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Pre-Free Agency Projection of the 2010-11 New Jersey Devils Defense

After spending most of last week writing up Paul Martin (here, here, here, here, and here) and ultimately concluding that he's the most effective defenseman available on the marker this summer, I think now is a good of a time as any as to discuss what next season's blueline may look like for New Jersey.  The big advantage from how I put together the information for the Paul Martin posts was that I also compiled the information for other unrestricted free agent defenseman over the past two seasons. Therefore, I feel more comfortable in making something that resembles an educated guess as to their on-ice impact and who should/should not be signed.

Now, in all of the Paul Martin posts, I didn't come right out and say it, but I'll be up front here: I think Paul Martin needs to be re-signed. There really isn't anyone on the market who can play the amount of time he does and replace his defensive and offensive contributions, even if you're not thrilled with a career high of 37 points.   Therefore, even if you don't think he's a #1, just by scarcity alone he'll be able to command a large salary.

Well, I take that back, there is one exception.  However, Nicklas Lidstrom is 40 years old, he may be considering retirement, and even if he does play, I don't see why he would leave the Detroit Red Wings, an organization who actually has been more successful than the Devils over the last 15 years.   I'd honestly consider him but I highly doubt he's really attainable.

In any case, for this thought exercise, I'm using CapGeek for salary information and will be referencing some of the Paul Martin posts for the charts I made in justifying my decision.  Here are some assumptions and limitations for this post: I will be assuming the salary cap remains at $56.8, leaving the Devils with $15.94 million in cap space.  I will not be considering what the Devils will do at forward or goaltender; and I will not be considering restricted free agents.  The Devils don't even have a first round pick in the 2010 NHL draft for compensation, so that can't make an offer sheet even if Lou would do such a thing. 

The current situation is as follows for the Devils: Andy Greene, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, and Anssi Salmela are all signed with the Devils; their UFA defensemen from the New Jersey roster are Paul Martin and Mike Mottau; and they have two RFA defensemen who could make the roster: Mark Fraser and Tyler Eckford.  In this post, I will assume the Devils will sign Fraser and Eckford at their minimum required pay raises for RFAs which I believe is 10% over salary. So they'll be making $550k and $753.5k for each, respectively.  Should be both stay up in New Jersey, that would leave the Devils with approximately $14.636 remaining, again not considering the cost of signing other RFAs.

From there, I can consider just the UFAs on defense. After the jump, I will offer my take on four possible scenarios: the Devils re-signing both Martin and Mottau, the Devils re-signing Martin but not Mottau, the Devils re-signing Mottau but not Martin, and the Devils not re-signing either Martin or Mottau.

Scenario #1 - Devils Re-sign Martin and Mottau

This would be the "Devil you know" scenario.  New Jersey would be able to keep most of the defense together for a fourth straight season and know exactly what each player is capable of on the ice.  A fully healthy Paul Martin will be able to provide a positive on-ice impact in terms of shots against as he had in the last two seasons; but a return to his 2008-09 form would be great offensively - especially on the power play.   The Devils, last season, hit a nadir in terms of offensive production and while Martin will never be confused with Scott Niedermayer, he'd be able to provide a boost in those departments.

With Mike Mottau returning, Colin White can be re-united with his regular partner and the two can continue providing solid defense with not much on offense for another season.

The actual pairings would beg the larger question of how would it be all set-up.  Training camp would largely answer this question for all scenarios; however, the issue would be who to pair with Martin and Greene.  Bryce Salvador has been paired with both to some success; but someone's getting paired with the potentially open #6 spot.  I doubt Martin will be re-signed to the #5 spot, so it'll likely be Greene.  The #6 spot would be a competition between Fraser, Anssi Salmela (who struggled to take a spot in Atlanta, so I'm not really optimistic), Eckford, and Matthew Corrente.   I can forsee a pairing situation like the following:

Martin - Salvador
White - Mottau
Greene - Fraser

The big benefit, again, is that we'll know what to expect.  Not a lot of offense per se, but a group that has worked quite well together and will likely do so again.

