The New Jersey Devils have looked like a much improved team in the Alain Nasreddine era (at least so far) but that’s not to say that the team is without flaws. The defense specifically still needs to be augmented, or overhauled completely depending on each fan’s point of view, before next season begins. The team’s options, however, could be limited; this summer will be important in determining if the Devils figure out their best case, worst case or a scenario somewhere in between.
While there’s still three months left in the current season, it’s not too early to start forecasting what could be next season. The Devils sadly won’t be going far with the current crop of talent, so it’s worth looking at situations of marked improvement, marked regression and incremental growth.
Best Case Scenario
In a best case world, the Devils would return only three roster defenders from this season: Will Butcher, Damon Severson and P.K. Subban. They would technically retain a fourth by bringing Sami Vatanen back with a new contract in unrestricted free agency. This would allow New Jersey to fill out their ranks mostly with talent they already had; of these four, at least two would still be within the Top 4. Andy Greene would gracefully retire, taking both statistics and nostalgia out of the equation; Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick would either be shipped out or sent down.
Their fifth player would come in the form of Ty Smith finally making the team and proving right away to be a top-tier defender. With Smith coming in and eating top-pair minutes while not bleeding goals, it would allow the team to comfortably slot their remaining players into spots where they can be at their highest level of effectiveness.
The Devils in this situation would also fortunately be able to sign a notable free agent defender (Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Barrie, Torey Krug, Jake Muzzin, Justin Schultz;there are multiple options available of who would best fit) to fill out the Top 4. For the purpose of picking one to have mock D pairs, the selection is going to be Muzzin as he plays the left side (I believe, please correct me if not) and is one of the better defending defensemen from the above list. Opening night for the Devils could then see something such as:
Smith - Vatanen
Muzzin - Severson
Butcher - Subban
It was difficult to put pairs together, as Butcher/Severson hasn’t worked in the past, but it also feels wrong to have Subban on the bottom pairing; however, that wound up being the most logical option with how Vatanen is playing this season. Perhaps it’s indicative of the types of problems teams have with a talented defense group; it’s been too long since Jersey’s Team has had that conundrum.
Worst Case Scenario
This is the toughest one to write about or look at, because it’s the hockey equivalent of the world where George Bailey wasn’t born in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In this situation, the team retains the same first three as in the best case. Vatanen, however, walks in free agency whether he is offered a new contract or not. The team would also retain Mueller and Carrick, while still featuring them regularly in the Top 6.
More alarming is that in this world, Smith is deemed “not NHL ready” and opens the year in Binghamton, which normally wouldn’t be a problem. However, the Devils are hurting for talent, and the fact that he can’t make it over stopgap options would be alarming for the former first round choice.
Andy Greene would be re-signed for another season despite continued decline in his game. The team would completely strike out in free agency, aside from a few minor signings to round out Binghamton’s roster. The pairing would be:
Butcher - Subban
Greene - Severson
Mueller - Carrick
The worst case scenario is more of the same that could be trotted out right now, with the exception being the subtraction of Vatanen, who has been an integral piece this season. If the team’s defense seems bad now, a full season of the above group would wind up being a sin against hockey.
Somewhere in Between
After looking at a realistic best case (the Devils realistically won’t be signing multiple high end free agents, if they land one at all) and worst case scenario, now comes the middle of the road version. Again, Butcher, Severson and Subban are still under contract and coming back; Greene would return in a lessened role and surrender the”C” to a full-timer. One of Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick would be let go and while the other would be sent to Binghamton.
Ty Smith makes the team out of developmental camp, but not in a top pairing role. The team signs a free agent, but instead of one of the bigger names available, it winds up being someone in the tier of Joel Edmundson. This could lead to:
Vatanen - Subban
Smith - Severson
Butcher - Edmundson
While not exactly a large upgrade over what is being iced this season, it still presents an upgrade over the players that are slowing down (Greene) or generally just not NHL material (Mueller, Carrick) going forward. A defense such as the above would still be important progress in the correct direction that could help to alleviate the amount of insane saves MacKenzie Blackwood currently has to make per game. This group could also still chip in offensively, helping the team to have a better goal differential, and better record, next season.
Perhaps you believe it to be early, but what direction do you believe the Devils need to take their defense in? Should they be using a good amount of their available cap space next season to shore up the back end with big name free agents? Should they look to more economically friendly improvements with youth taking the next step instead? Do you believe the worst case scenario could possibly happen? Leave any and all thoughts below and thanks as always for reading!