Based on anecdotes, I've heard and seen that the New Jersey Devils have a young and burgeoning defense. To an extent, this is true. They had four defenseman under the age of 25 play regularly last season, and two of them looked rather good: Damon Severson and Adam Larsson. There's also various levels of excitement or hope placed into Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas. Considering Steve Santini and Josh Jacobs are in the pipeline and the team just signed Vojtech Mozik, why would should they consider getting a defenseman in free agency? They just need to play the kids (Andy Greene excepted) and - BAM! - the defense will be good again. That's the gist of what I've read and seen throughout 2014-15 through today (and probably days to come).
The problem is that the Devils need bodies. Last season, eleven different defensemen suited up for the Devils to appear in at least one game. Injuries, poor play, and trading Marek Zidlicky led to regular dipping into the depth chart to fill the blueline. Here's the status of those eleven based on General Fanager. Pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Zidlicky was traded. Mark Fraser, Peter Harrold, and Bryce Salvador are UFAs. Larsson, Gelinas, and Seth Helgeson are restricted free agents. While those three will return, letting the UFAs go - does any Devils fan want Fraser, Harrold, or Salvador back? - leaves the Devils with potentially eight defensemen. That's eight including Helgeson and Raman Hrabarenka, who were call-ups last season, and the currently-unknown quality of Mozik. The Devils could use some legitimate NHL-worthy depth as necessary. Especially if they need to go ten or eleven deep again.
I'd go as to argue that they could use a top-four defenseman as well. The best case scenario for the defense as currently structured is that Damon Severson thrives in his second season and Adam Larsson truly turned a corner last season and becomes someone who can handle big minutes night-in, night-out. We know Greene's the boss on this blueline, and so there's still only three defensemen who could potentially fill in those top two pairings. Unless you think highly of Merrill like the previous coaches did, this is an area the Devils can address through free agency. I'd rather have Merrill do well against weaker competition before throwing him back into 18-20 minute per night on a regular basis. Plus, this top-four defenseman may potentially make the team better, which is the whole point of doing a re-build: to improve the team.
Fortunately for the Devils, the free agency market is not short on defensemen who can play significant minutes or in a lesser role for depth. Out of all of the positions, defense is the deepest in terms of talent available for this summer per the list at General Fanager. I'm not going to go through all twenty or so defenders who could possibly fit into a first or second pairing, or any of the other Harrold/Fraser-like defenders that would serve as a team's #6 or #7 defenseman. I will hit on some names that the Devils should at least think about. I'll let you tell me who they should go after in the comments.
Under-30 UFA Defensemen
Mike Green leads the list of UFA defensemen in terms of name and how much he made last season. At $6.25 million in 2014-15, Green both rose and fell. I recommend reading both end-of-season summaries on Green by Becca HJ at Japers' Rink and The Peerless Prognosticator. Green managed to be relatively healthy, put up a lot of points, didn't have a regular defensive partner, and get bumped down to the third pairing (seriously, his ES TOI is less than 16) while putting up a mere one power play goal. Both Peerless and Becca have a hint of disappointment in their conclusions that Green did well but his demotion all but confirms he's on the outs in D.C.
He could be in N.J. as a nice fit in theory. With Zidlicky traded, they only have one offensive defenseman and Gelinas really only has an exceptional shot. Green carries the experience of playing a lot of minutes, he has been fruitful on power plays aside from a 1 PPG 2014-15 campaign, and he's generally good for possession per War on Ice. His history of production speaks for itself. You want an offensive defenseman with a right-handed shot? Green's your man in this year's market. And provided he doesn't get exactly what he just got again, the 29-year old might even live up to a big deal. What gives me some pause is his health. He's had some seasons in the prime years of his career where he played far less than a full season. In the last three seasons, he's been able to play most of it so perhaps that's gone past. But as he gets older, it could become an issue. That being said, if the Devils want to splash some cash, get a name, and address a need, then Green is someone they should consider.
Andrej Mezsaros is another interesting name. His numbers last season were pretty bad (production, War on Ice) and could make one wonder how he earned $4.125 million for it. The answer to both is the same: Buffalo. That team was so bad, no one really looked good in 2014-15. At the age of 29, Mezsaros has had some good seasons and has some kind of talent to him. However, can he stay healthy? He's had seasons where he'd appear in every game and then he's had seasons where he misses most of it. Most of his recent seasons fall into the latter category. Further, he did get to play against slightly weaker competition in the last two seasons and didn't do well than in seasons prior. I think he could take the spot, though I don't have high hopes that he'll make a significant impact.
