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Top NHL UFAs by position: Looking at the 10 best defencemen available

During the lead-up to NHL free agency opening on Oct. 9, we’re taking a look the top UFAs at each position. Today, we’re showcasing what is a pretty deep group of defencemen who could be on the move this off-season.

We’ve got a strong class of rearguards due new deals this fall, headlined by the No. 1 UFA of 2020 and including some smooth-skating defenders who can provide an instant boost to a team’s blue line. Let’s dive in.

1. Alex Pietrangelo
2019-20 team: St. Louis Blues | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 16G, 36A, 52Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $6.5M
Last year’s Stanley Cup-winning captain is this year’s biggest UFA, and there’s no shortage of interest around the league. No. 1 rearguards like Pietrangelo don’t become available too often — last year’s would-be big-name UFA defenders, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson, re-signed with their respective clubs long before even getting a chance to sniff free agency.

But is Pietrangelo really on the move?

All season, both team and player maintained that their top off-season priority would be to re-sign on the dotted line. Pietrangelo made it clear during his end-of-season media availability that he wants to stay a Blue:

“Of course I do,” he told reporters. “It’s the only place I’ve known professional hockey.”

Only, the math is complicated — and made even more so by the flat cap. In a normal year, Pietrangelo could expect to garner upward of $9 million a year, considering the going rate as well as his consistent production and proven ability to win. In an interview with The Athletic‘s Jeremy Rutherford last month, Pietrangelo revealed that talks between his camp and Blues management had broken down — a development that doubles as a call for public pressure from fans.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the two sides are “going to take one more run at this.”

Writes Friedman, “The biggest question: Do the Blues believe he will leave?”

Hockey Central

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2. Torey Krug
2019-20 team: Boston Bruins | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 9G, 40A, 49Pts in 61GP
2019-20 cap hit: $5.25
Krug is, in so many ways, an embodiment of what Bruins hockey is all about: Gritty, physical, skilled, versatile, and incredibly tough to grind down. Yet, it’s looking increasingly like his days sporting the spoked B are about to come to an end. Despite a desire to keep this partnership going, neither side sounds particularly hopeful that it’ll actually happen. Bruins general manager Don Sweeney also has two RFAs to extend in Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk, plus Zdeno Chara, and just $14 million to spend, which doesn’t leave much for Krug.

Krug made it clear during a recent media availability that he’s looking for a long-terms pact, and said he’s “very opposed” to taking a one-year deal when asked about that possibility.

“I’ve bet on myself and I’ve taken shorter term deals for less amount of money for my whole career now,” he said. “This is my time in terms of my value at its peak. I’m in a position now where I need to make the most of it. I’ve done it long enough now and that’s the situation I’m facing.”

That said, Krug made it clear he’d love to stay in Boston — but also knows it’s not personal on either side.

“I’m a big believer that there’s a journey for all of us. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, I’m not too worried about it or anxious about it,” he said (via NBC Sports. “There’s an emotional attachment (to Boston), but that’s a mistake that a lot of athletes get caught up in when they start their professional careers. There’s nothing personal about it. It’s business on both ends. Teams have to put their best foot forward spending a certain amount of money and athletes have one shot at making all of their money in their careers. Whether you play one or two years up to a 10-15-year career, you have one shot to do it all. I realize that and it is what it is. There’s an emotional attachment (to the Bruins) and I’ve made no secret about it. My teammates know it. Everyone knows it. It’s part of the business that stinks, but we’ll see what happens moving forward.”

Geography links the Livonia, Mich., native to the Detroit Red Wings, and the rebuilding team’s cap space and positional need adds to that case. Krug could be a trade candidate in the coming week as teams seek an exclusive negotiating window with the UFA-to-be.

3. Tyson Barrie
2019-20 team: Toronto Maple Leafs | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 4G, 34A, 39Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $5.5M
When the Maple Leafs acquired Barrie last off-season, it looked like the chemistry would be instant between the quick, skilled club and their new smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman. Only, things didn’t exactly pan out as expected for Barrie, making it a near-certainty that the two sides would part ways in free agency, chalking up the one-year relationship to an unsuccessful experiment and a lesson learned.

Still, a down year on the stat sheet — Barrie’s handful of goals was his lowest total since his rookie year — won’t stop him from being one of the most popular free agents in his class.

4. T.J. Brodie
2019-20 team: Calgary Flames | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 4G, 15A, 19Pts in 64GP
2019-20 cap hit: $4.65M
Another disappointing playoff performance from the Pacific club makes the Flames’ off-season particularly intriguing this year. Does general manager Brad Treliving make a few tweaks to complement his core, or will he opt for more drastic actions?

