Free agency may still be a few months off, but it’s not too early for us to start looking at ways to improve our New Jersey Devils. With the club being one of seven not in the Canadian bubble cities for this year’s postseason tournament, talk turns to how to get the team back to the playoffs. To get back to the playoffs, teams have to shore up their areas of weakness.
The biggest weakness for Jersey’s Team is their back end; outside of Damon Severson, P.K Subban and Will Butcher, the Devils don’t really have any NHL caliber players (Connor Carrick is a fringe NHL player at best) on their roster from last season. There are, however, a number of quality NHL-level defensemen from other teams set to be unrestricted free agents on November 1st.
In this article, we will be looking mostly at defenders who play the left side, as the aforementioned Severson and Subban play on the right. Additionally, Carrick could play the right in a bottom pair role or if Ty Smith makes the team, the Devils might choose to keep the rookie left-shooter on the side he played on in juniors to help acclimate him to the NHL level.
As one last note, I’ve limited the data used to the past four seasons, so as to keep the discussion centered around fairly recent stats. With the ages of the players listed, it also encompasses the ages that many consider to be just prior to a defender’s prime, as well as the first few years of it. Without further ado, here are six defenders I would at least consider bringing in to bolster the Devils’ defense.
6. Erik Gustafsson
We’re going to spend a bit less time on some of the names that fall lower on my list and we begin with Erik Gustafsson. A name that might stand out due to his 60 points in 79 games with Chicago last season, this season saw Gustafsson drop to 29 points, including three assists in seven games after being traded to the Flames at the deadline.
Gustafsson’s advanced stats paint a picture of a player who struggles at times to get the puck moving in the right direction. While his SAT in his rookie (2017-18) campaign was 55.1%, it dropped to 50.1% last season and 48.8% this season; this while his offensive zone start % (OZ%) has been 55% or better each season. Gustafsson realistically should only be an option if they whiff on the five players ranked above him on this list.
While he’s still better than UFA players I haven’t listed here, his deployment seems to be about contributing offense rather than the defense the Devils need; statistically, he’s pretty similar to Will Butcher, albeit slightly larger and older, but since the Devils still have Will Butcher, they’d be wise to pass on said slightly larger and older Will Butcher.
5. Ben Hutton
Another name flying a bit more under the radar is Ben Hutton, who played this past season on a one year deal for the Kings after leaving the Vancouver Canucks via unrestricted free agency. Hutton’s stats prior to his year in LA seem to indicate why he signed only a one year deal: he needed to rebuild his long-term value after a couple of disastrous campaigns with the Canucks.
While 2018-19 was his worst season in terms of advanced stats, perhaps playing 22 minutes per night was simply too much; Hutton was much better in somewhat reduced minutes with the Kings. Hutton falls this low on my list simply because he was using this year to repair his value; it’s entirely possible that he reverts back to being a middling defender. He’s also not a point producer, so if he’s not playing effective defense, he’s not really bringing much to the team. I would take a flyer on Hutton if he’s willing to sign a cheap deal for only a few seasons, similar to John Moore in 2015. If it happens, let’s hope LA Ben Hutton comes to NJ, as Vancouver Hutton might actually be worse than John Moore.
4. Torey Krug
Krug is the first “bigger name” that I’ll address on this list, and if the Devils decide they want more offense from the back, then Krug is the guy! While he fell one point shy of 50 this season, he surpassed that mark each of the prior three, all while averaging over 20 minutes of ice time each season. Additionally, his SAT % over the past four seasons has been over 53% (57.4, 54.1, 53.9, 55.4), meaning he’s pushing play the right way. So why does he fall into the bottom half of this list?
Part of Krug’s advanced stats and his probable contract demands are where I grow worried. While his SAT% looks great on paper, there’s two things affecting it; first, he plays for the Bruins, who are currently a really good team, and second, his OZ% is alarming. While he saw 58.8% of his shifts start in the offensive zone in 2016-17, it rose to 64.7% in 2017-18, inched up to 66% in 2018-19, and jumped to a startlingly high 71% this past season. Now I know this is a team that deploys Zdeno Chara in situations requiring defense, but I worry about Krug on a team that does not currently have a strong option on the left.
If the Devils are able to pick up a strong defensive defenseman AND Krug in free agency, I’d be all for it provided that the price is right. Krug will probably be looking for a healthy bump up from his current $5.25 million cap hit, and while the Devils certainly need to improve their back end, I think Krug is more of a high end version of what the team currently has, rather than what they truly need. I would, however, add him to the team, if a few conditions (see section below my #1 choice) are able to be met.
3. Joel Edmundson
Edmundson arrived in Carolina this season as part of the Justin Faulk trade, where he would have the best offensive season of his career with 20 points in 68 games. His ice time also stayed relatively high, at roughly 18 minutes per game, despite this being a decrease from the prior two seasons in St. Louis. Joel is also one of the younger players who will be available, as he just turned 27 last month.
In terms of advanced stats, Edmundson isn’t too shabby either; he always receives fewer than 50% of his starts in the offensive zone (he came close to 50% in 2017-18) while his SAT% is above 50% save for 2016-17, which was only his second season in the NHL. Edmundson is known more for defense than offense, and his stats aren’t too shabby. Additionally, I don’t believe he would cost an exorbitant amount, and the possibility of him accepting less than a seven year deal exists.
