Rewind to the summer of 2016. The Edmonton Oilers were searching for defensive help under GM Peter Chiarelli, scouring both the free agent and trade markets. Weeks before free agency opened, a key target was taken off the market. The Anaheim Ducks re-signed puck moving defenseman Sami Vatanen to a four-year contract.
Less than a month later, the Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils for Adam Larsson, filling their hole on defense.
Fast-forward to today. Vatanen was teammates with Hall, getting traded to the Devils in November of 2017. He was traded again, this time to Carolina, at the trade deadline roughly seven months ago. In just three weeks, Vatanen will be a free agent for the first time in his career.
Just like in 2016, Vatanen is a good fit for the Edmonton Oilers and their needs on defense.
Why Is He Out There?:
Vatanen played in only 47 games this season, all with the Devils, while dealing with injury. Vatanen was injured on February 1st when he blocked a shot against the Dallas Stars. He never played again during the regular season.
The Devils, in the midst of a rebuild, moved the pending free agent at the deadline knowing that he didn’t fit their long term plans. He doesn’t exactly fit the plans in Carolina, either.
The Hurricanes are loaded on defense, with Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei all locked up and in top-four roles. Add in expensive depth defenseman Jake Gardiner and young guys like Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, and you can see there is no where for Vatanen to fit.
The Hurricanes acquired him in February for two reasons. One, the price via trade was cheap and doesn’t impact the Hurricanes moving forward. Secondly, the Hurricanes were desperate to make the playoffs and were dealing with serious injury issues on the blueline.
Vatanen was a pure rental, and will test the market in just about three weeks.
What Does He Do Well?:
Vatanen’s strengths are almost exclusively on the offensive side of the ledger. Vatanen is a good puck mover who can both transport the puck up ice and deliver a first pass. He’d be a good fit with Edmonton’s dynamic forwards, and would certainly be a weapon on one of the team’s powerplay units.
Vatanen has the ability to transition the puck from defense to offense, which is an area GM Ken Holland wants to improve on. Whether you or I agree, the veteran manager wants better passing from the blueline. Vatanen provides it. He also possesses a strong and accurate shot from the point.
This past season was a tough one for the Finnish defender. Vatanen played in just 47 games, all coming before February 2nd. He had 23 points (5 g, 18 a), while averaging 21:45 per game.
His possession numbers weren’t great, but were good considering his team. Vatanen finished the season with a 48.1% Corsi For percentage, which was slightly positive compared to his teammates (.4%). His Fenwick For percentage (48%) was slightly negative (-.6%) compared to his teammates. The Devils, by the way, were one of the weaker possession teams in the NHL a season ago.
Vatanen isn’t going to drive play, but he can move the puck and has a track record of success when playing with high-level forwards. He had 38 points (9 g, 29 a) during the 2015-16 season with the Ducks, and added 32 points in 2017-18 split between the Ducks and Devils.
(All stats via hockey-reference)
Here’s a look at Vatanen’s scouting report via The Sports Forecaster.
Owns excellent offensive ability, solid puck-moving skills and plenty of hockey sense. Is capable of running a power play and also owns a very accurate point shot. Is somewhat undersized for the North American pro game, so he needs to add bulk and get stronger physically in order to maximize output and avoid long-term injury.
Where Should He Play / Where Will He Play?:
Vatanen isn’t quite a top-pairing defenseman, but he’s consistently played a top-four role in his career and had success while doing so. Any team signing him should be expecting second pairing minutes and some sort of powerplay role.
In Edmonton, he’s probably on par with Larsson in terms of ability. Now, they are vastly different players, but both are good second pairing defensemen in the NHL. I’d lean Vatanen because of his offensive chops, and he fits what Holland is looking for.
What Will He Cost?:
Injury is a real concern here. 47 games this past season combined with just 50 games in 2018-19 is a red flag for teams. It’s hard to see Vatanen getting any kind of term with those injury issues. He’s probably looking at a two-year deal, maybe three years if teams get desperate for defense.
In terms of money, Vatanen made an AAV of $4,875,000 in each of the last four seasons. That was also the actual dollar value of each of the four seasons on the contract. He’s probably in line to get a decrease, potentially coming in somewhere around $3,500,000 per season.
It isn’t an accident that you are hearing names like Oliver Ekman-Larsson connected to the Oilers. Holland wants to change the complexion of his defense, and he’s looking for a player that can both munch minutes and move the puck.
Vatanen isn’t OEL, let’s just say that right now. He is, however, a mobile top-four defenseman who can move the puck. If his contract demands aren’t outrageous, he could be a nice fit for the Oilers.
That fit could be even better if the team elects to cash in Larsson for a forward, which is certainly possible in the coming weeks.