The Sabers and Kings have created a new market for defensive defensemen with Mattias Samuelsson and Mikey Anderson
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Unless you’re a fan of the team or a hockey nerd, when you got a notification on your phone or saw the news that Mattias Samuelsson of the Buffalo Sabers and Mikey Anderson of the Los Angeles Kings signed contracts respective seven and eight year extensions, you were probably wondering why they had that kind of term. You may even have wondered who they were.
But, these two players are the start of a new market for defenders, especially the defensive back archetype. They don’t have the skating and slick hands of a Cale Makar or a Roman Josi, but they bring a whole different combination of skills to the table that allows them to be good at what they do, and that’s why they’re worth the kind of term they started getting.
Last week I looked at why some veteran defenders start to end up on bad contracts when they reach their UFA years, largely because of how the league has changed, and a lot of people in the sport don’t still haven’t understood. at the top. This week, I’m going to be a lot nicer and see why these two defenders in particular are great examples of what ‘catching up’ looks like.
The new defensive back
What the defensive back is today is not necessarily a brand new concept, but it has evolved considerably.
When many people think of a defensive back, they imagine the good old days of Scott Stevens and Chris Pronger. These specific players could score points, so they weren’t true defensive defenders, but they best represented its ideology. In the 2000s, they were that big physical presence on the blue line that made a striker’s life difficult in front of the crease and along the boards, staggered a big shot if they caught someone with their head down and allowed them more attacking partner to focus on scoring.
That balance continued into the 2010s, but the game got a lot faster and a lot smarter, so the defensive back adapted to that home presence that you associated with your attacking defender so that he can jump in the rush. The puck thrower had this rock behind him that would provide some cover in case things went wrong. Sometimes they still had that physical touch, like Johnny Boychuk, and sometimes they were an under-the-radar defender playing above their weight who could still defend with a playing partner, like Michal Kempny.
However, the 2010s also marked the beginning of what has since become the norm in the 2020s, as just being able to stay home wasn’t enough to truly thrive in this role. This often meant relying a little more on a defenseman to move the puck, allowing players to focus more on a defenseman to keep the puck from going up the ice. So to really gel and be successful as a duo in the modern era, a team needs both defensemen in a pair to move the puck well and give the team multiple threats from the back for out passes. and zone exits to create pressure on the other team.
Whether it’s Jake Muzzin anchoring Drew Doughty on top pair, Niklas Hjalmarsson eating all the tough minutes so Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook can dominate the easier minutes, or Jared Spurgeon and Mattias Ekholm providing less spotlight support for their pairings In the early stages of their careers, we’ve seen defensive backs become these versatile defensemen over the past 10 years, and now it’s a staple in most rosters.
But like the defenders in my previous article, the market hadn’t quite figured out how to capitalize on the best years for these types of defenders, often not even acknowledging their contributions much after the fact and then paying them in their 30 years when their best years are behind them and their bodies have slowed them down. So far.
Enter Samuelsson and Anderson.
The reason I mentioned Samuelsson and Anderson at the start is because the Sabers and Kings jumped on those two defensemen and could reap the rewards in the long run.
All of the defenders I mentioned before, and the majority of others of that ilk, saw their teams take a while to commit to these players, and ended up filling them in and slowly adding more money, or not getting to that long-term extension until they’re 26-27 and, as I mentioned in the previous article with the aging curve, not taking full advantage of those years as they started to get out of their bounties.
The Sabers and Kings saw what they had in those two defensemen, and they went for it. Samuelsson is signed for less than $4.3 million per year for his 23-30 seasons, and Anderson will earn less than $4.2 million for his 24-32 seasons. For the entirety of their best years, they’ll be well underpaid, and even if they drop a little in the last two years, those caps won’t be a huge burden on the salary cap, especially since ‘it starts to rise more. and more each year.
With the difficulty of grading defensive backs, locking in guys who are good at that aspect of the game for cheap in their bonuses not only guarantees you get them, but you also don’t run the risk of getting someone who seems to be good at it, but isn’t, and locks them into much worse contracts in their senior years.
