Everyone had a slightly different to-do lists for the Devils this off-season. They likely varied depending on your philosophy on player development, how quickly you think the Devils can contend, and how much you like our current roster. For me, the goal of this offseason was to not overextend because we’re clearly not ready yet, but also to try to put some pieces in place so that we can diagnose what can be patched versus needing long-term solutions. Here are a few of the components that I think fall into those categories:
- A scoring winger (Coleman’s gone, Palmieri’s on his last year)
- A top 4 defender (it’s debatable if we have any right now)
- A “defensive” defender (Greene was our only one)
- A goalie (We have been awful without Blackwood)
- A 2-way forward with PK chops (Coleman’s gone, Zajac’s old, young guys haven’t shown it)
I should say at the onset here, that some people may want the Devils to approach the season with full acknowledgement that we’re not there yet, and simply plug some warm bodies into the roster holes en route to another high draft pick so that we can start to be competitive in 2021-22 (or later). I’m going to approach this article from the standpoint that seasons like 2019-20 are not helpful for anyone. I don’t know if guys like Butcher and Hischier regressed or it the season was just a trainwreck. I don’t know if Hughes is a bust or if he just had no chance in this dumpster fire. I don’t know if P.K. is cooked, or if being the #1 defender on an awful team would make anyone look bad. Being terrible hurts player development, and it hurts your ability to assess. So, approaching this with the attitude that we’d like to actually get a few of these holes plugged, let’s look at what the Devils have done.
Tom Fitzgerald seems, to me, to have approached the draft from a somewhat need-based perspective. The efficacy of that philosophy notwithstanding, it did land us a scoring winger, hopefully for a long time, in Alexander Holtz. He may not immediately slide into Palms role (he’s obligated to finish his SHL season, but may come over when it’s done), but we do also have Jesper Bratt who is an underrated shooter and a much-improved defensive forward. So I think that, between Palmieri still being here, Holtz being added, and Bratt getting significantly more minutes, we’ve addressed this one for now.
Top-4 Defender / “Defensive” defender:
Depending on what your assessment of Ryan Murray is, you could argue that the Devils have addressed either one or both of these next two “needs”. Murray is a top 4 defender who averaged around 20 minutes per game over the last 3 seasons, which included significant penalty killing time. He is a neutral offensive player with positive defensive impacts, very strong PK ability, and surprising transition efficiency for someone like him. He will slot in nicely into the Andy Greene spot. I don’t know what our defense will look like, but I think that Subban, Severson, Murray, Butcher, probably make up the top 4 and then Smith, Carrick, Walsh, and Bahl may tussle over the last two spots. Regardless, I’m not sure you can classify anything else here as a “need”.
The next need that had yet to be addressed was that of the backup goaltender. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how desperate the need for goaltending is and how to address it. When I started writing this article, we had done nothing. I scrapped a paragraph of whining though because this happened. The Devils add Corey Crawford (who is still a borderline starting-caliber goaltender) to the team at a short-term, moderate deal (2-year, $3.9M AAV). He bring stability to what’s been an erratic position, cup experience to a team with almost none, and veteran leadership to one of the youngest rosters in the NHL. This hole was filled, emphatically.
That brings us to the last “need.” Rooney and Hayden are gone, Coleman was traded, Zajac is gonna be playing mahjong at a home soon, and we don’t really have natural replacements. Now, Rooney and Hayden were not particularly talented (Hayden was VERY not talented), but on a team that refused to hold on to leads, these guys saw increased ice time late because they were some of the only ones that the coaching staff felt they could rely on not to give up the lead. And you know what’s infuriating? They were right! The Devils top 3 skaters in terms of goals against rate (GA/60) when leading were Kevin Rooney (0.39), John Hayden (1.63), and Andy Greene (1.64). Their top 3 skaters in terms of goal share (GF%) were Rooney (67.5%). Hayden (60.1%), and Coleman (52.8%). Those same 3 were best in terms of xGA/60 too, so it likely wasn’t a goaltending fluke. For a team that couldn’t hold a lead if their lives depended on it last season, we sure don’t seem poised to fix that problem in 2020-21 — all of our most effective “closers” are gone.
So that’s where things stand. What can we do about them? Well, as of this writing, the only thing the Devils have clearly not done is sign a defensively competent forward and, maybe one more NHL depth defender. I’ll give a few possibilities here, fully acknowledging that it my be obsolete by the time you read this. If we want the defender, John wrote an article about acquiring Slater Koekkoek — and underused, highly efficient back from Chicago. He’s since gone unqualified and is available for unrestricted free agency. Another couple options could be Erik Gustafsson (if we want to go offense) or Troy Stecher (defensive).
The forward spot is really the last true remaining hole (outside of just generally adding talent all over the roster). I loved Nick Cousins and Vinnie Hinistroza for the two-way forward position in this section, but they were both signed after I wrote paragraphs extolling their virtues (so goes free agency blogging). Some of my runner-ups were guys like Johan Larsson and Lucas Wallmark who don’t penalty kill, but have each had consistently positive impacts in their own end. When we start looking at guys that can penalty kill AND defend at 5v5, the well runs dry. Guys like Nick Shore and Mattias Janmark are good 5v5, but not on the PK; and some solid PKers like Joakim Nordstrom are not particularly effective at 5v5.
Personally, given the Devils history of PK excellence and the hope for institutional memory serving as a buoy for the unit, I’d rather address the 5v5 issue. The modern analytical direction would be Johan Larsson who is a positive both offensively and defensively, but especially defensively where he’s been worth +9 GAR of value the past two seasons according to Evolving Hockey (+1 of which was PK). Janmark would be the runner-up for that line of thinking. If you want the less analytical approach, you may prefer Nick Shore who is, generally, not a valuable player. but is excellent at closing. Among the 641 NHL skaters that played 300+ minutes with the lead, he had the 9th lowest GA/60_Rel and the 14th lowest xGA/60_Rel (via NaturalStatTrick) — he’d be a true Hayden/Rooney replacement.
Concluding Thoughts and Your Thoughts
This is what’s left for the Devils, outside of retaining their own RFAs, specifically Bratt and Blackwood, which I absolutely expect them to do. If we think we’re close to ready, we could also go after adding talent up and down the lineup, perhaps by offer sheeting or trading for an RFA (Cernak was a popular candidate), but as far as the glaring holes, we’re most of the way there.
What are your thoughts? Do you think we need to add more? How do you feel about where Fitzgerald has us right now? Do you like/dislike any of the players I mentioned? Who else do you think could fill those roles from the free agency pool?
Thanks, as always, for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below!