A lot of Devils have been rumored to be on the trade block lately. From Andreas Johnsson and MacKenzie Blackwood, to Pavel Zacha and PK Subban. Some of these players will actually be traded. One name has me more conflicted than these others though. As you may have guessed based on the title for this blog post, that player is Damon Severson.
This is somewhat painful for me to write. Severson has been one of my favorite Devils since joining the team in 2013-14. One of the few bright spots promising a light at the end of the tunnel during some of the worst years of this franchise. When the Devils weren’t just on a decline into mediocrity and then just plain old suckiness, they were doing it while having little to nothing in the way of prospects and young players to look forward to. There was a time when Alexander Urbom being put on waivers was seen as a near fireable offense from fans on here (not gonna lie, I may have been in that camp at the time... we all have our moments) and their prize forward prospect would go on to play less than 150 NHL games. But Severson, despite being jerked around by John Hynes, and never reaching the heights some of us hoped for him after his rookie season, nevertheless became a really good top-4 defensemen, even when he wasn’t used as such. And so, the potential departure of the Devils longest tenured player (that’s pretty crazy) is something I am coming to terms with, but not something I’m very happy about.
Why the Devils should Keep Severson
Some fans dislike Severson for the half-dozen or so bone-headed, lazy, or what-are-you-thinking plays type plays he makes each season. While I admit this can make him frustrating to watch at times, the handful of brain-farts he has each season is far, far outweighed by the countless smart reads he makes each game to end defensive zone shifts and help quickly transition the puck to offense. Not to mention his offensive ability, which, while not quite elite, particularly when factoring in the power-play, is well above average. In recent seasons, Severson has become a regular on the penalty kill as well, and can hold his own in this facet of the game.
About a month ago, former All About the Jersey writer CJ Tutoro wrote a column titled: Damon Severson is one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL for Infernal Access. And while he clearly meant for the title to be inflammatory, he presents the argument for why he’s been such a valuable player for the Devils, and why I’m loathe to trade him, very well.
In addition to just being an all-around good hockey player, Severson is also very durable and has not missed more than a handful of games since his rookie season, when he suffered a fracture when blocking a shot. While health has a large component of luck involved, if Severson continues to remain durable it is reasonable to expect him to age fairly gracefully, which will become an important point later on.
Severson, as you can see in the chart above, is used as a top-pairing defensemen and performs well in those minutes. And while the presence of a healthy Hamilton eases the burden somewhat on the right side of the blue-line, Severson is the Devils ice-time leader by over 2 minutes per game. Trading away someone who plays as much as he does and is actually good in that ice-time would leave a hole in the line-up that would be virtually impossible to replace, let alone upgrade upon.
If you are set on trading Severson, you have to ask yourself, how do the Devils improve, or at least not get significantly worse, by doing so? They need to replace those minutes. And it’s not going to be through the prospect cupboard. The only right-handed defenseman close to being ready for NHL minutes is Rielly Walsh, who has yet to even earn a call-up and whose ceiling is likely Ty Smith, but slower and with a better shot.
Free agency is definitely not the answer either. Looking at this summer’s class of right-handed defensemen, you have Letang (35 years old and probably stays in Pittsburgh), John Klingburg (doesn’t play defense and his game has been trending down for a few seasons now), Josh Manson (big, physical defensemen are notorious for aging gracefully into their 30’s), Colin Miller (who I guess could be a good, cheap Subban replacement, but not someone you really want playing big minutes), and PK Subban is the only other UFA to break 19 minutes of TOI/gm. Things go downhill pretty quick from there.
That leaves a trade. This is likely the best option for a Severson replacement, and I will go into this more in the next section.
There are a lot of good reasons to keep Severson. He’s a very strong 5 on 5 player, he can hold his own in special teams situations, he is durable, and he is able to do all of this while playing big minutes and against the other team’s best players. So why even consider trading him?
Why the Devils Should Trade Severson
Being a good GM means having to make tough decisions and accepting that sometimes you are going to make the smart decision and it’s still going to blow up in your face and vis versa. You may take a big risk and have everyone call you a genius for what was essentially a lucky toss of the dice. What Tom Fitzgerald has to now weigh, is how far in the future does he see the Devils window for contention opening, and does he still think Severson will be a useful player when it does. Additionally, if the answer to the last question is yes, is Severson interested in staying in New Jersey, and what will it cost to retain his services?
If Fitzgerald decides Severson doesn’t fit the Devils timeline, then obviously moving him now would be the right call. Severson is 27 and will be entering his 29 year-old season at the start of his next contract. Since he will likely be due for a raise, re-signing Severson means accepting that the Devils will be paying him more money while his on-ice value diminishes. It is impossible to know how many good years Severson has left in him. It could be 7 or it could be 2 and neither would shock me. But on average, defensemen start to decline pretty quickly after 30 years of age. Earlier I brought up health as being an important aspect of longevity but this is far from certain. Just like living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t preclude someone from getting cancer, it just lowers the risk of certain cancers to some degree, Severson being a durable player doesn’t mean his body won’t break down or his skill won’t decline in a few years regardless of how healthy he is now.
The other part of the equation is does Severson even want to stay in New Jersey? He might want a change of scenery, or maybe he is fed up with all the losing and doesn’t have faith in management to turn things around in the next few years. I wouldn’t hold either position against the man.
Finally, what are other team’s offering? So far, I’ve been looking at this situation in isolation. That’s mostly because usually when a team trades a roster player at the deadline it’s for prospects and picks, not immediate impact players. That means that you could end up trading him for what amounts to be nothing if those future assets don’t work out. Or it could be for a player who is 5 years away from helping the Devils, which certainly wouldn’t be ideal. What if, on the other hand, the Devils got a young defensemen who is closer to being an impact player but is just not quite there yet. Similar to a Siegenthaler situation but on a different scale. For example, if Toronto offered up Timothy Liljegren along with another asset, that would be something to consider in my opinion. Someone who is excelling in sheltered minutes and is young enough to think they can still grow into a bigger role. It really all depends on what Severson’s trade value is.
Not a satisfying answer, I know, but as I have discussed, there are a ton of factors that go into a move like this. If you had to pin me down, I suppose I would lean towards keeping him. It is a risk either way, but the Devils are entering the phase of their rebuild where they need to actually start winning games, and soon. To me, that makes Severson more valuable than what the Devils would likely be offered in return for him.
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