It’s no secret that the New Jersey Devils are in need of some help on defense if they are hoping to take the next step. Yesterday, Gerard proposed the big splashy trade in the form of acquiring Erik Karlsson or Drew Doughty. Obviously, acquiring a player of that caliber would immediately reshape the defense, although certainly at the expense of some major assets for New Jersey. Trades like that are rare, though, so even if that were something Ray Shero planned to pursue, a contingency is definitely needed. The free agent market is awash in roster filler and/or guys on the back nine of their careers and the big fish, John Carlson, does feature some “buyer beware” red flags to go with his likely price tag as CJ dug into. So with that in mind, today we’ll take a look inward to see if the Devils have any realistic hope of improving the defense from within next season.
The way I see it, there are three categories of Devil that could contribute to an improved lineup. There are the current NHL or NHL-adjacent players who could conceivably improve or take a step forward, there are players currently in the minors who would make the jump to the NHL level if they are ready, and then there are players currently in junior or college who have yet to make the jump to the pros. Ideally, a team has opportunities for improvement at each of these three levels. Are the Devils one of those teams? Well, maybe, but to what extent those players could make a tangible NHL impact in the near term is a different question, and one whose answer may not be particularly rosy for New Jersey.
At the NHL level, the team had a mixture of younger players and veterans in the 2017-18 season. Some of the Devils’ defensive corps could conceivably improve, but the majority likely is what it is at this point. Andy Greene’s play has been in decline for a couple seasons now and that trend is unlikely to reverse. Other players who are not quite as old but are into the heart of their careers at the very least are probably unlikely to provide tangible improvement either. This category would include guys like Sami Vatanen, Ben Lovejoy, and (if he were to return) John Moore. With those guys, what you see is likely what you get at this point. Lovejoy managed to have a nice bounceback season in 2017-18, but that was mostly due to being put in a role he was historically more suited for. You can’t give the entire roster 3rd paring minutes, unfortunately, so expecting anyone from this group to step their game up in substantial top-four minutes is probably not realistic.
What that leaves at the NHL level is the group of Damon Severson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller, and Steven Santini. Santini could theoretically be categorized as an AHLer given his mid-season demotion, but with about 75 NHL games under his belt, he now has some not insignificant NHL experience.
Damon Severson - Severson now has most of four NHL seasons under his belt, so it’s definitely arguable that he falls into the “is what he is” category at this point, but he’s only about six months older than the other three players in this “could take another step” group. Severson seems to have settled into the “talented but flawed puck-mover” category at this point, and is maybe a #3 or #4 on a quality NHL defensive unit. The problem for the Devils is they need him to be significantly better than a #4. I think it’s still possible he can clean up the mistakes in his game and be a guy who can capably ride shotgun to a true #1 defenseman on a top-pairing, but the clock is definitely ticking on on that front.
Will Butcher - Butcher feels like the key to the Devils hopes for a real impact defender who can step into the void to cut down on the 5v5 responsibilities for their aging captain, Andy Greene. Butcher had a fantastic rookie season for New Jersey, and seemed to finish strongly down the stretch and in the playoffs. CJ made the argument that the Devils should send more responsibility his way and I’m inclined to agree heading into next season. If the Devils are hoping to improve from within, Butcher taking the next step may be their best hope.
Steven Santini - Santini had a strange season, in which he was either getting some of the most difficult minutes in the NHL or he was benched/in the minors. For this reason, it’s hard to gauge exactly what Santini is at this point. He is still young, but he’s also not that young, and with two pro seasons under his belt, the time to start figuring things out will have to be soon. I’m not sure he can handle top pair minutes on the Devils as currently constructed, but if he morphs into a steady #4, that’s probably a win for New Jersey.
Mirco Mueller - Mueller had some flashes of decent play at times this season, but he also had some rough patches and still doesn’t strike me as much more than a bottom-pairing guy. Like the others in this group, he’s young-ish, so there might be some time to clean up some areas of his game and become a more of a steady factor, but he’s probably not a full-time top-four guy on an ideal roster.
For those who followed along with the Devils’ AHL club in Binghamton this season, I’m not breaking any news when I say that the team... well, it wasn’t so good. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that there aren’t a ton of pieces on defense at this level that look like they will be able to make an NHL impact in the short term. There are a couple players who could have an outside shot, though, if we’re being generous. Realistically, a journeyman like Brian Strait won’t be making a huge impact, even if he sees time with the big club, and guys like Michael Kapla and Colton White are younger but probably generally in the same boat. The two names that could conceivably get a look in camp to be a part of the big club are Josh Jacobs and, assuming he is signed to an NHL deal, Jacob MacDonald.
Jacob MacDonald - MacDonald was only on an AHL deal this past season, but he absolutely made the most of it (as Jeff pointed out this week), putting up 55 points in 75 games as a defenseman. He’s still a longshot to have substantial impact at the NHL level, but he’s probably played himself into at least getting a long look in camp next season if he’s signed and the Devils don’t end up making some splashes this summer. His game has clicked in a big way since arriving in the organization last season (79 points in 109 games), so I think he at least gets filed in the “hey, you never know” camp with his output.
Josh Jacobs - Jacobs was a second round pick a few years back for New Jersey and his development has been mostly underwhelming, but if we’re grasping for guys who could conceivably figure into the NHL patchwork, he’s probably second behind MacDonald due to his draft pedigree alone. He has a big leap to make, though, if he’s going to sniff substantial minutes for the big club.
The Devils have a few guys I think they are hoping will be a part of a solution going forward on defense, but in the near term, it seems like imminent arrivals in New Jersey are few and far between among this group. Two of the Devils’ more highly regarded defensive prospects, Jeremy Davies and Reilly Walsh, appear poised to remain in college for at least another season, with Davies being a little bit of a surprise on that front. Elsewhere in juniors, the options are also limited, with Jocktan Chainey probably due for at least another season in Halifax before trying to make the jump to pros. One intriguing prospect who could maybe see time in Newark if the chips fall right it Colby Sissons, the undrafted free agent signing who put up almost a point per game from the blue line in his final year in juniors.
Colby Sissons - Sissons had a big breakout season as a 19/20 year old in the WHL. He looked like a player who could maybe have an NHL future with the way he played for Swift Current. With him being on the older side for his breakout season, a bit of a grain of salt must be attached, but even if he doesn’t figure into this year for the Devils, he may have a bright future with the organization if he can build on this season.
Taken together, there are maybe a few gleams of hope for New Jersey, but it does seem like to realistically improve in a major way, the team may have to do some searching on the trade or free agent markets. If they do end up largely standing pat, then there are likely a few players whose progression will be crucial to helping the team get better. Chief among these players is likely Will Butcher, who made a splash in his rookie season, but will have to avoid a sophomore slump and grab a bigger role on the team if the Devils want to get better. Damon Severson will be important to the Devils as well and will need to find a way to cut down on the mistakes that continue to plague him to fully harness his potential. Outside of the NHL, the options are unfortunately limited, and if any reinforcements are likely to arrive, it seems like a couple of unsung/undrafted players in MacDonald and Sissons might have the best chances. It’s possible that things could work out on defense with the organizational status quo being maintained, but I’m not sure I want the team to be betting on that.