I thought about a variety of titles for this article: “Finding some Help for Ty Smith and Damon Severson”, “Beginning Steps to Ensure MacKenzie Blackwood Doesn’t Ask for a Trade” and “Please Can We Finally get a Marquee Defender back in New Jersey?” These three were just some of the possibilities that ran through my head before starting to write this piece for today. The issue is nothing new, so let’s just jump right in and start looking at some options to begin fixing the New Jersey Devils’ defense.
Continuing with CJ’s pattern from yesterday, I’m going to break down player choices by need first and then by price. While there are less categories today, we still have 1) Defensive Defenders and 2) Two-Way Defenders with three options in each: Luxury ($5M+), Moderate ($2-5M), and Bargain (<$2M). Prices as they were yesterday are based off Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections.
As a small aside before I break down the options and choices, I felt the Devils have enough defenders with offensive skillsets, and two-way defenders bring some form of offensive skill, so I decided not to pursue pure offensive defenders in free agency. Additionally, next Thursday, we are going to be taking a look at the big fish in the defensive free agency sea, which if added, would bring even more offense from the back end. The biggest actual nissue is defending, so let’s try to fix that with these selections.
Okay, I know this may seem crazy, but hear me out for a second. The only defenders who are projected to sign contracts that meet the “luxury” criteria that CJ and I are working with this week are as follows: Brandon Montour, Dougie Hamilton (who is the topic of next week’s piece if you haven’t guessed already), Alec Martinez and, if you’re willing to drop a shade under $5 million to 4.9, Alex Goligoski. That’s it.
None of those guys are pure defenders, but there are some good options available in the other tiers.
Moderate: Dmitry Kulikov (Expected Contract: 3 years, $3.4 million per)
If the mutual interest exists, the Devils could always just bring back a familiar face from the 2021 season in Dmitry Kulikov. In a season where most things that could go wrong did, Kulikov did a good job supporting whichever goalie was behind him, and while there were some hiccups, I feel overall Kulikov provided what he was advertised to bring: a defensive physical presence who helped to get play moving in the other direction. Did I mention that he did this on a team that he joined as a free agent with a limited training camp and no preseason?
The familiarity here could be a bigger upside than we know, as a full training camp and more time around his teammates could lead to an even stronger showing from Kulikov in 2021-22. He’s also one of the few names in this price range who bring a positive Defensive Value/60 (stat courtesy of Evolving-Hockey any time that you see it in this article) at 0.33, making him a player who brings a positive difference to a team when he’s out on the ice.
Kulikov did have his struggles, and he’s not really much more than a second pairing defender at best, but I still think that he’s a viable target and while only turning 31 at the start of the season, would also bring some veteran leadership qualities. If the Devils do circle around and bring him back, the important thing is that they need to bring in more talent in addition to Kulikov. In short, signing Dmitry would be a good thing if and only if he’s part of an influx of talent coming in to fix the back end.
Budget: Sam Morin (Expected Contract: 1 year, $750,000)
An interesting option as a Group 6 UFA, Morin is one of the youngest UFA defenders available, as he will just turn 26 in a couple of weeks. The biggest plus about bringing in a guy like Morin is just that: he’s big. The Devils have trouble separating their opponents from the puck in their own zone, but a guy who is listed at 6’6” and 202 lbs should have less issue with doing that. The former first round pick won’t pitch in a lot of points, but if he can keep the puck out of his own net, then he’ll be more than worth his expected contract.
Morin comes with a lot of the same concerns as Murray in that he has had trouble staying healthy. Additionally, in his time in Philadelphia, he was moved to left wing for a time period, as the team did not seem happy with some of his play. For someone whose style of play revolves around using his large frame to his advantage in separating his opponent from the puck, that’s not the most ringing of endorsements.
Keep in mind, however, that the Second Rate Rivals defending was an absolute mess last season. Additionally, of all of the options in this category, I felt Morin would be the most appealing due to his size, age and still having some potential that could be untapped. Additionally, if he doesn’t work out, the Devils could waive him while trying a different internal option called up from the AHL, and then cut ties at the end of the season.
Luxury: Brandon Montour (Expected Contract: 5 years, $5.5 million per)
Out of the remaining high-end, non-Hamilton names, Montour’s I think might intrigue me the most. At just 27 years of age, Montour on a five year deal would fit nicely with what the Devils are trying to build overall. He won’t bring the point production that Ty Smith or Damon Severson does, but he does bring a solid effort and good amount of skill in each end of the ice.
