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New Jersey Devils UFA Profile: Damon Severson

The longest-tenured Devil is due to hit free agency this year, and his path to return is a narrow one.

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NHL: New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
Damon Severson has been a fixture of the Devils' defense for several years now, and he's finally been a part of a real playoff contender.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

He’s a real vintage guy, that Damon Severson. Straight from Saskatchewan, son of Donna and Doug Severson, Damon lives and breathes hockey and sports. Nearing his 29th birthday on August 7, Severson’s future is in the air at the moment. His contract with the only professional hockey team he’s ever known — the New Jersey Devils — is expiring at the end of the month. What will happen now is up to Damon and Devils’ GM Tom Fitzgerald.

Damon Severson’s Time With the Devils

Damon Severson was selected at the end of the second round — 60th overall — in 2012. As you can see in his Elite Prospects page below, Severson has been a fixture of the Devils ever since he made the transition from the Kelowna Rockets to professional hockey, only playing five games with the Albany Devils between 2012 and 2016. This meant that Damon Severson, a 20-year old defenseman, would quickly be paired with Andy Greene, who was lacking a partner after the departure of Mark Fayne in the offseason. The Greene-Severson pairing was very successful when together that year, but a broken ankle derailed their progress on a team that was already tenuously held together.

Elite Prospects

With the team in dire need of rebuilding, they leaned on Damon Severson heavily throughout the next two seasons despite his young age, and he grew to be a 30-point scorer by the time he was 22. With Ray Shero’s trade for Sami Vatanen in 2017-18 (which I will never stop calling a horrible trade), Severson took a bit of a back seat in their run to the playoffs, as John Hynes lowered his minutes to keep world-beaters such as Ben Lovejoy, Mirco Mueller, and John Moore on the ice. In the Goaltending Dark Ages of 2018-2022, however, Severson prove himself to be an incredibly effective offensive defenseman. Prior to Dougie Hamilton’s arrival in 2021, Severson was the clear-cut top defender on the team. Since Dougie has taken over the top pairing, Severson has thrived in second or third-pairing minutes, playing up the lineup when injuries required him to step up as well.

With 647 games under his belt, Damon Severson has seen a lot of Devils hockey. If he were to sign a long-term extension (somehow), he would finish the contract as one of the longest-tenured Devils of all time. While Severson has many naysayers due to his gaffes and mistakes on defense, I think he turned a few heads during the playoffs. Severson has been here for a long time, but now that he’s not being asked to defend odd-man rushes left and right with an ECHL goalie behind him, he suddenly looks like a legitimate NHL second-pairing defender. Funny how that works.

What Damon Severson Brings to the Table

When you put Damon Severson on the ice, you know that you are going to get offense. It is not in Damon Severson’s nature to play it slow, play it safe, or play boringly. As Severson reaches his late-20s, though, it seems like he’s found a sweet spot on the risk-reward scale, optimizing his offensive abilities while preventing teams from taking advantage of his perceived defensive issues.

Ever since he was a rookie, people always understood Severson to have an excellent knack for passing plays. Time and time again with these rush-heavy Devils, Severson has threaded the needle from the back-end to split neutral zone defenses, giving his team breakaways and odd-man rushes. When it comes to plays like the one you see below, there are few defensemen in the league who can make a better pass from that spot.

The Devils have also lost many games due to injury on the right side over the last two seasons. Dougie Hamilton missed 20 games in 2021-22. Most of these games came in January and February, during which time Severson had 14 points in 16 games, playing just seconds under 25 minutes a night without Hamilton. This season, John Marino was injured in late December and came back on February 6. During this stretch of time, Severson had 9 points in 17 games, playing 25:09 per night. Without Severson on the roster, the team would have had to rely on Dougie Hamilton to an unhealthy degree. But in those 17 games with Severson playing top minutes, the team went 11-4-2.

Maybe there’s something to him.

