We continue our look at the New Jersey Devils and some available unrestricted free agents for the team to ponder today. Again, CJ and I have five players available from within three salary tiers, (well, four for the first tier today) and we look at pros and cons of what each player could possibly bring to New Jersey. We will be looking at our Reach ($5M+), Target ($2M-$4.9M) and Safety (under $2M) Tiers and will again choose one player from each of these categories for who we believe would be the best fit for our New Jersey Devils. Without further ado, here we go:
This is a list of the top 5 available UFA defenders in each salary tier (based off EvolvingWild’s projections) in GAR. Primary points (P1) per 60 is also included. The “weighted” column is a weighted average with a split of 70/20/10 on previous years based off the same contract model.
In the “Reach” category, the perception is that there is Erik Karlsson, and then a gap before the #2 guy. In point production that may be the case (although, Alex Edler is conspicuously close), but in GAR, it seems the dropoff is really after #2. Jake Gardiner has the value of a true #1 defender and has consistently had it for 3 years. In fact, his lowest GAR (10.6) is higher than Karlsson’s lowest (7.5). Of the expensive guys, Myers seems to be the clear trap to avoid.
In the next group ($2M - $5M projected AAV), the biggest “get” would be Anton Stralman who has consistently put in 20+ minutes on Tampa — a distinction likely to carry weight with GMs. Sticking with Tampa, Coburn earns the distinction of having the highest primary point production (P1/60) of anyone in the tier. Jordie Benn is the highest GAR in the tier, Patrick Nemeth is the only one under 30 in the top 5, and Ron Hainsey is father time.
In the bargain bin, we have a few interesting possibilities. Carl Gunnarsson has really solid 2-year GAR numbers — higher than that of anyone in the tier above him. He missed a lot of last year with injuries according to NHL Injury Viz, When he played, though, among defenders with 1000+ minutes (n=212) the last 2 seasons, he’s had the 10th highest relative goal ratio and a positive relative expected goal ratio. Not bad for a basically-league-minimum guy. Jan Ruuta with a 5.36 wGAR and 0.46 xP1/60 has the production of a ~$3M guy and is only 28. Heed is also 28 and has lower GAR, but with 24 points in 67 games (roughly 30-point-pace), he packs the most scoring punch. Fantenberg makes an appearance but coming off 4 points in 61 games and a -2 CF%Rel, it’s tough to see him as better than anything we have. Same goes for Girardi whose career was likely extended by Tampa, but has very little left.
Reach: Erik Karlsson
Obviously if the Devils somehow pulled off this signing, we would all literally have to take to the streets and sing the praises of one Rejean Shero. Karlsson has been and continues to be the definition of excellence on the back end of the ice. He’s not the perfect player, but he’s engaged defensively, makes the right play more often than not, and has fantastic offensive awareness and capability. While he was an Ottawa Senator, there was a narrative that developed of him being ineffective at defending; while again he’s not perfect, that has been proven to be fans jumping to a false conclusion.
Karlsson has speed, he has elite puck moving capabilities, he’s willing to jump into a play when necessary, and he can pot some goals if need be too. The only possible drawback to signing a player like him would normally be salary and cap implications, but the Devils are flush with space right now, and ownership seems willing to spend for a winner. Landing a player the caliber of EK65 would increase the team’s fortunes dramatically; as we said yesterday, the more high-end talent a team has, the easier it makes other decisions. Signing Erik would have him, Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen as the Devils’ RHD depth entering 2019-20, which could enable the Devils to move one of the latter two players to shore up other areas of need.
We pointed out above that Gardiner statistically qualifies as a #1D as well, and while he wouldn’t be a terrible option to fall back on, the concern would be that he has some of the same bad habits as many of the players the Devils already employ. Edler falls a bit outside of the desired age range, and also has not appeared in more than 70 games in a season since 2014-15. Myers is big and plays a defensive game, but his above numbers are worrisome and he’s also not exactly fleet of foot; he and Edler should be a pass from Jersey’s Team no matter what.
Target: Anton Stralman
If the Devils strike out on Karlsson (fairly likely) then it wouldn’t hurt to look at Anton Stralman to round out the Devils’ right side for this upcoming season. While the Devils need help everywhere on D, the left appears to at least somewhat be set this season, as Andy Greene and Will Butcher will have regular roles, and Ty Smith appears to be poised to seize the third. The right is a bit more of a question mark with only Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen ready for regular duty; while Connor Carrick was okay, an upgrade would be preferred.
Stralman would give the Devils another player who is able to move the puck up the ice, and at the same time, he isn’t a liability in his own zone. He might wind up being a bit more costly (and a year older) than Jordie Benn, but Stralman is a more proven commodity who also tends to play tougher minutes than Benn. A good righty veteran such as Stralman could also play a bit more at home if he were to be paired with Smith next season, allowing the rookie to showcase the strengths that made him WHL Defenseman of the Year.
While Benn wouldn’t be an awful consolation prize, he does play the left, which would only serve to muddle that picture, and probably put Carrick back into an every night role, which isn’t ideal for a team looking to upgrade. Patrik Nemeth wouldn’t be awful either, especially given that his age more closely fits what the Devils are looking for. Coburn and/or Hainsey would be a disaster for this team, as they arguably would be (more like actually would be) a downgrade over what we already have. There’s better options than that pair in the bargain bin today.
Safety: Carl Gunnarsson
Speaking of better options that Coburn or Hainsey, we have Carl Gunnarsson who could be available for much cheaper and would bring more to the team. While this could be someone who again muddles the left side of the ice, he would bring some needed size, even if he isn’t necessarily the most physical player. He is, however, a positionally sound player, and would still be an upgrade (albeit a minor one) over some of the players who earned a regular role.
While Gunnarsson would be better than Coburn/Hainsey and a couple of Devils defenders by a small margin, the safety category today is mostly players that won’t alleviate last season’s issues. If we HAD to pick one, it would be Gunnarsson, but the entire category is a whole lot of “meh” or worse. Ruuta, Fantenberg and Heed are all players who aren’t true NHL regulars and all have hit the age that defenders are estimated to peak at; none have truly established themselves yet, so what’s to lead us to believe they’ll get it together going forward? Then there’s Girardi, who is older, slower and well...as we said yesterday (again) Rangers; let’s just steer clear of that one.
Who do you believe that the New Jersey Devils should pursue to improve their defense? Do you like the picks of Karlsson, Stralman and/or Gunnarsson? Do you prefer another player in any of the tiers? Is there any other defenseman not listed that you would like to see the Devils pick up? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!