Finding a top-flight, left-handed defenseman has been a problem for the New Jersey Devils for a few years now. Their last significant addition on the left side of their blue line was Will Butcher, who signed as a rookie free agent way back in 2017.
That’s a long time to go without upgrading an essential position group, and that can’t happen this offseason. The options for acquiring a left-handed defenseman in free agency are thin, so the Devils’ best bet is to head to the trade market. And with some teams in a salary cap bind, or just looking to retool, they should be able to find one who suits their needs. Let’s dive into a few potential targets.
Toews (no relation to Jonathan) was a fourth-round pick of the New York Islanders at the 2014 Draft. He played three seasons for Quinnipiac University (NCAA) and totaled 30 points in 40 games as a junior. He turned pro in 2015 and finished with 45 points in 70 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (AHL) in 2015-16.
Toews is a bit of a late-bloomer. He didn’t break into the NHL until the 2018-19 season as a 24-year-old. And it wasn’t until this season where he established himself as a top-four, NHL defenseman.
When looking at the Islanders’ blue line, Toews may be one of their more underrated defenders. His overall play has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of 8.8 over the last two seasons, while his even-strength defense is worth a GAR of 7.5. And though he doesn’t have a ton of offensive skill, he’s had a positive impact at both ends of the ice while at even strength:
The Islanders will be in a bit of cap bind this offseason. They have to re-sign Mat Barzal, Ryan Pulock, and Toews — all of whom are restricted free agents — and only have $8.1 million in cap space to do so. Per Evolving Hockey, Barzal projects to earn an eight-year deal worth $9.5 million annually. Pulock won’t be cheap, either, as he projects to make $6.45 million per year over five years.
Toews would be the most affordable of the three, but he still projects to earn $4.7 million annually. There may not be enough room for the Islanders to afford all three. And if they want to keep all three, it’ll take moving some bad contracts and giving up prospects as sweeteners to make it happen.
If Toews becomes a cap casualty, he’d be a fit for the Devils because he can play top-four minutes and defend well at even strength. Plus, he’ll be under team control for a while since he’s an RFA, which is the type of player new general manager Tom Fitzgerald should be targeting. The base of the cost to acquire Toews would probably be a second-round pick and one of the Devils’ top 10 prospects. But it may be worth it for the upgrade to their top four.
There have been plenty of changes with the Minnesota Wild over the last year, starting with the hiring of Bill Guerin as their new GM. They let go of Bruce Boudreau as head coach in the middle of the season. And they sent one of their top players in Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline.
It’s likely more changes are coming over the next year or so, as they have an aging roster with numerous UFAs, as well as RFAs, in 2021. One of those UFAs is Brodin, who’s arguably the Wild’s best defenseman.
What makes him one of the Wild’s best defenders? He’s one of the top defensive defensemen in the NHL, maybe even in the top five. His overall play is worth a GAR of 29.6 over the last three seasons, while his even-strength defense is worth a GAR of 17; only Adam Pelech and Colton Parayko’s even-strength defense are worth a higher GAR over that stretch. And Brodin’s RAPM chart shows a strong defensive impact at even strength:
The Devils should clamor at the thought of having Brodin on their roster, as he’s arguably a top-three defensive defenseman in the NHL. The problem is he only has a year left on his deal. And given what it may cost to acquire him, they’d have to consider if it’s worth the risk with no guarantee of re-signing him.
Acquiring Brodin will undoubtedly take a first-round pick. The Devils have three of those, with two they acquired through trades (they sit at 18th and 20th overall as it stands). The 20th overall pick, which originally belonged to the Vancouver Canucks, would be a good start pointing. But that alone won’t cut it.
The Devils would likely need to include a prospect, and a high-caliber one at that. One of Kevin Bahl or Reilly Walsh, both defensemen and two of the Devils’ top six prospects, would probably need to be part of the package. That, plus a first-round pick, is a lot to give up for a player who has only one year left on his deal. If the two sides agreed on a sign-and-trade, then it’s a no-brainer. Otherwise, they may be best off looking for someone with more team control.
Juolevi was a first-round pick (fifth overall) of the Vancouver Canucks at the 2016 Draft. He spent his draft-plus-one season with the London Knights in the OHL and finished with 42 points in 58 games. He then went on loan to TPS in the Liiga (Finland) for the 2017-18 season and had 19 points in 38 games.
Juolevi returned to North America for the 2018-19 campaign and played for the Canucks’ AHL squad, the Utica Comets, where he had 12 points in only 18 games due to a knee injury he suffered during a game in December. He returned to health for 2019-20 and played in 45 games for the Comets, producing at a 44-point pace.
Though Juolevi was once the Canucks’ top prospect, that’s changed due to his injury woes. That said, he still ranks in their top five in most farm system rankings. He just turned 22 years old in May, so there’s still a meaningful chance he becomes an NHLer.
