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Free Agent Defensemen & the Devils: Johnny Oduya

So far, I've taken a stab at the possibilities and realities of the Devils signing Jay Bouwmeester, Scott Niedermayer, and Mattias Ohlund.  Of those three, Ohlund is the most likely to be signed without killing the Devils' budget; but the one caveat for him is that his cost could be inflated as he'll be sought after Bouwmeester goes.   It just occurred to me that there is one defenseman available that could fall to that same fate.

And unfortunately, it's the Devils' own Johnny Oduya.

Johnny Oduya

#29 / Defenseman / New Jersey Devils



Oct 01, 1981

2008-09 Salary: $600,000

2008 - Johnny Oduya 82 7 22 29 21 30 1 1 4 0 108 6.5

It's actually going to be worse because Oduya has the advantage of being under 30 years old and still improving as a defenseman in the NHL. Add to the fact that he didn't even make a million per year and that he's due for a raise, and you can already see teams lining up to see if they can get a relative bargain for Johnny O.

Honestly,  I wasn't sure what to expect when he came over from Frolunda 2 seasons ago, but he definitely showed some potential.  In that 2006-07 season, when the Devils defense was set back by injuries and being right up against the cap, Oduya came through playing on the top 4 despite his usual position on the third pairing.  That season he played 76 games, earned 11 points, and averaged 18:36 a night. 

In the following season, Brent Sutter became the head coach and Oduya looked to make an impression.  He definitely did, despite seemingly falling down on the ice at least once per game for the first 3 months of the season!  While the Devils eventually piled up 9 defensemen, Oduya remained in the rotation with 76 games played, cut down on penalty minutes (61 to 46), and earned more ice time, an average 19:30 per game.  Oduya also contributed more on offense with 6 goals and 20 assists - the second most among all Devils that season.   It was near the end of that season where he started some games with Paul Martin.  

It was a sign of things to come, as Oduya spent this past season playing with the Devils' top defender on the first pairing.  While it's arguable as to whether Oduya is a true #2 defenseman (I don't think he is), he definitely fit in on the top pairing in the Devils' set-up.  Oduya averaged 20:39 per game, played in every game, reduced his penalty minutes again (46 to 30), and further increased his offensive production to 7 goals and 22 assists.   While he was often out on the ice with either of the top scoring lines, his even strength numbers at Behind the Net are very complimentary.  Highest CORSI among defensemen; second highest quality of competition (tied with Colin White); third lowest shots against when on the ice per 60 minutes (behind White and Martin); and so forth.  And to cap it all off, he's coming off a strong tournament with Sweden at the World Championships, where he stepped in and contributed right away.

As reported by Rich Chere a few weeks ago, his agent is quite right, Oduya is definitely a top four defenseman in this league!

And he could be better in coming seasons.  Oduya isn't a banger or a defensive stalwart or an offensive dynamo.  This is apparent if you see him play or his numbers.  He is a two-way defenseman, he's a solid skater, and most importantly, I think he's still getting better. While he's 27, he's entering his fourth season of NHL hockey.  His decision making will only get better as will his confidence at leading the breakouts.   He may not be a top pairing guy throughout the league and he may not hit that level, but he can definitely step up when necessary.   I still stand by my earlier statement that among all the UFAs that the Devils have this summer, Oduya is the one the Devils should make the strongest effort to sign.  A must-sign, if you will. 

It's not like the Devils can gain much from Oduya going elsewhere anyway. They'll save 0.6 million from the cap - which is close to the league minimum - and have a big hole next to Paul Martin on the blueline they'll have to fill in somehow.

The big obstacle to retaining Oduya is Oduya himself.  He's unrestricted so the decision is entirely up to him - not Lou Lamoriello, not Brent Sutter, not you or me or that sketchy dude on the corner.  He hasn't said much of anything regarding whether he sees himself in Devils red for a few more years.   For an optimist, you can interpret that as that he hasn't said anything about bolting either.   Still, he's going to get quite a lot more money next season and it'll be up to Lou whether to offer him a fair amount.  

What that would be, I'm not sure  I feel giving him a Colin White-esque deal  (e.g. $3.5 million for 4 years, somewhere around there) would be fair and probably entice himself to stay.  But again, consider his age, the fact that he has improved with every season, and has just came off a season where he was on the top pairing with the New Jersey Devils.  Some teams could very well throw $4 million/year or more and hope it sticks. Per Chere's article with Don Meehan's (Oduya's agent) comments, Oduya would be meeting with his agent within 2 weeks of the article.  So that would be before the end of this month. Hopefully, it'll be a productive meeting!

Personally, I would really like Oduya to re-sign because A) he is an asset to the defense, B) we know what we're getting with Oduya so there won't be a learning curve to the system, C) he's not going to break the Devils' salary cap even if he gets $4 million/year (which is a bit much, but go with it) and D) the Devils can spend their efforts focusing on improving that #4 spot that Mike Mottau/Andy Greene currently sit at on the depth chart.  And there are lot more #3/#4s available than #1/#2s this summer.    I'd love it if he tells his agent and Lou that he wants to be a Devil and a deal can be made without too much of a problem.

Yet, he can make quite a bit this summer and if he lingers on his decision.  With the dearth of top-pairing-capable defensemen on the market that aren't over 35 this summer, who knows if he'll get the same chances a few years from now should he become a free agent?  He's going to have a lot of suitors this summer and I'm sure Meehan is making this clear to Oduya if Johnny isn't already aware.  If he's looking to test the market, I can't fully begrudge him - unless he waffles on this decision, force the Devils to hesitate on their various offers, and leave Lou with "what's left" after Oduya and a big hole next to Martin.  Then I'll begrudge him.  Even so, my point is that he could get lured away and that's going to be the biggest problem.

It's all up to Oduya.  Hopefully, he can make a prompt and decisive decision and inform Lou either way.

In the meantime, have your say about Oduya staying a Devil?  Do you think he should stay, forcing the Devils to look for an upgrade on their second pairing?  Do you think Oduya will get better in his fourth NHL season?  Do you think the Devils should forget about him and swing for that "home run" anyway?  Do you think I should do Christian Backman next and continue a streak of Swedish defensmen in these write ups?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.