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The Devils Should Not Forsake Value to Improve the Defense

The Devils do not have a true #1 defender and it’s debatable whether some of the other defenders are NHLers at all. That doesn’t mean the Devils should go and get one via trade, free agency, or draft at poor value.

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Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Devils came into the year with, what most considered to be, one of, if not THE worst defensive group in the NHL. We lost the Shattenkirk sweepstakes and settled for what seemed like a consolation prize at the time, Hobey Baker award winner, NCAA UFA, Will Butcher. Shero recognized what many of the fans did, that we had a glut at Center (Nico, Henrique, Zajac, Zacha, Boyle, Coleman) and a problem with our top 4 D (at the time, Greene-Santini, and Severson-Moore). He went out and got Sami Vatanen for Adam Henrique who led us in ice time the rest of the way.

But, as many have rightly observed, Sami Vatanen is no a true #1. He is the consensus best defender on the Devils, but we need to either find him a partner or improve upon him at #1. The Devils were better than expected this year, so waiting for Rasmus Dahlin to save us is no longer in the cards — as he will likely be taken by lottery winner, Buffalo. Also, John Carlson is getting a Shattenkirkian national demo with the Capitals in the playoffs where everyone can see what is available to them this offseason. This has caused many a Devils faithful to conjecture as to what the Devils, a defender-starved team, might offer, and fantasize about what a day 1 lineup could look like. The situation with Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Arizona is similarly is causing slightly less, though not an insignificant amount of mouthwatering.

So with the Devils approaching this pivotal moment in their rebuild — the first offseason in which we are officially building up not tearing down — I thought it prudent to enter a plea about how the Devils can manage the roster, particularly the perceived issue with their defense.

Is Our Defense the Problem?

Using Corsica’s WAR metric (writeup here), I decided to find where the Devils stand currently in all-around contributions from defenders and forwards. For players that played for multiple teams, their full-season totals were used, but attributed only to the most recent team they played for, since this is projecting the situation moving forward (ex: Sami Vatanen’s entire year WAR was given to the Devils). I filtered out players that played less than half the year (<41 games) and ran two player totals — the top 12 forwards and 6 defenders by WAR (ideal lineup) and the top 12 forwards and 6 defenders by average TOI (actual lineup).

In the ideal forwards accounted for 53 goals worth of value — the 8th highest total in the NHL— and ideal defenders contributed 5 goals worth of value which is 16th highest in the NHL. If we switch to the actual lineup where we use the top 12 forwards and 6 defenders in ice time as opposed to WAR, the Devils top 6 most frequently used defenders contributed 1.4 goals (14th in the NHL) and their top 12 most frequently used forwards contributed 47.7 (still 8th in the NHL).

Based on this data, I find it hard to believe that our defenders are a significantly larger liability than our forwards — ESPECIALLY if you exclude Hall (without whom, we’d fall to 18th in forward WAR). Just use the playoffs as a sample. Blake Coleman was, overall, our 2nd best forward in the playoffs, no qualifying statement necessary. His All-Sit adjusted Game Score (both total and rate) was higher than everyone other than Hall. I am the biggest Blake Coleman fan you will find. And so you know I mean it when I say that Blake Coleman can, under no circumstances, be your second best forward in a playoff series.

So, while we are weak on defense, no I do not believe it can be classified as “THE problem”.

How Should This Inform our Offseason Moves?

1. We should probably NOT sign John Carlson

As is to be expected, armchair GMs the state over are placing John Carlson on the Devils top pairing. Understandable, given the Devils clear lack of a top overall defender. But, in my opinion, this is very likely going to be a terrible contract.

The term he’s going to receive is a bit of a mystery, though I wouldn’t expect anything less than 6 years. Matt Cane’s model has him likely to get $8.2 - $8.6 million and the EvolvingWild twins' model has it at $7.7 million. Here’s the list of current defenders making more than $7.7 million: P.K. Subban, Brent Burns, Shea Weber, Victor Hedman. Those are three of the best players in the world and Shea Weber (who hasn’t been bad when healthy and is still regarded as a terrible contract). If he gets in 8+ million the Cane model projects, only P.K. Subban will have a higher cap hit.

I don’t want it to come off as me thinking that John Carlson is a bad defender. He’s objectively good, and probably a legit top pairing guy. But his stats have been inflated by a lot of different things, in my opinion. If you look at his stats away from encouraging rookie Christian Djoos, he is a negative in relative CF%, FF%, SF%, GF%, SCF% and HDCF%. That’s all of the things. Last year, away from supremely underrated Dmitry Orlov? Same story — negative everything. He’s also VERY productive on the powerplay. One can’t help but notice, however, that 300 of his 303 PP minutes have been played with, possibly, the greatest scorer of all time. He has 29 PP assists, but only 15 were primary, and 12 of those 15 were to Ovechkin. No offense to Carlson, but I’m gonna go ahead and credit Ovi with driving the ship on the majority of those scores. Again, John Carlson IS a good defender, but entrenching your team to a 6+ year $8+ million hole to a fringe top pairing guy who turns 30 in the 2nd year of the deal is exactly the kind of move that will look okay for 2-3 years, and colossally stupid for the final 3-4 years.

2. We SHOULD seek out value talent at all positions.

A lot has been made of the Devils performance without Taylor Hall — evident no time more than in the matchup against Tampa where they threw the kitchen sink at Taylor, and he was still the only source of offense in much of the series.