How much could this cost the Devils?  Again, since Martin is the most effective defenseman on the market that's not exactly teeming with big minute defensemen who can contribute at both ends of the rink outside of points, retaining Martin will require more than just big money but commitment.  At 29 years old, I have no problem with the Devils offering something like $25-28 million for 5 years; a cap hit of $5 to $5.6 million. 

Should the Devils retain Mottau, I'd like it to be a short deal with a cap hit of not much more than $1.5 million/year. I wouldn't be surprised if he got less than that; but he'll become a seven-figure player.  Mottau has provided solid defense and chemistry with White, but  he's 32 and that's all he'll be able to provide.  Not only won't Mottau not cost much but he can be a serviceable #4 defenseman for a year or so until one of the younger players proves they're ready for his spot. Then, he can be moved down to the third pairing without costing so much to the cap.

Given my projected lineup and even expecting the worst in terms of salary (Martin at 5.6, Mottau at 1.5) makes roster), that would leave the Devils with $8.29 million left to fill in the rest of the roster and RFAs. That's not terrible, but it would put the Devils out of the running for any big names.  

Scenario #2: Devils Re-sign Martin, but not Mottau

In my opinion, this would be the best possible scenario. The Devils would be able to keep their top defenseman and have the freedom to upgrade the spot Mottau took up in the lineup - either from within or with free agency.

Let's consider the replace-from-within option.  They could go with youth, which I feel is a bit risky.  Fraser and Salmela have never played significant minutes for most of their young NHL careers and Eckford and Corrente are still of unknown quality at the NHL level.   It may be best to pair White with Greene to solidify the top-4 with veterans  (Martin and Salvador up top) and then run a youthful third pairing of some combination of Fraser, Salmela, Eckford, and Corrente.  They can be protected there, play relatively weak competition, and ease their way into more responsibilities.  Greene will have to be ready to take on a lot of minutes, though, as Mottau played a lot at even strength last season.  In fact, he had the highest TOI/60 among all UFA defensemen at 18.56.

Martin - Salvador
White - Greene
Pick Two: Fraser/Eckford/Salmela/Corrente

In terms of cost, re-signing Martin at $5.6 million and putting up Fraser and Eckford in the NJ lineup would cut the available cap space down to $9.0365 million.  That's some more space available for the Devils to play with as opposed to scenario #1.  The defense will still be relying mostly on Martin and Greene to provide most of the offense,  and if White and Greene don't play well with each other, then it puts the Devils in a poor spot.

Now, let's consider free agency.  What Mottau provided was solid defense, not much offense, played quite a bit against relatively strong competition (last season), and for under a sub-million dollar cap hit.   Basically, if the Devils are going to sign a serious replacement for Mottau, they're going to have to add to their salary.  

Martin - Salvador
White - UFA
Greene - Fraser/Eckford/Salmela/Corrente

At first, I thought that may be Dennis Seidenberg could make sense as a replacement. Though I'd prefer it if he would play like he did in 2008-09 instead of 2009-10.  Plus, Seidenberg is 27 and can possibly command much more than the $2.25 million he made last season.  Maybe not much more, but I don't think he'll provide enough to justify the extra $1.75+ million.   Derek Morris' on-ice impact numbers looked very good among the UFAs; but at 30 and coming off a season where he made $3.3 million, he's really too expensive for a #4.

I really like the possibility of Joe Corvo as a replacement.  He's the same age as Mottau and while he had a higher cap hit on his last contract at $2.625; but despite an injury-shortened 2009-10, he was able to contribute more on offense when on the ice, he had an excellent adjusted Corsi/60 value, his own on-ice impact wasn't positive but wasn't negative on shots against, and he accomplished all of this while playing a higher quality of competition than any Devil last season.

The benefit of adding someone like Corvo is that he's played top 4 minutes before and if he's paired next to White, then that should help cover him on defense while adding more to the offense.   He'll be costly but given his age and his poor time in Washington, perhaps the Devils won't have to pay him much more than than what he made last season.   Still, it would eat at the cap pretty heavily: Corvo at $2.7 million (just to throw out a number) plus Martin at $5.6 would leave $7.64 million remaining - a little less if Fraser or Eckford are on the New Jersey roster.  If Corvo can put up the same numbers and offensive contributions he had in 2008-09, though, then it may be well worth it.  Martin, Greene, and Corvo would definitely boost the team's offense.

