The genius that was the Matt Bartkowski signing should not be understated. By now, the extension for the purpose of Expansion Draft exposure has become commonplace, but what GM Brad Treliving and the Calgary Flames did was unique. They went outside the organization to sign a player to a multi-year deal who fulfilled the criteria of having played in 40 games this season or 70 games over the past two years. Except Bartkowski hadn’t played a single NHL game this season; he had been on a minor league contract with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. What that means is Bartkowski had to have played in over 70 games last season alone, and indeed he had skated in 80 games with the Vancouver Canucks in 2015-16. In fact, Bartkowksi was the only defenseman on the planet who played in over 70 games last season yet was not signed to an NHL contract this season. Therein lies the genius that was the unassuming signing of Bartkowski. The Flames picked up the only player on the market who could automatically fill their need for an exposure-eligible defenseman.
With a reportedly quiet trade market this season, there are bound to be teams facing expansion protection problems after the March 1st Trade Deadline comes and goes, whether it’s on the blue line or up front. Will someone follow in Treliving’s footsteps and scoop up a player who played in 70 or so games last season but remains unsigned as of now? The short answer is probably not.
Looking at the short list of players who meet the games played criteria, it very well could be that Bartkowski stands alone as an unsigned player looking to continue playing hockey, even if that means signing a two-year, two-way contract and likely logging major AHL minutes. Especially on defense, a team like the Carolina Hurricanes is likely out of luck if they want to replicate the Bartkowksi maneuver. The only unsigned player who qualifies for exposure is Matt Carle, who played in 64 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning last year and six earlier this year with the Nashville Predators. However, Carle announced his retirement in November when he cleared waivers and was likely going to be moved to the AHL. Carle seems content with collecting buyout checks from the Lightning and almost certainly would have no interest is returning to hockey with a two-year, two-way deal. There are really no other defensemen that even have a reasonable chance of meeting the 40/70 criteria. Bartkowski was essentially it.
For forwards, the situation is a little different. 36-year-old David Legwand played in 79 games with the Buffalo Sabres in 2015-16, but it’s hard to imagine that he would want to come back for not only this season, but next as well. Jarret Stoll played in 80 games last season between the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild, but the 34-year-old grinder has some off-the-ice issues he’s dealing with. Mike Santorelli is just 30 years old and fresh off of a 70-game season with the Anaheim Ducks, but he retired mid-season from the NLA late in 2016, citing injury concerns as the reason. However, other options remain. 34-year-old center Paul Gaustad was unable to find a home in the NHL this season and instead called it quits on his career. A team may be able to entice Gaustad to sign on for another few years if he has remained in game condition. However, Gaustad played in only 63 games with the Nashville Predators last season and would need to play in at least seven contests before the end of the season. Luckily, Gaustad played with a toughness and tenacity that could help some clubs down the stretch and in the postseason this year and could be a useful mentor in the AHL next season. Gregory Campbell is definitely in game shape, having played in all 82 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015-16 and was with the team as recently as mid-December, but Campbell asked for his release and subsequently cleared unconditional waivers when the Jackets announced their plan to send him to the minors. Campbell is a good two-way energy line player that could help out quite a few NHL teams, but his dismissal of the idea of playing in the AHL may make inking him to a two-year deal difficult. The fact that no teams have reached out to Campbell thus far makes a signing seem unlikely, but enough desperation could change that. Kyle Chipchura is not only in game shape, he’s actively playing. Chipchura signed with HC Slovan Bratislava this summer after skating in 70 contests with the Arizona Coyotes last year. Whether or not Chipchura could, or would want to, find a way out of his KHL contract is unknown, but if that won’t stop teams from inquiring. The big 31-year-old forward has 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games this year.
While Chipchura, Campbell, and Gaustad are all options, perhaps the best possible choice and most likely the next “Bartkowski” is winger David Jones. Jones had a down year in 2015-16, scoring just 15 points in 59 games with the Calgary Flames before a deadline deal sent him to the Minnesota Wild, where he put up only three points in 16 games. After some initial interest from NHL teams this summer, the market for Jones’ services dried up and he was unable to find a contract. He joined the Anaheim Ducks on a PTO this fall, but was cut prior to the season. Interestingly, Jones has not signed a deal anywhere this season, but it’s hard to believe that the 32-year-old has given up completely on his career. Jones is just two years removed from a 30-point season and has never had recorded less than 30 points in a full season, including back-to-back 20-goal campaigns not that long ago. Much like Bartkowski, Jones has been written off and forgotten, but has a willingness to keep playing. Whether or not Jones can contribute is irrelevant; he meets the games played quota and, if approached, will probably take any deal offered, including the two-year, two-way deal that the Flames offered Batrkowski to make him Expansion Draft exposure-eligible. If any GM finds themselves struggling to find a solution to their expansion issues following the upcoming trade deadline, expect the next “Bartkowski deal”, if any, to go to David Jones.