Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was one of the biggest names traded prior to this past season’s trade deadline. The Washington Capitals acquired him (and an AHL goalie) for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, their 2017 first round pick, and conditional picks. It was a big trade for a franchise looking to get over it’s playoff hump. It’s also a big rental as Shattenkirk is an impending unrestricted free agent for this summer. If he is still unsigned by July 1, then the 28-year old right-handed defensemen will be one of the most sought-out free agents. As he should be given his skills in both ends of the rink combined with the fact he’s a right-handed defenseman who is under 30 years old. Among all of the teams who would want him, I would hope that Ray Shero and the New Jersey Devils make it happen.
It is true that the Devils are re-building. It is also true that the 2017-18 season may be another playoff-less season. But a re-build only works if the organization gets players to actually build up the roster. And I believe Shattenkirk is the sort of player the Devils need to take another step forward.
A Look at Kevin Shattenkirk’s Career
In order to understand how Shattenkirk can help the Devils, we must understand what Kevin Shattenkirk has done so far in his career. He was initially drafted by Colorado in 2007 out of the United Stated National Team Developmental Program (Aside: Congrats to them for their U-18 Worlds victory on Sunday.) After three years with Boston University, Shattenkirk jumped to the Avs for the 2010-11 season. In 46 games, Shattenkirk averaged 19:40 and put up 26 points with 10 power play points per NHL.com. Then he was traded to St. Louis in a deal centered around Erik Johnson. Shattenkirk blossomed into a top defenseman with the Blues, contributing significantly to their offensive attack. In five of the next six seasons, Shattenkirk put up at least forty points with the Blues. The lone exception was the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Shattenkirk’s total production was only bested by Alex Pietrangelo since 2010-11 per NHL.com. In power play points alone, Shattenkirk was frequently posting eighteen in the five full seasons with the Blues accoring to the league’s website. Shattenkirk was no stranger to firing them. After his rookie season, Shattenkirk Since 2011-12, Shattenkirk has averaged at least two shots per game with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2013 season. All together, Shattenkirk was an offensive defenseman for very good Blues squads. And it made his trade to the Caps such a big deal as he joined a blueline that already featured Matt Niskanen, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov.
Let’s dig a little deeper into how Shattenkirk did in the run of play. After all, how a player performs at 5-on-5 will better show how he is good in general. Especially for a player who has been averaging 16-17 minutes of even strength ice time for the last six years. The following is what I found at Corsica:
Without adjustments, it’s clear that Shattenkirk was absolutely a positive factor for his teams. I focused on Corsi attempts against (CA/60), shots against (SA/60), and expected goals against (xGA/60) to get a sense of how things went defensively when he was on the ice. As it turns out, it has went very well. The opposition didn’t generate much against his teams when he was on the ice. For it to stay low throughout his career suggests to me that he had something to do with it. A defensively-suspect player would not likely post such good numbers when it comes to attempts, shots, or an expected goals model for so many seasons. Ditto for the relative Corsi, which means when Shattenkirk came on the ice, the play was more in his team’s favor. His rookie year was him at his “leakiest” and even that’s a fine set of numbers. It would have rated rather well on the 2016-17 Devils. All together, it appears to me that Shattenkirk has been a very good defenseman in 5-on-5 play.
The one criticism I could see from this is zone start usage. His coaches have used the offensive defenseman quite a lot in the offensive zone. As they should; the idea is to place players where they could succeed. Does this mean that Shattenkirk was sheltered and so these numbers may not be all that indicative of his play? We can find out through getting the same stats adjustments for zone starts, score, and venue - also from Corsica.
While the adjustments take some of the shine off some of the numbers, the general conclusion is the same: Shattenkirk is quite good in 5-on-5 hockey. He has been a positive CF% player throughout his career. His relative CF% was negative in only one season and even that was a slightly negative value. His SA/60 rate remained below 30 in each of the last six seasons, which further suggests that he’s quite good in terms of limiting shots against. That’s something the Devils could certainly use more of after last season. The expected goals model has him positive from a percentage standpoint while listing expected goals against rates that range from excellent to pretty good. After adjustments, I don’t see a reason to not think he’s very good in 5-on-5 play.
