Stars Free Agency: Seven UFA Defensemen Realistically on Dallas’ Radar
The Dallas Stars don’t have much cap room to bring in a defenseman without giving up assets. That doesn’t mean there aren’t small names who don’t have big value.
The Dallas Stars don’t have much cap. $18M is a lot but not when you count the pending contracts for Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger, who will command the bulk of what’s left. Given the fact that Roope Hintz is an RFA the season after next, Dallas needs to be careful with term as only Joe Pavelski will be the big contract coming off the books that year. Which leaves the bargain bin.
Dallas will never replace John Klingberg for reasons I’ve written at length on. But perhaps they can create him in the aggregate. Through a mixture of elite prospects — helloooo Mavrik Bourque — making the jump, a top six forward, and a quality defensemen or two, perhaps the Stars can fill the void somehow. There won’t be a lack of options. In fact, there are quite a few bangers.
First off, I’m exclusively using Andy and Rono’s Stat Cards because when it comes to analyzing defensemen, especially depth defensemen, I consider tracking data a key component. When I think of ‘good defense’ in the modern NHL, I think of how they manage all three zones; whether with gap control, puck control, or movement. Looking at a single card over a single season is not the best way to analyze a player’s total worth either, but tracking data (unlike point totals or plus/minus) tends to translate regardless of system or jersey. Let’s start with the lone RFA of the group (yes, the title lied to you), rumored to be on the trade block.
Why he fits: A young, right-shot defensemen still with untapped potential...what’s not to like? Bears plays an aggressive game, activating on the rush using a really strong shot from the point, perceptive passing in high danger areas, and eager legs. He has a high ceiling and a higher floor: not only as a RHD who could play next to Miro Heiskanen in a perfect world, but there’s zero reason to think he wouldn’t fit on the third pair, next to Thomas Harley. Beyond that, he’s good at denying opponents control of the puck at the blueline, and shows strong numbers on the penalty kill. I forgot to mention something else: in Edmonton, he was not sheltered despite his youth. In fact, he was Edmonton’s third-most used defender during the 2019-2020 season behind only Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. Also, he’ll be cheap enough to fit into the season even after Hintz gets his new deal. The last mystery box right shot defender they signed was Jani Hakanpaa and he turned out pretty darn good. So...the hell is Nill waiting for?
Why he may not: Nill loves a good resume. The fact that Bear is a younger player might be a knock against him, but that’s the cynic in me talking. Truth is, with so little cap to work with, Bear at over $2M annually will be expensive for a player they have slotted for the third pair. There’s also the question of his health after testing positive for COVID in November. Long haulers are no joke, especially for athletes. Bear was eventually scratched during the playoffs as a result of his struggles to recover.
What Dallas might remember him for: Being a fantastic human.
Why he fits: He’s a 35-year old right shot defenseman who Plays The Game the Right Way.
Why he may not: He’s a 35-year old right shot defenseman who Plays the Game the Right Way. What this usually means is that he’s invisible, which is code for “doesn’t make mistakes in his own zone” which is further code for “doesn’t have the vision to be a full 200-ft player.” If I’m being harsh it’s not because I think Braun is bad (those are good defensive stats on a team that was awful defensively), but that this would be the Ryan Suter deal writ small. He was also a disaster on the bottom pair with Braden Schneider.
What Dallas might remember him for: ? (This is not empty snark. As soon as you look him up on YouTube, he’s behind an influencer, news of his own trade, and players getting game misconducts for illegally murking him along the boards. Not the most dignified search engine results.)
Why he fits: He’s a big, mean, right shot defender. Isn’t this what Dallas is always talking about needing to win in the playoffs despite Colorado not needing any of that? Regardless of your mileage on big, mean defenders, Gudbranson displayed some strong playdriving ability on a stacked Calgary team.
Why he may not: Which is the problem. This is why transition data is so key for me when looking at defenseman. Shot contributions and passing can be easily influenced by team effects whereas carries, and possession exits less so. Gudbranson is bad at both, and sure enough, when you look at his career numbers, he’s never actually driven offense the way he did in Calgary. His role difficulty is also worth nothing. If Dallas thinks he can play next to Miro, they’re making a huge mistake. He is good on the PK though, so there’s potential room on the third pair.
What Dallas might remember him for: Don’t you want Gudbranson to teach Miro how to fight?
Why he fits: His neutral zone game wasn’t lights out, but it was still above average. Just 28 years old, Kulak plays a game similar to Ryan Suter except he’s younger and more mobile. He’s downright elite at denying zone entries thanks to diligent stickwork rather than using overt physicality, and his neutral zone game actively helps create offense for the team. I like Kulak a lot, and consider him a model for the modern hybrid defender. He’s my number one choice and wouldn’t you know it — he can play the left or right side. He was $1.8M annually against the cap this year, meaning he won’t be expensive either.
