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Revisiting Free Agency: Defenders

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The Devils need help on defense. We’ve tried the draft, we’ve tried trades, no dice. Is it time to spend big to get a known quantity?

Vancouver Canucks v St Louis Blues - Game Five Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils need help on the blueline. We’ve addressed it several times on this blog. Must substantially, Gerard targeted 6 of them in July. I’m going to take a slightly different approach. Fans (and GMs, for that matter) all have different ways of approaching free agency. Typically, given that there is some overpayment and the players are 28+, teams that go big in free agency are often looking to plug specific holes so that they can become ready to contend — think when Vegas acquired Paul Stastny so that they had a center other than William Karlsson. Sometimes, though, teams just use it to acquire talent that would not be otherwise attainable, even if they already have the position pretty well covered — Toronto went out and got John Tavares despite already having Auston Matthews and William Nylander, two of the best young centers in the game, because ... it’s John Tavares. And other teams just build their entire damn franchise through free agency because they aren’t good enough at hockey to do things themselves so they just empty their war chests at whatever that years shiny new toy some other franchise drafted and developed is, that way they can lose in the ECF as soon as possible. You guys can figure out who that last team is.

So that brings us to this year’s Devils team. The way I’m going to approach this issue is by asking specific questions about what you as a GM might want to do in free agency, and then propose some potential players that could solve that.

1) Get a True #1 Defender for Right Now

This one is easy because there’s pretty much just the one answer and we all already know what it is so rather than string you along for the whole article I’ll just say it since I already got your click — it’s Alex Pietrangelo.

Let me get the typical analytics refrain out of the way here at the onset. When building a long-term contender, it’s generally not advisable to dole out huge sums of money and cap space over a long period of time for players that are already 30+ years old. As such, I’m not inclined to do this. Now that we’ve gotten the logical part out of the way, I should also say that if I found out that the Devils signed him, I’d probably be very excited because I’m a human with feelings. And, most important, despite projections for how bad a deal this would be down the line, Alex Pietrangelo is, at the moment, very good.

His a neutral impact in his own end (1% more xGs allowed than expected), but a heavy positive offensively. He’s done this by improving his game in all 3 zones. His offensive and defensive GAR (via Evolving-Hockey.com) were both the highest they’ve been since 2012, and he’s been an efficient transition defender in all three zones as tracked by Corey Sznajder.

So, is he likely to be worth the contract by year 5? Maybe even earlier? No — his deal will certainly outlive him just as P.K. Subban’s did. But you are getting what you pay for in the moment — a true #1 defender.

2) An Andy Greene Replacement

What do I mean by “Andy Greene replacement”? Surely I don’t think we should get another defender closer to his 50th birthday than his peak performance age. Of course not, that would be silly. But as it stands right now, Andy Greene, in all his geriatric glory, has left a gaping hole in our lineup. Will Butcher was demoted to the 3rd pairing last season (facepalm) and Sami Vatanen was traded, so that means that out top 4 is really just a top 2 (Severson/Subban) and they are both righties. Vatanen and Greene were also both penalty killers — Greene, one of the most prolific killers of the analytics era.

Pickings are slim this offseason. If you want someone who doesn’t kill a ton of penalties, but might be good at it, we could bring back an old friend in Jon Merrill. Merrill has been worth 12.6 GAR of value on his even-strength defense alone and would certainly be able to fill the 5v5 Greene void, and is not a complete stranger to the penalty kill. If you want the reverse — someone who kills plenty of penalties even though they’re not particularly good at — we could go for a bigger name in TJ Brodie. But he actually plays on his off-hand so I’m not sure that fixes the 5v5 problem.

One possible solution could be Ben Hutton. Hutton is 6’2’’ 206lbs and, after a hiccup in 2018-19, found his defensive game in 2020 and has become a positive impact player. He also is an excellent penalty killer — he’s contributed 4 goals of value over the past 3 seasons with his shorthanded play, which sees the opposing team generate 13% less chances than expected. The Kings will probably look to re-sign him, but if he squeezes through then he’d be an unorthodox, but potentially effective plug ‘n play for Andy’s spot.

3) A Partner for Butcher

I did a long piece on this over at Infernal Access, but the simple version is that Butcher was one of the most efficient defenders in the NHL when he played with Ben Lovejoy and he doesn’t seem affected by tougher competition or more minutes. So, given his post-Lovejoy regression, it might be worth exploring a possible Rev successor to pair with Will. The important feature of this pairing partner is that they have to be defensively responsible to mask Butcher’s deficiencies in that area. Fortunately, they don’t need to be particularly offensively gifted at all because Butcher does a great job at dominating the puck in transition to cover up those problems.

A popular pick might be Radko Gudas. Gudas does seem like a good fit, but his career arc does not look good. His defensive skills peaked in 2016-17 and have been falling precipitously ever since (as has his TOI, indicating coaches agree).

He’s now become a starkly negative impact defensively. He was excellent at preventing net-mouth shots up until now, so it’s possible that this was an outlier, but as he enters his age-30 season, I have my doubts.

Someone you might not expect recommended by an Corsi-believer like myself is Justin Braun. Braun has a -1 GAR over the past 3 seasons but the breakdown is something truly special. He’s contributed -12 goals of value offensively over the past 3 seasons — the 3rd worst in the NHL in that span — but is tied (with Andy Greene, interestingly) for 40th in defensive value (side note: Gudas and Merrill are 14th and 15th in that metric). He also has some experience as a borderline top pairing defender so, if Butcher is up to the task this year, Braun may be someone whose TOI can be ramped up with him to some degree.

4) An Investment: The Poached RFAs

This category requires cooperation with another franchises and so I generally find these recommendations to be fairly unlikely, but given the buzz in Armchair GM forums I think it’s worth addressing. And, unlike some of the other recommendations, these two do have the benefit of being 1) actually good players, 2) on teams that don’t need them, and 3) are on cap crunches.

The first candidate here is Vince Dunn. Vince Dunn’s pitch was that he is an analytics darling — positive impacts all over the ice — and if the Blues decided they wanted to re-sign Pietrangelo, than Dunn would be a cap casualty. In recent days, the Pietrangelo extension has fizzled, but there is still a chance that he re-signs. If he does, it’s worth knowing what could be had in Vince Dunn.

Vince Dunn is the 14th most valuable defender in the NHL over the past two seasons despite having played only 3rd line minutes in that time. He is one of only 9 defencemen to be a positive value in all 9 GAR categories (Pietrangelo and the 2nd player in this section are also among the 9). He is the prototype of a defender who will grow into a new role which could be with the Devils if they’re willing to take the chance.

Another one that could grow into a top 4 role, perhaps with Will Butcher, whom he complements well, is Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak. Cernak’s pitch is that he is a young skater with very good defensive impacts.

Hockeyviz disagrees on his even-strength defense but acknowledges his PK dominance. And that gets me into the main reason why Cernak probably generates so much buzz. He’s obviously not a #1 defender, but he fits every other description I’ve given in this article. He’s a right-handed defender who kills penalties and is responsible in his own end and has the potential to grow into a substantial role. As I said at the onset of this section, we’d need cooperation from Tampa. But if we got it — he seems like he’d be the square peg we need for the square hole.

Your Thoughts

Which of these approaches makes the most sense to you? Is there someone who I didn’t mention that you think would fit one of these roles better? Is there another role that you would be looking for heading into free agency? Do you think the Devils should go big at Pietrangelo? Do you think they should attempt to acquire one of the RFAs in a trade or via offer sheet?

Thanks, as always, for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below!