Devils’ 2021 Free Agent Targets: Defensemen

A little over a week ago, we looked at some goalies who could make sense for the New Jersey Devils on the free-agent market. It’s probably a safe bet they look to bring in a backup to Mackenzie Blackwood on July 28. But they’ll also have to improve the defense in front of their netminding tandem to be competitive. 

The Devils’ defense struggled last season, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed (poor goaltending was a major factor). Still, there’s no doubting they need at least two external defensive additions if they want to take a step forward in 2021-22. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have options to consider on the trade market. But there are a few notable free agents to consider as well. 

Dougie Hamilton will be this summer’s prized unrestricted free agent. Every team will be after him, including the Devils, who media outlets have already loosely linked to him. There’s a noticeable dropoff after Hamilton among UFA defensemen, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent. If the Devils lose out on that sweepstakes, there should still be a few UFAs worth targeting. Let’s look at some potential fits. 

Jake McCabe

McCabe suffered a brutal knee injury in a game against the Devils earlier this season that will keep him off the ice for six to eight months. But assuming he comes back healthy, he’s the type of defenseman the Devils could use on their blue line. He doesn’t produce much offense, but it isn’t a stretch to say he’s one of the top defensive defensemen in the league. 

Since the start of the 2018-19 season, McCabe’s even-strength defense has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 11.5, ranked 18th in the league among defensemen. The Buffalo Sabres did not play McCabe against weak competition either. He’s played 35 percent or more of his minutes against elite competition in each of the last three seasons, with his Corsi for percentage (CF%) in those minutes above 50 percent over the last two seasons (per PuckIQ). A look at his RAPM chart shows a defenseman who’s had a significant positive impact defensively at even strength:

Jake McCabe
EV & PP RAPM Type (per 60), Standardized, 18-21 (via Evolving-Hockey)

Because of his knee injury, Evolving-Hockey projects the 27-year-old McCabe to come away with a one-year deal worth $1.027 million. Yes, he’s coming off injuries to his ACL, MCL, and meniscus, but that’s incredible value for him. For that price, he’s easily worth the gamble. If he returns to health, he’d be a big-time upgrade for the Devils on the left side and will give them a blueliner who can play hard minutes that they haven’t had in many years. 

Jamie Oleksiak

Last offseason, Fitzgerald had mentioned needing to add size and puck-moving ability to the Devils’ blue line. Enter Oleksiak, who measures at a whopping 6-foot-7, 255 pounds. Though he may be much bigger than McCabe, the two are similar defensemen. He won’t provide much offense, either, but the defensive results are impressive. 

Oleksiak’s even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 13.7 since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. That ranks 11th in the league among NHL blueliners over that stretch. He hasn’t played the same kind of difficult ice time as McCabe, but he’s handled those minutes well. And for what it’s worth, his minutes have gotten harder over time: 

SeasonPercent of TOI vs. Elite CompetitionCF%
Via PuckIQ

It’s also worth noting that Oleksiak’s CF% has noticeably improved against elite competition since the start of 2018-19. So it’s probably not a coincidence the Dallas Stars have increased his tough minutes over the years. If there’s a knock on Oleksiak, he’s not a great puck-mover, which could be an issue in Lindy Ruff’s fast-paced system he implemented in his first season as Devils coach

Oleksiak’s projected contract comes in at five years with a cap hit of $4.150 million. That’s a pretty pricey deal for someone who doesn’t produce much offense and will be 29 years old in December. There’s no denying he’d provide the Devils with a significant defensive upgrade in their top four. But considering McCabe’s defensive impacts are about the same or even better, he’d probably be the better buy for the Devils than Oleksiak, given the two projected deals.  

Mike Reilly

Before 2020-21, Reilly likely wouldn’t have caught your attention. But he quietly had the best season of his career between the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins. No, he didn’t have a goal, but he finished with 27 assists across 55 games — a 40-point pace over 82 games. And his underlying numbers were quite good too. 

Reilly finished this season with a total GAR of 9.2 while thriving two ways at even strength. His even-strength offense was worth a GAR of 5.9, while his even-strength defense was worth a GAR of 4.1. It was undoubtedly a breakout campaign, but his 3-year RAPM shows a player who’s had a strong positive impact on offense. His defensive impact is a touch above average as well, so maybe his breakout shouldn’t be too much of a surprise:

Mike Reilly
EV & PP RAPM Type (per 60), Standardized, 18-21 (via Evolving-Hockey)

Reilly projects to land a 3-year deal with a cap hit of $3.795 million. For what he brings to the table, that’s pretty good value. He doesn’t have the same kind of defensive impacts as Oleksiak or McCabe, but he has more offensive prowess than either of those two. He’s highly effective in transition as well, something the Devils need to improve on the back end. He’ll be 28 years old in a few weeks, but for three years at that cap hit, he’d be a worthy addition to the team’s blue line. 