What Issues Still Plague Damon Severson

Despite his unfortunate history of defensive mistakes against the Toronto Maple Leafs, such as here and here, I do not think the negatives outweigh the positives. You can see his microstat card from All Three Zones below, and Severson really does not struggle with defending the oncoming attack so much as he makes flubs when he’s going to retrieve loose pucks and get them out of the zone. Between his failed exits and his increase in exits with possession, though, I still think this isn’t as bad as the one big red bar makes it look. This is a guy that touches the puck a lot by necessity. Perhaps if Kevin Bahl was his partner all season, instead of the forced veteran presence of Brendan Smith, teams would have had to respect two puck movers rather than just one.

The one concern you might have is if that type of style could work on the Devils of 2023-24, who will feature Luke Hughes on the left side. However, I think that a Hughes-Severson second pairing would be extremely effective offensively, as they showed they were capable of being even when much of the rest of the team struggled to break free of Carolina’s stifling structure.

Being on the second or third pairing for the most part now, Damon Severson’s defensive mistakes seem to be fewer and farther between. There is still the occasional night where he gets a good portion of Devils Twitter wishing plagues upon his existence, but I think there were several from that crowd who changed their tune during the recent playoffs. When it came time to play, Severson was not the guy making the mistakes, and he was not the reason they were losing. He’s still a risky player, but it seemed like he knew how to manage that risk come playoff time.

Will Damon Severson Return?

Now, the essential question: how much money and how much term does Damon Severson want? While everyone was sent into a tizzy about Fitzgerald potentially trading Severson’s rights yesterday, there are a few details that everyone should know. Back in February, Tom Fitzgerald made a comment about how UFAs could stay with the team as long as they recalibrate their price points from the normal UFA market numbers to a more team-friendly deal. Combining that comment with Friedman noting that the Devils will trade Severson if they cannot come to an agreement points to a possibility that Severson may be a part of the 2023-24 Devils.

Following the bread crumbs from Freidman’s 32 Thoughts podcast might tell you that Severson is in fact interested in a contract extension with the Devils. Or, at least he was in the fall. Fitzgerald has also made comments about trading Severson over the past year or so, at one point saying that he would need to get a big return for the future to let him go.

Given all this, it seems possible, but not rather likely that Severson returns. However, it’s more than a open-and-shut case of promoting Simon Nemec and calling it a day. Whether the team is comfortable with going 11/7 or giving Nemec another year to play in the AHL, it seems like Severson is still a consideration — more so than Ryan Graves. As for Nemec, I could see him returning to Utica on account of his age and the fact he did not really get going on the power play this season. It’s pretty rare for a defenseman to come to the NHL at his age, considering all of Owen Power, Quinn Hughes, and Luke Hughes played two full college seasons. Rasmus Dahlin made the immediate jump at 18, but it took him until this season (age 23) to put his offense together with defensive skills.

What Would I Offer Severson? What Would Fitz Offer? What Would He Get in Unrestricted Free Agency?

So we know a few things:

  • Severson and the Devils have had apparent disagreements on term
  • Tom Fitzgerald is holding off trade talks for his rights for the time being
  • Severson might be willing to take less than his UFA value if they give him the right years

That said, let’s take a look at some of those contract projections. On the Daily Faceoff’s projections, Severson comes in with the highest total earnings of the class at over $36 million over six years. I do not think Severson is likely to return at this sort of number for that much term.

Interestingly enough, Evolving-Hockey had just about the same projection for Severson as an unrestricted free agent. I actually think this number is a bit low, and I would project Severson at 7 years and $6.5-7.5 million if he signs with a new team this offseason. If his rights were traded, I would project him at 8 years and $6-7 million. He is an all-situations player in one of the weakest free agency classes I’ve ever seen, and his ceiling as a producer might be in the 50-60 point range. If he wants the money, he can get the money.

