Free agency is almost a month away. It may be weird writing that in September, but that’s the reality due to COVID-19 and the NHL suspending play back in March. But even though the calendar has shifted, it hasn’t changed what the New Jersey Devils need to do to improve their team.
One thing general manager Tom Fitzgerald needs to focus on is improving the Devils’ blue line. They have $26 million in cap space, so they’ll have money to spend in free agency. That said, they don’t want to ruin the salary cap advantage they have over most NHL teams, so they’ll have to be careful about which free agents to sign. Here are a few underrated options they should look to target.
The Philadelphia Flyers acquired Braun last offseason from the San Jose Sharks. Though he only had 19 points in 62 games, he provided much-needed depth for the Flyers’ blue line. He played largely in a third-pair role at even-strength and also logged 118 minutes on the penalty kill, fourth-most among Flyers’ defensemen.
There’s not a lot of flash to Braun’s game. And it’s pretty obvious when looking at his underlying metrics. His even-strength offense has been worth a goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-12 over the last three seasons. The only two defensemen who’ve added less to their team’s even-strength offense are Jay Bouwmeester and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
That said, Braun is a steady defender. His even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 11 over the last three seasons, ranked 21st among NHL defensemen. For comparison’s sake, Hjalmarsson’s even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 16.6, ranked fourth among NHL blueliners. And Braun’s RAPM chart gives us a better look at the divide between his offensive and defensive impact.
Even though Braun provides no offense, he offers defensive value for the Devils. He may not be anything more than a third-pair defender, but he’s the type of capable depth piece the team hasn’t had since they traded Ben Lovejoy at the 2019 Trade Deadline.
As for what he could fetch as a UFA, Evolving Hockey projects Braun to land a two-year deal with a cap hit just over $2.7 million, so fitting him in for that price won’t be a problem. He could also be a reliable partner for young defensemen Will Butcher or Ty Smith. And having a consistent partner for either of them could alone make Braun worth signing.
Devils fans may be familiar with Merrill. He was a second-round pick of theirs at the 2010 Draft but never broke through with the team. That led to them making him available for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, where the Vegas Golden Knights selected him with one of their picks.
Since ending up with the Golden Knights, Merrill has found a role as a reliable depth defender. His overall play has been worth a GAR of 10.8 over the last three seasons. But his most notable strides have come at even strength, where his defense has been worth a GAR of 12.2. That ranks 12th among all NHL defensemen and places him ahead of Braun, Hampus Lindholm, and Jaccob Slavin.
Now, that doesn’t mean Merrill is better a defenseman than any of those players. But he is competent in his own end, and he’ll add a bit more offense than someone like Braun. Merrill is a left-handed shot as well, which is a specific concern the Devils need to address.
Merrill will not cost a fortune as a UFA — Evolving Hockey projects him to land a one-year deal worth $1.8 million. For that price, he’ll provide great value as a depth defender. On the other hand, it’s hard to see him playing anything more than third-pair minutes. That could mean taking time away from someone like Smith, which doesn’t seem like something the Devils intend on doing. So that could mean looking elsewhere to shore up their defensive depth.
Dillon had spent the majority of his career with the San Jose Sharks. But they sank to the bottom of the standings and traded him to the Washington Capitals at the 2020 trade deadline. Between the two teams, he finished with 14 points across 69 games this season.
Like Braun and Merrill, Dillon has a reputation as a defense-first blueliner. But there is a noticeable difference in how he impacts the game at both ends of the ice compared to Braun and Merrill. His even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 7.2 over the last three seasons, while his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 9.8. His RAPM chart also shows a strong, positive impact at both ends of the ice.
Unlike Braun and Merrill, Dillon has excelled as a top-four defenseman. He even played on the Capitals’ top pair alongside John Carlson during the playoffs. Dillion is a left-handed shot, which makes him perfect for the Devils too.
There’s a lot to like about Dillon as a fit for the Devils, but at what price? Evolving Hockey projects him to land a four-year deal at a cap hit of only $3.7 million. He may be 29 years old, but that’s a perfect deal for a UFA his age. The Devils may not be big free agent spenders, but for what he brings to the table, it’d be hard to pass on signing him to a similar deal.
DeMelo was part of the trade that sent Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks back in 2018. He found a home with the Ottawa Senators and became one of the NHL’s more underrated defensemen after his performance during the 2018-19 season. Though he thrived with the Senators, the team traded him to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline due to their struggles.
DeMelo’s counting totals don’t pop off the scoresheet — he has 52 points in his last 199 games. But his overall play has been worth a GAR of 20.4 over the last three seasons. That places him between Miro Heiskanen and Lindholm, two of the better two-way defenders in the league.
Though he may not put up a lot of points, DeMelo’s even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 15.5 over the last three seasons. That ranks 15th among all NHL defensemen and is better than Kris Letang, Mattias Ekholm, and Zach Werenski. The bottom line is DeMelo can play at a high level.
While the Devils’ top need is for a left-handed blueliner, they could use a righty to solidify their depth. DeMelo is a no. 4 or 5 defenseman on most teams, and there’s no doubt he would be on the Devils too. So it’d be easy to see him as a second or third-pair defender alongside Smith or Butcher.
Evolving Hockey projects DeMelo to land a three-year contract with a cap hit around $2.7 million, a more than reasonable deal. He’s 27 years old, so that should make him a more attractive option to solidify the team’s depth compared to Braun.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
Van Riemsdyk has spent six seasons in the NHL, with the latter three coming as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. He played in only 49 games this past season and finished with eight points. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged 15 points per 82 games, so he doesn’t offer a lot offensively.
Though no one will mistake van Riemsdyk for a top-flight, offensive defenseman, he’s still a solid two-way defender. His even-strength defense has been worth a GAR of 6.7, while his even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 3.6.
But what separates van Riemsdyk from most of the defenders in this post is his ability to kill penalties. His short-handed defense has been worth a GAR of 2.9 since 2017. I mentioned the Devils need to find a replacement for Lovejoy. If there’s a clone of the defenseman Lovejoy was, van Riemsdyk would be it because he’s a reliable even-strength defender and penalty killer.
Van Riemsdyk would be the cheapest option for the Devils as a right-handed defender. Evolving Hockey projects him to land a one-year deal worth $855,000, which seems a bit low given what he can add to the team. But that could make for a potential bargain, and it’d be wise for the Devils to gauge his interest if that’s what it’ll cost to sign him.
Stay Savvy in Free Agency
If you noticed, there’s a theme here. It’s that every defenseman is on the cheaper side of the UFA market. There’s a reason for that, as well. Free agency is not a great strategy for building a team, and Fitzgerald seems to think the same way. That means it’s unlikely they go after someone like Torey Krug or Alex Pietrangelo (it’s unlikely they’d sign with the Devils anyway).
But the Devils can still improve their defense by being savvy in looking for value deals. They can upgrade their top four by signing Dillon, who at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, has some size they need along the blue line. Or they can add a right-handed, depth defender in van Riemsdyk or Braun for a price that won’t hurt their cap situation. If they come away with one of those two and a left-handed blueliner through the trade market, then their defense should look much better in 2020-21.
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Advanced stats from Evolving Hockey