It is only December, and most years, it’d be taboo to begin exploring the group of unrestricted free agents available next offseason. However, nothing in 2020 has been norma,l so I am going to hope that Detroit Red Wing fans allow me to look toward the group of upcoming defensemen that will reach UFA status in 2021.
As my esteemed colleague, Tony Wolak, recently demonstrated, the Red Wings are in a great position financially and specifically in terms of salary cap room. Four of the seven defensemen on Detroit’s roster will also become UFAs after next season. In other words, the organization will have the luxury of keeping defenders they feel have value and upgrading areas of weakness with the extra cash and cap room in hand.
That said, there are three defensemen becoming UFAs next offseason that might be of interest for Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. In line with the team’s rebuild and accompanying youth movement, all three of these potential UFA candidates are less than 30 years old. More specifically, all three players are 28 years of age and were all drafted within 10 spots of one another during the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
Without further adieu, and in order of probable price tag, here are the three potential candidates that might make the Red Wings a better club in 2021-22.
1) Dougie Hamilton
Given his age and consistent offensive prowess, Dougie Hamilton is likely the most coveted UFA defenseman available next offseason, especially considering the Carolina Hurricanes have a significant amount of money tied up in their defensive unit. After the team signed trade deadline acquisition Brady Skjei, they now have over $26 million tied up in seven roster players on the back end for 2020-21. At present, Hamilton is the highest-paid defender, at a $5.75 million AAV.
There has been plenty of speculation that the Hurricanes might try and move a player like Hamilton to re-balance the back-end expenditures. However, Carolina also has some good young defensive prospects that will likely be ready for NHL action in the 2021-22 season. Former 1st round selection in 2016, Jake Bean, and trade acquisition Joey Keane (acquired with Skjei from the Rangers) are players that could round out the D core if the Hurricanes feel Hamilton’s next deal will be too expensive.
Not to mention, Carolina will also need to re-sign Andrei Svechnikov when he becomes an RFA in 2021. Considering Hamilton’s next deal will likely be in the $6-7 million range, that might be a stretch for the Hurricanes financially.
Carolina is Hamilton’s third NHL stop after the Boston Bruins drafted him ninth overall in 2011. That is something the Red Wings’ staff might want to explore further, but on paper, he could be a legitimate offensive catalyst for the team moving forward.
2) Adam Larsson
The fourth overall pick from the 2011 Draft, Adam Larsson, is on his second NHL team. The Edmonton Oilers acquired him from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Taylor Hall in 2016. As such, Larsson had an uphill battle in meeting the expectations of a loyal but demanding Oilers’ fan base.
His play with the Oilers has been okay, but not as advertised. The minus-28 rating during the 2018-19 season really stands out during his time in Edmonton. Further, the Skellefteå native has never really found an offensive gear for his game at the NHL level. To date, his most productive season was in 2014-15 when he managed 3 goals and 21 assists over 64 games for the Devils.
Observers might argue Larsson has failed to find his own identity at the NHL level. He is not exactly a shutdown defensive player but also not a genuine two-way defender either. Considering these factors, his next contract might be for shorter term and less than his current $4.16 million (AAV) salary. Perhaps Yzerman could convince him with an offer to help him get his career on track. Given the long history of Swedish greats, maybe Detroit is a good destination for Larsson to reinvigorate the back nine of his career.
The Oilers, with two of the game’s greatest players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, will be tight on cap room for the foreseeable future. Lastly, Oilers’ defensive prospects Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg should also be ready for full-time action in 2021-22.
3) Jamie Oleksiak
The last potential 2021 UFA target for the Red Wings is current Dallas Star, Jamie Oleksiak. Personally speaking, I felt the Toronto-native solidified himself as a crucial defensive factor for the Stars during an amazing 2020 Stanley Cup Finals run.
His career path to date has been interesting, to say the least. After the Stars drafted him with the 14th overall pick in 2011, he played for them for five seasons before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018. Interestingly, Oleksiak really established himself in Pittsburgh. His play at that time led to his most recent contract — a three-year deal with an AAV of $2.137 million.
As Oleksiak began to thrive in Pittsburgh, he was traded back to Dallas in January of 2019 for the same fourth-round pick he originally was the first time around.
Although Oleksiak is familiar with the Dallas organization, it may not be feasible for him to stay. My guess is that his play during the 2020 Playoffs will earn him a raise, which may price him out of the Stars’ lineup. He is okay for the upcoming season, but when Miro Heiskanen reaches RFA status next offseason, it might become impossible.
Given the impending contract expirations of all three players, it is entirely possible their teams could move them before the 2021 Trade Deadline. Re-signing in Dallas and Carolina may be considered irrational, as they both need to prioritize franchise players in Heiskanen and Svechnikov. As for Edmonton, their cap room probably will not improve anytime soon, so Larsson could be expendable. They are also likely motivated to want some kind of return from the Hall trade.
The 2021 free agent frenzy is, well, who knows how long it is away? Whenever that time arrives, the Red Wings should have several strong candidates to choose from as they try and bolster the back end moving forward.