I would be remiss to point out another aspect of his usage that could raise a question. Shattenkirk did not often play against the toughest competition. According to WoodMoney for this season, Shattenkirk has played 25% of his 5-on-5 ice time against the Elite while playing 41% against mid-tier competition and 34% against weak competition. This isn’t Shattenkirk’s fault. In St. Louis, where Shattenkirk played most of this season, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester was often the top pairing that drew these tough draws. This matches up with the ice time averages I’ve seen at even strength for St. Louis in the past six seasons at NHL.com. They averaged 18-19 minutes of even strength time while Shattenkirk was kept to 16-17 minutes. With Washington, Shattenkirk’s current team, the tough minutes often went to Karl Alzner and John Carlson. It’s an open question whether Shattenkirk can handle a tougher role. Given that he has been very successful in his current role, I think it is worth a shot.
Lastly, I do want to point out that Shattenkirk has frequently been used on the power play. In his six seasons with the Blues, Shattenkirk’s power play ice time per game average ranged from 2:37 to 3:26 per NHL.com. Even in his short time as a Capital, Shattenkirk has averaged 3:29 of power play time per game. He’s definitely somebody who has been and can be a leader on the power play units. What about the penalty kill? While he’s not a frequent member of Washington’s PK, he did have some seasons averaging close to two minutes per game with the Blues. That suggests that he could be an option for the future on that end.
Overall, Kevin Shattenkirk has been very productive and his 5-on-5 stats suggest a defenseman who has been very good at both ends of the rink. It’s not just evidence of how good he is, it’s also evidence of why the Devils should want him.
Why the Devils Should Want Shattenkirk
Look at the New Jersey Devils’ defense from this past season. I was thinking that they needed a left-handed defenseman. Given that their right-handed defensemen from this past season were Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Steve Santini, and Dalton Prout; I’m inclined to think they could do with another righty. I think quite highly of Severson. I thought he did quite well in this past season and we collectively named him the best defenseman of 2016-17. I have hopes for Santini. And that’s pretty much it as Lovejoy drowned with heavy defensive zone start usage - and still drowned when one adjusts for those zone starts. Prout is Prout. The right side of the blueline could still use some help for the future.
More importantly, there isn’t an offensive defenseman or someone who can excel on the power play among the Devils defensemen. Yes, Severson put up 31 points and 13 power play points last season, but he wasn’t frequently attacking the net himself or generating offense enough to be a contributor on the level of a Shattenkirk-like player. John Moore may have put up twelve goals but that was more of a function of shooting at 11.8% - a high percentage for a defender - than being a superlative offensive contributor. The Devils have seen only one player within the last seven seasons to top forty points: Marek Zidlicky in 2013-14. The Devils have not had any defenseman surpass twenty power play points in that same time frame. The only defensemen who played more than a handful of games that averaged over two shots per game in that timeframe was Eric Gelinas in 2013-14 and Zidlicky in the shortened 2013 season. The point of all of this is that the production and the shooting from the blueline has been lacking. That’s something surprising given how often the offensive approach has been to try to win a puck from the corner and throw it back to the pointmen. Shattenkirk would address all of that.
Shattenkirk would instantly be the Devils’ top defenseman on the power play, leaving Severson to bolster the second unit. He would be a threat with his shot as he has frequently used it. At the same time, he has been smart enough to make good passes from the back. In fact, the team’s breakouts could be better. If only because there would be another defender who can handle the puck with patience, poise, and precision - not just throwing up long passes into the neutral zones When it comes time for an offensive play, the Devils would have a significant option in Shattenkirk. Equally as important, Shattenkirk on the right side would force Lovejoy down in the depth chart; a move that would strengthen the team’s top two pairings alone. While it would have been more ideal if Shattenkirk was a left handed shot, he addresses several issues that were present with last season’s blueline. That alone is enough to drive the Devils to want Shattenkirk.
