The market for NHL defencemen is fundamentally broken

Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban waits for play to resume after the Winnipeg Jets scored during the third period in Game 7 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Jets won 5-1, and the Predators were eliminated from the playoffs. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Nashville's return in the Subban trade was lacklustre. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

There was a critical misevaluation at the heart of the P.K. Subban-to-New Jersey trade.

It perhaps wasn’t that the Nashville Predators think Subban is effectively done as a good defenseman. It had a lot more to do with the idea that getting him off the books at full freight was worth so appallingly little. A low-end roster player (maybe) in Steve Santini, a not-great prospect in Jeremy Davies and two second-round picks where we’re years away from knowing if they’re worth anything at all.

I said it yesterday, but they sold extremely low on Subban with the understanding (and perhaps the hope) that he was unlikely to round back into what a lot of people still see Subban as being. A newly 30-year-old whose skating may have fallen apart doesn’t provide a ton of value for $9 million AAV, so to get out from under that contract is a must if you think you need help up front and you’re strapped for cap space.

But so desperate were the Preds to avoid that expense that they took four futures — at best — for a guy a season removed from being well above average. The argument if it goes right for Subban again in New Jersey will be, “Well, they have some egg on their face but they also got Matt Duchene with the money,” or something like that. And if Subban never gets on track again, well, that’s all the better even if they did overpay for forward help.

But the problem is that a capped-out team like Nashville apparently thought the Subban deal was such a major problem that they would give him away for nothing and let another team bet on a bounce-back season. That’s their prerogative but I’d bet on something more resembling his 2017-18 campaign than 2018-19. That might be true even if we’re just accounting for the “eff you” of a prove-them-wrong season and New Jersey’s ability to put him in a position to succeed offensively (i.e. not giving top power-play minutes to Roman Josi, who had a similarly bad season at 5-on-5, instead).

So, ultimately, Nashville saw $9 million and thought it could allocate it better elsewhere. And bidding was so limited — in part by the cap constraints and Nashville’s unwillingness to take money back or retain salary — that New Jersey got a high-odds lottery ticket for next to nothing.

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Compare that, then, with the rumors of what Tyler Myers, a below-replacement-level defender is likely to command in six days: We’re talking a seven-year deal worth something well above $50 million in total, for a defenseman that has the 18th-worst WAR among all defenders with at least 3,000 minutes over the last three seasons. Guys like Jack Johnson and Kris Russell — whose contracts most teams wouldn’t touch with Zdeno Chara’s stick — have been better over the same period, to contextualize that for you.

A good comparable for Myers’ contributions to Winnipeg over the last three seasons is what Nikita Zaitsev has done for the Maple Leafs, and that’s a guy Toronto is desperate to move at $4.5 million. And Zaitsev is almost two years younger than Myers.

Put another way: It does not make sense that an NHL team sees Subban as a total write-off at $9 million for three more seasons a week and a half before someone gives Myers $8 million for seven. These guys are separated in age by eight and a half months.

It also does not make sense that Subban got two seconds and a pair of who-cares defenders who won’t make much of a difference for the Preds in the near future when the Flyers gave up a second and a third for Justin Braun (11th-worst WAR among big-minute defenders since 2016-17). Even with the different cap situations accounted for.

Two of those guys have proven they cannot play “shutdown” minutes in 2019, and that’s all they’ve ever been good for. Subban had one admittedly very bad year (by his standards), but his WAR over the last three seasons is 30th-best. Ahead of, say, Brent Burns and Jacob Trouba.

Subban and Myers are, again, less than nine months apart in age. A new Myers max-term contract will last until he’s 36. If he’s not out of the league before that, the team that gives him anything starting with a “$6 million” or above will wish he had been. The fact that he could get $8 million — Burns money — in a summer where the cap isn’t moving much is frankly baffling.

Sure, a Myers signing costs you nothing but money but the odds that even his best performance in the next seven years is better than Subban’s worst over the next three are basically nil. Going season by season, Myers hasn’t been better than Subban since 2011-12. Not once.

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But it just goes to show how poor NHL GMs remain at player valuation, and how much the idiotic vagaries of the game play a role in the eye test. A pure shutdown guy can appear to be effective even when he’s not, and in fact hasn’t been since his sophomore season. Meanwhile, they’re ready to pull the chute on a former Norris winner after a single bad season because he didn’t put up 50 points for a below-average offensive team.

It’s tough to argue that trading Subban was a fireable offense, but I don’t think it was advisable either, given the return. On the other hand, the GM that gives Myers a contract even vaguely resembling $50 million-plus should be out of a job before the ink dries.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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