It’s peak rumor season, and they have not stopped for the New Jersey Devils over the last few days. There’s the ongoing pursuit of Dougie Hamilton, but I’ve spoken about him at length this offseason and as recently as yesterday, so I won’t spend too much on him here. Instead, we’ll focus on David Pagnotta’s latest piece over at The Fourth Period, which linked the Devils to David Savard and Braden Holtby.
Pagnotta also mentioned that while the San Jose Sharks did not move Timo Meier at the entry draft, he could still be on the trade market. Let’s look at why he and Savard could be fits for the Devils and why they should stay very far away from Holtby if they’re looking to upgrade their goaltending. Plus, a look at some predictions from Elliotte Friedman about what may unfold this week. Let’s get to it.
Acquiring Holtby Won’t Help Devils Solve Goaltending Woes
When the Vancouver Canucks moved on from Jacob Markstrom last offseason, they decided to replace him with Holtby. Holtby finished this season with an .889 save percentage (SV%), by far the worst of his career. The Canucks were the worst defensive team in the league, and it wasn’t close, so that didn’t help him. They allowed 60.25 shot attempts per 60 minutes and 2.65 expected goals against per 60 minutes at five-on-five, both the worst marks in the NHL.
With that said, Holtby’s numbers were already in decline during his final season with the Washington Capitals. He finished 2019-20 with an .897 SV%, so it’s not as if he was lighting the world on fire before signing with the Canucks. His underlying numbers have been quite poor as well. He has a goals saved above expected of -21.43, ranked 10th worst in the league over the last two seasons.
Pagnotta mentioned teams, including the Devils, would like the Canucks to retain some salary on the final year of Holtby’s deal. But even then, it’d be best to stay away, especially since it’ll require giving up assets to add him to the roster. He doesn’t seem to have much left in the tank, and the Devils need more of a sure thing behind Mackenzie Blackwood than betting on Holtby rebounding. Their best bet is to look to free agency where names like Linus Ullmark, Petr Mrazek and Jaroslav Halak would give the Devils a legitimate upgrade without needing to give up an asset in a trade.
Savard an Underrated Free-Agent Target
The Devils’ pursuit of a defensive upgrade is all about Hamilton at the moment. But if things there don’t go as planned, they’ll need a fallback option. Enter Savard, who’s coming off a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He finished this season with six points in 54 games and only has 166 in 611 career games. But offense is not the name of the game with him, far from it.
Savard’s value comes in the defensive zone, where he’s thrived in tough minutes. Over the last three seasons, his even-strength defense has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 19.1. That ranks second in the league to Adam Pelech, so it’s not a stretch to say Savard is one of the best defensive defensemen in the league.
Savard is pretty much an offensive black hole, but that doesn’t matter for a defenseman of his makeup. He can handle hard minutes, which is something the Devils need. He’s obviously no Hamilton, but he would provide a significant upgrade to the team’s blue line. And he likely won’t cost much as a free agent either.
Evolving-Hockey predicts Savard to land a one-year deal at a cap hit of $1.634 million, which is great value considering his defensive impacts. Even if the Devils wanted to go to two or three years, Evolving-Hockey predicts he’d come in at cap hits of $2.86 million or $3.434 million, respectively. None of those are meant to be precise predictions, but they’re usually a good barometer for free-agent signings. And he’s very much worth any of those deals.
Meier a Fit, But Not Without Risk
Not only do the Devils need an upgrade on defense, but they also need scoring wingers alongside Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. They’re reportedly in on Vladimir Tarasenko and were linked to Conor Garland before the Arizona Coyotes traded him to the Canucks. But don’t write off Meier, even though he was on pace for 18 goals and 47 points this season, a down year by his standards.
Meier is an interesting player. After the 2018-19 season, he looked like he was on his way to becoming one of the league’s best wingers. But his play has tailed off since then, and it hasn’t been insignificant. After finishing with a GAR of 14 in 2018-19, he has a GAR of 8.1 combined over the last two seasons. His GAR, expected GAR, expected goals percentage and five-on-five scoring have all dropped since that 2018-19 campaign:
|Season||GAR||xGAR||xG%||Points per 60 Minutes|
So what happened to Meier? It’s hard to say for sure. For starters, the COVID pandemic shortened his last two seasons, and the Sharks have not been a particularly good team during those shortened seasons. It’s probably worth noting that the Sharks fired head coach Pete DeBoer in Dec. 2019, which could have affected Meier’s play as well. His numbers have not been awful since Deboer’s firing. But there has been a noticeable decline in his on-ice results and production since Bob Boughner took over.
Meier is only 24 years old, so he’s probably not in decline. The more likely reason for his dropoff is the coaching change, plus a roster that’s gotten worse over time. He seems like a good change of scenery candidate, but I’d be hesitant about giving up top draft capital or prospects for him. His value is not what it was two years ago or even a year ago, so the Devils could have a path to acquiring him without giving up a first-round pick and blue-chip prospect.
Since the Sharks are seeking a third-line center, that path could include Pavel Zacha. He’s coming off a career-best year after struggling in his first four seasons, so the Devils could look to sell on high on him. There’d still have to be a pick and a prospect going to San Jose. But if Zacha is part of the deal, the Devils might be able to avoid giving up a 2022 first-round pick and a top prospect. If not, then they may have to look elsewhere for scoring help.
Friedman Predicts Hamilton and Tarasenko to the Devils
So before getting carried away here, it’s important to note that Elliotte Friedman’s predictions are not gospel, and it does not mean either of these will happen. But in a quick blog late last night, he predicted Hamilton signs in New Jersey, while the Devils or the New York Islanders end up with Tarasenko.
I’m anti-free agency when it comes to building a team, but it’s different with Hamilton. He’s a top 5-10 defenseman in the league and would be a game-changer for the organization. It’ll cost a pretty penny to sign him, but the Devils are $11,045,011 below the salary cap floor. They have plenty of money available for him.
As for Tarasenko, he’s only played 34 games over the last two seasons. But the cost to acquire him shouldn’t be exorbitant, given the St. Louis Blues have little leverage. He only has two years left on his deal at a cap hit of $7.5 million, so he doesn’t affect their long-term cap situation either. If his shoulder holds up and he can stay healthy, he’d be a big help for Hughes on his wing. It’s worth noting that in his bit about Tarasenko, Friedman mentioned both the Devils and the Islanders will do something. So even if it’s not Tarasenko, expect them to be active this week.
That does it for this edition of Devils news & rumors. Free agency is almost 48 hours away, so make sure to stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for the latest Devils and NHL coverage as things begin to heat up.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017