The Power of Perception
There’s another, less-hockey-based reason why Ray Shero should push to sign Shattenkirk this summer. The Devils are re-building and I believe most fans have accepted that. Clearly, they are also accepting that by not going to games and not caring so much about the team. Who can blame them? The Devils have not made the playoffs in the last five years. While the team has rich owners and it’s smart not to tie up the salary cap for a re-building team, the Devils’ lack of spending has helped a perception that the owners aren’t interested in putting together a competitive lineup. The 2016-17 Devils were downright miserable to watch at times, with a whopping three wins in their last 24 games. Even the most pro-tank fan would agree that’s not going to make it worth one’s time, energy, and money to attend a Devils game. Now that we know what members - a.k.a. season ticket holders - will be paying per game for next season and it appears prices went up in spots again (they would’ve for me, at least), the Devils need to do something to make it worth seeing games again. In a crowded media market, perception counts for a lot and the current one for the Devils isn’t good.
Signing Kevin Shattenkirk to a lucrative contract would absolutely go a long way to help the team’s perception. It would be a move that shows that Shero is serious for re-building for the near future instead of a longer, indeterminate one. It would be a signing that would be evidence that Josh Harris and his group are willing to pay for talent. It would be a big deal for the Devils to secure one of the biggest free agents of the summer. It would be a move that tells the fans, “We’re taking legitimate steps forward.” Even if 2017-18 is another lost season, a group centered around Hall, Schneider, Palmieri, and Shattenkirk shows real progress. That could stop the feeling that this team isn’t worth the time or money after a crud-filled 2016-17 campaign. Signing Shattenkirk wouldn’t just strengthen a weak part of last season’s team (the defense); it would also raise the profile of the Devils. Even if you see it as a bonus, it’s a pretty large one.
Can the Devils Afford Shattenkirk?
This is the best part. They absolutely can. This summer is a perfect storm of sorts for Shero to sign Shattenkirk. According to CapFriendly, the team has $51.6 million committed for next season. That number will change somewhat when the expansion draft comes and goes. The Devils do have a lot of restricted free agents. Their qualifying offers alone will add up to about $9.25 million. Some will get deserved raises. Namely, Damon Severson; Alex wrote about what to expect for his next contract in this post. Some RFAs may not be qualified, which will free up a little more money. I fully expect Yohann Auvitu to go back to Europe, for example, since he’s not even getting regular shifts with Albany right now. Most will end up in Binghamton for next season, so it won’t even be on the cap. The Devils would likely end up with around $10 million in cap space from it all. Especially with few UFAs that the Devils may even want to re-sign this summer. A few days ago, Mike stated it’s one of the best assets they have; now’s the time to use it.
And Shero is no stranger to big moves. At the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he found out Anaheim wasn’t confident that they could retain Kyle Palmieri. So he flipped a second round draft pick - which isn’t nothing - for the right winger. Last summer, after learning that Edmonton was willing to part with him, he traded Adam Larsson straight up for Taylor Hall. Inking Shattenkirk to a long-term contract could be this offseason’s big move. Like with Palmieri and Hall, Shattenkirk would easily be a part of the future core of the team that is currently being re-built.
Since Shattenkirk is 28 and has only missed significant time in 2014-15, I feel confident in his longevity. The maximum long term deal would take him to his 35 year old season, which is ideal as the Devils could let him go (or trade him) if he’s declining by that point. Or re-sign him if he’s worth it. Even after their RFA signings, the Devils could feasibly offer Shattenkirk something significant like a seven-year, $49 million contract and still have plenty of space left over to improve their depth or at least fill it for 2017-18. Would $7 million per year be somewhat of an overpay? Possibly. But if he doesn’t re-sign with Washington, then I would expect the top free agent defenseman to command a significant salary. Since Harris has the money and Shero has the cap space, it can absolutely work with the Devils.
The Devils can even afford to talk to him early. While there is a negotiation period ahead of July 1, the Devils could move a small asset to get his rights ahead of that period. If I recall correctly, it’s usually something small like a sixth round pick. The Devils just so happen to have two of them this year. If Washington won’t retain him - doing so would be really challenging - then one of those picks could get him to the Devils for early negotiations. That could be crucial for getting his services and I would support such a move. A sixth rounder usually doesn’t amount to a NHL player anyway.