Sportsnet’s Eric Francis believes that if it comes down to a decision between Brodie and fellow Flames D-man Travis Hamonic, Brodie would be the most likely to remain in Calgary. Though we didn’t see as much of his offensive upside this past season, he continues to be a strong presence on the blue line — particularly when paired with captain Mark Giordano as one half of the team’s best backend duo — and remains one of the top ice-time leaders.

5. Kevin Shattenkirk
2019-20 team: Tampa Bay Lightning | Age: 31
2019-20 stats: 8G, 26A, 34Pts in 70GP
2019-20 cap hit: $1.75M
The past few years have been a roller-coaster for Shattenkirk, going from longtime Blue to rental Capital, sought-after UFA to Rangers buyout, then affordable Tampa Bay pickup to Stanley Cup champion. Whew.

Shattenkirk found solid chemistry on Tampa Bay’s blue line, providing an affordable upgrade and using the opportunity to revive his own career — his 34 points this season was his highest total since his last campaign with the Blues, and had him on pace to hit the 40-point plateau like he did consistently during his standout St. Louis career.

6. Travis Hamonic
2019-20 team: Calgary Flames | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 3G, 9A, 12Pts in 50GP
2019-20 cap hit: $3.86M
Another piece of Calgary’s core on the blue line, it feels like Hamonic’s fate goes hand-in-hand with Brodie’s. Not as flashy as the D-men listed before him, but a steady stay-at-home presence that could come at a relatively affordable price.

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7. Sami Vatanen
2019-20 team: New Jersey Devils + Carolina Hurricanes | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 5G, 18A, 23Pts in 47GP
2019-20 cap hit: $4.875M
Due to an injury at the time of his trade, we didn’t get to see much of Vatanen with the Hurricanes as he had to wait until landing in the Toronto bubble to make his debut with his new club. Health has held back the rearguard, who has never been able to play a full season, but has given us plenty of glimpses of his smooth skating and mobility in healthy stints.

As strong a fit as he may be in Carolina, we will probably never fully find out what could have been — a seven-game trial probably isn’t long enough to gauge chemistry. Health will certainly factor into his next deal, which could be a short-term one.

8. Chris Tanev
2019-20 team: Vancouver Canucks | Age: 30
2019-20 stats: 2G, 18a, 20Pts, 69GP
2019-20 cap hit: $4.45
With the condensed off-season and a flat cap, this fall is shaping up to be particularly busy for a number of NHL general managers, but few have a to-do list longer than the one on Jim Benning’s desk.

Tanev’s name isn’t at the top — Jacob Markstrom and Tyler Toffoli are — but it’s not too far down, either. The longtime Canuck had a career year in 2019-20, providing a strong physical presence and excellent partner for rookie sensation Quinn Hughes. And while Hughes is a reason to keep Tanev in the fold now, his pending payday as an RFA following 2020-21 could hinder Benning’s ability to offer Tanev much for his services down the road making it likely he could land a better offer elsewhere.

Dynamic forward Elias Pettersson will be an RFA at the same time as Hughes, which puts even more pressure on Benning to get things right this fall in order to set himself up nicely to make next summer’s negotiations easier.

9. Brenden Dillon
2019-20 team: San Jose Sharks + Washington Capitals | Age: 29
2019-20 stats: 1G, 13a, 14Pts, 69GP
2019-20 cap hit: $3.27M
The Capitals dealt a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional third in 2021 to the Sharks for Dillon, and were happy with the addition. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Washington is in the process of “trying to move money” in an effort to keep him.

Washington is officially on trade watch.

10. Zdeno Chara
2019-20 team: Boston Bruins | Age: 43
2019-20 stats: 5G, 9A, 14Pts in 68GP
2019-20 cap hit: $2M
The past two off-seasons have seen Chara sign a one-year deal with Boston, taking a year-by-year approach to the final chapter of his career. Considering how close the Bruins have been to winning it all these past few years, it feels very likely that he re-ups for another go-round this fall.

He put together another solid year in 2019-20, ranking second in average ice time behind only Charlie McAvoy, and is still incredibly tough to play against.

More defencemen to watch: Radko Gudas (WSH), Cody Ceci (TOR), Justin Schultz (PIT), Erik Gustafsson (CGY), Andrej Sekera (DAL), Mark Borowiecki (OTT), Dylan DeMelo (WPG), Trevor van Riemsdyk (CAR), Andy Greene (NYI), Luke Schenn (TB), Mark Pysyk (FLA), Zach Bogosian (TB)

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