This has been a relatively quiet free agency season for defensemen.
With a couple of exceptions, NHL general managers are not heading into the market with wide-open wallets. Instead, they either have been standing pat or addressing their shortcomings by investing in existing players, making trades or acquiring secondary options.
The primary risk-taking exception is the Florida Panthers. New GM Tom Rowe has invested almost $67 million long-term in free agents Keith Yandle ($44.45 million over seven years) and Jason Demers (a reported $22.5 million over five years).
The Panthers also committed another reported $60 million on an eight-year extension for Aaron Ekblad.
Video: DAL@MTL: Demers knocks in goal from the corner
Several teams went a similar route, with a total of $149.3 million in long-term NHL salary-cap space invested to re-sign and/or extend Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning ($63 million over eight years), Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets ($32.4 million over six years), Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins ($21 million over four years), Sami Vatanen of the Anaheim Ducks (a reported $19.5 million over four years), and Radko Gudas of the Philadelphia Flyers (a reported $13.4 million over four years).
Among unrestricted free agents, the only major investment in a defenseman outside of Florida was made by another new GM, John Chayka of the Arizona Coyotes. He acquired Alex Goligoski from the Dallas Stars on June 16 in a trade for a fifth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and six days later signed him to a contract valued at $27.375 million over five years.
That contract can't be classified as a very high risk, because Goligoski is expected to be a perfect fit in Arizona. He is a versatile, two-way defenseman who can be trusted in all game and manpower situations, and will help share the tough minutes with last season's Coyotes scoring leader, Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Beyond that, the volume of free agent signings has remained high, but the risks have been kept small. For example, trusted veterans Brian Campbell of the Chicago Blackhawks, Fedor Tyutin of the Colorado Avalanche and John-Michael Liles of the Bruins each signed a one-year contract.
In fact, the only free agent who joins Yandle, Demers and Goligoski among the top 100 defensemen in salary-cap charge is Dan Hamhuis of the Stars. The defensive-minded veteran was signed to partially address the departures of Demers and Goligoski, and ranks No. 83 with a reported cap-charge of $3.75 million for each of the next two seasons.
THE YANDLE GAMBLE
The Panthers' first-place finish in the Atlantic Division, coupled with the quiet nature of the free agent season, makes Florida's overhaul that much more surprising.
Last season, the only Panthers who remained from the 2011-12 division champions were three defensemen: Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Eric Gudbranson. This summer, Campbell signed with the Blackhawks, Kulikov was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, and Gudbranson was traded to the Vancouver Canucks. Veteran free agent Willie Mitchell was not re-signed.
Video: NYR@PIT, Gm2: Yandle buries loose puck, evens game
That means a lot of faith is being placed in Yandle, whose skills moving the puck up the ice, setting up scoring and quarterbacking the power play are universally trusted.
Yandle needs to be challenged by coach Gerard Gallant to move beyond the purely offensive role he was assigned with the Coyotes and New York Rangers, and to develop into a more complete two-way player by killing penalties, taking more defensive-zone shifts, facing top-six opponents, and protecting late leads.
For this group to succeed, Ekblad also must complete the same progression sooner rather than later.
Demers, who already was assigned this type of role with the Stars, may need to carry some of the slack early in the season when Yandle and Ekblad make these adjustments.
Besides the Panthers, the biggest new defenseman contracts involved teams locking down their known and trusted players, rather than risking the open market.
The largest contract of the summer involved the Lightning, who signed Hedman to an eight-year extension. When this contract starts in 2017-18, Hedman will become the NHL's second-highest paid defenseman, behind P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators ($9 million average annual value).
Unlike Ekblad's extension, or the re-signing of restricted free agents Jones, Krug and Vatanen, the Lightning are not paying for potential. By any metric or using the eye test, Hedman is one of the NHL's best defensemen in all zones and situations, and will continue to help the Lightning to many more deep runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Video: STL@DAL, Gm5: Goligoski goes top-shelf to even score
Among restricted free agents, Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets, Hampus Lindholm of the Ducks, Danny DeKeyser of the Detroit Red Wings and Tyson Barrie of the Avalanche are among the notable defensemen who remain unsigned.
Given the emphasis on re-signing defensemen, each of these players could receive a significant long-term contract in the coming weeks.
One notable name remains on the list of unrestricted free agents: Kris Russell. The shot-blocking specialist split last season between the Calgary Flames and Stars, and scored 19 points in 62 games. With few remaining top-four alternatives, Russell could ultimately accept a long-term offer comparable to his former Dallas teammates, Goligoski and Demers.