If the Devils sign him, I could see Edmundson being placed next to either Severson or Subban on the second pairing. Joel would be the more reliable player, staying closer to home, while his partner would be able to freely lead a rush up ice in the right situation. Joel’s stats also indicate that he knows how to get the puck out of his own end, which is another skill the Devils need from their defense. However, Edmundson is my backup pick if the Devils can’t get my #1 choice.
2. Alex Pietrangelo
The one exception to the left side rule for this article (at least according to positions on CapFriendly) is the big fish of the defense market this offseason in Alex Pietrangelo. The current Blues captain enjoyed a successful regular season with 16 goals and 36 assists in 70 games. For those worried about a career year, Pietrangelo’s 52 points is one of his better seasons, but overall in line with his usual point totals.
While he may be a pipe dream (their will certainly be other suitors including the Blues who will more than likely try to keep him) and plays the side where the Devils don’t need as much help, his SAT percentage has been over 50% each of the last four seasons, while usually starting fewer than 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone. The only exception to that last sentence is this season for both, but just barely; his SAT went from a 53.3% in 2018-19 to a 53.1% this season, while OZ% went from 49.8% to 52.9%. He’s playing effective hockey, and eating up at least 24 minutes per night doing so.
Pietrangelo’s leadership and winning ways would be welcome in Jersey as well, but his contract demands would be my concern. As the premier name in free agency for defensemen, Alex knows he will be able to get a long-term, big money deal. With the Devils still seeming to be a few years away from being competitive, Pietro could be on the decline (with an albatross of a deal) as the Devils are ready to be relevant again.
1. Brenden Dillon
Brenden Dillon isn’t the most recognizable name on this list, but in terms of bang for the buck, I feel he is most likely to be the most valuable player of this year’s free agency class. While he shares the same age bracket of give or take a year with Pietrangelo and Krug, Dillon isn’t known for being the big point producer that the other two are. Dillon is known more for his defense, and as that’s what seems to be missing most from the Devils’ back end, Dillon seems to fit the Devils like a glove.
Dillon’s average time on ice has gone up over the past couple of seasons, and while his SAT has fluctuated a bit, it’s always been over 50%, even as his OZ% has been falling. Even when he’s starting in the neutral or his team’s defensive zone, Dillon helps to push play in the other direction. Dillon has also been durable throughout his career; his lowest season total GP (excluding this truncated season and the 2013 lockout season) is 76. Every other season he has appeared in 80 or more of his team’s contests. He’s also seen time on ice increase in each of the last four seasons to boot.
I think Dillon could be had for less than Pietrangelo and Krug, at least in terms of dollars if not contract years, so attempting to sign him makes the most sense for New Jersey. The Capitals might want to re-sign him, however they will only have roughly $10 million needing to sign at least two forwards, three defenders and a goalie. If they elect to bring back Braden Holtby or Radko Gudas, it probably doesn’t leave enough money for Dillon and rounding out those other spots.
In a Perfect World
In today’s NHL, I think fans and teams alike have learned that tying up too much money in players that might start to decline isn’t wise. I would love for the Devils to sign Dillon and Pietrangelo to contracts that wouldn’t cripple their long-term flexibility. That scenario is, sadly, probably unrealistic both in terms of want and money.
Now if the stars were to align, and the team could get any combo of above players (excluding Dillon/Pietrangelo), I would want to see the Devils pick up Dillon and Krug or, if they strike out on Dillon, Edmundson and Krug; signing Dillon/Edmundson would satisfy the need for a more defensive minded defender to roll out when protecting a lead that I mentioned in my analysis on Krug. Krug/Severson or Krug/Subban could either be really good or really bad depending upon how the pairing meshes and if Krug is the real deal away from the Bruins. For this to be viable, the Devils would need to make one more move; they would need to trade Will Butcher.
I like Butcher, but he sadly isn’t moving the needle and making a bad team better. If the Devils were able to shed his $3.7 million salary (taking back little to no salary), they would have roughly $30 million to play with; even if they tied half of that to Krug and Dillon (they shouldn’t nor do I believe both players in total would cost that much) they would still have $15 million to put into new contracts for Jesper Bratt and MacKenzie Blackwood while also being able to sign/re-sign depth pieces.
The season after that sees Travis Zajac’s contract come off the books (even if re-signed, Zajac won’t cost nearly as much) and a much friendlier Cory Schneider buyout structure (if it’s not done this season) with only Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev needing to be re-signed. By the time 2022-23 rolls around, Subban’s cap hit will be off the books, leaving money to give Jack Hughes a new deal.
The main point is that if the Devils want to get better now, they have the cap in place to do so, and if they stick to a plan, even two large free agent contracts won’t ruin their long-term cap structure. Again, I don’t think Dillon and Krug together would cost $15 million; maybe somewhere in the $12-13 range, but even leaving $2-3 million extra would help the Devils moving forward. Now, if you’re wary of free agency, there are other ways to improve the team, such as trades, but that’s a topic for us to discuss next week.
What are your thoughts on the available free agent defenders? Who do you want to see the Devils sign if anyone? Who do you see the team realistically signing? Are you wary of free agents wanting too many years and declining in the back end of their contracts? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!