With the New Jersey Devils signing and trading Damon Severson, signing Jesper Bratt, and working to convince Timo Meier to sign long-term, we are beginning to get a sense of what direction they’re heading in this offseason. The Devils core is in place and the future is bright. However, it doesn’t mean that Tom Fitzgerald’s work for the summer is anywhere close to being done.
One of the reasons why people are as high on the Devils as they are is their upside on the blueline. We got a taste of that in the playoffs with Luke Hughes looking very good in a small sample size. Hughes is expected to be on the Opening Night roster. 2022 2nd overall draft pick Simon Nemec might not be too far behind him after a successful debut season with the Utica Comets. Kevin Bahl showed a lot of promise as the season went on. Between the three of them and veteran holdovers Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino, and Brendan Smith, the Devils should have enough on the backend to where they’re comfortable letting Severson and Ryan Graves walk, right?
It’s certainly a logical plan on paper to let the veterans walk, use that money elsewhere on the roster, and replace them with higher upside rookies. It’s also a plan that comes with inherent risk.
Defensemen historically take a long time to develop. There will be growing pains with Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. We don’t even know with certainty that Nemec will be on the Opening Night roster. Bahl has upside as well, but its easy to forget he only has 66 games worth of NHL experience under his belt. Mistakes will be made. Also, unlike last year, the Devils aren’t quite as deep with NHL-ready (or close to ready) internal options after including Nikita Okhotiuk and Shakir Mukhamadullin in the Timo Meier trade. Graves (2nd on the Devils in ice time) and Severson (5th) played integral roles on the Devils penalty kill, and its fair to wonder how they’re going to effectively replace those tough minutes.
All of this raises the question whether the Devils should consider adding another depth defenseman for the hypothetical “what ifs” and to cover any contingencies. What if Nemec isn’t ready to make the team? What if key blueliners Jonas Siegenthaler or John Marino get injured? What if Kevin Bahl or Luke Hughes takes a step back? The Devils do have Brendan Smith as the extra defenseman at the moment and he would be the first man up under this doomsday scenario, but after watching Smith last season, is that actually what you want?
I believe the Devils should strongly consider adding another NHL-caliber body on the backend for these reasons. Prospects like Seamus Casey and Topias Vilen have upside but they’re not in the Devils NHL plans for 2023-24. Neither are AHL veterans like Reilly Walsh or Tyler Wotherspoon, assuming both are back in the organization (Walsh is an RFA, Wotherspoon is signed for next season). But you also don’t want to add a guy just for the sake of adding a guy. You want to add a guy who fits and/or brings more of an element the Devils are lacking.
We know the Devils like having defensemen who can skate. We know they like having size on the back end. They want defensemen who can move the puck. They could probably use a guy who brings a little bit of nasty on the back end, who can effective kill penalties, and who can actually.....(checks notes).....defend. Play defense. Clear the crease. It wouldn’t hurt having another guy on the Devils roster who has either been in a leadership role on a team, has played in a bunch of playoff games, or both. And given where the Devils are with the cap (especially once Meier is signed), they probably need this guy to be able to do all or most of this at or under $2.5M for a year or two, tops.
Let’s take a look at some of the defensemen who will be available on July 1 and see if any potentially make sense for the Devils to bring in. The Devils won’t be able to afford anyone in the Dmitry Orlov or Matt Dumba tier, and they might not be able to afford Radko Gudas either (although I’ll still talk about him), but they could probably find someone who might be a fit.
After beginning his NHL career with the Minnesota Wild, Carson Soucy played the last two seasons with the Seattle Kraken after coming over in the expansion draft.
Soucy, a left-handed defenseman, brings a large frame to the back end, measuring in at 6’5” and 208 lb. Soucy won’t contribute a ton offensively, but he makes up for it by being one of the better defensive defensemen in the NHL. He suppresses shots and denies zone entries, and he was a key cog in the Kraken’s penalty kill last season. He plays with physicality and will stand his ground in post-whistle scrums.
Soucy hasn’t played against top competition, but he wouldn’t necessarily need to on the Devils with Siegenthaler and Luke Hughes ahead of him on the theoretical internal depth chart. He will take his share of penalties, in part because he’s not afraid to drop the mitts. Overall though, Soucy is a good player who can help any team.
Daily Faceoff and AFP Analytics projects Soucy to get $2.5M AAV over 3 years, while Evolving-Hockey has him at $2.6M AAV over the same term. I think that’s a fair price for a player of this skillset, but I also think that’s probably a little too rich for the Devils. Soucy made $2.75M AAV this past season and is entering a thin free agent class, so he seems unlikely he’s taking a paycut. I have interest in this player, but I think he winds up going elsewhere for over $3M a season.