My big question for the Devils and Severson disagreeing on term is: which way does which side want to go? Does Severson want to sign a short-term deal so he can still hit lucrative free agency, possibly after a Stanley Cup run or two? Or does Severson want to be a career Devil, in which case he would probably take a much lower salary than advertised? Given how excited his wife, Drey, was when he wasn’t traded, and how much importance Severson gives to lifting up the Devils in their rivalries, I would personally not mind a long-term deal for Damon if it meant he left room in the cap for other areas. Re-signing such a deal would also do wonders to push the “sign in NJ, compete for a Cup” thing that Fitzgerald has going with Siegenthaler and Haula.

You might be one of those people who think the Devils can get a stopgap right-handed defenseman in free agency this year. I ask — do you want the team to win, or not? Right-handed options in free agency include Kevin Shattenkirk, Troy Stecher, Connor Clifton, Travis Hamonic, John Klingberg, Justin Holl, Radko Gudas, Erik Johnson and Scott Mayfield. Multiple guys there (I assume Johnson and Gudas at the very least) will re-sign with their previous teams, and the other guys there don’t inspire a lot of confidence between their ages and/or relative lack of ability with the puck.

I have two offers for Damon Severson: 8 years x $4.33M, or 3 years x $6M. Severson made $5.1 million over the past season, culminating a contract with an AAV of $4.166M, which started with him making $2.5 million back in 2017-18. The short-term contract would be a continuation of his regular salary increases, while the long-term contract would be a leveling out — a slight pay cut in his pocket at the moment, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

I have my reasons for thinking the money works with keeping Severson. Combined, him and Graves took $7.33M out of the cap in 2022-23. With Luke Hughes subtracting $925,000 from that, that leaves around $6.4 million to allocate to the defense without spending more on it than last season. That leaves plenty of money to re-sign Meier and Bratt, considering cap subtractions like Bernier, Blackwood, Wood and Tatar.

As for the 2024-25 season, I’m similarly unconcerned. The Devils will gain an extra $2 million on their cap from the end of the Cory Schneider buyout schedule, $325,000 from the Janne Kuokkanen buyout (both extremely unnecessary moves), and Brendan Smith will likely depart or retire with his $1.1 million contract ending in 2024. Combine this with an expected cap jump in 2024, and I have no concerns about the team’s ability to afford the extension for Dawson Mercer. Luke Hughes will be due to sign in 2025, and Simon Nemec all the way in 2026 thanks to the Entry-Level Slide. That’s why I think the 3-year contract would be perfect if Damon wants to give the team a few more runs before maximizing his earning potential — it would not interfere with Nemec’s extension years. As for the 8-year idea, I think the expected cap increases should make it workable long-term, and Severson has shown the ability to play off-hand with both Hamilton and Marino.

What I think Fitzgerald might be offering: I think Fitzgerald probably offered something similar to what Jonas Siegenthaler signed. Siegenthaler took a 5-year, $17 million contract for $3.4 million per season, starting in 2023, and ending in 2028. Given Severson’s offensive flair, I would think Fitzgerald might have bumped that up to $4 million or so. I understand why Severson might want more years at a low salary, as a near-match to Siegenthaler’s contract would have him hit UFA again as a 34-year old.

Final Thoughts

I have no idea what will happen with Damon Severson this season. When it comes down to it, I would rather pay a 18-22 minute defenseman than pay a 15-18 minute forward. Especially when that defenseman has filled in for Dougie Hamilton and John Marino at times to the tune of 23 points in 33 games, playing literally 25 minutes per night when filling in for those two, I think this team loses a lot by losing Severson. There is absolutely nobody available who can produce at that clip when playing above their role due to an injury, and Severson has proven his desire to make the Devils a winning team this year.

But if the money doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If Severson is hell-bent on getting a 7-year, $45 million contract, then all the power to him. He has played a lot of NHL games for a guy his age, and he deserves to maximize his earnings as he sees fit. But if Severson buys into the team and makes it possible for Fitzgerald to get everything else he needs within the cap, then I think it’s a no-brainer to bring back the best right-sided defense in the league for at least one more full run together.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about Damon Severson? Do you think he has a place on this team? Do you think signing him would put the team in the best position to win now? If he doesn’t sign with the Devils, who do you think might go for him? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.