Devils Defense Needs Vince Dunn

The playoffs may still be ongoing, but that doesn’t mean the offseason rumor mill isn’t allowed to churn. On the latest edition of Saturday Headlines, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman indicated that trade chatter has begun to pick up around St. Louis Blues defenseman Vince Dunn. Friedman also reported the Blues were trying to move Dunn earlier in the season and were looking for a first-round pick in return. 

Dunn, who’s 24 years old, finished 2020-21 with 20 points in 43 games — a 38-point pace over 82 games. He missed time this season due to injuries, but there aren’t any significant long-term concerns. Retooling the blue line is one of Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s most significant tasks this offseason. And given Dunn’s age and skill set, he’d be an ideal trade target for them. Let’s look at the reasons why that’s so.

Dunn Shows Top-Four Promise

As is the case when evaluating almost any defenseman, counting totals don’t paint a complete picture of what one offers. A deeper dive into some of Dunn’s metrics reveal a player who has some strengths that show he could be a consistent top-four defenseman. His goals above replacement (GAR) since the start of the 2018-19 season is 20.9, ranked 38th-best in the league among blueliners. When broken down over a year-to-year basis, here’s how Dunn’s GAR stacks up:

  • 2018-19: 8.2
  • 2019-20: 12.1
  • 2020-21: 0.5

You’ll notice the drop in 2020-21. We’ll get to that in a second. But over the previous two seasons, Dunn excelled as a two-way defender. His even-strength offense (EVO) was worth a GAR of 10.9, while his even-strength defense (EVD) was worth a GAR of 4. He’d end up being the Blues’ third-most valuable defenseman behind Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko. Granted, Dunn wasn’t playing as difficult minutes as those two, but he was still an important part of their blue line. 

Back to the 2020-21 season, the drop in Dunn’s GAR was due to a significant decline in his EVO, which was worth a GAR of -3.6. GAR places a fair bit of emphasis on finishing, and when Dunn was on the ice at even strength, the Blues only converted on 6.5 percent of their shots on goal. 

Related: Devils Should Be Wary of Trading for Seth Jones

But when looking at Dunn’s expected GAR, which places less emphasis on finishing than regular GAR, it backs up the theory that poor on-ice finishing played a part in bringing down his EVO. He should’ve finished the season with a total GAR of 5 based on xGAR, and his EVO would’ve been worth a GAR of 0.1 instead of -3.6. 

Luckily, Dunn still held his own on defense. The Blues did not play him against elite competition — only 10 percent of his minutes came against elite competition, per PuckIQ. But when he did play tougher minutes, he had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 50.7 percent. He played 17 percent of his minutes against elite competition in 2019-20 and had a CF% of 50 percent, so he’s shown he can handle harder minutes when given them. Overall, when looking at Dunn’s three-year breakdown, he profiles as an effective two-way defender and power play threat who could probably handle a top-four role reasonably well: 

Vince Dunn
Vince Dunn EV & PP RAPM Type (per 60), Standardized, 2018-21 (via Evolving-Hockey)

For the Devils, they need to bet on some high upside players to get back on track in 2021-22. Given Dunn’s metrics, he seems like a pretty good player to take a chance on. Plus, he would likely fit in very well with how head coach Lindy Ruff is trying to get the team to play. 

Dunn a Match for Ruff’s System

When the Devils hired Ruff last summer, it’s clear that they wanted to play a fast-paced kind of game. To do so, they’ll need defensemen who can skate, are mobile, and can move the puck up the ice cleanly without relying on chipping it off the glass constantly. They have a couple of those in Damon Severson and Ty Smith, but there’s plenty more work to do to get their blue line to where it needs to be. 

Fortunately, this is one area of the game where Dunn has had plenty of success. And that makes him the ideal type of defenseman for the rush-based system Ruff has implemented with the Devils. He can exit the defensive zone cleanly and can gain the offensive zone with puck possession. Once he does enter the offensive zone, he has a positive impact on shot contributions.

Vince Dunn
Visual from CJ Turtoro, Data from Corey Sznajder

Not only does Dunn show promising two-way and puck-moving ability, but his performance on the power play would be a significant addition for the Devils’ man advantage. Their power play was a mess this past season, but it’s probably due for some positive regression in 2021-22. Adding Dunn to the fold would surely help it head in the right direction because of his puck movement.

Aside from Dunn’s skill set, there are other reasons why he fits with the Devils. Being 24 years old puts him in the general timeline of the rest of their core players. Smith is 21 years old. Jack Hughes is 20 years old. Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt are 22 years old, while Yegor Sharangovich is 23 years old. I think you get the point I’m trying to make. 

And not only does Dunn fit in with the age group of the Devils’ core, but he’s also on a very team-friendly deal. He’s under contract through next season at a cap hit of $1.875 million and will be a restricted free agent when it expires next summer, leaving him under team control for quite some time. 

Finally, there’s the price of acquiring Dunn. Friedman mentioned the Blues were looking for a first-round pick. The Devils have two firsts, one of which they acquired when they traded Kyle Palmieri to the New York Islanders. If the Islanders defeat the Boston Bruins in their playoff series, that selection will end up in the 29-32 range. If the Bruins advance, it’ll be a top 20 pick. 

Vince Dunn St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues defenseman Vince Dunn (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That might not seem like a significant difference, but it matters for trade value. A potential top-20 selection would be a high price to pay for Dunn. If that’s where the Islanders’ pick ends up, there’s probably a path to acquiring him without giving it up (perhaps a 2nd and a prospect or another pick). With that said, if the Islanders advance and it ends up being somewhere in between 29-32, that’s essentially an early second-round pick, and the Devils should pull the trigger if that’s the case. Would it be enough for the Blues? They have the 18th overall pick as it stands, so adding a second first could be enough for them. 

Related: Devils Draft Targets: Brandt Clarke

The bottom line is the Devils need to be in on trade talks for Dunn. There’s too much to like about his game and his potential fit with the team. He might not be a shutdown top-pair defender, but he seems perfectly capable of playing a second-pair role, especially on the Devils. He won’t solve all the team’s defensive problems, but Fitzgerald has to start somewhere, and acquiring Dunn would be a good first move. 

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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey, except where noted