The New Jersey Devils need to improve in a number of areas this winter, including on defense. Specifically, they need a top-pairing defenseman, and preferably a number one who can anchor their blue line.
Mid-tier unrestricted free agents like Jake Gardiner and Anton Stralman can be helpful, but they aren’t exactly top-pair material. Tyler Myers and Erik Karlsson will likely break the bank and cost too much, and Jacob Trouba will require a king’s ransom if the Winnipeg Jets decide to finally trade him.
That said, here are a few realistic top-pair defensemen general manager Ray Shero should explore via trade:
Jared Spurgeon – Minnesota Wild
Jared Spurgeon, 30 years old, is entering the final season of his four-year deal signed in 2015 and is undoubtedly the Wild’s biggest trade chip heading into the offseason. While Spurgeon would likely prefer to stay in Minnesota, he’s an established defenseman who can be flipped for a decent trade package to help retool the Wild’s roster.
The 5-foot-9 defenseman has a polished resume over the first nine years of his NHL career, with 248 points (70 goals, 178 assists) and a plus-51 in 591 games. He finished the 2018-19 season with 13.9 goals above replacement (GAR), which ranks 11th among defensemen and the best mark of any player on the Wild this season.
The Wild are in the market for some goal scoring help, but so are the Devils, which might make
Brett Pesce – Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes have an insane amount of depth on defense with Calvin de Haan, Dougie Hamilton, Jacob Slavin, and Brett Pesce. After falling just short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Canes might look to deal one of their young defensemen to bring in some more depth and fill other positional needs.
The 24-year-old Pesce is arguably Carolina’s best right-handed defenseman and can help solidify the Devils blue line.
He led all Hurricane defensemen with a GAR of 13.2 this season, which is just outside of the top-15 defensemen in the NHL. Pesce is also capable of carrying the puck through the neutral zone and establishing possession in the opponent’s end at a high rate, and he excels at preventing zone entries into the defensive zone, which is something that would benefit the Devils.
Darnell Nurse – Edmonton Oilers
Once the dust clears in Edmonton and Ken Holland fills the empty general manager void, one player that might be on his way out of the Oilers organization is 24-year-old Darnell Nurse.
Due to his strong play over the first
The young blueliner finished the 2018-19 season with a 3.2 GAR, and if he continues to progress at the rate he’s going, he will be a top-pair defenseman in no time. If Edmonton makes him available, perhaps the Devils can offer up the right package to bring him to New Jersey.
Brian Dumoulin – Pittsburgh Penguins
If the Penguins can’t unload Phil Kessel and the three years remaining on his contract, the Devils might target them in a salary dump trade.
One player that might become available is 27-year-old defenseman Brian Dumoulin. Over his first six seasons with the Penguins, Dumoulin has developed into a top-pair defenseman alongside Kris Letang and proved he can shut down some of the best players in the NHL with his plus-seven rating in 70 career playoff games.
He recorded 9.2 goals above replacement this season, which puts him in the same category as Rasmus Dahlin and ahead of top defensemen like Miro Heiskanen and Duncan Keith.
He also exits the defensive zone with possession at a modest rate and has a positive impact on shot contributions, which leads to more puck possession and is key to the system that Devils head coach John Hynes has in
Colin Miller – Vegas Golden Knights
With the Vegas Golden Knights facing a salary cap crunch of their own, one defenseman that could become available is Colin Miller and his $3.875 million cap hit over the next three years.
The 26-year-old blueliner is coming off a down year in which he bounced in-and-out of the Golden Knights lineup due to injury and a lack of trust from head coach Gerard Gallant. He ended up with 29 points (3 goals, 26 assists) in 65 games this season. In his first season in Vegas, Miller recorded career highs in points (41), goals (10) and assists (31).
Over the course of the past three seasons with the Boston Bruins and Vegas Golden Knights, Miller has recorded 0.83 total points per 60 minutes at even strength, the same mark as top defensemen such as Shayne Gostisbehere and Zdeno Chara. He’s also recorded 2.43 expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) at even strength, the same mark as Erik Karlsson, Hampus Lindholm, and Thomas Chabot.
While Colin Miller isn’t as intriguing a defenseman as the aforementioned players, he is more balanced than any of the defensemen that the Devils have outside of Will Butcher.
Here is a look at how the five players listed stack up against the Devils defensemen in terms of goals above replacement.
The only Devils defenseman that’s comparable to the five players I suggested is Butcher, and even he ranks behind both Spurgeon and Pesce. With Andy Greene getting up there in age and Sami Vatanen approaching the end of his deal, it’s imperative that the Devils address their blue line this offseason.