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Acquiring Defense in the NHL

With the conference finals underway, the offseason is almost here for all 31 NHL teams. Only four teams remain and the others will look to begin improving their team for next season. The offseason is where the majority of roster surgeries occur, and the upcoming expansion draft should make things even more interesting, but moves are already being made.

Carolina acquired Scott Darling from Chicago and signed him to a four-year contract extension. Dallas picked up Ben Bishop and signed him to a lengthy deal just under five-million per year. Activity will pick up after the Stanley Cup winner has been decided, but a little more than a year ago the Canucks had already acquired Erik Gudbranson from Florida.

Almost every team goes into the offseason citing a need for either a top-six forward or top-four defensemen, but it feels like the need for defense is always there. It’s never a bad idea to have as many good defensemen as possible. The Nashville Predators have been stockpiling defense since their inception and it’s gotten them an elite defensive core and Ryan Johansen. Ottawa is a few wins away from the Stanley Cup finals because Erik Karlsson is a human cheat code that plays half the game.

A good defense can mask a lot of issues in today’s NHL. It might be the most important position in hockey other than in goal, but that reflects how in demand good defensemen are, and boy, are they ever in demand.

Who needs defense?

Arizona Sports’ Craig Morgan discusses how the Arizona Coyotes need to find that elusive top-pairing right-handed defensemen to play with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinwaza lists some teams the Boston Bruins could target to get that left-shot defenseman they need.

Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington stresses how new Sabres general manager Jason Botterili will have to get right to work, including potentially dealing the no. 8 overall pick for help on defense.

The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek notes after the pressing need in goal, Brad Treliving “will also need to sign or acquire at least one more top-four defenceman,” whether that’s in-season addition Michael Stone or someone else.

Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom says the Blackhawks’ defense must get younger and quicker, even if that means moving a young forward for a similar-aged defenseman.

The Colorado Avalanche have been in just about every rumours involving a defensemen, with either Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog being the piece they’re willing to part with.

Dallas News’ Mike Heika talks about Dallas being a much more attractive place for a defensive defenseman like Karl Alzner, especially with a need for left-handed defense.

Free Press writer Helene St. James says the Detroit Red Wings are looking to upgrade on defense, but suggests the high price of the Adam Larsson trade means it would take one of the Red Wings’ young forwards.

The Edmonton Journal’s Robert Tychkowski says Edmonton is at the top of Kris Russel’s options, but maybe Edmonton wants a different style for that second pairing spot.

Star Tribune’s Michael Russo says Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau has a desire for a physical defenseman, but the coach is unsure if they’ll get one.

Nj.com writer Chris Ryan says the New Jersey Devils have a bunch of caps space to add a defenseman in free agency like Karl Alzner or Kevin Shattenkirk.

The New York Islanders focus is on extending John Tavares, but Newsday’s Arthur Staple says the Islanders will likely look to add a defenseman after probably losing one to Vegas in the expansion draft.

USA Today’s Kevin Allen argues the New York Rangers need significant movement on defense, which is difficult considering the contracts of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith says to expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to continue to search for a top-four defenseman.

The Athletic’s James Mirtle wonders if the Toronto Maple Leafs should part with some futures to get a defenseman they desperately need now. They also have a boatload of cap space.

What about last offseason?

Last offseason’s activity suggests it’ll be difficult for all these teams to upgrade their defense, but there are some solutions out there.

The number of defensemen who changed teams and played in a team’s top four in terms of time-on-ice per game isn’t very inspiring for fans of teams looking for defense, but there are solid players out there.

Top defensemen were dealt, but that includes Shea Weber and P.K. Subban being traded for one another.

This table excludes the Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones trade since it was made in season, but the Jones trade shows good defensemen are available via trade and a hope that a reasonable forward-for-defenseman trade can still be made.

Adam Larsson was acquired for Taylor Hall, a move that reflects the great lengths teams will go for stable top-four defencemen.

There are the usual top-four defense free-agents here—Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski, Dan Hamhuis, and Jason Demers, and defensemen who are probably miscast in a top-four role, but can serve as a stop gap—Ben Lovejoy, Kris Russell, and Dennis Seidenberg.

The others who just missed the cut include Mark Pysyk and Anthony DeAngelo, who didn’t qualify by just being outside their respective team’s top-four in ice time, but are still good young defensemen who could take on more minutes in the future. Arizona and Florida didn’t give up a whole for either player.

Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov were acquired by Vancouver and Buffalo, but both had seasons shortened by injuries. In Vancouver’s case, this helped Troy Stecher get the opportunity to play with Alexander Edler and prove he’s an NHL defenseman. As for Buffalo, Jake McCabe seized the ice time left behind by Kulikov and the Sabres are probably better off with McCabe going forward.

Who’s available?

Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner are the two big free agent defensemen who have a long track record playing top-four minutes. Dmitry Kulikov is a free agent after a tough season this year and might be able to bounce back. Kris Russell has logged a lot of minutes the past few seasons. Michael Del Zotto might be able to help a team and play on the power play.

As for the trade market, the expansion draft could help make things interesting. The obvious targets are on Anaheim and Minnesota, but the Islanders and Panthers might have similar problems protecting good defensemen.

A defenseman-for-forward trade likely solves Anaheim’s problems, as they can go with the 7-3-1 protection route with Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore being exempt from the expansion draft. Minnesota has a more difficult path as all of their top-six defensemen are eligible, so even if they trade one before the expansion draft, they might end up losing another one. They might have to work something out with Las Vegas and send them assets to avoid losing a really good player.

The Islanders have a bunch of defensemen and might not be able to protect them all. They could use a centre behind John Tavares. The Panthers could have two of Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, or Alex Petrovic exposed. Vancouver is rebuilding and trading Chris Tanev might be appealing to them. The Carolina Hurricanes could use help scoring and have an incredible wealth of defensemen, as well as long pipeline of defense prospects. Jacob Trouba requested a trade and then rescinded it, but the Jets have a defense that’s heavy on the right side.

About half the league or more seems interested in improving their defense in some way, but the previous summer shows acquiring a top-four defenseman can be difficult. The group of defensemen who moved teams isn’t super inspiring, but the Las Vegas expansion draft might create a flurry of activity where teams can get something before the draft or risk losing a good player for nothing, which is good news for fans who want to see their team improve their blue line.