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Flames trade and free agent targets: 9 defencemen who could fit in Calgary

The Flames’ blue line was a pleasant surprise this season, considering how bleak it may have looked on paper.

Oliver Kylington had a breakout year. Nikita Zadorov and Erik Gudbranson exceeded expectations. Every single defender hit career-high numbers during the regular season. But now, the blue line will need some work.

Kylington needs a new contract. Chris Tanev is recovering from surgery. Zadorov and Gudbranson are unrestricted free agents, which leaves two holes on the third pair. The only healthy, full-time NHL defencemen, currently under contract are Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin.

The depth chart heading into free agency isn’t quite as bleak. Kylington is under team control. Connor Mackey could fight for a spot on the third pair next season; Juuso Valimaki, too. Even Zadorov and/or Gudbranson could be candidates to return for the right price. But what if one, or both, leave? What about Tanev’s spot for the first few months of the season?

No matter how you look at it, the Flames could be shopping for at least one defenceman this summer.

The free-agent market for defenders is looking pretty thin this year; quality and quantity are really lacking, especially on the right side. I’m not particularly enamoured with the options, which is why bringing back Gudbranson and/or Zadorov could be smart for Calgary. It also means a trade could be their best bet for a meaningful upgrade, so I’ve included two options here as well.

These kinds of moves are always difficult to project, especially when we don’t really know how much money GM Brad Treliving is working with this summer due to Johnny Gaudreau’s current status. But, with three weeks until free agency opens, let’s run through some options.


Ben Chiarot, LHD

Ben Chiarot doesn’t have a lot of fans in the analytics community but the Flames did try to grab him at the deadline, according to Pierre LeBrun, about three months ago. Whether they remain interested is to be determined, but that is why I’m including him on this list.

Plus, he does have some redeeming qualities; He’s 6-foot-3 and physical, plays a lot of minutes, has experience in a top-four role, will score you a few goals, and his defensive impacts were mostly OK until this season. With Montreal, he was heavily out-chanced and outscored at five-on-five. He had modest improvements with the Panthers, but you have to wonder if that was due to his individual impact or just being on a better team.

If the Flames were to kick tires on Chiarot, I’d say they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt with “big, bad defenders” of this nature — at least with Darryl Sutter behind the bench — that it wouldn’t be a shock to see this one work out fine. Zadorov had his best year in Calgary. Gudbranson was much better than in recent years. There’s reason to believe that Chiarot would be OK.

However, if he were to play well on the team’s third pair, he’s likely to be overpaid for that position. If that’s the case, I’d rather the Flames just stick with Zadorov, who they know can work in their system.

Brett Kulak, LHD

Brett Kulak is an intriguing target. Originally a Flames draft pick, Kulak played for Ryan Huska in the AHL and for parts of three seasons with Kirk Muller in Montreal after a 2018 trade. So, at the very least, we know there’s some familiarity — including from the second round of the playoffs as Kulak was a nice deadline addition for the Edmonton Oilers.

Since leaving Calgary, Kulak has become an everyday defender and has been a consistently above replacement-level defensive player, according to Evolving Hockey. He’s not an eye-popping offensive talent, but Kulak moves the puck up ice, does well to suppress chances, and can play a useful role on a team’s blue line.

Kulak has been most useful in a sheltered role, but that shouldn’t be a big issue for the Flames; their projected holes are on the third pair or on the right side while Tanev is out. Kulak would likely be a replacement for Zadorov should Zadorov sign elsewhere and insurance in case Connor Mackey can’t grab a roster spot out of camp.

The concern with Kulak is that, due to how weak the market is for defenders this summer, he’s a candidate to be overpaid. That would be hard to stomach with Mackey waiting in the wings on the left side.

Ethan Bear, RHD

Looking for a trade, perhaps? Maybe one involving Ethan Bear, who has reportedly been given permission by the Carolina Hurricanes to talk to other clubs. Bear, 24, is a restricted free agent and due a $2 million qualifying offer.

Things didn’t work that well in Carolina after arriving via trade with Edmonton in exchange for Warren Foegele; Bear started the year beside Jaccob Slavin, tested positive for COVID-19 in November and never really looked the same after, ultimately losing his spot in the lineup and being scratched in the playoffs.

His results in Carolina were just OK in what became a depth role, but he had better two-way results in a bigger, minutes-eating role in Edmonton — in 2019-20 he averaged 21:58 per game with time against opposing teams’ top lines. Bear has been a solid puck-moving defenceman and was pretty consistent in Edmonton. Perhaps he just needs the right opportunity on the right team?

Whether that is Calgary is an intriguing question. There is a clear hole on the right side of the blue line, especially with Tanev expected to miss the first month or two of the season. But after that, Bear would likely move down to the third pair, and that seemed to be an issue for him in Carolina. I’m also not sure if he and Kylington would be a perfect match — both are young defenders who haven’t quite established themselves over a bigger sample size despite solid results in recent years.

This might be less realistic in practice. But something to think about given his age and untapped potential.

Jakob Chychrun, LHD

Sticking with trades, I’m including Jacob Chychrun on the off chance that Calgary opts for some kind of shake-up on defence. If they are, Chychrun should be at the top of the list if only because of how rare it is to see a young, talented defenceman on an affordable contract available on the trade market.

He’s only 24 years old, finished 10th in Norris Trophy voting last season and is making $4.6 million for three more years. The results weren’t there this season for Chychrun, but Arizona has been tearing down and he had no help. That doesn’t change how skilled a player he is.