Look at the last 12 months for Ben Chiarot. He cost an arm and a leg at the 2022 trade deadline just to do nothing for the Florida Panthers, and maybe even get in their way, and then we saw him go to free agency and get paid 4 .75 million for four years just to be a possession black hole for the team, even with Moritz Seider on the other side of that couple.
Now there is always a risk. For Samuelsson, the Sabers locked him into that deal after just 54 NHL games, and Anderson arrives before he hits the 200-game mark. However, the added benefit of getting a few RFA years into this long-term deal is that if it’s obvious early on in their deals that they’re not who you thought they were, they can be bought out with significantly lower damage than a UFA contract. .
For Samuelsson, the Sabers have a window of the next three seasons where they can buy him out with a cap of less than $800,000 remaining, and for Anderson, it’s the next two seasons where he’s $700,000 or less. Even if they want to do it after that, their buyout cap drops to around $1.4 million, which isn’t ideal but far from the worst case.
That’s what the Ottawa Senators did with Colin White when his deal fell through, and as a result they only have $875,000 on the books for five of the next six seasons the other year. seeing them get a bonus of $625,000. in 2024-25. It’s probably not in the spirit of the Sabers or the Kings to go that route, especially for the Kings with Anderson being a little more of a known commodity, but it’s an extra insurance policy in case the things would quickly turn south.
Emphasis should be on the fact that they have these players locked in throughout their bounties on deals that seem worth the cost, and they will likely be underpaid most of the time. It’s a bet with some risk, but it’s a smarter bet than many other teams have made, and if they pay attention, they could profit from it later.
So who’s next?
The market is tricky because you can’t just give that kind of contract to any promising young defensive back. You have to pay attention to what the market looks like for them, you have to pay attention to the type of role they’re in, and you have to make sure that they’re not too snug in that role and that they thrive.
When I took a look at Evolving Hockey’s similarity scores for Mikey Anderson’s 2019-22 seasons (Samuelsson didn’t have enough games to meet that criteria), his closest comparable that has also playing during those seasons was Andrew Peeke, a defenseman who played a similar role with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unfortunately, the Blue Jackets didn’t make that bet and instead opted to fill it until he was 27 with a cap of $2.75 million, so here’s that example.
When it comes to smart bets in this season’s RFA defender class, Evan Bouchard and K’Andre Miller jump in as obvious candidates, but they’re a bit too attacking to really fall into that category, and their seasons aren’t not exactly under the radar. , so if they are signed long-term, it will probably be for a lot of money. Bowen Byram is another strong candidate, and Colorado is the type of team to make that sort of bet, but he’s also built a profile enough to not be exactly ‘underrated’ and could get a big payday. .
One defenseman who could potentially fit that very specific mold we’re looking for is Cam York of the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s just 22, has had some of the team’s best results with the third-best defensive goal over substitution and fourth-best expected goal against 60 in just 39 games, and he’s played the first four minutes against a relatively difficult competition to show that it is not only him who sails in a few minutes under cover.
He’s been one of the few bright spots on the Flyers’ blue line, and unlike the other solid options for them in Justin Braun and Nick Seeler, York’s best years are still ahead of him and could be worth investing in. And with recent management changing, maybe they will take smarter steps than they have in the past. Then again, giving him a one-year transition deal wouldn’t be the worst idea either with his limited NHL experience so far (which is what the Kings did with Anderson after his entry-level contract). range), although York did well in this limited time. But that also didn’t stop the Sabers from committing to Samuelsson so quickly.
The lack of real options for this type of player in this type of window should show how important it is to recognize when you have this type of player, and to recognize it early enough to jump at the chance to commit to not Dear. and be the beneficiary down the road. The Sabers and Kings have done just that with Samuelsson and Anderson, so it will be interesting to see if that’s something that continues down the road, and who the next players will be to join them.