Andrej Sekera could be available if the Kings don't lock him up. The recently-29-year old got moved from a bad Carolina team to a Los Angeles team that fell short of making the postseason. Despite the move and the ultimate disappointment, Sekera had a very good season. Per War on Ice, he had the highest relative Corsi percentage among all UFA defenders who played significant minutes at 3.7%. That goes nicely with his 54% Corsi, which includes a 60% CF in his 16 games with the Kings. He has some offense in him too; he's averaged at least a shot per game and he's had some nice years in terms of production. The end of season recap of his season by Sheng Peng at Jewels from the Crown praises Sekera quite a bit. the conclusion is that he may not be a top-tier top-pairing defender but could be a very good second-pairing defender. The Devils could use someone like that. He stands to get a big raise from the $2.75 million he made last season given his effectiveness and relatively young age. Could the Devils try to win bidding war for him? Possibly. Should they? I'm not so sure.
Speaking of bidding wars, Cody Franson's agent is going to be a popular man this summer. His or her phone is going to be constantly buzzing, ringing, beeping, and so forth. Franson is 27, looked reasonably good on a bad Toronto team, and got moved to his first team, Nashville, where his underlying numbers suggest he was better than what was seen. At least, that's the takeaway Zeke Starr at On the Forecheck had. All the same, he's likely to hit the market this summer and get paid real well. He earned $3.3 million last season and could stand to make much more given his age and experience. He was a top-four defender with the Leafs and Predators. He put up 36 points between the two teams, a career high after a career of consistently putting up at least twenty points. His career in CF% isn't so hot until one remembers he suffered Carlyle in Toronto. Franson's a good defensemen and he's much younger than the other UFAs. The Devils should consider him, but should likely stray from what it'll take to actually get his signature.
Lastly, since I've written that the Devils could use depth on the blueline, there are a number of under-30 defensemen available to serve a lesser role on a roster. Granted, there's a reason why they'll be available, but the Devils could find a bargain if they're careful. One possibility is Raphael Diaz. Diaz made less than a million to play with Calgary last season. While a CF% just under 46 isn't good for anyone, it was the second best number on a possession-poor Flames team behind ace defender, Mark Giordano. Sure, Diaz didn't face tough competition and he played limited minutes last season. However, he has played more significant minutes before. My suspicion is that he just wasn't a good fit in Calgary. Diaz is 29, he's a right-handed shot, and while he isn't going to bring much offense, he should be able to handle a lower role on a blueline. He made a whopping $700k last season, I think the Devils could do worse than bringing him for about the same much as depth.
Over-30 UFA Defensemen
The first name on the list that should jump out to New Jersey Devils fans is Paul Martin. Before Andy Greene ascended to be the top defenseman on the team, Martin was the man (this is part 3 of a series I did on him 2010). Martin was very good and left in the summer of Kovalchuk as Pittsburgh offered him a $25 million deal over five years. Martin was a top defender in Pittsburgh like he was in New Jersey. He won't wow you with points, but you'll be very glad he's out there for 20-22 minutes per game. According to Natasha66's review of his season at PensBurgh, he was a constant partner with Kris Letang and like Martin did in New Jersey, he was very effective for a lot of shifts per game against tough competition. Martin was so good, even beat reporter Rob Rossi wrote this article nearly pleading the Pens to re-sign him. Devils fans who recall Martin in NJ know he's right. Alas, per ProHockeyTalk, Martin will likely be available this summer.
I don't think he's going to come cheap. While I think the 34-year old could accept less than $5 million per year, I do not think he'll take that much less. The main concern is really his usage. He played a lot for Pittsburgh and played well. With the Devils going young on their blueline, would a Martin-Greene pairing hinder their development? On the one hand, it does mean fewer and less difficult minutes for Severson and Larsson. And I'd say that Martin and Greene play very similarly; it may be better to split them up. But who's willing to take less minutes while getting paid like they should get top minutes? On the other hand, that may be to their benefit as Martin and Greene handle the tough stuff. That's an issue should they get him. Outside of that, I don't have any real issues beyond not giving him anything more than two years. I really liked Martin in New Jersey, he did very well in Pittsburgh, and again, the goal of the re-build is to get better. Martin will make the defense better.
It's tempting to look at the other Penguin defender apparently on the outs: Christian Ehrhoff. The 32-year old has a history of putting up quite a lot of points and lots of shots. He did do the latter with Pittsburgh as he put up 110 in 49 games. However, he didn't produce a lot - 14 points - and it didn't help at all that he missed significant time with injures again. Ehrhoff did play a lot in Pittsburgh as he averaged over 21 minutes per game. However, he didn't do so well at evens from a possession standpoint. While his minutes were more than decently tough, he put up a -1.4% relative Corsi and a 51% CF that ranked eighth among Pens defenders who played at least 200 even strength minutes at War on Ice. That doesn't suggest he really helped the offense. I could see the Devils being somewhat interested based on his earlier seasons and that he still fired away as much as he did was good. Yet, his season with Pittsburgh was underwhelming to a degree - I think Natasha66's season in review of Ehrhoff at PensBurgh would agree - that I would be hesitant on a deal for him. Perhaps Ehrhoff would fit finely in a second pairing role on a short-term deal less than $4 million. At least spending more for Martin would yield a better blueline. I don't get that impression with Ehrhoff, though.
