Devils Need to Target Sabres’ Surplus of Defensemen

The NHL’s 24-team, return-to-play format is getting closer to becoming a reality. Unfortunately, it won’t include the New Jersey Devils, as they’re one of seven teams whose season is over. That’s also the case with the Buffalo Sabres, who’ll miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season. 

But if there’s one plus to having their seasons conclude, it’s the two sides, along with the five other clubs not in the 24-team format, are allowed to make trades with each other. From the Devils and Sabres’ perspectives, they make ideal trade partners. The Sabres have a surplus of defensemen, while the Devils have a deep group of young forwards and prospects. And that could help each team fill some glaring needs. 

Colin Miller

Miller became one of the more underrated defensemen in the NHL after a breakout 2017-18 campaign with the Vegas Golden Knights, where he finished with 41 points in 82 games. He followed that up with 29 points in 65 games — a 36-point pace over 82 games — in 2018-19. But salary cap problems forced the Golden Knights to trade him to the Buffalo Sabres during the offseason. 

Related: Building Devils’ All-Time Draft Roster

The expectation was Miller would play a top-four role and help improve the Sabres’ defense, though that was anything but the case. He had arguably the worst season of his career, as he finished with 11 points in 51 games and was a healthy scratch on numerous occasions. With that said, Miller’s struggles aren’t all on him. During the 2018-19 season with the Golden Knights, he started 61% of even-strength faceoffs in the offensive zone. That dropped to 47% with the Sabres, so his usage changed quite a bit after the trade. 

What the Sabres decide to do with Miller remains to be seen. If they choose to trade him, the Devils shouldn’t hesitate to get involved in negotiations. He fits their need for a puck-moving defenseman, and he’s a strong bounce-back candidate for next season. The latter reason should catch the Devils’ attention too. Granted, the Golden Knights weren’t using him as a shutdown defenseman. But he played his role well and had a strong positive impact offensively and defensively the previous three seasons. 

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That’s quite the fall off in play, and it may raise some eyebrows. But players don’t usually fall off a cliff like that at his age (he was 27 years old this past season). The most plausible answer is he struggled to adjust to a new system, and he’d benefit from returning to an offensive role. 

That’s something the Devils could provide Miller too. He’s shown to be incredibly effective when used correctly during past seasons. And he’d be an excellent fit alongside Will Butcher, or top prospect Ty Smith, on the second or third pairs, which would shore up the team’s defensive depth significantly. 

Lawrence Pilut

Pilut came to the Sabres in 2018 after signing a two-year, entry-level contract that May. The 24-year-old defender went undrafted and played for HV71 in the SHL (Sweden) for four seasons before signing with the Sabres. In his final SHL season, he finished with 38 points in 52 games and showed offensive prowess that garnered him NHL attention. 

Pilut had six points in 33 games in his first NHL season (2018-19), but also had 26 points in 30 AHL games. His underlying numbers at the NHL-level were encouraging too. He finished with a Corsi share (CF%) of 53.22%, ranked third on the team, and had an expected goals share (xGF%) of 52.48%, ranked fifth on the team. His goals above replacement (GAR) of 4.3 ranked third among their defensemen, so he probably should’ve gotten more playing time than he did. 

But for as promising as his numbers were in 2018-19, there was a dramatic dropoff in his play this past season. He finished with a GAR of minus-0.3 and had the worst CF% on the Sabres, as well as the fourth-worst xGF%. Granted, he only played in 11 games, so his sample size of data is even smaller than that from 2018-19. 

Lawrence Pilut Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres’ defenseman Lawrence Pilut (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s hard to get a read on Pilut because of his small sample size of NHL data. But he does have a skill set that suits the Devils’ blue line needs because he’s effective at exiting the defensive zone with puck possession. He’s also a left-handed shot, which is the weaker side of the team’s defense. 

If Pilut is on the trade block, it shouldn’t take much for the Devils to acquire him. He may only be 24 years old, but the Sabres haven’t used him as anything more than a depth defenseman. He’d likely cost the Devils a mid-round pick or a B-level prospect, and he’s young enough to take a gamble on. 

Jake McCabe

McCabe is a much different defender than Miller and Pilut. He’s a more traditional defensive defenseman and has averaged 18 points per 82 games over his seven-year career. So don’t expect him to turn into Erik Karlsson any time soon. 

Related: Sabres with 100-Point Seasons

Defensive defensemen don’t always have the greatest reputation. Most of the time, the knock on them is they’re a liability because their defensive talents are overrated. But that’s not always the case. Defenders like Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chris Tanev, and John Marino have shown defense-first blueliners have a place on NHL rosters if they can do it at a high level. 

McCabe may not be in the same tier as those three, but he’s an effective defensive defenseman. His numbers aren’t all that impressive — he has a 49.27 CF% and 48.48 xGF% over the last three seasons. But it’s important to note what role the Sabres gave to him. He had the second-most defensive zone starts on the team to Rasmus Ristolainen, which shows they’re comfortable using him against opponents’ top lines. And his defensive impact suggests he’s up to the task. 

Via Evolving Hockey

McCabe isn’t going to get power play minutes any time soon. Nor would the Devils be asking him to lead the rush on offense. But they need a defenseman who can play hard minutes as much as they need someone like Miller. McCabe is a left-handed shot, as well, so he’d fill that need. He’ll be 27 years old whenever the 2020-21 NHL season gets underway, making him young enough to also fit into the Devils’ plans. 

The catch with McCabe is he has only one year left on his contract. My guess is the Devils likely want someone with more term on his deal, like Miller, whose contract runs through the 2021-22 season. But if they think McCabe would be willing to sign an extension, he makes sense for them as a trade target, as he’d be a significant upgrade for their top pair alongside Damon Severson. 

Devils, Sabres Can Help Each Other

Jack Eichel has expressed his frustration with the Sabres, as he’s never made the playoffs since being drafted by them in 2015. It’s highly unlikely they trade him, so they’ll be looking to add pieces around him to improve the team. And that’s where the Devils can help. 

A player like Jesper Bratt would be perfect for the Sabres, but the Devils would have to be blown away by an offer to trade him. Still, other young players may interest the Sabres. Miles Wood is only 24 years old and will be a restricted free agent when his current contract expires in 2022. The Sabres could also target prospects like Tyce Thompson, Janne Kuokkanen, Joey Anderson, or Nick Merkley. All of them are 23 years old or younger and have middle-six upside that’d give them scoring depth behind Eichel. 

New Jersey Devils Sami Vatanen Andy Greene Jesper Bratt
New Jersey Devils’ Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Jesper Bratt (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Fortunately, the Devils have a deep group of forward prospects where they can afford to give one up. And the fact they could have three first-round picks at the 2020 Draft should help soften the blow. It’d also be hard for them to improve their defense, which needs a massive lift, without making a trade. And that may be the best way to begin improving their blue line. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving Hockey