Defense has always been the hallmark of the New Jersey Devils franchise. Ever since the team rose to relevance in the 1990s, the back end has been the focal point to lead to the team’s success. While that might be less true in more recent years, the er... “lean years” showed us the importance of having strong defenders. You can’t win in today’s NHL with a defense full of veterans who are slowing down, nor can you win with a lineup full of rookies. It has to be a healthy balance - too far in one direction or the other, and opposing teams will find ways to exploit it.
Which leads me to today’s topic as to why the Devils should at least think about re-signing Ryan Graves beyond this season. If we take into account the Devils left defense depth beyond this season, they still have Jonas Siegenthaler leading the way on a team friendly deal. After him, however, things get a lot murkier. There’s promise in terms of youth, as Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk have both shown flashes of strong play. Additionally, Brendan Smith is signed for next season, giving the Devils more depth on the left side. Fans (and probably the organization as well) also expect Luke Hughes to be competing for a spot as soon as next season. So the Devils should be fine and can let Graves walk in free agency, right?
Well, while there’s four names other than Siegenthaler above, the problem lies in which one of those names you can trust on the second pairing. Bahl and Okhotiuk have not shown enough consistency to be given that large of a role next season. While they could eventually grow into that role, neither one has shown just yet that they can take on as many minutes as Graves does as soon as next season. While Smith has been mostly solid on the third pair (boneheaded penalties aside) he’s also not a second pairing defender any longer at this stage of his career. I could see Smith, Bahl and Okhotiuk all battling for the left side spot on the third pairing next season.
Which leads us to Luke Hughes. As talented and promising of a prospect as Hughes is, I don’t think throwing him right on to the second pairing, even with as steady of a partner as John Marino, is the right move for his development. Even if Hughes shows NHL readiness, it would make more sense to have him on the third pair to acclimate him to the competition level of the league. Could he maybe be ready for second pair duty by the middle or end of the season? Sure, but he could just as easily demonstrate that he needs time in the AHL instead.
Graves would be a solid choice to re-sign, as he plays roughly the same amount of minutes per game as Damon Severson (the other UFA on defense) while also playing the side with greater need. His CF% is above 50%, as it is with all defenders on the team this season, and his other advanced stats are good for a second pairing player. Graves is also posting these numbers while playing roughly two and a half minutes more per game than Smith. He’s a more ideal fit for the second pairing than any of the other players mentioned, so the Devils re-signing him is a no-brainer decision, right?
Well, back to Luke Hughes here for why this is a problem. As an unrestricted free agent at the ripe age of 28 at season’s end, Graves will be looking for a long-term deal that will see him get paid. The Devils, with money already committed to Siegenthaler, probably won’t want to pay Graves long term as well, especially if he puts himself in a spot where it blocks Hughes from playing higher in the lineup. Even if Graves only asks for around $5 million, the Devils won’t want to pay that money to someone who will within a season or two of signing the contract be playing on their third pair. If Graves is willing to come back short term, or on a contract similar to his current one, then I think there’s another tough discussion to be had this summer.
What are your thoughts on the Ryan Graves situation; do the Devils need to re-sign him? Are you concerned that he would be blocking other young players from coming into the lineup? Do you feel the Devils could survive on the left side with some combination of Siegenthaler and two of Smith/Bahl/Okhotiuk? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!