Martin - Salvador
White - Greene
UFA - Fraser/Eckford/Salmela/Corrente

One additional possibility is that Greene can take the spot next to White and the Devils can sign someone lesser to play on the third pairing.  Kurtis Foster and Marc-Andre Bergeron come to mind, but the two are more or less power-play specialists.  Should an injury occur to the top 4, I wouldn't be confident in moving them up for a significant amount of time.  Especially in the case of Bergeron, who saw weak competition at even strength and still had a slightly negative on-ice impact on shots against per 60 to a result of 30 shots against/60.  I'd rather take a closer look at someone like Carlo Colaiacovo. Sure, he faced weak competition like Bergeron but at least his team enjoyed a reduction in the SA/60 rate when he stepped on the ice.

That said, finding a replacement #5 would be relatively cheaper than #4 - though I can't help but think that if the idea is to go cheap, then the Devils should avoid signing any more contracts since they have several borderline-NHL defensemen available in the system.

Scenario #3: Devils Re-Sign Mottau but not Martin

Now, this would be a difficult scenario.  Without Mottau, the Devils have multiple options on how to replace him.  But how do you replace a player like Martin, when he's already the most effective defenseman available on the market? 

In terms of "names," Nicklas Lidstrom isn't really attainable for the reasons I said right before the jump. Rob Blake is 40 and he was really beneficial on offense more so than defense.  Scott Niedermayer is 36 and coming off a 2009-10 where his main contributions were on the power play and having a great impact on SF/60.  36-year old Sergei Gonchar looks more plausible - at least he was better overall than Niedermayer - but a price tag of $5 million makes me wonder why risk having to spend that much on a player who may not be able to repeat that at age 37 when it could be spent on Martin.   Adrian Aucoin ranked even better than Gonchar, especially with an excellent adjusted Corsi/60 last season.  However, Gonchar got his numbers against much tougher competition than Aucoin, who didn't even play enough minutes to meet the requirements for the analysis in 2008-09.

Basically, if you want to pick a veteran to replace Martin, I'd suggest either Gonchar or Aucoin.  However, who knows if they'll be available and whether.  Either would have to be a stop-gap for a season or two.   If Martin's not going to be retained, then I think the first choice for Lou will be Dan Hamhuis

At age 27, Hamhuis has improved from 2008-09 to 2009-10 at even strength and while his quality of competition was less than Martin's, he did it with worse quality of teammates.  To me, this suggests that he can definitely hold his own defensively on a first pairing, play big minutes, yield positive adjusted Corsi/60 when on the ice, and be a long-term answer on defense.   Hamhuis isn't without flaws, he didn't contribute much to Nashville's power play and his performance on the penalty kill last season wasn't what you would call admirable.  

I would prefer Hamhuis over Anton Volchenkov because Volchenkov's shot-blocking tendencies tend to bang him up for parts of the season and his 2009-10 season saw a drop in his on-ice impact on shots against.  Not something you want to see in a shutdown defenseman, even if he did improve in his on-ice impact for the offensive stats.  I'd even prefer Hamhuis over Zybnek Michalek; while Michalek faced very strong competition with really weak teammates, he ranked poorly across the board except in goals for on-ice impact.  Given his 3 goals and 14 assists, I don't think he's going to be contributing enough on offense to justify leading a blueline.  At least Hamhuis has broken 20 points.

The only other real option I can think of - and maybe this would be better? - is to hope Andy Greene can reprise his role from much of 2009-10 to lead the defense again, platoon most of the minutes along with the White-Mottau pairing, and the Devils can sign a #2/#3 defenseman.   Here, Hamhuis would be more attractive as a signing, Dennis Seidenberg, Jordan Leopold, or Henrik Tallinder would also fit well.  Pavel Kubina has good point totals, but his on-ice impact is nothing to write for someone who is coming off a $5 million/year cap hit of a deal. 

