Over-Thought: Defenseman Market is Starting to Sizzle

The Sabres have gotten off to a better start than I have this year when it comes to recapping 31 Thoughts. But I’m back on the wagon for Sabres After Dark and there are a few juicy tidbits in this week’s edition. Including trade whispers related to both Buffalo’s and Pittsburgh’s bluelines.

  1. Bruce Boudreau and the Wild had smiles on their faces when they arrived at Scotiabank Arena for morning skate on Tuesday. A win will do that, getting off the schneid with a 2–0 victory in Ottawa on Monday. But the frustration was back after a 4–2 loss in Toronto. Word on Minnesota is that GM Bill Guerin will listen on everything, but isn’t in a rush to do anything simply for the sake of it. I think they’d like to address a recurring problem — the team’s lack of right-handed shots. Boudreau is in the last year of his coaching contract (there is a consulting gig with the organization scheduled to begin next season). I don’t get the sense Guerin is in any hurry there. If a move did happen, Boudreau’s history as an immediate turnaround artist keeps him in the conversation if anyone else wants to make a change.

Things have been slipping away from the Wild over the last few seasons. Between their division opponents and an aging roster, Minnesota has had to deal with an uphill climb each year and it’s looking arduous again this year. I’m curious to see how Guerin handles this roster as the season progresses. There will be some difficult decisions to make if they’re way out of the playoff race in the West.

Devan Dubnyk has one more year left beyond this one and a goalie needy team would probably jump at the opportunity to grab him with a year of term left to work with.  Eric Staal and Jonas Brodin also have a year left on their respective deals. What’s probably worrying for the new GM is the money that’s been given to players on the wrong side of the aging curve. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are obviously inherited deals and it would’ve been tough to walk away from Jared Spurgeon. But at 29, giving him seven years is a gamble. Add in five years for Mats Zuccarello and Victor Rask’s contract and there’s some big money that will be tough to move out of the Twin Cities. Even if they decide to sell some assets this year – assuming they fall off quickly – it’s not going to be a quick transition for Guerin or the Wild.

  1. Head coach Mike Sullivan indicated Pittsburgh’s nine defencemen might have to get used to a rotation. Rutherford admitted there “wasn’t much” of a trade market for what he had out there.
  1. One thing the GM made clear: He is not interested in trading Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-rounder.
  1. I do think Montreal — which has kept an eye on left-shot defenders — took a look at Juuso Riikola. (Rutherford was not the source on this one.)

I have a pet theory that Jim Rutherford has been rewarded more than any other GM for making questionable roster decisions. Ryan Wilson of Hockeybuzz has noted that the two biggest sore spots on Pittsburgh’s blueline (Erik Gudbranson and Jack Johnson) are two players Rutherford made it a point to acquire and now he’s trying to unload them. It’s an interesting dynamic given both players weren’t exactly popular with the advanced stats community prior to their acquisition. Johnson didn’t have much popularity with any corner of the hockey world, for that matter. Moves like those two haven’t been foreign to Rutherford either, an odd wrinkle for a GM with three Cups to his credit.

Players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin tend to offer a fair bit of cover for any GM, so it stands to reason the Pens success has come in spite of Rutherford’s decisions at times. Crosby has been carrying that team on his back thus far and he’s been needed given their injury issues. Rutherford needs to make a move on his blueline simply to clear up some roster and cap space. Riikola gives them some roster space but not so much cap relief. One of the two big vets would clear some much needed cap space while offering a little addition by subtraction. It will be interesting to see who is able to pull the trigger first. The Sabres, the Pens or even Dallas (with Julius Honka).

  1. Buffalo is another team looking to move a defender, and I thought Arizona might make sense for one of these blueline-heavy clubs when Niklas Hjalmarsson went down. He’s a huge part of what they do. Since he’s going to be back and they are tighter to the cap, a big move is unlikely. The Coyotes believe in 22-year-old Kyle Capobianco, whose 2018-19 season was shortened by a knee injury. He played 13:18 in Tuesday’s victory in Winnipeg.

Information on Buffalo’s potential moves has been pretty thin. Rasmus Ristolainen is still at front of mind for most and Marco Scandella has been another popular subject. Both have enjoyed solid openings to the year, which will probably spook some from the idea that either should be moved. Scandella in particular has had a great turnaround from last year as he and Henri Jokiharju have paired wonderfully.

Friedman drops the Sabres into a note about the Coyotes but the Jets remain the most obvious trade partner if Ristolainen is still truly on the block. They’re in need of pretty much any NHL defenseman but a righty would be of greater importance at the moment. It might be hard to fathom pulling a player off Buffalo’s roster given the early success they’ve had but at some point a tough decision will need to be made. And if Henri Jokiharju gets sent down, we riot. Quite frankly, Scandella seems to be the easiest player to part ways with at the moment. Yes, he’s bounced back well but he’s also playing on the third pair and if the primary goal is to clear up space, shedding Scandella (and his salary) would be helpful to the Sabres without rocking the boat too much.

Ristolainen still seems like the guy most likely to move, however. His gaffes with the puck are still prevalent but his underlying numbers have been better and I’d argue the eye test has been as well. Minus the big mishaps, of course. If he’s capable of bringing back a legitimate offensive asset, it’s an offer you need to entertain.

  1. We’re going to see some changes to the All-Star Skills Competition for January’s event in St. Louis. Some of the events that players have really struggled with (such as puck control) are on the chopping block. The NHL and NHLPA agree that you want your guys having fun and looking happy. The opposite is not the best advertisement for the sport. St. Louis has a fantastic alumni group, and discussions are under way on how to involve them — but my dream of having Al Iafrate win the hardest shot while smoking a cigarette appears unlikely. Like the all-stars themselves, there is concern about having alumni compete and not look good. I assume female players will be invited again, too.

I’m not sure what to think about including alumni in the skills competition since for the exact reason listed above. Short of the hardest shot and maybe breakaways, I can’t imagine any of the league’s events would lend themselves well to relatively recent retirees. What stood out to me is that the puck control event could wind up on the chopping block and boy would that be a welcome change.

The league could have introduced an excellent puck control event and instead chose to use towers with slots that are at the level of high sticking within the course of a game. Why the didn’t build a course using stickhandling training elements that would actually illustrate the ability of NHL All Stars to stickhandle and change direction at speed. It would be a hell of a lot more entertaining and competitive than the version the league opted to go with. Hopefully they go back to the drawing board as opposed to scrapping it entirely but I’m not overly confident.

Repurposing some of what’s done in this camp would be a pretty good start:

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