Devils’ 2022 Free Agent Targets: Defensemen

In our first two articles on potential free agent targets for the New Jersey Devils, we took a look at wingers and goaltenders. Last up will be defensemen, and while it’s not a pressing need like the first two position groups, general manager Tom Fitzgerald would benefit from shoring up the team’s defensive depth. 

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None of the defensemen listed here are big-name free agents, and none will cost much to sign either. The Devils’ top-four is in good shape with Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves and Damon Severson, so Fitzgerald doesn’t need to go for a Kris Letang or John Klingberg to improve their defense. Instead, it’s about rounding out the third pair and possibly finding a blueliner who can help Ty Smith rebound in 2022-23. Here are five names to consider. 

Jan Rutta

2021-22 counting totals: 3 goals, 15 assists in 76 games

Evolving-Hockey contract projection: 3 years, $2.412 million cap hit

It may feel like Rutta’s been in the NHL forever, but the soon-to-be 32-year-old just completed his fifth season in the league. He’s accomplished quite a bit in that time, though, winning two Stanley Cups with the Tampa Lightning and just competing in a third against the eventual champions, the Colorado Avalanche. He hasn’t been the focal point of the Lightning’s championships, but he’s been a valuable depth defender. 

In his three seasons with the Lightning, he’s posted a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.13 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.81 percent. He’s been one of the Lightning’s best shot suppressors, and though most of his minutes have come against lesser competition, he did play pretty tough minutes for the Lightning this season. He’s not an offensive dynamo, but he’s not a black hole either. Overall, he’s had a positive impact defensively over the last three seasons and average offensively: 

Jan Rutta
Jan Rutta’ impact at even strength and on the power play, 2019-22

For a Devils team that may be looking to add some veteran experience, Rutta might be the perfect fit for them. Even after some offseason additions, they’re going to have one of the youngest teams in the league next season. Having someone like Rutta, who’s been to three Stanley Cups in a row, could be a significant boost to a young squad still trying to figure out how to win games. 

Justin Braun

2021-22 counting totals: 6 goals, 12 assists in 69 games

Evolving-Hockey contract projection: 1 year, $1.428 million

trade deadline pickup back in March, Braun played a valuable depth role in helping the New York Rangers reach this season’s Eastern Conference Final. While Igor Shesterkin was the driving force behind the Rangers’ run, Braun helped stabilize a third pair that had seen its struggles when Patrik Nemeth was in the lineup. Like Rutta, he didn’t provide much offense, but his defensive play was solid. 

That’s largely been the story of Braun’s career too. While he’ll chip in here and there on offense, he doesn’t generate much offensively, but his defensive impacts have always been solid. His even-strength defense has been worth an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 12.2 over the last three seasons, an average of 4.1 per season. His level of competition has been a bit better than Rutta’s, too, though he’s probably best suited for a third-pair role at this point of his career. 

Related: Devils’ 2022 Draft Targets: Juraj Slafkovsky

For the Devils, Braun could be the ideal defenseman to pair alongside Smith. Remember when the Devils signed Will Butcher and paired him alongside Ben Lovejoy? Those were Butcher’s best couple of years of his career, and he wasn’t the same once Lovejoy retired in 2019. Lovejoy was a similar defenseman to Braun in that he didn’t offer much offensively but was a stabilizing presence on defense. For what Braun projects to fetch as a UFA, he’d be a sensible target for the Devils. 

P.K. Subban

2021-22 counting totals: 5 goals, 17 assists in 77 games

Evolving-Hockey contract projection: 3 years, $3.815 million cap hit

The Devils acquired Subban from the Nashville Predators almost three years ago to the date at the 2019 NHL Draft. His time with the Devils hasn’t been great, but he did see some improvement under head coach Lindy Ruff. After the worst season of his career in year one in New Jersey, he’s rebounded as he moved into a lesser role as the team’s blue line improved. 

