Toronto Star

Market for blueliners booming

It’s cool — and lucrative — to be a defenceman in today’s league

- Dave Poulin Twitter: @djpoulin20

It’s fitting that the Boston Bruins joined the recent wave of hockey clubs signing their young defensive stars to megadollar, multi-year contracts — with 23-year-old stalwart Charlie McAvoy putting pen to paper on an eight-year, $76million (U.S.) deal as the season’s first week came to a close.

Boston has been one of the NHL’s best at controllin­g its internal salary cap, yet joined the recent surge in both recognizin­g and rewarding the defence position. The trend to spend on the blue line is increasing. The new dollar figure will make McAvoy the highestpai­d Bruin, passing offensive stars Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

With the upping of the ante, veteran Maple Leafs defender Morgan Rielly sits in an interestin­g seat. In the final year of a six-year, $30-million deal, the longest serving Toronto player and pending unrestrict­ed free agent at year’s end has put himself in a lucrative bargaining position.

It’s a thin year for free-agent defenders, and Rielly will be at the top of many teams’ lists. Only 27 years old, he is just entering his prime. Approachin­g 600 regular-season games, his experience and versatilit­y will be coveted. Two years removed from a 72-point season that has only been surpassed by three players in the past five years, Rielly will have suitors.

He is going to get a raise. A significan­t one. Many feel there is still an offensive upside to the player who is also capable of handling a shutdown role against the best in the league. That combinatio­n merits a premium, and the Leafs will both understand that and work to get their veteran leader under contract.

That’s where things will get tricky.

Money is going to have to be redistribu­ted to make it work. Toronto is currently in the bottom quarter of the league in dollars spent on defence. The best teams are all in the top half — save for the Islanders, who always seem to be able to do things differentl­y.

Over the past three months, 14 blueliners have signed hefty deals, seven of which have come with eight years of term. Six have an average annual value of $9 million or more, led by Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets, who commanded $9.583 per season. The youngsters have been well represente­d, with Quinn Hughes of the Canucks (22), Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres (21) and Miro Heiskanen of the Stars (22) all landing new contracts, joined by veterans Mattias Ekholm of the Predators (32) and Colton Parayko of the Blues (29).

The contract lengths are also of interest: from three years (Dahlin) to the eight-year maximum, which seven players were rewarded with. Between term and dollar figure, there are comparable­s to be measured against in every way. Deals are being completed because players are able to price themselves more accurately, as are the teams signing them.

It’s hard to explain why defencemen have been a little slow to the party in terms of getting their fair share. Currently, there are only two among the top 22 earners in the league: Erik Karlsson of the Sharks at No. 4 and Drew Doughty of the Kings one slot behind him in a sea of forwards.

As a new breed of young, dynamic puck-rushers has emerged, the money has followed. In the ebb and flow of positional preference, it now seems like it’s cool to be a defenceman.

Similar to the wide receiver position in football in recent years, the best young athletes seem be gravitatin­g to the blue line. It might be that the changing game has allowed for a smaller, quicker player to have success at the position. It may be the realizatio­n that a star blueliner gets to play more minutes, or it might all just be the cyclical world of sport, but it’s real.

There has been a redistribu­tion of dollars in a flat-cap world, and the beneficiar­ies have been on defence. Why?

Goals are so hard to score that the integratio­n of defencemen into the offence has never been at more of a premium.

Teams are all well-coached, extensive video scouting makes secrets hard to protect, and players are both stronger and more able to defend, Three forwards alone aren’t enough to sustain an offensive push. If the defencemen aren’t involved, scoring chances go down.

Combined with that factor is the pure skill of the backliners. Watching Hughes or Cale Makar of the Avalanche attack up ice is truly a treat. Coaches want them involved in the offence, and they are allowed much more freedom than their predecesso­rs. Their creativity is in abundance, appreciate­d and required. They will be featured performers well worth the viewing. Everyone, including those signing the cheques, realizes that.

Focus on the blueliners the next time you watch a game.

 ?? ADAM GLANZMAN GETTY IMAGES ?? A new contract makes defenceman Charlie McAvoy the highest-paid Bruin, passing offensive stars like Patrice Bergeron.
ADAM GLANZMAN GETTY IMAGES A new contract makes defenceman Charlie McAvoy the highest-paid Bruin, passing offensive stars like Patrice Bergeron.
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