As the Devils head into another extended offseason, they will have some significant decisions to make to try to make the team successful for next season and beyond. Some decisions will be made for the long-term -- for instance, on draft day -- and others will be decidedly short term -- such as with Patrik Elias -- but ultimately, the Devils remain a team in transition, and will need players who can ably guide them through that transition period. One such player who seems to be a good candidate to help bridge the present to the future is defenseman David Schlemko.
Ray Shero signed Schlemko to a one-year, $625K deal back in September on the cusp of the start of training camp. At the time, it figured to be a depth move for New Jersey, with the Devils already theoretically having 6 NHL defensemen along with hopes that players like Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas would step into larger roles. Schlemko figured to be mostly an insurance policy to start but, after a little bit of a bumpy early stretch, ended up likely being the 3rd best defenseman on the roster when looking at the season as a whole.
Now that probably says as much about the Devils' roster as it does about David Schlemko, but the point remains that Schlemko ended up being a solid contributor who was picked up for relative peanuts. While the Devils' youth struggled to adjust to the increased responsibility, the more veteran (though still on the right side of 30) Schlemko showed the ability to contribute from a second-pairing role. He chipped in a solid 19 points in 67 games on the blueline and finished the season as the Devils regular with the highest 5v5 CF% (via Corsica.Hockey). There are mitigating factors for both of those numbers, as Schlemko was tops in PP time on the team and was shielded from the tough assignments (like most of the other D-men) by Andy Greene and Adam Larsson, but I think most would agree that Schlemko was largely a steal at the price the Devils paid.
Going forward, the Devils currently have four NHL defensemen under contract heading into next season: Greene, Larsson, John Moore, and Damon Severson. Steve Santini is not necessarily a guarantee but it seems likely that he will join the big club after jumping from Boston College at the end of this season. Jon Merrill is an RFA and will likely be re-signed, but his spot in the lineup is far from secure these days. So unless you're penciling in Wojtek Mozik or another player from the current AHL tier, that gives the Devils six-ish NHL defensemen. They need at least one more player or possibly two to construct a viable defense. With what Schlemko was able to give the Devils this season, I think it makes plenty of sense to bring him back.
Now, I don't think Schlemko is necessarily a huge impact defenseman. He's probably a little out of his depth as a #3, but seems like a viable #4 or #5. His HERO chart below reflects his generally positive numbers but also that those numbers have come in an often-reduced role (particularly prior to his time on the Devils). In a perfect world, the Devils would find another player capable of a top-pairing role this summer, but this is most definitely not a perfect world. A quick look at this summer's free agent defensemen reveals what I'm talking about. The Devils are already unlikely to be a major landing spot for free agents and this year's defensive class is thin. Beyond Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski, and Brian Campbell, who on that list is an appreciable upgrade from Schlemko? I'm not sure anyone is, at least not definitively, and this season, Schlemko made about one-sixth of anyone who you'd probably argue.
Even if the Devils can lure one of the better defensemen or swing another Palmieri-style deadline deal for a young blueliner, it still probably makes sense to bring Schlemko back into the fold. Jon Merril's struggles are well-documented, John Moore sagged considerably in the second half this season, and Santini will be a rookie getting his first meaningful look at the NHL. The Devils are in the market for depth and versatility and it doesn't seem like there will be a ton of better options for that than David Schlemko.
If I'm Ray Shero, I'm considering giving Schlemko a John Moore-type deal before free agency hits, or perhaps a two-year deal at slightly higher dollars to maintain a little more roster flexibility going forward. The Devils could triple his current salary for a two-year deal and that would probably be fine. The point is, Schlemko is a relatively proven commodity for New Jersey that is likely to come at a reasonable price tag. It will ultimately take more than signing Schlemko to make this into a top-caliber defense in the NHL, but for a team in transition like the Devils, he would be a valuable player to retain.