He’s definitely a step up over a lot of the talent being iced by the Devils last season. While he had a negative Defensive Value/60 of -0.1, we should not forget that he played most of last season on an awful Buffalo Sabres team. The only other negative I can really pull here is that he’s a right handed shooter and the Devils already have two of those slated to be in their Top 4, but hey I’d rather have that problem than not.
Additionally NHL.com lists him as “offensive-minded) but every other site I’ve viewed seems to view him as at least competent defensively, so I made the judgment call to put him into this category. Overall, it just is not a very strong free agent class for top tier shutdown defensive players, and the Devils simply need more talent. Montour would be a good age range fit and again would increase the talent on the team’s back end.
Moderate: Mike Reilly (Expected Contract: 3 years, $3.8 million per)
Falling into the moderate tier due to his expected contract, Reilly is a guy who I could see getting a LOT of attention in this free agent class. He put up a career high 27 points (all assists) last season when he split time between Ottawa and Boston. Reilly is another ne of those players who traditionally chips in points here and there while also being steady to excellent in his own zone.
More evidence of his defensive ability is his 0.14 DefVal/60, meaning again that the team fares better defending with him on the ice than off. Another 27 year old player here (turning 28 in two weeks), Reilly again would fit well with the age of the current Devils’ team, and they could do a lot worse than paying him $3.8 million each year for the next three seasons.
The questions with Reilly come down to durability and whether he’s an every night guy or not. Looking at his stats, prior to this season where he only missed one game (which was probably due to his being trade), his career high in games was 57 in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Perhaps he had some bad luck, or was still finding himself as a player in the NHL, but this could be something that steers teams away.
Budget: Ian Cole (Expected Contract: 1 year, $1.2 million)
Not a prolific offensive player in terms of his numbers, Cole is a guy more known for his defending who still brings some offensive skills to the table. He struggled a bit statistically after joining the Wild through trade from Colorado, but still managed a good season on a team that made a surprise playoff appearance.
Cole would be a budget choice who would have value to the Devils whether his offense is starting to dry up or not. Even if he is no longer a 15-25 point per season guy, he’s only 32 and his defensive game has not dried up. Cole also brings some size and veteran presence, both of which the team could use more of as they enter 2021-22. There's definitely stronger options out there, but Ian Cole on a cheap, one year deal could be a smart, shrewd offseason signing.
Who to Sign?
If the Devils miss out on Hamilton, I think they should probably try to sign three of the players above to round out the roster. I know that number seems highly unlikely, but it’s time to do something drastic to fix the back end! If this were some kind of dream where we could get any of the names listed above, I would take Montour, Reilly and Kulikov. This would allow the Devils to add those players alongside Severson, Smith and P.K. Subban (with Jonas Siegenthaler as the seventh defender in this case) to form a fairly respectable core. At the very least, it would be better than what the team was trotting out by the end of last season.
In a more realistic world, the Devils would be lucky to get one guy from each price tier, no matter their play style. In that case, I would say bringing in Montour, Kulikov and Morin is not out of the question. The Devils biggest need above all else is to keep the puck out of their own net; that’s literally what Kulikov and Morin are supposed to do. Additionally Kulikov and Montour can get play going in the other direction and hopefully help to keep it there. Montour and Morin fit the age range of the core, and Kulikov brings veteran leadership with his length of NHL tenure.
It’s not a perfect group by any means, but it’s one that could allow the team to be more competitive while still giving time for some prospects (such as Kevin Bahl and Michael Vukojevic) to be developed further without rushing them into full time NHL action. it could be worse; the Devils could always go and re-sign everyone’s favorite player, Matt Tennyson.
One Final Thought
Adam Larsson is out there and is another player who would bring a positive Defensive Value/60 to the team. Imagine if the Devils did bring him back; it would be like getting the assets from trading Taylor Hall to Arizona for free! (Note: this final thought is not intended to be taken seriously outside of the part about possibly bringing Larsson back for his positive defensive impact.)
Which names that were profiled above do you believe would be a good fit for the Devils? Who could you realistically see the team being in on and/or signing this summer? Any names you feel might be sleepers among this year’s UFA defensemen? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!