The question is, what might he cost to acquire? Could Calgary even make that work?

There were reports around the trade deadline that GM Bill Armstrong would be looking for a first-round pick, a prospect and an existing young player. That’s a lot. The Flames don’t have a first-rounder for this year’s draft and would they really go back-to-back years without one? Would Chychrun move the needle more than, say, Noah Hanifin, in the top four?

The Flames’ needs aren’t really on the left side this summer, which makes me think this wouldn’t be the best use of assets. I personally wouldn’t make a move for Chychrun at this point, considering where the Flames are at and the potential cost. However, I do know he’s a big talking point, so I’ll be curious to see how fans feel about this one.

Justin Braun, RHD

There aren’t a ton of great righties projected to hit the open market this summer. Justin Braun is one of them.

He’s a big, defensive-minded player who can help suppress shots and is steady in his own zone. Braun is best suited for the third pair on a contending team at this point in his career, but he has shown he can play up the lineup if needed. Due to injuries the last two seasons in Philadelphia, Braun often played up on the top pair with Ivan Provorov. It didn’t go great in 2021-22, but nothing really did for the Flyers. He was, however, decently effective in that kind of role in the shortened 2021 season. All that makes him an interesting stopgap candidate for the Flames’ second pair. Braun will be out of his depth, but ideally not for long. If he can hold his own, then move down to the third pair, that would be good for the Flames. It would also be a roll of the dice, given his age and his most recent results.

Jan Rutta, RHD

Rutta is another option for the right side — and he might be a better one.

He’s 31 years old, which is younger than Braun (35), and has established himself as a reliable player who can fit alongside top-end talent. Rutta has been Victor Hedman’s most regular partner over the past three seasons in Tampa, including the back-to-back Cup-winning playoff runs. He has great chemistry with Hedman and often hangs back while his partner jumps into the rush or leads the transition from defence to offence. He plays a steady, understated style, which — to a lesser extent — is comparable to Tanev. By that logic, you’d think he could work next to Kylington.

Rutta has typically been inexpensive with a $1.3 million cap hit this year, and never made more than $2.25 million towards the cap in his career. Lightning players have typically gotten raises on the open market, and Rutta may be no different. But he’d still probably be cheaper than some of the other options on this list.

Alex Edler, LHD

Edler only played half the season for the L.A. Kings before going down with an injury, but there was a lot to like about what he did this past season. He scored at a 38-point pace, for one. At five-on-five the Kings earned 57 percent of the actual and expected goals with Edler on the ice — both metrics led the team.

Edler, who has played 966 NHL games, averaged around 18:30 in time on ice, was good on the King’s penalty kill, and showed he could realistically be a reliable top-four defender for another season. It’s unlikely his 2021-22 season is repeatable, but there’s clearly some gas left in the tank. With so few true top-four defenders available this summer, he might be a worthy gamble, despite his age (36). An added bonus: Edler played most of his career in Vancouver, so would be familiar with Jacob Markstrom and Tanev. (He’s also Swedish for those who keep track of “Little Sweden,”).

A short-term deal would be key here. Dom’s model has Edler above replacement level for three more years, but most of his comparables show a drop off pretty quickly at this point in their careers — Calgary doesn’t want to be locked into anything like that.

Ian Cole, LHD

Ian Cole might be an odd, yet under-the-radar candidate for the Flames.

He plays well in a depth role and is still an effective shutdown player who uses his size to keep opponents to the perimeter, suppress chances, and clear traffic in front of the crease. Cole averaged around 17 minutes last season in Carolina, took on solid penalty-killing minutes and had comparable underlying metrics to the Flames’ top four.

His 56 percent expected goals ranked 18th overall among defenders who played at least 500 minutes this season. That’s better than Tanev (55.8), Kylington (55.6), Zadorov (55.3) and Gudbranson (52.9) — albeit against lesser competition than Tanev and Kylington would have faced. His overall expected goal rate was buoyed by his excellent expected goals against rate (2.25 xGA/60). That’s an important distinction because some defenders — like Hanifin or Andersson — have better overall numbers due to their offensive play driving. Additionally, we know Sutter loves playoff experience, well, Cole has two Cups won with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

Should his cap hit stay relatively low — he made $2.9 million this year — Cole could be a solid third-pair replacement for Calgary.

Ilya Lyubushkin, RHD

Lyubushkin would pack the kind of punch the Flames would likely covet should Gudbranson leave this summer. He’s a physical, right-handed defender who is limited when it comes to pure skill but can be relied on in the defensive zone. Lyubushkin is a serviceable depth defender but did get consistent runs on the top-pair with Morgan Reilly in Toronto. He was fine there in the regular season, complementing Rielly’s offensive style nicely by staying home, but looked out of his depth in the playoffs.

That shouldn’t be an issue for Calgary; he would likely start on the second-pair as that safety net for Kylington and get bumped back down when Tanev returns. He only made $1.35 million this season, and shouldn’t be too expensive this summer, given his small sample size as a reliable defender on a contending team. Should the cap hit stay below $1.5 million, he might be worth a flier.


Honourable mentions

Josh Manson, Calvin de Haan, Justin Schultz, Colin Miller, Robert Hagg, and Michael Stone (obviously).

(Top photo of Dillon Dube and Jakob Chychrun: Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY)

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