Why he may not: Kulak hits all the right notes, but it’s worth noting that he’s basically been a bottom pair defenseman his entire career. Big “analytics” can often be exposed by big minutes so if Dallas expected him to play in the top four, they’d be getting something of a mystery box. I think the more pertinent question isn’t whether Kulak can play a top four role, but whether or not he’s more likely to fit into a top four role versus someone who can, but is bad (cough: Ben Chiarot).
What Dallas might remember him for: That insane goal versus Ottawa.
Why he fits: He’s a big, burly, right shot defenseman who can be bought cheap. Like discount Hakanpaa. At an even bigger discount.
Why he may not: Honestly, I’m at a loss. I know what I said above about transition data when it comes to analyzing defensemen but I think this may the rare case of linemates and systems perfectly aligning to buffer a defender’s neutral zone performance. What’s interesting is that Lyubushkin has been historically good at defending zone entries, even in Arizona. With Ilya, Dallas gets exactly what they’ll potentially pay for: Roman Polak, who can make actual passes. Next to Harley, I think Ilya would be quite effective so count me in as fan (just not a rabid one).
What Dallas might remember him for: He can throw ‘em.
Why he fits: Another defender that has Nill’s name written all over it: a big ‘mean’ (right handed no less) shutdown defender who has the resume of winning two Cups.
Why he may not: While Rutta seems like just what the doctor ordered, there’s a good chance two things will happen for whoever signs him 1) Tampa gets him back first or 2) Dallas gets outbid on the open market. Rutta won’t be expensive, but he won’t be cheap. With Klingberg out of the picture, Dallas probably needs two defenseman; not just one.
The other, very important issue is the Victor Hedman factor: Hedman has been Rutta’s most common partner at even strength since 2019. Given Rutta’s poor neutral zone performance, I think it’s safe to say who’s got their signature on the rest of Rutta’s stats ala Jamie Oleksiak once he was without Heiskanen.
What Dallas might remember him for: The moment Colorado realized they didn’t need Darcy Keumper to win a Cup.
Why he fits: He’s a right shot defenseman who provides exactly what Dallas lost with Klingberg: offense from the blueline.
Why he may not: Klingberg provided more than just “offense from the blueline.” I don’t think some fans realize just how nuanced Klingberg’s game was, and it’s something Dallas will feel from his absence. Is that the salt on my tongue talking? Maybe. But I bring Klingberg up because it’s worth emphasizing that his high-wire act was done at the highest level, in big minutes, against big competition. Schultz’ offensive numbers pop out at you (especially those entry passes), but look at his role difficulty: he played a small role in Washington as the Capitals’ sixth defenseman next to Trevor Van Riemsdyk, with basically non-functional minutes on special teams. Schultz might be a decent pickup for Harley’s partner, but it can’t be the only one if they’re trying to recreate Klingberg’s offense.
What Dallas might remember him for: He can score the big goals in big moments.
Why he fits: Now we’re talking (or maybe just me). Conventional wisdom says that PK “can’t defend” and is “selfish” and despite being a shell of what he once was thanks to injuries...that actually wasn’t true this year. He contributed to New Jersey’s pressure game in the offensive and neutral zones, wasn’t a total liability defending zone entries, and was actually excellent on the PK — all of this on a Devils team that was bad defensively no less. I wouldn’t say that Subban is having a renaissance but he’s been extremely effective in a more sheltered role. Given his decline in perception and production, he probably won’t be expensive and could easily sign a ‘show me’ deal on a contender. Plus we know how much Nill loves his resumes.
Why he may not: Subban will be a lot cheaper this year, but by how much? I could mention all the things that have nothing to do with hockey, but I actually dig his personality and as for his on-ice transgressions - please...name me a big name player who doesn’t routinely straddle the line (hell some of them seem to take pride in routinely crossing it). If anything, the strongest argument against Subban is that his partner (the unheralded Jonas Seigenthaler*) played a big role in Subban getting his groove back.
What Dallas might remember him for: His hit on Brad Marchand remains one of my favorite pastings ever.
It’s not the biggest UFA class from Dallas’ perspective, but there are a lot of good stopgap options. The biggest issue is that there’s nothing Dallas could genuinely integrate into the team’s future core (except for Bear). Plus we’re dealing with a lot of aging defenseman. I do think some of these players could be good in limited roles: (again) Bear, Kulak, and Lyubushkin. But certainly nobody who can replace Klingberg.
That leaves a hockey trade, which I think is Nill’s best bet. We’ve already heard rumors about Dallas targeting Brent Burns. Granted, Burns wouldn’t be my first choice, but I do love the gall of trying to bring him in (logistics nowithstanding). Moreover, these are gonna be the moves Nill needs to make. As I’ve argued before: Pete DeBoer can ‘win now’ with a roster built to do so, but the roster as currently constructed isn’t it. At least not yet. Hopefully silly season is exactly what Nill needed to give his new coach exactly that.
*Can I just say I wanted him five years ago? Does that buy me puck cred? Oh right. My armchair proposal would have led to Dallas missing out on the pick that helped them move up to get Jake Oettinger. Nevermind.