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NHL Free Agency

Replacing P.O Joseph: Top 3 Left Defensemen to Watch

After not qualifying P.O Joseph, the Pittsburgh Penguins need left defensemen. Here’s who they afford.

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Drivers, start your engines. The NHL free agent frenzy is hours away and general managers used the NHL Draft Friday and Saturday to put their teams in the best financial or talent positions, then Sunday to finish the job. Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas may not sign many players, but after Sunday, the Penguins have a newly created opening on their blue line.

Sunday, the Penguins did not qualify restricted free agent P.O Joseph making the 25-year-old defenseman an unrestricted free agent. After giving away his lineup spot with shoddy play in the early season, Joseph capitalized on injuries and then ineffectiveness elsewhere on the blue line to become a top-pair defenseman.

However, he was arbitration-eligible, and Dubas signaled on Friday that the team would look at the market before making a decision on Joseph’s future. The decision was to decline qualifying Joseph, thus losing his rights and creating a need for a left-side defenseman who could play with Erik Karlsson or Kris Letang.

2023 UFA signee Ryan Graves did not prove capable of that assignment, but his $4.5 million salary certainly hits the Penguins’ salary cap structure as if he did or will.

The Penguins, who have about $7 million in salary cap space, have 12 forwards and five defensemen, leaving space for at least one more forward and two more defensemen. Included in the five defensemen is depth defenseman John Ludvig, so the team would be wise to sign at least two, if not three, d-men, including an NHL quality defenseman who can be stashed in the AHL, like Ryan Shea.

The only potential defenseman prospect in the organization was Jack Rathbone, but he became a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. Since the team doesn’t have a defenseman prospect waiting in the wings, the free agent market is the likeliest pool to fill its needs.

Pool or a pond.

In keeping with Dubas’s edicts, the free agents will be younger or veterans willing to take shorter contracts. Given the few needs, Dubas has about $6 million to fill as many as three defensive spots. Sunday night, one potential defenseman hit the market when Winnipeg bought out Nate Schmidt.

Dubas might well kick the tires on Schmidt. Our initial list included him, and the 32-year-old defenseman might be a good option, though he was a healthy scratch for several games last season.

Remember, the team won’t have the option to spend lavishly. Defensemen such as Brady Skjei, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Nikita Zadorov will likely outpace the Penguins’ cap structure by commanding well more than $4 million, probably more than $5 million.

Penguins Left-Handed Defenseman Targets

Assuming Jack St. Ivany fills the right side, the Penguins could use a little more offense or at least a mobile d-man with more puck skills on the left.

1. Matt Grzelcyk

The Boston Bruins and Grzelcyk are parting ways as the defenseman’s four-year deal with a $3.687 million salary cap hit expired. Last season, Grzelcyk had a down year, scoring only 11 points (2-9-11) in 63 games. In the preceding three seasons, he scored in the 25-point range. He can skate and move the puck well, but he’s 5-foot-9, 180 pounds.

Grzelcyk would be the opposite of St. Ivany, a 6-foot-3 stay-home defenseman. He might push the Penguins’ salary cap because he’s not a cast-off or damaged goods but at 30 years old, he’s a proven NHL defenseman not in decline.

2. Erik Brannstrom

Speed and, pending your point of view, untapped potential or an underachiever.

Brannstrom, 24, was the 15th overall pick in 2017 and is a great skater with puck skills. He’s got all of the necessary skills. On paper, he should be a top-four defenseman, but things haven’t worked out that well with the Ottawa Senators.

Brannstrom was not qualified—perhaps he was one of the defensemen Dubas referenced on Friday when discussing Joseph’s contract situation—but he should have no shortage of suitors because he should be relatively affordable. Ideally, he’d slot as a sixth or seventh defenseman until he earns more but his raw talent very well might make him worth the risk.

Remember, Dubas would have seen quite a bit of Brannstrom as the Dubas-lead Toronto Maple Leafs were Ottawa’s chief division rivals.

There are several downsides to putting too much hope in Brannstrom. Last season, he had only 77 shots in 76 games and scored just three goals and 20 points.

Brannstrom can also be sloppy in his own zone. It would certainly be a gamble, essentially trading Joseph for Brannstrom as the devil you know vs. the devil you don’t, but it could also provide the Penguins with a high-end talent in his mid-20s.

3. Oliver Kylington

His career arc closely mirrors Joseph’s. He’s been in and out of the Calgary Flames’ doghouse, in and out of the lineup for several seasons, always flashing promise but never delivering consistently enough to unquestionably claim a roster spot.

Kylington, 27, played just 33 games this season. He missed most of a season and a half in the NHL/NHLPA Players Assistance Program due to mental health issues. He was warmly welcomed back in Calgary but chose free agency over their offers.

In 33 games, the Swedish d-man had eight points, including scoring three goals. He’s a Grade-A skater who can move the puck. It’s time for him to meet his potential. He’s coming off a short-term deal with a $2.5 million salary, so he will certainly fit into the Penguins’ budget if both sides are so inclined to put pen to paper.