Those early discussions could provide an edge New Jersey may need. Shattenkirk supposedly wants to be in the New York area. There are three teams in that area. The Devils can afford him, but what about the two teams in New York City? As far as I know, the salary cap for next season is expected to be $76 million. The Islanders are currently at $69.7 million for next season with a big RFA re-signing in Calvin de Haan. I don’t see them being involved unless they make space. The increased cap would allow the Rangers to be more or less in play. They have $63.8 million committed for next season which doesn’t allow for a lot of space, but the higher ceiling helps. They were supposedly close to getting him at the trade deadline, so the organization would be interested. They have plenty of re-signings too and their defense is already set. I think they could try to fit him in since they may want him, but it won’t be so simple. In contrast, the Devils could make a big contract offer with ease. It’ll be on Shero and the Devils to strike quickly - even if it costs trading a low pick like one of the two sixth rounders - to get his rights and talk to him first. through that, he could be convinced that he can get all that he wants. That is to live and play in the New York metropolitan area; to play significant minutes as a top defenseman instead of being behind someone else; and to get a whole lot of money with the security of a max-length contract. And the big deal would give the Devils plenty of benefits too. The Devils would get the offensive defenseman they have arguably have been missing since Brian Rafalski, they would strengthen the right side of their defense, there would be a new “name” player for the squad, and the fans would appreciate that ownership and management will spend money to try to seriously improve the team today instead of hoping for a high first round draft pick to lead the charge.
On that last note, if Shattenkirk doesn’t decide to sign with the Devils, then the perception can be salvaged if word gets out that Shero did offer a massive amount of money. I’d rather read that Shattenkirk turned down a big offer from New Jersey (and giving away a sixth to get him) than to hear that New Jersey didn’t make an offer at all. Better to try and fail than to fail without trying.
A Recent Russian Factor
There is one other factor that just came up recently: Kovalchuk. He wants to return. Given that he made $5.5 million last season in the KHL, I doubt he’s going to come back for a significantly less price than that. And even with the Devils’ cap space, bringing him back and going after Shattenkirk may be too difficult - even with a larger salary cap ceiling. As much as the Devils could use more talent up front, a big reason why the offense was so crummy last season was because of the defense. The constant defensive zone passes leading to less than ideal breakouts, the lack of shots, only having one defender who fits on a power play, and so on. Shattenkirk would address this and having more defensemen who can start an attack will benefit everyone. Kovalchuk was a great shooter in the NHL; but that doesn’t mean a whole lot on a team that struggles to get its shooters the puck. Throw in the fact that he’s 34 and has more mileage on his body and I’m not excited about a return to New Jersey - especially at the cost of going after Shattenkirk. A sign and trade would be just fine. Unless Kovalchuk wants a serious pay cut - and I doubt it - I’d rather have Shero and his staff focus on getting Shattenkirk to wear red, white, and black for a long time instead.
Yes, the position is defense, but solely playing defense isn’t ideal for the team. Ben Lovejoy effectively showed that last season. Here’s a tweet by Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt quoting Shattenkirk’s current teammate, Matt Niskanen, on the subject.
Sage words from Matt Niskanen: “If all you’re doing is defending, you’re not going to defend very well.”— Alex Prewitt (@alex_prewitt) April 21, 2017
To get out of this mindset, the Devils need defensemen who can perform in both ends of the rink. Severson could very well be a defender who does it. Andy Greene used to be able to do it (well, sort of, on offense). Shattenkirk can do it very, very well. The Devils can absolutely afford a long-term deal at this structure and Shattenkirk has the skills, the pedigree, and the production to justify it. His current age means a seven year deal would take him to his mid-30s, which is fine for what he’ll be doing. He can help the Devils immediately and continue to contribute as the team gets stronger. And Shattenkirk can be in the area of the country he supposedly wants to be in. The proverbial stars are aligned for this big move to be made by Shero and the Devils. To me, it makes too much sense to not pursue it. I want to see it happen. Please make it so, Mr. Harris and Mr. Shero.
What do you think of Kevin Shattenkirk? Do you want the Devils to go after him for this summer? If so, what would you offer him? I think $49 million over seven years would work, even if it’s an overpay; what would be good in your opinion? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Shattenkirk in the comments.