Grading the Long-Term Contracts Signed by NHL Defensemen During 2021 Offseason

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2021

Grading the Long-Term Contracts Signed by NHL Defensemen During 2021 Offseason

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    The summer of 2021 has been lucrative for some of the NHL's best players. A number of unrestricted free agents, including defenseman Dougie Hamilton, signed big-money contracts with new teams. Several restricted free agents and those entering the final year of their deals also made out well with expensive long-term extensions.

    Defensemen were the main beneficiaries of the latter group. Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche, Seth Jones of the Chicago Blackhawks and Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers were among the handful who cashed in big.

    The length and the expense of those signings made headlines around the league. Some were considered worthwhile moves, while others raised eyebrows.

    Here are our grades for every long-term extension inked by an NHL defenseman this summer. "Long term" refers to contracts six years or more. We have excluded Hamilton's seven-year, $63 million contract, as we already evaluated it during our live grades of the summer's biggest unrestricted free-agent signings.

    As always, feel free to express your opinion in the comments section.

Seth Jones, Chicago Blackhawks

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    After informing the Columbus Blue Jackets of his intention to test next summer's free-agent market, Seth Jones was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 24. Four days later, the Blackhawks signed the 26-year-old defenseman to an eight-year extension with an annual average value of $9.5 million. The deal begins in 2022-23 and is a big raise over his $5.4 million cap hit for 2021-22.

    Jones was the mainstay of the Blue Jackets defense over the past five seasons. He was their leader in ice time per game (24:49) and takeaways (207) and finished second with 203 total points and 599 blocked shots. However, the Hockey News' Mike Stephens and The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn observed that his overall stats took a tumble on a bad Blue Jackets club last season.

    Stephens and Luszczyszyn were among the pundits raising legitimate concerns over whether Jones can meet the high expectations of his new contract. Turning 28 in the first year of the deal, Jones will be 35 when it expires. Last season's struggles could be an early sign of decline or he could regain his form with the rebuilding Blackhawks.

    Grade: B

Brandon Carlo, Boston Bruins

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    The first of the defensemen on this list to ink a long-term contract this summer, Brandon Carlo agreed to a six-year deal with the Boston Bruins on July 14. The 24-year-old will earn $4.1 million annually.

    At 6'5" and 227 pounds, Carlo is a big-bodied stay-at-home defenseman. He's averaged 20:13 of time on ice per game since 2016-17 and sits second in short-handed ice time (2:48) among Bruins blueliners with 100-plus games played since then. Carlo is also second among all Bruins over that period with 398 blocked shots.

    This is a reasonably priced contract that takes Carlo through most of his prime to age 31. His injury history, however, is a concern. According to Boston Hockey Now's Jimmy Murphy, Carlo has suffered four concussions, with two of them coming last season. If he can avoid further serious injury, this deal could prove a worthwhile investment.

    Grade: B+

Zach Werenski, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets have seen a steady departure of talent via trades or free agency in recent years, losing such notables as Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Seth Jones. They couldn't risk Zach Werenski doing the same when he reached unrestricted free-agent eligibility in 2023, so they inked the 24-year-old defenseman to a six-year deal with an annual cap hit of $9.58 million.

    Werenski is among the NHL's best offensive defensemen and one of the Blue Jackets' most consistent producers. Since his 2016-17 rookie season, he's third among Jackets scorers with 189 points and leads their defensemen with 65 goals. Still, they paid a steep price. Werenski's cap hit will become the third-highest among NHL blueliners when the deal begins in 2022-23.

    The Blue Jackets overpaid to keep Werenski, but they had little choice. Signing him to a lengthy contract extension was crucial to their roster retooling. It also sent a message to their fans that they could entice one of their best players into sticking around for the long term. That gives them something to build around.

    Grade: B+

Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers

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    Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

    Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse was the last player on this list to sign his new contract. With the market already set thanks to expensive deals signed by Chicago's Seth Jones, Colorado's Cale Makar and Columbus' Zach Werenski, the 26-year-old agreed to an eight-year extension with the Oilers worth an annual cap hit of $9.25 million. That's quite a pay raise over his current $5.6 million deal.

    Since his first full NHL season in 2015-16, Nurse blossomed into a reliable top-four defenseman. Since then, he's led all Oilers blueliners in total goals (45), assists (112), points (157) and takeaways (132). He also ranks second among their skaters during that period in time on ice per game (22:20), along with 879 hits and 696 blocked shots.

    The Oilers had little choice but to sign Nurse to that hefty raise. He's simply too valuable as a physical two-way rearguard to have risked losing to free agency next summer. It could prove worthwhile if he maintains his level of play through at least the first half of his contract. 

    Grade: B+

Adam Pelech, New York Islanders

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    Scott Audette/Getty Images

    The New York Islanders' signing of Adam Pelech was overshadowed by the Oilers' inking of Darnell Nurse on the same day. Nevertheless, avoiding salary arbitration by locking up their best stay-at-home defenseman to an eight-year contract with an annual cap hit of $5.75 million was laudable.

    Set to turn 27 on Monday, Pelech lacks the star power and name recognition of others on this list, but he's an invaluable member of the Islanders defensive corps. Since 2017-18, he's third on the team with 414 total blocked shots and sixth with 396 hits while leading their blueliners with 126 total takeaways. Since 2019-20, he finished third in time on ice per game (21:05) and had a team-leading 2:27 in short-handed ice time.

    Signing Pelech removes any uncertainty over his future as the Isles attempt to exploit their Stanley Cup window. His physical style raises some concern over his effectiveness in the final four years of the deal, but the reasonable salary-cap hit shouldn't be much of a drag on their cap payroll.

    Grade: A-

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

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    Michael Martin/Getty Images

    Coming off his entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche, Cale Makar established himself among the NHL's elite defensemen. The Avalanche ensured the 22-year-old would be paid like one, signing him to a six-year deal with an annual average value of $9 million.

    Makar made an immediate splash after joining the Avalanche straight out of college during the 2019 playoffs, tallying six points in 10 contests. He followed up in his first full NHL season by winning the Calder Memorial Trophy with a 50-point performance in 57 games. Makar's sophomore campaign saw him become a finalist for the James Norris Memorial Trophy with 44 points in as many contests.

    A highly skilled mobile defender, Makar has yet to reach his playing prime. Given what he's shown in his brief big league career, he could be a perennial Norris candidate for the next several years. He's the linchpin of the Avalanche blue line, which is why they were wise to lock him up. That $9 million cap hit could look like a bargain in a few years.

    Grade: A

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas Stars

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Just a few seasons after his promising NHL debut in 2018-19, Miro Heiskanen landed a substantial long-term extension with the Dallas Stars. Signed to an eight-year contract, the 22-year-old Finn will earn an annual salary of $8.45 million, making him their highest-paid defenseman. The Stars also kept his cap hit below the $9 million threshold, which some of the other top defenders on this list cracked. 

    Given Heiskanen's performance, it's no surprise the Stars paid that much. He's become their best all-around blueliner, logging a team-leading 24:58 in time on ice per game last season to finish ninth among all NHL defenders. He also led the Stars in scoring (26 points) during last year's playoffs and leads all Dallas defensemen since 2018-19 with 28 goals.

    Given Heiskanen's value as their top defenseman, the Stars did well with this deal. And by signing him for well past his eligibility age for unrestricted free agency (25), they have ensured he's under contract for most of his prime. The cap hit and duration will look even better as he realizes his potential as an elite NHL blueliner.

    Grade: A+

              

    Stats via NHL.com and salary info via CapFriendly.

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