The New Jersey Devils’ top priority this offseason must be improving their defense. They were one of the worst defensive teams in the league in 2019-20, and their problems only got worse as the season carried on. It’s something interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald spoke about yesterday in a media availability with reporters, as well.
The most eye-popping quote is in the first part of Fitzgerald’s comments. “Size, and some hardness, with the ability to move pucks…I just think we need more of a presence back there.”
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to add some size to the Devils’ blue line. And it’d be hard to argue they don’t need it. But it won’t mean anything if the defensemen they acquire are immobile and inconsistent passers, which is one of the risks of adding size to your blue line.
Devils’ Transition Game Lacking Most
One of the Devils’ most glaring defensive issues is in their transition game. They can’t move the puck up the ice and routinely get pinned in the defensive zone. It’s been a problem for years, and there’s been minimal improvement over the last 3-5 seasons.
The hope was trading for P.K. Subban would help fix some of those issues. But he had the worst season of his career, including in his transition game. Will Butcher was one of their best puck-moving defensemen the previous two seasons, but he regressed significantly in 2019-20. That was also the case for Damon Severson — though he was the Devils’ best transition defender in 2019-20, it still lagged compared to his previous seasons.
And a lack of effective puck-moving abilities leads to a less efficient offense. The Devils’ most recent draft class under Ray Shero, who the organization fired in January, didn’t address that concern, either. They seemed to emphasize defensemen with size rather than those who can be consistent getting out of the defensive zone with puck possession. Here are the four defensemen they selected:
- Nikita Okhotyuk, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds (2nd round)
- Daniil Misyul, 6-foot-2, 176 pounds (3rd round)
- Michael Vukojevic, 6-foot-3, 212 pounds (3rd round)
- Case McCarthy, 6-foot-1, 200 pounds (4th round)
Misyul is the only defenseman who’s shown he can be effective in transition. The other three are better known for playing with a physical edge, which would be fine if they had more offensive upside. The selections look even more questionable given they had the chance to draft some smaller blueliners with more upside, like Anttoni Honka and Mattias Norlinder, in the third round too.
It’s also worth noting Kevin Bahl, the centerpiece of the Taylor Hall trade, is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds. With that said, he’s a cut above the defensemen from the Devils’ 2019 draft choices. He makes a solid first pass and skates well for someone his size. It’s hard to ignore his physical presence, but he has the skill set to be more than just a large body. And those are the type of defensemen worth targeting.
Devils Have Multiple Options to Improve Defense
Fortunately, the Devils have plenty of ways to fix their defense. We’ll start with the draft, where there are a couple of prospects who’ll help long-term. Jamie Drysdale is an incredible skater who’s impressive in transition. He may be undersized, at 5-foot-10, 179 pounds, but he’d be a significant upgrade for their clearest need.
Another prospect to consider is William Wallinder. He’s 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, but skates amazingly well for someone his size. He’s also a beast in transition, so the Devils would be drafting someone who has the combination of size and skill. If the organization ends up having three first-round selections, he’d be worth considering in the 20-30 range.
In addition to the draft, the Devils can get immediate help in free agency. T.J. Brodie is an underrated defender who can move the puck and has decent size, at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. If his contract demands aren’t over the top, he’d be an ideal fit. Other free agents to consider are Kevin Shattenkirk and Erik Gustafsson. They’re not the biggest in stature (they’re both 6-foot), but they’re efficient puck movers.
It’s hard to gauge the trade market because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the Devils will have options. Colin Miller had a down season but was one of the more underrated NHL defensemen before his trade to the Buffalo Sabres. A change of scenery could benefit him, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Fitzgerald made another attempt at acquiring him this offseason (they were reportedly interested in him in January).
And the Devils should also be able to take advantage of a team in a salary cap bind. A best-case scenario is the cap remains flat for the 2020-21 season, but it could even drop due to the league’s coronavirus pause. That could force a team like the St. Louis Blues to trade someone like Vince Dunn to make room for Alex Pietrangelo.
Another defenseman who could be a cap casualty is Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s a restricted free agent, but the team may not have room to sign him after they re-sign two other pending RFAs, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev. Cernak is not a lights-out offensive defenseman. With that said, he’s only 23 years old and is mobile with the puck on his stick. He also stands at 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, and given his abilities, that could make him a top trade target.
Puck-Moving Abilities Matter Most
There’s nothing wrong with the Devils wanting to add size to their blue line. They could use some defenders who play with a physical edge, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of mobility and puck-moving abilities. It doesn’t matter if a defenseman is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds if he’s constantly pinned in the defensive zone because he can’t skate or complete a pass.
Cernak would be a good target for the team because he’s mobile but has size. Miller may be smaller than Cernak, but he’s 6-foot-1, 196 pounds, so he’s not undersized. The same is true of Brodie also. Players like them should be how Fitzgerald looks to rebuild their defense. It’s how plenty of organizations are building their blue lines in today’s NHL. And it shouldn’t be any different for the Devils if they want to become contenders again.