Most of you are aware of the Canucks’ cap problems. But if you aren’t, they have $17 million in cap space and have to re-sign RFAs Jake Virtanen and Troy Stecher to new deals. They also have three notable UFAs in Jacob Markstrom, Christopher Tanev, and Tyler Toffoli. If they’re to keep all three, they’ll have to shed some salary to do so.
One way the Canucks could free up money is by trading Loui Eriksson, who has two years left on his deal, at a cap hit of $6 million. The Devils have $26 million in cap space, so they’re one of the few teams who can afford to take on his contract. But they’re not doing so without getting an asset in return.
And that’s how Juolevi may fit into their plans. He’s an effective puck-mover who has high hockey IQ and doesn’t make bad decisions when facing pressure while he has the puck (From ‘Wheeler’s 2020 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 13 Vancouver Canucks’, The Athletic – 1/31/20). Because Eriksson has two years left on his deal, the Devils may be able to get a draft pick out of the Canucks too. A potentially favorable scenario worth checking in on if you’re Fitzgerald.
Holden has bounced around a bit, as he’s played for four teams over the last five seasons. But he’s found a home with the Vegas Golden Knights after signing with them as a UFA in July 2018. He finished with 15 points in 61 games in 2018-19 and 14 points in 61 games this season, so his production has been consistent.
Despite not being a flashy defenseman, Holden has been reliable wherever he’s gone. His overall play is worth a GAR of 15.4 over the last three seasons, with his even-strength defense being worth a GAR of 8.6, the latter of which ranks 37th among all NHL defensemen.
And while he’s not going to put up gaudy point totals, Holden still holds his own offensively. His even-strength offense is worth a GAR of 4.1, and his RAPM chart also shows a positive offensive impact:
The Golden Knights are in a bit of cap trouble, as they have $6.375 million in cap space. They don’t have any notable RFAs to re-sign, other than Chandler Stephenson. But they may want to re-up Robin Lehner, who’s taken over the reins as their starting netminder, and they’ll need to open up cap space for him.
Holden’s contract is not expensive — he’ll have a cap hit of $1.7 million starting next season. For that kind of money and what he brings to the table, the Golden Knights probably wouldn’t mind keeping him around. That said, they have a top left-handed prospect in Nicolas Hague who’s on the cusp of breaking into the NHL.
If Hague earns a spot as the Golden Knight’s third-pair defender, they could trade Holden before next season starts. He won’t solve all the Devils’ defensive problems, but he’s a serviceable no. 4 or 5 defenseman who defends well at even strength. He shouldn’t cost much more than a mid-round pick to acquire. And he could serve as a stop-gap until top prospects Ty Smith and Bahl are ready for bigger roles.
Lindholm is a former first-round pick (sixth overall) of the Anaheim Ducks at the 2012 Draft and is one of the few top prospects from that class to have sustained NHL success. He broke into the NHL as a 20-year-old in 2013-14 and had an immediate impact for the Ducks, finishing seventh in Calder voting that season.
Since then, Lindholm has turned into one of the top two-way defensemen in the NHL. His overall play is worth a GAR of 20 over the last three seasons, while his even-strength defense is worth a GAR of 11.6, which ranks 15th among all NHL defensemen. He’s also been a steady contributor on the power play, which is one of the more underrated aspects of his game.
The Ducks are in a weird spot as an organization. They have an old roster whose core players’ ages range from their late 20s to their mid-30s (Ryan Getzlaf). They missed the playoffs by quite a bit this season, but it appears their plan, as of now, is to retool and give it one more shot with this group.
If that’s the case, Lindholm is unlikely to be available. But if the Ducks’ plans change before the new season, he may be one piece Ducks’ GM Bob Murray could look to trade for younger assets to begin rebuilding the team.
Lindholm has two years left on his deal, at a cap hit just above $5.2 million. The Devils and Ducks are no strangers to each other on the trade market — the Devils acquired Kyle Palmieri and Sami Vatanen from the Ducks in separate trades.
Acquiring Lindholm would take one of the Devils’ first-round picks, as well as a couple of top prospects. It’s a high price to pay, but he’d immediately become the Devils’ best defenseman and would anchor their top pair at even strength. He’s 26 years old, so he still has a few good years left in him, at a minimum. And the fact he has some term on his deal should be appealing to Fitzgerald.
Devils Must Acquire a Left-Handed Defenseman
If the Devils are willing to give up significant assets for a defenseman, then targeting Brodin or Lindholm makes sense. If not, a player like Holden, who can be a stop-gap, or taking a chance on Juolevi as part of acquiring Eriksson’s contract would be the way to go. Toews would be an underrated pickup because he can play top-four minutes, won’t cost as much as Lindholm or Brodin, and will be under team control due to his RFA status.
There’s no one right answer to the Devils acquiring a left-handed defenseman. Nor are these players the only options, as left-handed defenders like Vince Dunn and Olli Maatta could be on the trade market too. But it’s the Devils’ most glaring need, so they have to come away with a left-handed defender this offseason. Otherwise, many of their defensive issues will continue in 2020-21. And that’ll impede any progress they make in other areas.
* * *
Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey