Much like fellow countryman and unsigned free agents Mikael Granlund, Sami Vatanen is getting next to no attention on the open market so far this off-season. The 29-year-old defenseman, ranked No. 14 overall in PHR’s Top 50 UFA’s, is an established two-way defenseman with nearly 200 points in his eight-year NHL career, but seemingly can’t find a suitable offer in the stagnant, flat cap market.
Unfortunately for Vatanen, recency bias looms large in the free agent market. Teams are more willing to offer significant contracts to players who have impressed in their most recent outings rather than looking at their overall career. This has sunk Granlund so far and the same can be said for Vatanen on multiple fronts. First, Vatanen’s time with the Carolina Hurricanes was utterly forgettable. Traded at the deadline despite being injured, Vatanen did not see any regular season action with Carolina due to the suspension of the season. He was healthy enough to play once the postseason resumed, but played a limited role of just over 18 minutes per night in seven games (missing the final playoff game due to undisclosed reasons). Second, his past two seasons overall have not been stellar. Following four straight seasons of 67+ games played with the Anaheim Ducks, Vatanen’s health diminished over the past two years with the New Jersey Devils. He played in just 97 games total across the two campaigns and while his per-game stats both offensively and defensively held steady with his career average, his totals suffered.
Of course, the full picture of Vatanen’s career clearly displays why he ranked so high among PHR’s top free agents. He may be a couple of years removed from a relatively full season, but a healthy Vatanen in Anaheim was a perennial 30+ point player who also logged 100+ blocks and nearly 100 hits each year. Vatanen’s plus/minus was also superior before joining the struggling Devils. Even as part of what used to be a loaded Ducks defense corps, Vatanen earned his minutes and performed at a high level.
At full strength and given the opportunity, Vatanen can be a difference-maker for any team. A player who has logged 21 minutes or more per game in each of his six full NHL seasons , Vatanen knows how to carry the load of major minutes and special teams roles. He is also versatile, comfortable playing on his natural right side or on his off side. Over 82 games, Vatanen has 40-point upside and can be a disruptive force defensively as well. He has his demons as well; Vatanen is undersized, turnover prone, and can be a liability positionally in his own end. However, the total package is one of a bona fide top-four defenseman. Yet, at this point in the off-season he may not be paid as such.
Cap space aside, there are few teams in the NHL who couldn’t use a defenseman that can play both sides and contribute at both ends. Vatanen should cast a wide net of suitors, which makes the silence surrounding his name on the rumor mill all the more strange.
Taking into account the teams with ample salary cap space and need, there are a number of rebuilding clubs who could very likely be eyeing Vatanen. The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings have shown no hesitation to add free agents this off-season and could use a player like Vatanen, while the Los Angeles Kings have been very quiet but could greatly benefit from adding a player of Vatanen’s caliber to their young, inexperienced blue line. The Kings have a number of right-shot defenders, but Vatanen could still be very useful on the left side.
Of course, the problem with any of these teams is that Vatanen just escaped a rebuild in New Jersey and may want to look for a more competitive landing spot. While 2019-20 was a major disappointment for the San Jose Sharks, the team has the pieces to return to relevance this season. However, they could really use one more established veteran on the back end and Vatanen would fit the bill. There is a gap on the right side as well behind Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns, but Vatanen might be the most dangerous playing on his off side with either of those stars.
Two other teams in need of defense but who might not be an obvious fit due to shot side are the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. Both clubs are set on the right side; Boston has Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and a now-healthy Kevan Miller as well as NHL prospect depth and the Rangers have Jacob Trouba, Anthony DeAngelo, and Adam Fox. However, both teams have somewhat failed to address holes on the left side this off-season. Even on his off side, Vatanen would be a major upgrade to Brendan Smith and depth additions Jack Johnson and Anthony Bitetto in New York and to Matt Grzelcyk and John Moore in Boston. Both teams have considerable prospect depth on the left side, but as Stanley Cup contenders may not want to miss a chance at a player like Vatanen on a bargain deal.
PHR originally expected Vatanen to sign a deal in the neighborhood of four years and $19.5MM. At this point, if Vatanen was going to land a long-term deal it would have happened by now. It seems teams want to make sure that he can stay healthy and play at his best for a full season before thinking about multiple years. Vatanen may not be restricted to just a one-year deal, as the impending Expansion Draft and its exposure requirements may make a two-year offer attractive to some, but anything beyond a two-year term seems unlikely.
As for the money, the posited $4.875MM AAV seems highly unlikely. That valuation was based on a long-term deal. Whether one year or two, Vatanen is now unfortunately facing a “show me” contract. With so many possible landing spots at or close to the salary cap ceiling, there isn’t much money to go around. If he wants to end up with a competitive club, Vatanen will be looking at a $3MM AAV or lower. If he chases the money, it still seems like the market is pointing toward a $3.5MM cap hit at best.
While Vatanen is a more well-rounded defenseman than Erik Gustafsson, the one-year, $3MM deal he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers feels like a decent expectation. If Vatanen lands a second year, perhaps he gets a total of $7MM. Either way, Vatanen is being paid for his floor when, if healthy, his ceiling is much higher. If whoever eventually signs Vatanen is lucky enough to get a healthy season (or two) out of him, he could be one of the better bargains of this free agent market.