As we approach August, the New Jersey Devils’ defensive core looks eerily similar to how it did when last season ended. Their blue line corps that struggled mightily for lengthy stretches last year has only seen a subtraction of John Moore and addition of 30-year old defender in Eric Gryba. With the season rapidly approaching, let’s examine whether the Devils should look to improve defensively, and what options they would have.
As it stands right now, the Devils top-four defensive group appears set (pending any trades of course). Led by Sami Vatanen, the group should also consist of Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and Will Butcher. With this in mind, it leaves the bottom pairing and No. 7 slot into question.
The Devils have many in-house options to fill these roles. Veteran Ben Lovejoy, youngsters Mirco Mueller and Steven Santini, along with aforementioned newcomer Eric Gryba are all candidates to fill these vacancies. It seems Ben Lovejoy and his nearly $3 million contract is a lock to be a part of the opening day roster, along with Mirco Mueller, who Devils general manager Ray Shero acquired for a steep price last summer. Granted each of these defensemen are projected to make the opening day roster it doesn’t mean they’ll play every night. For this reason, bringing in another defenseman capable of playing solid bottom-pairing minutes may benefit the Devils immensely.
Since the free agency period has been open for almost a month, most of the remaining defensemen available are (at best) relatively subpar. Names like Johnny Oduya, Paul Martin, and Luca Sbisa are still looking for homes next season. Having said that, one name the Devils should certainly look at is Tobias Enstrom.
Currently 33-years old, Enstrom is coming off a season where he played a career-low 17 minutes a game, while only tallying eight points over an injury-riddled campaign. However, in the years before his most recent injury-riddled campaign, Enstrom averaged well above the 20 minutes of ice time per game, and a point total that is acceptable for a defensive-defenseman like himself. The left-shooting defenseman is notorious for his stout work on the penalty kill and veteran presence.
Over his career, he’s posted above-average advanced statistics, as he owns a career 50.1 CF% rating. In five of his past six seasons, Enstrom owns a CF% over 50 (above league average). When comparing his most recent two years of advanced numbers to the other Devils defensemen, you can see he’s near the top (graph below).
** Statistics Courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com **
The aspect of Enstrom’s game I found most impressive is his prowess for shot suppression. As seen in the chart above, Enstrom owns an average CA/60 of 51.08 in the past two seasons. An important part of any defenseman’s game is their skill to prevent the opponent from creating shot attempts. Enstrom’s career-low CA/60 rating demonstrates his unique ability in that regard.
The theme of Toby Enstrom’s career has been injuries. Only four times over his 11-year NHL career has he been able to play all 82 games. A healthy Toby Enstrom can pay dividends to a Devils team who lack a strong bottom-pairing on their blue line. If healthy, Enstrom would have a chance to break the Devils top-four. However, it all depends on the health of the Nordingra, Sweden native. Enstrom is coming off a five-year deal that had a $5.75 million AAV. When taking his injury history and recent performances into consideration, it’s not unreasonable to think Enstrom could be had on a one-year deal for around $2-3 million; it’s not like the Devils don’t have the cap space to take a chance on a low-risk/high-reward signing of this caliber. Either way, Shero should certainly take a look at the veteran defenseman.