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There Is No Magic Free Agent Defender to Solve Our Problems

Shattenkirk and Fowler get a lot of buzz for many teams, the Devils among them. I argue they will not fix us, and present other options.

St Louis Blues v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There are really good defenders. Some are even franchise-changing. But very few are capable of totally righting a sinking ship and the ones that are are not free agents.

So first of all, on the claim that there are magic defenders. In the past decade, 17 defenders have scored more than 50 points. The average point total for their teams was 101. Among teams who had a defender with more than 12 point shares, the average point total was 107.5.

Now part of this is that the really good teams will score more goals which means the defenders will get more points just by nature of probability. Part of it is also the fact that a really good player of any position will greatly improve a team (Forwards with >12 PS were on teams with a similar average point total).

So a premier defender is an indicator of a successful team. But from a causal standpoint, even having one of these guys does not completely change a team overnight.

Franchise-Changing Defender

By browsing through this list, you see a litany of players that did not change their franchises by coming to the team. Erik Karlsson is an absolute phenom. But he won the Norris for the first time all the way back in 2010 and they still have not had a 100 point season with him. They’ve only topped 95 once, missed the playoffs completely 2 of the last 3 years, and only got out of the first round once.

That’s anecdotal obviously, but its interesting. Victor Hedman burst onto the scene in 2013-2014 and the Lightning haven’t looked back since. But they already had some really talented forwards, and Ben Bishop earned a Vezina nomination. It also coincided with Jon Cooper becoming the coach -- not an insignificant detail. And even with all that, they still are not expected to make the postseason this year.

Drew Doughty is another big name. He was the Kings best defender immediately out of the draft. But his debut was also the beginning of Jonathon Quick’s first year as starter. A young Anze Kopitar also started to wreak havoc the year before. And they too had a new coach in Terry Murray.

Duncan Keith joined Chicago with a new coach in 2005. They saw almost no movement until Kane and Toews also got added.

Brent Burns is probably the best player on the reigning West Coast Champ Sharks, but there was no previous sign of that happening, most of the pieces (Marleau, Pavelski, Thorton, Couture, Vlasic) were already there. That also coincided with a new coach — our old friend Pete DeBoer. But it is encouraging that a guy like Burns can never score over 60 his first decade in the league, and then throw up 75 in his age-30 season. Maybe we’ve got a similar late-bloomer lurking somewhere.

So it is not common for a defender to completely change a team the way a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews does.

Defenders Available

As it stands, this is the list of defenders that would lead us in points this year that will be free agents in one of the next two offseasons.

2017: Kevin Shattenkirk, Dmitriy Orlov (RFA), Colton Parayko (RFA), Justin Schultz (RFA)

2018: Cam Fowler, Mike Green, John Carlson, Nick Holden,

Other names include Trevor Daley and Dennis Wideman in 2017, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Ian Cole, Jack Johnson, and Zdeno Chara in 2018.

The Penguins have Letang, Maata, Malkin, Crosby, and Kessel, all wrapped up through 2023. With Justin Schultz playing the way he’s playing, the Penguins probably definitely can’t keep Daley and Cole, and they might even need to give up both or let a guy like Kunitz walk.

The Red Wings have the highest cap hit of any team right now, and they aren’t particularly good anymore. Mike Green is their next big contract to come off the books and he’ll be heading into his age-33 season. He’ll likely demand a high price and he could be pried loose.

The Sharks were strapped for cash this year, but it remains to be seen what Marleau and Thorton — both 37 years old — will demand on the open market. But, with Burns cap hit going up by over $3 million, one of Vlasic, Marleau, and Thorton may be tough to pay. Vlasic is still young and one of the best shut-down defenders in the league, so I expect them to pay the man, but if they dont ...

Then there’s Shattenkirk and Fowler.

Buzz regarding the Devils and a possible play for Shattenkirk has been hot and cold. It cooled down a bit because Shero expressed we weren’t interested in rentals. But it’s picked up more in some fan circles after an, admittedly click-bait, article. The possibility of a sign-and-trade has been floated as well. Shattenkirk is reportedly attracted to the Eastern seaboard. Some teams like Toronto and Edmonton are more appealing than the Devils as far as situation is concerned. Teams like the Rangers and Boston are more favorable geographically and historically. If the Devils want to make a play, they will need to make a persuasive financial argument.

Fowler is a tier up even from Shattenkirk. He also really needs to get traded. Anaheim can’t afford him. They’d probably like to avoid wasting a slot in their expansion draft protection pool on him since he’s not in the long term plans. I don’t think it’s particularly likely that he makes it to free agency. That doesn’t rule the Devils out. The Devils’ name has have been thrown around in this discussion. It’s easy to see why we would want him. He’d also like being a top pairing guy with the chance to earn a bigger next contract. I just don’t know that Shero is willing to give up anywhere near enough for him. He could surprise me. He spent a 2nd and 3rd on Palmieri. He could go back to the same well, this time the Ducks need cap space rather than draft picks, but the incentive is still there.

The Devils Future

You’ll notice the complete lack of overlap in the names mentioned in the previous two sections. There is no such thing as a defender to fix all your problems. It’s not even common for a defender to change a franchise without also having changes to forwards, goalies, and/or coaches. Even if there was such a thing, it’d be a generational talent nowhere close to the free agent market. The Devils might think they can get a guy like Timothy Liljegren, in the draft via trading up or straight luck. If not, maybe we grab a couple of the guys like Miro Heiskanen, Nicolas Hague, Callan Foote, Cale Makar, and Juuso Välimäki. Between the draft; our prospect pool which still includes guys like Josh Jacobs, Reece Scarlett, Colton White, and developing guys like Severson, and Santini; or possible UFA pickups for guys like Green or Cole; we have many opportunities to correct the black hole that is our current blueline.

What’s the Point of This Article?

Don’t be depressed if we don’t get a guy like Fowler or Shattenkirk. Three reasons:

  1. We have plenty of other chances to improve the position
  2. No 1 guy can fix the position
  3. Even if they could, that player is not available to us

Do not forget the situation we are in. In the next 2 years, we have four 2nd round picks, 3 thirds, and 3 fourths. We are also one of the 3 least cap-strapped teams in the NHL. The answer is out there. Patience Devils Nation. Patience.