UFA - Greene
White - Mottau
Salvador - Fraser/Eckford/Salmela/Corrente

Of course, cost really comes into play: the Devils have may have to drop $3-4 million for Hamhuis, Seidenberg,  or Tallinder. (Possibly a little less for Leopold since he's coming off a lower cap hit?)  Maybe even a bit more depending on how the market plays out.  That may be beneficial on the Devils' salary cap; a $4.5 million deal for, say, Hamhuis plus $1.5 million for Mottau (again, worst case), and there would be $9.44 million left for the rest of the summer.  However, the defense would basically be replacing an arguable #1 defenseman in Martin with players who definitely are not.

Plus, you'd also be crossing your fingers the Devils can accept a downgrade to someone acceptable like Hamhuis, Seidenberg, or Tallinder; because if they go, we could see a horrible repeat of the panic-signings of Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis from a few years ago.

Lastly, if you really want to relive 2009-10, the Devils could push Salvador up top with Greene, and then make a cheap UFA signing for the #5 spot, and hope there will be a better crop of defensemen available in the summer of 2011.  Do I think they'll be able to repeat the success they had last season?  Not really, and so I would think the Devils need at least a top 4 defenseman to replace a top-2 defenseman in Martin.

Scenario #4: Devils don't re-sign Martin or Mottau

Those fears would intensify if the Devils can't keep either.

My suggestion would be a combination of Scenarios #2 and #3. I don't think it's the best to put the #1 and #4 spots both in the hands of the young defensemen available.  The Devils will need to fill in those spots with players who have at least played in a top 4 before.   My gut reaction is to hope for Hamhuis and Corvo as the former is more than capable defensively whereas the latter can still improve the offense of the group.   Of course, even with a defensive group like this, you're still going to hope that Greene or Hamhuis can be the leader - and that's a risk.

UFA - Greene
White - UFA
Salvador - Fraser/Eckford/Salmela/Corrente

Again, Salvador could step up again along with hoping Greene steps up again, and therefore the Devils can look to save some money being having that second UFA fill in on the third pairing.  However, the issue of depth comes up again not to mention that the hope will still be that Greene, White, and Salvador can perform as well as they did last season.   If you want to see the defense improve, then a signing needs to be made; but I think that for the defense just to have any hope of maintaining how well they've played, they'll have to make signings.

That will add further to the cost.  Just for kicks, let's go with the thought of Hamhuis (4.5) and Corvo (2.7) are the replacements and they go into the top 4.  Great. At the cap hits I'm thinking for each, that would leave $8.74 million left, $8.24 if Fraser takes the #6 spot.   Even if the salaries are a little less, signing two defensemen who can capably play in the top 4 will likely take at least $5 million total to the Devils' cap.

Ultimately, Martin is the Highest Priority

We can argue and quibble about what the other UFA defensemen as well as Martin and Mottau are really worth and how much they'll get, but I used salaries just to highlight how much of the cap they'll take up.  Quality defenders require quality salaries.  Therefore, just to maintain the defense's quality either with or without Martin, the Devils really can't afford to go after any big name without forcing themselves to fill in other spots at minimum cost.   

Unless Martin is demanding something really high like $6 million per year, which I think is unlikely since a 80-to-100-point 22 year old center is now taking a $6.7 million/year cap hit, the Devils should make all attempts to retain Martin.  He can be signed long term, perhaps to a sweet front-loaded deal that could allow him to retire later with the cap hit coming off the books later on.

After all, if he's the most effective defenseman on the market this summer, then replacing him isn't easy nor cheap.  I feel that going forward, Martin leading the defense is not only the best available option but a great option as it is.  He has performed very well in the last two seasons (08-09, 09-10) at even strength.  He's done it before so why not continue until a better market or a heir apparent is properly groomed (as in, not rushed) up the depth chart?  As far as the offensive deficiencies, they can be addressed by an addition deeper down the depth chart, and therefore not cost as much as it would for a top pairing replacement.

After all that I've written, now you know what I think the Devils should do on defense - that the best option is to retain Martin if possible.  Do you agree? If not, who do you want to see replace Martin and/or Mottau?   Should the Devils not be able to replace either of them, do you agree that it would be the worst case scenario? Let me know what you think in the comments.