Earlier today, the New Jersey Devils announced that they have re-signed defenseman Mirco Mueller to a one-season contract worth $1.4 million. The 24-year old left-hand shooting defender will be up for a new deal next year. This contract also means that the Devils and Mueller will no longer have their arbitration hearing that was scheduled for July 28.
The young man also received a raise. According to CapFriendly, Mueller made $925,000 last season. He now has a seven-figure base salary. Unless Will Butcher takes an incredibly low contract, Mueller is likely to have the cheapest deal on the books for 2019-20 among Devils defensemen who are not on entry level contracts (read: Ty Smith). I am a little surprised he accepted a deal for just one season. Does he expect to have a great 2019-20 and seek out more money then? His rights as a free agent will not change on July 1, 2020. He will still be a restricted free agent. He will also be eligible for arbitration, but all that usually does is force a deal to be made before the hearing. All the same, I cannot tell you exactly why he took this contract - only that he did. Is he worth it? I think so. Let’s go over why.
What Mueller Did Last Season
On the surface, it does not seem like much. Per NHL.com, Mueller played 53 games and averaged 18:04 per game, the sixth most on the team among defensemen. Mueller played largely at even strength with some regular shifts on the penalty kill. He did not contribute much to the scoresheet with just one goal, ten assists, and 39 shots on net in those 53 games. Even Connor Carrick and Egor Yakovlev had higher point-per-game rates. At least he was mostly well-behaved with just 17 PIM: six minor penalties and a major.
Fortunately, we have on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick that tells us more about what happens when that player is on the ice. Mueller showed up decently - or at least, decently relative to the other Devils defensemen. In 5-on-5 play and among the eight Devils defensemen who played at least 200 5-on-5 minutes last season at Natural Stat Trick, Mueller finished fourth on the team in CF% (48.04%), third in SF% (50.42%), third in expected GF% (50.08%), and second in HDCF% (55.08%). Mueller was one of two defensemen out of those eight to have a SA/60 rate below 30, too. When you look at relative (on-ice minus off-ice) rate stats, Mueller showed up well there too. The only on-ice percentage rate stat Mueller did not do well in was in SCF% (sixth, 46.08%), but among the others he did better than most of his peers. Granted, his situations were different than others and he was not exactly dominating in any of those categories except for high danger chances. Yet, this all points to the notion that Mueller was not bad at playing defense for the Devils last season. For a defenseman making less than million dollars and receiving third pairing caliber minutes, not bad can also mean he did OK.
Is being OK worth $1.4 million? I think so. It may seem like a lot but given that the minimum salary is now seemingly $700,000, Mueller is being paid just twice of that. Is Mueller better than the NHL minimum? I think so. At the least, he was not at all a problem on a bad Devils roster last season. I do not see a reason he’ll become a Santini-level anchor on the run of play for New Jersey. I think he can be just OK for another season as the left-sided defenseman on the third pairing. I think that is all the Devils want out of him anyway.
What’s Next for Mueller
Truthfully, he needs to get to work. Remember that Mueller is a left-sided defenseman. The team captain, Andy Greene, plays on the left side of the blueline. His spot is safe. Will Butcher, who will likely be getting a contract before his arbitration date in early August, plays on the left side of the blueline. His spot will be safe. Ty Smith just bossed the Western Hockey League and had a long look at camp last season. By the way, Smith is also a left sided defenseman. Should Smith challenge for a spot, it is going to be Mueller’s spot that will be at risk - not Butcher’s spot and definitely not Greene’s spot. Mueller signed to a one-season contract for relatively cheap. This makes him movable - internally as well as externally.
Remember that Connor Carrick is in a similar spot. Carrick will be the one battling for minutes and appearances on the right side of the blueline. Even if he does not succeed, the Devils may keep him as an extra defender. Mueller could be a second one, especially if Smith impresses enough in camp in September. The Devils may have consider keeping eight defensemen on the active roster. That would not be a bad idea. In general, more than eight defenders get to play in more than just a handful of games in a season. I’m confident that Mueller and Carrick would get their time to shine. Of course, the Devils could go in a different direction such as risking someone to waivers in demoting them to Binghamton, or trading a player. Not that there will be a lot of return for either but a lot of teams can take on a defenseman with a cap hit far less than $2 million for one or two seasons.
I’m happy for Mueller that he came to terms with the Devils for a new contract and that he received a raise. However, in order to secure his spot on the New Jersey roster, he will need to battle for it.
What Does This Allow the Devils to Do Now
Now that Mueller has been re-signed, there are two Devils who need deals: Pavel Zacha and Will Butcher. Butcher’s arbitration hearing is set for August 2, so there is some time for both sides to work something out before then. Zacha is not arbitration eligible so there is no deadline to really meet until the season comes along. He should be signed to a contract before training camp to ensure that he will actually be there. After the Mueller signing, the Devils approximately have $16.945 million of cap space available per CapFriendly, so there is no concern from that perspective - Shero’s cap is fine. Short of any other transactions and things like camp invites, the Devils’ offseason is just about nearly over.
As stated earlier, if the Devils do expect Smith to make the NHL roster this year, then the Devils have another potential defenseman to move to make room. It is not as luxurious as the right side where someone with a pedigree like Sami Vatanen is available. However, as stated earlier, a lot of teams could add a relatively cheap defender on a relatively short contract.
As with Carrick’s new contract, I am fine with what Mueller has been re-signed to today. Mueller received a bump in pay after two seasons with the Devils. The length of contract is as short as possible, so there is little risk. Mueller will still be a RFA eligible for arbitration on July 1, 2020 just as he was on July 1, 2019. He was not bad in a depth role on a bad Devils team last season and he is likely to be serviceable on a third pairing on the left side in 2019-20. He is not making so much money or signed for so long that he would block out up-and-coming players like Ty Smith just to justify the contract. Should he need to be scratched for Smith or moved to make room for others, the impact is little.
Are you fine with this signing? Do you like it or do you not like it? What do you think of Mueller as a player? Did you think he was not bad last season? When do you think we’ll learn about Butcher’s new deal (hopefully before the afternoon of August 2)? Please let me know your answers and other thoughts about Mueller in the comments. Thank you for reading.