While there is certainly underachieving across the board at all positions for the New Jersey Devils this season, two positions have been of particular concern: defense and goaltending. The latter problem may be in the process of being solved if MacKenzie Blackwood can continue to give the Devils quality starts. This article isn’t about him however; it is about the defense and the abundance of problems they present.
The Devils defense conundrum is a two part problem, because it’s uncertain if the issue is the personnel or the system. Watching the games, it seems there is a lot of pressure on the defense to break out, with little support from the forwards, so if something goes wrong, everything snowballs downhill quickly. The Devils also only have roughly three defensemen (Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson and Will Butcher) who can effectively move the puck up the ice. If one of them has an off game, or sits out due to injury/poor play, the Devils don’t really have anyone else who can effectively replace what they do for the system.
Other problems of the system seem to include coverage; we literally still have defensemen bumping into one another at times, and that seems as though either someone hasn’t properly learned their role, or there’s an issue with the system. It could explain why some players get scratched repeatedly over others. It could also just be that the system has flaws that other teams can figure out and exploit, which again shouldn’t fall on the players.
Let’s assume for the time being that it’s more of an issue with players rather than with the system. Devils fans have been craving for Ray Shero to use some of the team’s available cap space to fix the deficiencies in the lineup. Taking a look into the near future reveals that not only will it not be easy, but it also might be a downright poor choice.
A quick venture over to CapFriendly and their “Players’ menu allows us to preview who is going to be a free agent defender next season. I tossed a couple of filters on (looking at just defenders and only unrestricted free agents so as to not surrender draft picks) and the pickings were slim to say the least. While Erik Karlsson is certainly the big shark in the free agent waters (no pun intended), the pickings decrease in desirability from there. Some may want Tyler Myers for his toughness, but I believe his speed to be an issue. Jake Gardiner could be a left side upgrade, but he’s not exactly known for his defensive prowess.
Beyond those three names, there are quite a few players older than the Devils core who could maybe be stopgaps, but they could want more years than Shero wants to give. Otherwise, it’s a whole lot of “meh” players that aren’t an upgrade over anyone currently on the blue line.
The other problem that arises is the matter of if any of these players actually want to sign in New Jersey or not. While we have Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and some other good names, the team is not exactly promising or necessarily a desirable destination right now due to the season the Devils are having. Money is one thing, but it is not the only thing to NHL players; the ability to compete for and possibly win a Stanley Cup can be just as if not more important to some, and if that’s the case and they don’t see Jersey as a competitive team, there’s relatively little to no chance of them signing.
Personally, unless Karlsson wants to come here, I’m not sure I would sign anyone in free agency. The Devils should be spending their draft picks wisely on players who can fill in some of the gaps (hint: tougher defenders) when they’re NHL ready. There are a few others coming through the pipeline, such as Ty Smith and Jeremy Davies who hopefully can provide the team with a better boost than any free agent would; the Devils have been building internally, and it’s not worth sacrificing that to splurge on a player who won’t fix the issues plaguing the team.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on the defense and free agency; do you believe the issues currently stem for the players employed, from the system itself or some combination? Is there anyone you’re excited about in free agency that you believe the Devils can get? Do you fear they’ll pay for someone who doesn’t improve the team? Are you hopeful for any prospects in the system? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!