The Devils secondary scoring is obviously a problem -- otherwise they wouldn’t have gone out and gotten Grabner and Maroon, forsaking the future in the process, to get an additional offensive punch at the deadline. The Devils are not going to fix this problem with a defender. They need to hope for growth from young guys like Nico who was playing with an injured hand for much of the year, and Jesper Bratt who feels confident in his ability to sustain production through next year after this adjustment.

They should also be in on every bidding war there is until it becomes unreasonable. John Carlson is likely to become unreasonable fast -- a defender of his quality is not going to be worth anywhere in the universe of $8 million in 5 years. John Tavares, however, is an exceptional talent imminently capable of staving off father time. And just because the Devils need defenders more than forwards does not mean the Devils should not pursue him. For more on this, see John’s article from Monday.

3. NEVER draft for need

This is more of a unilateral philosophical thing for me, but it’s especially true now. Remember when the Devils’ defensive prospect pool was flush with Jon Merril, Eric Gelinas, and Alex Urbom? First of all, prospects are very difficult to project comfortably and so you never know who will pan out. Second, by nature of them being prospects, they won’t play pivotal roles until the future, and you NEVER know what could happen to your team 2 years down the line. Hannah Stuart, over at The Score, projected the Devils to take forward, Lundestrom, with their 17th overall selection. If there is no defender better available, that’s exactly the type of move they should make.

How Can We Improve If Nothing Changes?

Well, by definition something has to change if we expect to improve. I just don’t think that thing necessarily has to be a managerial change. I think there are coaching decisions that could help.

The Devils most highly utilized defender, Sami Vatanen, is awful in the WAR stat. This doesn’t jive with what most Devils fans feel, but he also doesn’t have very many encouraging metrics at all. According to Offside Review, his Relative stats are heavily negative for his time in Anaheim and basically neutral for his time in NJ. Given the quality of the other Devils defenders, the fact that we’ve not been significantly better with him on the ice is really troublesome. While I do think Vatanen is one of our better defenders, he’s simply not good enough to warrant over 24 minutes a game as he did to close this year.

Damon Severson had been the Devils best defender for most of last year and the beginning of this year, prompting me to write this piece. Even I have to say he struggled to close the year, though, posting the worst possession statistics of his career. I’m inclined to blame John Moore, who has spent virtually his entire Devils career reconfirming the notion that he is, at best, a 3rd pairing defender — he’s 170th in WAR out of 184 defenders with 2000+ minutes in the last 3 years. Damon Severson’s numbers away from Moore are more in line with what we’ve come to expect from him. Getting Severson back on his game is one of the many reasons I agree with Gerard, that the Devils should absolutely not re-sign John Moore.

Lastly, the Devils have a budding star that the kept on a leash this year. Will Butcher was the best Devils blueliner by essentially every important metric. This caused articles published within hours of one another from yours truly and Corey Masisak at The Athletic. A very frequent concern with Butcher is that he’s been very sheltered this season and that he would struggle in more difficult situations. Thanks to Woodguy and OilersNerdAlert, I have a dataset of the Devils defenders performance against different qualities of competition and the zone starts in those situations using the Woodmoney system. The results are below.

Data from OilersNerdAlert and Woodguy, viz available at my Tableau.

As you can see, Butcher has been sheltered, his bubble shrinks (less TOI) as competition gets more difficult, and he’s the bluest (most sheltered zone starts) skater pretty much regardless of competition. But similarly indifferent to quality of competition is Butcher’s actual performance. Compare him to the guy who’s currently as our LD1, Andy Greene. Butchers zone starts are about 20% more favorable, but his possession stats blow Greene out of the water in every tier of competition. It doesn't matter if Butcher is playing against elite competition or not, he is always one of, if not THE best defender on the team. In the grand scheme of Devils fans, I consider myself relatively pro-Greene. But the proof is in the pudding: step aside captain, you’re in Will’s spot.

I’d like to remind people that neither of these things matter as much as some think they do — see my thread on that here — but even if it did, Butcher still needs to play.

If We Do This, Is Our D Good Enough?

In short, yes. Last year’s Penguins team, during the playoffs, iced a defensive sextet of Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maata, Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, and Ian Cole. Who’s the John Carlson in that group, hm? They won the cup. You don’t need to be well balanced, you just need to score more than you allow. The Devils scored 248 goals (14th in NHL) and allowed 244 (17th). The Penguins were 1st offensively and 14th defensively. We are not NEARLY good enough offensively to start pigeonholing out interests towards acquiring a defender.

Concluding Thoughts

The Devils need to stay the course. Though he has made a couple more stinkers recently (Mueller for 2 picks, Grabner for a pick and a prospect), Shero has proven to be a shrewd negotiator on most occasions. He should continue to seek out value wherever it can be had. If Carlson’s too expensive, pass. If someone wants to give us a forward more valuable than one of our defenders, do the trade. If OEL is available, but you have to give up forwards of higher value to get him, don’t. If the best player available in the draft is a forward, don’t even think about hunting down a defenceman. We are better than this time last year, but we’re still rebuilding and adding wins wherever they’re available is what we need to do. Making moves based on need is how you Chiarelli your opportunity. Don’t Chiarelli your chance.

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think about this philosophy? Do you think the Devils specifically need defenders, or will anything do? Do you want Tavares? Carlson? What other free agents are you interested in? How would you approach the offseason/free agency/draft? How would you deploy the D next year?