If the Devils want a defenseman who's 32 and made $4 million last year, then perhaps they should look at Zybnek Michalek instead. While Michalek has averaged a bit more than a shot per game, he's not about the points. He's got 171 in 711 career NHL games, that's not his appeal. His appeal is that he's a large man who can play in tough situations and get stops. The Blues acquired him in large part of that, as he was quite good at it in Phoenix based on this RobbTufts post at St. Louis Game Time. With the Blues, he was on a second pairing, averaging over nineteen minutes per game and getting competition on the level only less than their top pairing. While Michalek wasn't a game-changer in St. Louis, he was one of the better possession defensemen on the squad in his short time there. Hoosier Blue made this post arguing for his return. It's a good one, and I've come to the conclusion that the Blues should keep him. Especially with the news that Barret Jackman will not be re-signed. If he hits the market and the Devils staff thinks they could use a defensive-minded defender, then they should consider Michalek. At least instead of Jackman. He's younger, he served a larger role in Arizona and St. Louis than Jackman did in this past season, and he was more effective with respect to those roles.
Let's go back to a familiar name. From around the same time Martin was on the team, you may remember this former Frolunda defenseman who not-so-uncommonly fell down at random intervals. Johnny Oduya is a UFA this summer and with Chicago's cap issues, he could be available. He's 33, he's got a Stanley Cup ring, he looks like he could write "Come at me, scrublord, I'm ripped" and mean it, and he's coming off a contract that paid him $2.85 million last season. His three-year contract actually tailed down, but he was set in Chicago's top-four. He averaged over twenty minutes per game last season, and over 24 in the post-season. I don't know how the usage went, but what I saw at War on Ice was astounding. Oduya managed to have a higher TOI/60 of competition than Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook as well as a lower offensive zone start percentage. As you may expect, Oduya did not do well at evens with those situations. That contributes to the fact that he had the lowest relative CF% (-4.13%) and CF% (51.09%) among Chicago defensemen who played at least 200 even strength minutes in 2014-15. As bad as those look, he would be receiving easier minutes and situations on a second pairing in New Jersey so it's not a terrible idea for the Devils to consider him. It's possible he could be more effective at evens next season. He would be available for a reasonable price, which would be around $3 million. He's not going to provide a lot of points, but he will fall down a lot less and fill a role the Devils could use help at. Like Martin, I could see it functioning pretty well for a season or two.
Lastly, as with the previous section, it would be good to highlight someone who could handle a more depth role for a cheap contract. While the fact he's been injured quite a bit and he's over 35, Michal Rozsival from Chicago would be a good idea. He did well from a possession perspective against lesser competition, which is what he would be getting as a potential third-pairing and/or fill-in player. His days of putting up quite a few points are over; but he's been shifted into that sort of role with Chicago as the season and playoffs went on. So he could do it and probably less than the $1.75 million he made last year. That's a veteran option. An even better option is Carlo Colaiacovo. For $625k last season, the 32-year old busted out a 55% CF and 8.7% relative CF in 33 games with Philly. Colaiacovo did this against rather weak competition and more offensive zone starts than not, but this is what crushing his competition looked like. He did that with an average of 16 minutes per game, which is third-pairing caliber. That's exactly the role I would consider him for as defensive depth. He's not going to add a lot of offense and his career is full of seasons cut short by injury, healthy scratches, and demotions/promotions with the minors. Still, if the Devils want a guy who can be solid in a #6/#7 role, then they should consider Colaiacovo. Yes, I'm recommending an ex-Flyers defenseman. It's that kind of offseason.
These are all suggestions on who the Devils should and should not consider. I know I left out quite a few names, but these were the standouts (for better or worse) in my opinion. Again, I do not think the Devils have enough bodies on defense right now. I don't think going into 2015-16 with Greene, Larsson, Severson, Merrill, Gelinas, Mozik, Helgeson, Hrabarenka, and the rest of Albany as call-up material is wise. Someone to take that second pairing spot until Merrill or someone else proves they deserve it is ideal. At a minimum, they'll need more reliable depth than Helgeson, Hrabarenka, and Mozik. So I would expect them to sign a defender or two this summer.
Who would you want the Devils to go after? Should they go big and get someone like Green or Martin? Should they stick to older and less-known players, hoping to find a bargain? Who else should deserve consideration as a free agent target for the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the 2015 free agent class of defensemen in the comments. Thank you for reading.