In this past week, Our Hated Rivals bought out defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. This was out of necessity as the Rangers handled their salary cap situation poorly and needed to shed money to become cap compliant. This was not a unanimously praised decision by the Blueshirt faithful. Others could and perhaps should have been bought out instead. What was unanimous? The reaction from the New Jersey Devils fans. It can be summed up as this:
Thank goodness the Devils never signed him.
This is true in hindsight, but there is more to it than that. And it involves Will Butcher, who was re-signed by the Devils in the same past week.
Back in April 2017...
The 2016-17 Devils season was awful. So very awful. The best part of the 2017 portion of that season was winning the draft lottery, which led to the correct selection of Nico Hischier. It was Ray Shero’s second season with the team and the tearing down of the older roster was on its way of being complete. The Devils were in a position both in terms of cap space and the roster to make a big splash and obtain a player that can help the Devils compete through the next few seasons.
That player was Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk was hitting the free agent market after years of being very productive in offensive situations while being effective from a defensive standpoint. The Devils had no offensive-minded defensemen at the time, Damon Severson aside. Shattenkirk was a right-sided defensemen and the right side of the Devils defense at the time was Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Steve Santini, and Dalton Prout. The Devils then had oodles of cap space to offer a big deal to a player that can help them out right away. It appeared, on paper at least, that Shattenkirk would address multiple needs. I wrote all this in a post back in April in a post I think was well-received. I was on the Sign Shattenkirk train. As free agency came closer in 2017, more and more Devils fans were on this train. The hype for Shattenkirk only grew among the Devils.
The 2017 Offseason
It did not happen for New Jersey. The native New Yorker, Shattenkirk, signed with the Rangers for a massive $26.6 million, four year contract on July 1, 2017. As Chris Ryan reported at NJ.com on July 2, 2017, Shero did pursue the defenseman but Shattenkirk was not interested. It was a disappointment then. Not only were the Devils not able to ink one of the biggest free agents of that year and someone they needed, but he went to Our Hated Rivals. Being in the same division, their gain was to the Devils’ detriment.
The Devils needed a Plan B after a disappointing July 1 for Shero. In terms of making a splash, they made one of sorts when Shero moved picks for Marcus Johansson. This eased the disappointment as it was a move that addressed a team need. It also helped that Brian Boyle was eventually useful for the Devils. What about the defense? It just so happened that Will Butcher was not going to sign with Colorado after finishing his college career and would hit the open market. I wrote that the Devils should pursue him largely because he appeared to be the type of defenseman the Devils did not have the time. The Devils did so and on August 27, signed him to an entry level contract. I was happy and so were the fans. To date, this is arguably Ray Shero’s best free agent signing. As far as the right side of the defense went, Shero would address that during the 2017-18 season when Shero traded Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi to Anaheim for Sami Vatanen. Since his arrival, Vatanen has been either the first or second pairing right-defenseman.
Still, the Rangers got the proven commodity and the Devils signed a rookie out of college. How would this go? Not the way most were expecting at the time.
The Next Two Seasons
Shattenkirk had a nightmare of a 2017-18 campaign. The first half of his season had some production (23 points in 46 games), but all did not go well on the ice. A CF% below 47% is not what you want to see out of the defender signed to a big deal, for example per Natural Stat Trick. The second half of his season was spent recovering from surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee. His on-ice play in 2018-19 was pretty good; several of his 5-on-5 on-ice rates were the best among Ranger defensemen as per Natural Stat Trick. However, for an offensive defenseman with a penchant for being a power play wiz on a big contract, 28 points seems underwhelming even on a bad Rangers team. Shattenkirk is now 30 years old with two lackluster seasons spent on a four-season contract.
What’s more is that the Rangers regressed with Shattenkirk. Recall that they made the playoffs in 2016-17 and even won a playoff series. The Shattenkirk signing, among other decisions, was supposed to help them go farther. Instead, the Rangers finished last in the Metropolitan in 2017-18 and seventh in 2018-19. They fell into a re-build. One that general manager Jeff Gorton has tried to speed up. They benefited from Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba wanting to go to New York and then signed him to a massive $56 million, seven season contract. They coaxed Artemi Panarin, arguably the biggest free agent in 2019, and signed him to a $81.5 million deal over seven seasons. Those deals plus their other RFA re-signings led to the Rangers needing to cut someone to get under the salary cap. Shattenkirk was the one. A little over two years after being happy to sign with the team he grew up watching, the team dumped him and the deal they willingly gave him. Hockey is a business and Shattenkirk’s business was no longer needed.
Will Butcher, on the other hand, had a far better time in New Jersey. Butcher was not a top-four defenseman right away but he very quickly showed he can hang at the NHL level. He also very quickly showed he can be a key part of a power play as the Devils used him as the lone defenseman on their top power play unit featuring Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Butcher’s 44 points were the most among all rookie defenseman in 2017-18. Only Mat Barzal had more than the 23 power play points Butcher produced among all rookies that season as well. In terms of on-ice play, Butcher was very good in his position in 5-on-5 play. The Devils were also a much better team in 2017-18, led by Taylor Hall putting in one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history. They made the playoffs. They only won one playoff game, but getting there at all was an achievement.
