Already stocked with the first-overall pick, the New Jersey Devils next question is how to repair their sieve of a defense that they had to endure through the 2016-17 season. This might be that year in which they can do that as they also have $21MM in projected cap space, are armed with a key trade chip of Ilya Kovalchuk and have draft assets to move if they want to take part in the expected trade flurry right before the expansion draft.
The team is in desperate need to make some changes, which includes rebuilding that blueline that gave the Devils the sixth-worst goals allowed (2.94) in the NHL last year. The Hockey Writers’ Will Agathis break down some of the current defensemen on the roster and the key is moving to a youth movement. The team’s lone bright spot is 22-year-old Damon Severson, who will be a restricted free agent this year, but started to put everything together in his third year in the league. His three goals and 28 assists highlighted the defense. However the highlights ended there.
One critical aid to the defense would be to begin limiting minutes for veteran Andy Greene and last year’s free agent acquisition Ben Lovejoy. Greene, a 34-year-old blueliner, is still a solid defender but probably is not a top-2 defenseman any longer. The veteran still has three years remaining on his contract at $5MM each. While Greene was never much of an offensive defenseman, his 13 points in each of the last two years are the lowest output since the 2008-09 season. The team will also need a bounce-back season from veteran Lovejoy, who put forth a disappointing season after signing over from the Pittsburgh Penguins last offseason. The veteran still has two years remaining at $2.67MM. It’s also suggested that he may need to move further back in the lineup.
So, who should the Devils rely on?
Agathis suggests the team should put more emphasis on their youth such as Severson and maybe even John Moore. Despite his lack of defensive presence, the 26-year-old still has time to improve on defense and just needs the ice time. He also suggests that Steven Santini and Jon Merrill should be given more ice time to prove themselves. Santini, a former second-round pick in 2013, only played in 38 games last season, but showed promise. Merrill, a second-round pick in 2010, has been inconsistent with injuries throughout his career, but also has shown flashes of promise.
However, the scribe writes the best opportunities for the Devils is to pick up some defenders through free agency and through trades. The Kovalchuk trade chip would be one great way to net a top defender, while waiting for a team to desperately trade one of the unprotected prospects before having to give them up to the Las Vegas Golden Knights for nothing would be another way to find a blueliner. Along with their cap space, the Devils may be able to totally redesign their defense in just one offseason.