Patrik Nemeth

Oleksiak and McCabe may not be the flashiest free agents, but Nemeth may have even less pizzaz than them. Yet, he’s also a very effective defensive defenseman. Like Oleksiak and McCabe, Nemeth doesn’t provide much offense, but that’s not why a team would be signing him. His even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 11.4 since 2018-19, though his offense has been below replacement level. 

Related: Devils’ 2021 Free Agent Targets: Goaltenders

Nemeth is not great in transition, but that’s not the worst thing for a third-pair defender. His deal projects to come in at one year and a cap hit of $1.679 million. Though, it’s worth noting that Evolving-Hockey gives him a 24 percent chance of landing a 3-year deal at a cap hit of $3.009 million. Either way, those are fair prices for him, even if he’s not going to move the needle significantly. But if the Devils land one or two other big names through free agency or the trade market, Nemeth would be a cost-effective option to bring in and shore up their depth as they did when they signed Dmitry Kulikov this past offseason. 

Cody Ceci

OK, before you yell at me for including Ceci on this list, hear me out. He’s actually been an effective depth defenseman since he moved on from the Senators. He finished this season with a total GAR of 6.8 and had two-way success at even strength. He was also an effective penalty-killer for the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

In the season before with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ceci had a GAR of -0.1, but his even-strength defense was worth a GAR of 3.7. His even-strength defense over the last two seasons has been worth a GAR of 4.5. And when you combine all his defensive metrics, his overall defensive game has been worth a GAR of 5.7. 

Cody Ceci Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, this isn’t to say the Devils should bring in Ceci to be a top-pair, or even second-pair, defenseman. Far from it, very far from it. But let’s say they acquire Hamilton or someone like Matt Dumba, that’d give the Devils one of them and Damon Severson as their top-two blueliners on the right side. To shore up their bottom pair, that’s when someone like Ceci could make sense. 

Ceci’s free-agent deal does project to come in at three years with a cap hit of $3.851 million. That might be a touch pricey, but if the Devils brought him in on a 3-year deal worth between $3 and 3.5 million annually, he could help on a bottom pair. They’d have to keep him in a heavily sheltered, third-pair role, but it worked for the Penguins and Maple Leafs. As long as the Devils practice the same, they could avoid a disaster in signing him. 

Dougie Hamilton

You didn’t think I’d end this article without talking about Hamilton, now did you? I touched on Hamilton in a recent post of mine, but the bottom line is he’s an elite offensive defenseman who has pretty decent defensive impacts as well. If the Devils manage to sign him, he’d become an instant game-changer for their defense. He’s that good. 

Related: Devils Will Have Plenty of Options for Offseason Trades

But I thought I’d do something a little different for this post instead of rehashing what I mentioned a few days ago. Hamilton and Seth Jones are the two marquee names available on defense this offseason. Jones recently stated that he plans to test free agency next summer, so it appears the Columbus Blue Jackets will trade him in the next few weeks. 

Right off the bat, the fact Jones plans to test free agency should take him off the Devils’ board of potential defensive targets. But it’s not just his free-agent plans that should scare them off; it’s his play too. He’s averaged close to 25 minutes of ice time over the last three seasons, but what he’s done in those minutes should raise major red flags. His overall play has been worth a GAR of only 1.9, and his overall defensive game has been below replacement level — a GAR of -3.8 to be exact. 

Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jones will cost a lot to acquire in a trade, and you get no guarantee he’ll sign an extension before next July. The cost of what it’ll take to trade for him then to re-sign him is just not worth it, given his play. Hamilton, on the other hand, is very much worth the price of admission. Even if the Devils were to acquire his rights from the Carolina Hurricanes, it won’t cost anywhere as much as a Jones trade would. They instantly get a top-pair blueliner who should fit in very well in Ruff’s fast-paced, rush-based system. So if Fitzgerald is going to go all-in on a top defensive target, Hamilton has to be his guy. 

Aside from Hamilton, it’s a relatively weak free-agent class among defensemen. If the Devils lose out on him, they could strengthen their defense by adding someone like McCabe or Reilly while not breaking the bank for either. Otherwise, there aren’t the type of players who’ll move the needle significantly. Fitzgerald’s best bet at improving the team’s defense is almost certainly to come on the trade market. So that’s where you should keep an eye on things once the Stanley Cup concludes. 

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Advanced stats and contract projections from Evolving-Hockey

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