Unfortunately, that would be the apex as 2018-19 was a massive swing in the other way. The goaltending was abysmal. The on-ice play was not good enough. Injuries ensured that things would not get better. And the Devils ended up having great odds in the draft lottery - and won it to take Jack Hughes back in June. However, if you’re looking for silver linings in that season, then Butcher would have to be one of them. While his production dropped, he still contributed 30 points (tenth on team, second among defensemen) and 14 power play points (second only to Palmieri). From an on-ice rate standpoint, Butcher was arguably the best Devils defenseman in 5-on-5 play last season. He would receive more and more ice time as the season went on, too. His two season ELC ended in July of this year. The Devils recently re-signed him to a three-season contract worth $11.2 million. Most of the criticism of that contract that I have seen among the fans is that it is not longer. That speaks to how well regarded he is in New Jersey. By the way, the Devils also went out and acquired a big name, right-sided defenseman in P.K. Subban and traded for and signed a Russian winger of their own in Nikita Gusev. They still have lots of cap space and will not need to worry about buying out anyone out of necessity.
The Devils rookie out of college had a far better past two seasons than the proven commodity who went with the Rangers.
It is easy in hindsight to be glad that the Devils did not make a move or that they made a different one. I think there are more lessons to take away from this.
First, if Plan A does not work, then you need to work for a Plan B. Plan A was for the Devils to get Shattenkirk. This was attempted. but it did not work, as we know. Not getting Shattenkirk meant that he needed to put in the effort to go after Butcher and convince him that signing an ELC with New Jersey would have been his best option. It also was a driver for the eventual Vatanen trade, which required moving Henrique and Blandisi - two players from the roster. While neither Vatanen or Butcher cost as much money as Shattenkirk would get, the Rangers did not have to negotiate with a sought-after college free agent or move two players to get him.
Second, Plan Bs are not always bad. Of course, we know now that the Devils were better off getting Butcher and trading for Vatanen than spending $26.6 million or more to get Shattenkirk. The costs were higher and the risk was also higher - who knows how good Butcher was going to be - but they ended up being well worth it. The Devils are in a good position now from a cap and roster perspective. If they did sign Shattenkirk, then some other future moves may have not happened at all. Maybe it would have been for the better, or maybe it would have been for the worse. But from what did happen, the Devils’ Plan B turned out well.
Third, injuries can derail a lot. A big part of what Shattenkirk’s time in New York was a disappointment was his knee injury. His torn meniscus in 2017-18 undercut not only his own time but contributed to what turned out to be a terrible season for the Rangers. While he was largely healthy in 2018-19 and had a better season from an on-ice perspective, not enough was done - production, other metrics - to justify any perception that he was a disappointment. Had Shattenkirk been able to avoid a major injury in that first season, then he could have produced more on the scoreboard and in underlying stats that would have increased his worth to the team. Maybe that would have given him more leeway. Maybe that would have led management to think of someone else to buy out or move later on. Maybe it would have led to other teams who would want him. A part of me thinks that if he had signed elsewhere, perhaps he would have fit in better and/or not get hurt at all. Of course, that did not happen.
This also applies to Marcus Johansson and why he did not really work out in New Jersey. Unfortunately, it was out of Johansson’s and the Devils’ control but that how it goes sometimes.
Fourth, team needs and teams as a whole can change a lot in a season or two. The Rangers went from hopeful contenders after 2017 to a full-on rebuild in 2018 and 2019. The Devils went from lacking an offensive defenseman and support on the right side to adding Will Butcher in August 2017 (offensive defenseman) and Sami Vatanen in November 2017 (offensive and right-sided defenseman). Oh, and the Devils were competing for a playoff spot in all of 2017-18. In a matter of months to a half-year for both franchises, they were in very different situations.
This leads me to touch on whether the Devils should inquire about the now free agent Shattenkirk. The answer is no. The Devils traded for P.K. Subban, who is the same age as Shattenkirk, plays similarly in style to Shattenkirk, and has accomplished far more than Shattenkirk. The Devils’ right side of the defense now has Subban, Severson, Vatanen, and Connor Carrick. The Devils do not have the need for Shattenkirk’s services at this moment. With a potential cap crunch coming in 2020, adding Shattenkirk would likely only add to that potential crunch. In 2017, the need was there and that was why I was hopeful the Devils would sign him. A little over two years later, that need is not there and I am not interested.
Related to this, this is also why you never draft 18-year old prospects for need.
Fifth, you would think I would learn this by now, but expect Ray Shero to do very little on July 1. Sure, plenty of significant deals signed to unrestricted free agents have ended up being bad ones. And the free agents are typically past their prime; the payment is more for what they have done instead of what they could do in the future. However, it is still an avenue to acquire talent in the short-term without giving up assets like draft picks or players. It has yet to be an avenue that Shero has utilized a lot. Even this year, the team’s major free agent signing was a one-season contract to Wayne Simmonds. That is it. Perhaps this will change as the Devils transition from building up a team to competing for playoff spots and more. And it is not like Shero is not trying - he did pursue Shattenkirk. Yet, expecting a lot on the first day of free agency from Shero is only going to set yourself up for disappointment.
In my view, I cannot fully separate a connection from those two players. Had New Jersey signed Shattenkirk, perhaps New York would have had a chance to get Butcher. The opposite happened. And given what happened to both players in this past week, I think much can be learned from them. Now that you know how I see it, I want to know your take. What lessons in hindsight did you learn from Shattenkirk and Butcher? What should the Devils take out of this for the future? Please leave your answers and thoughts about both players in the comments. Thank you for reading.