
Reilly’s 27 points this season was the highest of his career by a wide margin and he’ll earn himself a hefty raise on the two-year, $1,500,000 annual deal he signed his last time in free agency.
After seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2012 draft was shipped off to New Jersey as a salary cap dump last off-season. The biggest challenge for Murray throughout his NHL career has been staying healthy. He did that this year with the Devils, logging 18:37 per night over 48 games with an impressive 35-to-29 goal differential.
Given his history with injuries, a long-term contract for Murray would be a difficult bet, but he would be a nice addition on a short-term deal.
Much like Oleksiak, Derek Forbort is a former first-round pick who took quite some time to establish himself at the NHL level. Forbort was picked No. 15 overall in 2010 and didn’t crack the Kings full-time until the 2016-17 season. Since then, Forbort has established himself as a solid defensive defenceman. He played in all 56 games for the Jets this season, logging 20:45 per night, and played a big role in shutting down the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs.
He should be able to command more than the one-year, $1,000,000 deal he signed with Winnipeg last off-season.
Sticking with the Jets, we have Jordie Benn, a defensive defenceman the team acquired ahead of the trade deadline in order to add veteran depth to their blueline. Benn played just 14:45 per night between Vancouver and Winnipeg this season and expecting him to play a second-pairing role at this stage might be a stretch.
Here’s a familiar face. The Oilers signed Jordan Oesterle out of Western Michigan and he played 25 games with the club over parts of three seasons. In 2017, he signed a cheap, two-year deal with the Blackhawks and put together an impressive season, logging 20:31 per game with very good underlying numbers. The Blackhawks flipped Oesterle to Arizona the following off-season as part of a deal to dump Marian Hossa’s contract and he posted 20 points in 71 games on the Coyotes’ second pairing.
Oesterle is a quiet defender who passes well and plays a simple game. He doesn’t produce much offence and doesn’t have the profile of a tough, rugged shutdown defender, so he won’t command a large salary.
Sticking with the Coyotes, we have Niklas Hjalmarsson a well-known veteran defender who played a key role on all three of the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup-winning teams. Hjalmarsson has had a very good career in the NHL but he’s also been beaten down by logging so many miles. Over the past two seasons, the soon-to-be 35-year-old has played just 68 games while averaging 17:55 per night.
The better veteran option from Arizona would be Alex Goligoski, who’s reached the end of the five-year, $27,375,000 contract he signed with the Coyotes back in 2016. Goligoski has been a minute-munching machine throughout his NHL career and has hardly missed any time due to injury. Most recently, Goligoski logged 23:00 per game for the Coyotes, scoring 22 points over 56 games with a 48-to-43 goal differential at even-strength. He turns 36 in July but can clearly still be a quality NHL defender.
Selected from the New Jersey Devils in the 2017 Expansion Draft, Jon Merrill is one of those quality players the Golden Knights found who became a quality player seemingly out of nowhere. In New Jersey, Merrill was consistently in the red in terms of goal differential, but he found a role in Vegas and became a rock defensively for them, putting up some of the best underlying numbers in the league over his three seasons with the team.
Merill provides virtually zero offence but his shot and goal suppression history makes him an interesting possibility for a shutdown line.
We don’t yet know if Zdeno Chara, a surefire future Hall of Famer, is going to continue playing, but there’s really no doubt that the 44-year-old is still good enough to do so. The Bruins opted to let Chara move on last off-season and he signed a one-year deal with the Capitals. He averaged 18:19 per game with the Caps and had a 35-to-33 on-ice goal differential at even-strength. The only question for Chara is if he wants to keep going.
Finally, we have Ken Holland’s mid-season trade acquisition, Dmitry Kulikov. He posted very strong underlying numbers in terms of shot suppression with New Jersey and was only on the ice for five goals against at even-strength in 10 regular-season games after getting traded to the Oilers. The fact he doesn’t produce any offence would make Kulikov a fairly inexpensive re-sign for Edmonton if they’re comfortable with him in the role.