This past season, Subban finished with a 50.5 CF% and 52.34 xG%. He also saw his minutes against elite competition fall to below 30 percent (via PuckIQ), the lowest in his three years with the Devils. Ty Smith’s best numbers came alongside Subban as well, as the two posted a 51.46 CF% and 54.05 xG% in 480 minutes together. 

Those are respectable numbers. And while Subban may not be what he used to be, he still has something to offer as a third-pair defenseman. He creates offense off the rush and can still generate offense once he gains the zone. He’s also still effective in neutralizing opponents’ forechecks and winning puck retrievals when teams decide to play dump and chase: 

P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban’s microstats for the 2021-22 season

The Devils aren’t going to re-sign Subban for three years at a cap hit of $3.815 million. He’ll have to take significantly less money and perhaps less term too. If he’s open to less money and term, I could see him returning to the Devils. He is well-liked in the organization and has done plenty in the community, as evidenced by winning the most recent King Clancy Trophy. At 32 years old, he’s been through plenty in the league and would be a good veteran voice to keep around in the locker room. And he can still produce in the role he had this past season. 

Mark Pysyk

2021-22 counting totals: 3 goals, 9 assists in 68 games. 

Evolving-Hockey contract projection: one year, $955,400

Pysyk returned to Buffalo for a second stint with the Sabres this past season and had a solid year as a third-pair defenseman. Like Braun and Rutta, he won’t offer much offensively, but he is a sound defender. Over the last three seasons, his even-strength defense has been worth an average xGAR of 1.76, and he’s been a reliable penalty-killer. 

Related: Devils News & Rumors: Campbell, Georgiev & More

Given he won’t cost much to re-sign, I’d be surprised if he didn’t return to the Sabres on another short-term deal. But if he does make it to free agency, he’s another player who should be on the Devils’ shortlist to help fill out their third pair if they don’t re-sign Subban. He’s a solid defender and can help on the penalty kill and be a stabilizing presence for Smith. At 30 years old, he has plenty of veteran experience, having already played ten years in the NHL. 

Ilya Lyubushkin

2021-22 counting totals: 2 goals, 13 assists in 77 games

Evolving-Hockey contract projection: 1 year, $836,700

Lyubushkin had spent his entire career with the Arizona Coyotes until they traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs before this past season’s trade deadline. He’s never been one for offense but had a career-high 15 points between the two teams. The best part of Lyubushkin is his stout defensive game. Over the last three seasons, his even-strength defense has been worth an xGAR of 11.8, ranked 20th in the league among defensemen; Braun (12.2) ranks 18th, for what it’s worth. 

Granted, Lyubushkin’s minutes have not come against the toughest competition, but he has handled playing a third-pair role very well. He’s been one of the better shot suppressors in the league over the last three seasons, specifically when it comes to preventing quality scoring chances. He’s not the strongest penalty killer, which isn’t always the best for a bottom-pair defender, but he does get the job done at even strength. 

Ilya Lyubushkin Arizona Coyotes
Ilya Lyubushkin with the Arizona Coyotes (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Though Lyubushkin projects to land a one-year deal for less than $1 million, the Devils can afford to give him some term, perhaps two years, which would come in at a projected cap hit of $1.57 million. They have over $25.3 million in cap space, so giving him a deal that pays $1.57 million a year is not remotely an issue. At 6-foot-2, 201 pounds, he plays a physical game on top of being solid defensively, so he seems like the exact type of defenseman the Devils and Fitzgerald would target to upgrade the third pair this summer. 

Taking care of the blue line is probably the least of the Devils’ worries, but it’d be a surprise if they didn’t bring in at least one new face. After adding Hamilton and Graves last offseason, plus the emergence of Siegenthaler, significant additions aren’t needed on the back end. But improving their depth wouldn’t hurt, especially if it’s for a year or two until prospects like Luke Hughes, Kevin Bahl and Reilly Walsh are ready for full-time gigs. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey; contract projections from Evolving-Hockey