The New Jersey Devils defense needed a facelift and it is currently in the midst of that process after the trades this season that shipped out two expiring contracts in former captain Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen. There is still work to do whenever the off-season begins and with more free time than we know what to do with these days here are a couple of options that the Devils could be looking at once the current season is finished or canceled and the preparations for the 2020-21 season begins.
In my plan to rebuild the New Jersey blueline only three of the players on the roster at the time of the pause in the current season will be returning – PK Subban, Damon Severson, and Dakota Mermis. Crazy, right? Maybe not, hear me out.
What Happens in Vegas…
We’re letting Fredrik Claesson walk, or re-signing him with the purpose of assigning him to the Binghamton Devils in the AHL, and we’re also saying goodbye to Mirco Mueller who will be a restricted free agent (RFA). Also on the move will be a pair of 25-year-olds in Connor Carrick and Will Butcher in a trade package that will head to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for winger Alex Tuch.
The Golden Knights are straddling the salary cap so there will have to be more pieces involved in the deal. Think something like Carrick, Butcher, and the New York Islanders 2nd round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft for Tuch, Brandon Pirri, and a 6th round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Acquiring Tuch gives the Devils a 23-year-old, top-6 winger who is signed for six more years to play on Jack Hughes’ right-wing.
The move allows Vegas a path to the pros for younger players on the wing while also giving them one of the best defensive corps in the Western Conference, if not the NHL. It also allows New Jersey to focus on defense in free agency rather than chasing after a forward looking for a big payday. With Tuch, Hughes, Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Jesper Bratt, and Nikita Gusev the Devils would have a pretty solid top-6 going into the new season.
Show Them the Money
Okay, after a slight detour we are back to fixing the defensive group. There are some intriguing names out there on the market but we’ve targeted four who we think could be coming to New Jersey. In fairness, Mermis may not make the team out of camp with the group we’re trying to piece together, but he played very well in his 10-game stint with the Devils following his recall from Binghamton, and it seems when he has been paired with Severson that the pairing benefited both players.
Let’s also make mention that Ty Smith will be on the team, without a shadow of a doubt. He’s done toying with the WHL and will have every opportunity to play in the NHL in 2020-21. The Devils really need him to pan out and give them a presence on the blueline like they once had with Brian Rafalski back in the halcyon days.
Okay, so we have Subban, Severson, Smith, maybe Mermis, and? Two of the top of the available defenders on the unrestricted free agent (UFA) market are Torey Krug from the Boston Bruins and Tyson Barrie from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Go hard after both of them, maybe a smidge harder after Krug because he’s a lefty, but try to land both. Krug made $5 million this past season and in 61 games the 29-year-old picked up 49 points (9g-40a).
He’s probably looking for a 5-or-6-year deal and that shouldn’t be a problem for the Devils’ owners who have deep pockets. You might have to overpay because of where you sit in the standings, but you already knew that. It’s time to weaponize all of the cap space that you have been stockpiling.
Barrie made a bit more ($6 million) than Krug last season, but he’s a reliable defender with a scoring touch – 70 games/39 points (5g-34a). If New Jersey is able to sign one of them this off-season it would be a big boost to the blue line, adding a second would be gravy. Both will be looking for a raise and the Devils should be the team that can accommodate them.
The next two targets will cost a bit less, but both should be valued as desirable assets to help this team get to the next step in their evolution. Nikita Zadorov of the Colorado Avalanche is a pending RFA and the Devils should inquire about taking him off their hands. Perhaps they can dangle a forward like Miles Wood or Pavel Zacha as bait in a swap for the rights to Zadorov, who made $3.2 million last season. He’s 25-years-old and in essence, would be replacing Mueller on the roster.
Another option is Trevor van Riemsdyk from the Carolina Hurricanes who New Jersey should set their sights on despite his oft-injured status. The 28-year-old has six years of NHL experience, a Stanley Cup on his resume, and might be intrigued to sign with the team that plays in his home state. He only made $2.5 this past season and it wouldn’t break the bank to ink him to a 2-3 year deal.
There are more defenders (hopefully) coming in the pipeline, but it’s highly unlikely they are ready to make an impact as early as next season. Obviously all of them won’t pan out to be NHL pros, but these moves allow for more development time for players like Case McCarthy, Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, Daniil Misyul, Michael Vukojevic, Xavier Bernard, Matthew Hellickson, and Nikita Okhotyuk.
So here’s what our version of the rebuilt, reimagined New Jersey Devils defense looks like as we head into the 2020-21 season (at some point in time). Handedness listed in parenthesis, followed by age at press time.
Nikita Zadorov (L) – 25 PK Subban (R) – 30
Torey Krug (L) – 29 Damon Severson (R) – 25
Ty Smith (L) – 19 Trevor van Riemsdyk (R) – 28
Dakota Mermis (R) – 26
(Maybe Tyson Barrie (R) – 28)
What are your thoughts? Who do you think the Devils should pursue this off-season?
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.