Scott Mayfield is a 9-year NHL veteran with the New York Islanders. Checking in at 6’5” and 220 lb, he’s coming off arguably the best year of his career, playing a whopping 21:02 for the Isles this past season. Mayfield was a workhorse for the Isles penalty kill, leading the way in ice time. Like Soucy, Mayfield is a defense-first defenseman. Unlike Soucy, he’s a RHD.
There is reportedly mutual interest between Mayfield and former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello for the veteran blueliner to stay in Elmont, so its possible he never makes it to July 1. It’s also possible that Lou operates in typical Lou fashion, agrees on a handshake deal, puts the signed contract away in his desk and finally files it with the league on the eve of training camp so the rest of the league doesn’t know how much cap space he has to work with.
Mayfield is projected for 3 years and $3.75M AAV, which would be far beyond what the Devils could afford.
Radko Gudas will be a very popular man in free agency.
Gudas (6’0”, 208 lb) is an 11 year NHL veteran, spending the last three seasons in Florida. A right-handed shot, he’s another defenseman I would quantify as defense-first. What separates Gudas from the rest of the group is his physicality. He’s known for toeing the line between clean and dirty with big hits and getting under the skin of the opposition. Gudas was a key contributor for the Panthers in their run to the Stanley Cup Final due to his heavy style of play. If you are entering the offensive zone and Gudas is there, prepare to pay the price. And if you are one who believes a big hit can spark the rest of the boys on the bench, Gudas is your guy.
If there is a downside to Gudas, he won’t contribute much offensively. He will occasionally cross that line and draw suspensions as a result. He’s also 33 years old, so I’m not entirely sure I’d want to commit multiple years to a player who throws his body around as much as Gudas does.
Unfortunately, the rest of the hockey world also has watched Gudas deliver these big hits. They’ve also seen Gudas play solid defensively in his own end and kill penalties for the Panthers. Nothing about Gudas or his style of play screams under the radar, which is bad news for a Devils team that might be interested in Gudas but can realistically only get him at a discount. Gudas does a lot of things that the proverbial 200 Hockey Men love. I could see him getting as much as 4 years and anywhere between $3.5 and 4M per year off of this playoff run. That is simply a contract that the Devils can not do.
Many people have been clamoring for the Devils to bring home one New Jersey native. Nobody is talking about another.
Connor Clifton (5’11”, 190 lb) is a free agent after playing the previous five seasons with the Boston Bruins. A native of Matawan, NJ, Clifton is another defensive defenseman with good mobility. He plays a gritty style and doesn’t let his smaller frame stop him from throwing the body around.
With Boston’s cap situation being as tight as any in the league and Clifton coming off of a rough postseason, it seems unlikely that he will be back in Boston.
Clifton posted career best numbers offensively this past season on a loaded Boston team, although I don’t consider him an offensive defenseman. He’s also smaller than the blueliner that Tom Fitzgerald has typically targeted the last few years while he has rebuilt the Devils defensive corps. He seems likely to sign a deal in the $3M range for multiple years, making him another defenseman who will likely price himself out of the Devils range.
I believe adding a depth defenseman is going to be important for the Devils for the reasons I pointed out earlier in this article. Injuries happen. Players might not be suited to specific, defined roles. Experience, or lack thereof, could turn out to be a very real problem as the season rolls on. The Devils currently lack quality depth options internally who are NHL-ready (aside from the obvious candidates). However, just going from this exercise, it is apparent that dipping into UFA for a quality option will be pricey and tie up valuable cap dollars for not only this season, but potentially future seasons as well.
I believe the best strategy for the Devils is to go into the season with what they have and if it becomes apparent you need a reinforcement on the backend, address that need via a rental trade at the deadline.
That’s not to say that the players profiled here aren’t useful or wouldn’t address a need, but we’re also talking about players who aren’t unique. There’s not much of a difference between these guys and whoever will be available in February. There’s certainly not enough of a difference where its worth splurging now to fill that need when the Devils should be able to get through the early portion of the regular season just fine.
By the time the trade deadline rolls around, they’ll have an idea whether or not they need another penalty killer or someone who is a shutdown defender for late-game situations. The Devils still have plenty of future draft capital to use, even though their second-round pick for next season is Sharks property at the moment. They have all of their 2025 picks and beyond. Trading a 3rd rounder or even a 2025 2nd rounder for a penalty-kill and defensive specialist is more than defensible for a team with title aspirations. Add in the fact that the teams that are sellers will become abundantly clear and there shouldn’t be much trouble convincing another team to retain 50% on an expiring contract, and this strategy is a no-brainer.
What if it turns out Luke Hughes takes the league by storm, Kevin Bahl continues to build on what he did last year, Simon Nemec makes the team and looks the part, and the Devils suffer no major injuries? The Devils will have saved some money and resources. Sometimes, doing nothing is the right move.
That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see things differently, or have some thoughts on a different player not mentioned. Please feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.
(Player cards provided by The Athletic)