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Can the Devils Defense be Fixed Before Next Season?

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The Devils have a defensive group right now that doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence. Are there options on the market this summer to make things better and can the team potentially improve the defense through other avenues?

New Jersey Devils v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils are not a good hockey team this season. This we know. While the results have improved marginally of late, their underlying numbers remain subpar, and the team is headed for a bottom five or six finish at year’s end. John explored how not good the team remains earlier this week, particularly with respect to the defense, which is yielding a huge amount of shots and chances under interim coach Alain Nasreddine, offsetting simultaneous gains in their offensive output. The question many have posed for this Devils defense, which has bled goals over the past two seasons with glaring mistakes and missed assignments, is how does it get fixed?

Last summer, when the team brought in former Norris Trophy-winner PK Subban, the hope was that he would stabilize the top pairing and have a trickle-down positive impact down the lineup. Subban has never looked right in New Jersey, though, as he lacks fluidity and looks downright wooden at times. As for the rest of the lineup, problems persist. Sami Vatanen has put up points but is often seeing things head the wrong direction when he is on the ice. Will Butcher has been fine but has endured some defensive struggles. Damon Severson has gained the trust of the coaches (and has been highly productive of late) but continues to suffer from his trademark miscues. Andy Greene holds his own and plays strong on the penalty kill but has clear limitations with his age at this point. Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick are Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick. On the whole, it is not a very strong group.

On top of this, the Devils are poised to lose one, if not two, of the viable NHL defenders from that bunch, either before the trade deadline or during this offseason. With Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene both on expiring deals heading into the summer, one or both could be gone by this fall’s training camp. The potential benefits of getting deadline returns for them and the need for upgrades even with them around notwithstanding, it means the Devils could have that much more to figure out in free-agency this summer. Vatanen and Greene are far from irreplaceable at this point in their careers, but if they depart, the Devils will need to add as many as three NHL defensemen in the offseason to fill out a solid lineup.

The Devils do have potential internal solutions to their issues, or at least viable options to fill NHL roster spots. Chief among those options is Ty Smith, who has been working on rounding out his defensive game in the WHL and has also returned to offensive dominance of late. Even if Smith proves he’s ready to the organization this time around, though, he probably makes the most sense as a third-pairing defenseman to start the season. Other potential options for the NHL from within are Harvard junior standout Reilly Walsh and recent acquisition Kevin Bahl, though the latter is probably a bit of a longshot to see significant NHL time next season and the former will have to sign and forgo his senior season at Harvard before anything can happen there. With that in mind, we can probably pencil Smith in as a third-pairing LHD, leaving, two substantial holes in the top-six D still. Let’s take a look at the projected lineup and the options to fill the holes this offseason in free agency.

Lineup:

[vacant] - Damon Severson

Will Butcher - P.K. Subban

Ty Smith - [vacant]

Per Cap Friendly, here are the UFA defensemen potentially available as of right now:

LHD (ordered by ATOI): Jake Muzzin, Jay Bouwmeester, Zdeno Chara, Erik Gustafsson, Torey Krug, TJ Brodie, Andy Greene, Ron Hainsey, Dimitry Kulikov, Brenden Dillon, Joakim Ryan, Nick Holden, Jon Merrill, Joel Edmundson, Andrej Sekera, Michael Del Zotto

RHD: Alex Pietrangelo, Sami Vatanen, Tyson Barrie, Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, Cody Ceci, Dylan DeMelo, Justin Schultz, Chris Tanev, Kevin Shattenkirk, Deryk Engellend, Justin Braun

I think, based on this year’s performances, you could argue that the Devils also need a top-pair RHD, but I figured the odds of landing a top guy on both sides is a bit of a longshot. Alex Pietrangelo is the obvious top dog on this market. He is an elite defenseman in this league and is likely to be paid handsomely for a long time. I’m skeptical that a guy with his options and leverage (assuming he doesn’t just re-up with STL) is likely to land in this situation in New Jersey. It’s a nice dream, but I’m skeptical that it’s really possible. Things then thin out pretty quickly on the right side. Shattenkirk is actually second in GAR among all FA defensemen as he has rediscovered his game on a much better Tampa team, but whether he’s worth a shot with the money he might command after the flameout in New York is hard to say.

Given the respective options and the personnel the Devils have in-house, the play may be to try to nab one of the options on the left side. Assuming Greene leaves, the Devils will have Will Butcher and Ty Smith as their left side options. The right side of Severson and Subban, while still not overly ideal, seems a little more fit to occupy the top two spots on their side. Of the options potentially available, I’d say Krug, Muzzin, and Brodie are probably the best options. Krug, given his offensive output, will probably be the most expensive and hardest to secure (if he leaves Boston), leaving one of Brodie and Muzzin as potential targets if he can’t be landed. Brodie makes a lot of sense, as he’s been a solid all-around even-strength guy for a while and fills some of the veteran leadership void left by Greene and Vatanen if they depart.

As for the right side, barring a Pietrangelo-related miracle, like I said the options are a little bit thin. Justin Braun has been solid in a third-pairing role for the Flyers this year, so he might be a strong depth add. Dylan DeMelo and Brendan Dillon also are having solid seasons in the underlying numbers as #4/5 types on crummy teams. Pairing a guy like Dillon with a rookie Ty Smith for a third paring could represent a nice combo. Barrie is out there as well, but if improving defense is what you’re after, he likely is not the answer. The Devils really being able to improve this personnel group significantly hinges on being able to add Pietrangelo, or somebody from that upper Krug/Muzzin/Brodie tier on the left side. If the Devils strike out on the upper free agent market, they will have to add depth where they can and hope for a big rookie year from Smith.

There are, of course, a couple of x-factors here unrelated to the defensive personnel, though. One has been touched on often by CJ, and that is the goaltending. Its arguable that the rogues gallery of goaltending options outside of MacKenzie Blackwood these past two years has done more to sink this team than anything else. Corey Masisak of The Athletic recently touched on it in this tweet, which is frankly pretty stunning:

With the win last night, the Devils have won about half of the games that MacKenzie Blackwood has started the past two seasons (28W, 29L). With someone else in net, they have THIRTY-THREE more losses than wins (24W, 57L). Between Schneider (6-19-5), Kinkaid (15-18-6), Domingue (3-6-2), and a cameo from Senn (0-1-0), the Devils have absolutely been torpedoed by bad goaltending when Blackwood is not in the net. If the Devils can go out and get a half-decent partner for a tandem with Blackwood, the team’s fortunes and the perception of the defense could change quickly.

The other factor is obviously coaching. John showed in the post I referenced earlier (and general observation of the team will agree), that the playing style has changed drastically under Nasreddine, with the team opting for a much more wide open style that results in them absorbing a lot more chances at the defensive end. If the Devils install a good coach with a proven system like say, a Gerard Gallant (or perhaps a Bruce Boudreau), we could see a team with a lot fewer blown assignments and more coherent play in their own end without changing the personnel at all.

So is the Devils defense fixable? From a strict personnel standpoint, I think there is clearly some work to do with only so many options over the summer to do it. The team could, of course, also swing a blockbuster trade somehow, though it’s tough to predict how Tom Fitzgerald (or whoever) will approach their business at this point. I think a turnaround is more possible than people seem to be thinking though, if only because there is so much room for improvement in their goaltending and some of the strong coaching options out there right now. If the Devils nab a Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss to pair with Blackwood next season and bring in a coach like Boudreau, it’s possible this team could be viewed completely differently even with only minor tweaks to the group of players here. Things do feel bleak here sometimes, but this team is conceivably just a few good decisions from writing a completely different story next season.