Can Free Agency Help Improve a Struggling Devils’ Defense?

Introduction

Free agency is a cornerstone to every single offseason. Luckily for the New Jersey Devils – thanks to a plethora of cap space – this is something they may finally be able to take advantage of. Every year there are always quality players available. However, in order to get these assets, you may have to spend a pretty penny. 

The Defense

One of the Devils glaring issues last season was their defensive core. They ranked 25th in goals against per game at 3.30, and their defense consisted of only three real top-four assets, along with a plethora of depth talent. A defensive core identical to this year will not get the job done. 

Thankfully, reinforcements should be on their way as outstanding left-handed prospect Ty Smith should be able to crack the opening night roster and serve a valuable bottom pairing/fringe top-four role in his rookie year. As mentioned above, the Devils have three other solid defensemen in left-handed Will Butcher, and the right-handed Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen. Andy Greene will also be a definite part of the opening core as his captain status and contract that pays over five-million a year confirms this. Luckily for Devils fans, with a healthy core and some additions, Greene should be allowed to serve in a more formidable role as a penalty-killing specialist and a bottom-pairing guy. 

This leaves one more spot – for a preferably right-handed defenseman – to fill. In-house options such as pending restricted free agents Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller are possible. But each seems better suited to serve depth roles. Prospect Jeremy Davies is also an option and most likely will supply more skill than Carrick or Mueller . If the Devils do not take either one of those routes, they can pursue a talent via the free agency pool.

The Candidates

Defenseman Jake Gardiner is set to become an unrestricted free agent. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Jake Gardiner

The Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. A renewal seems unlikely as the Leafs have an abundance of salary cap issues. The 28-year-old American has played his whole eight-year career with Toronto and has appeared in 551 games. In these games, he’s totaled 245 points – a 36-point per year average – while playing 21:21 of ice time per game. His high career time on ice average signifies he plays in all situations which is great to see. However, Gardiner is prone to turning the puck over as he’s averaged above 60 giveaways a year.

A deeper dive into Gardiner’s underlying numbers paints an even prettier picture. His career Corsi For % (CF%) of 51.0 is great considering his constant deployment against top-tier talent. His career Relative Corsi For % (Rel CF%) of +3.0 furthers the fact that his team is better with him on the ice rather than off. 

If it was not for Erik Karlsson, Gardiner would be far and above this free agent class’ best defenseman as he checks every important defensive box. This means his price tag will be hefty as, overall, the free agent class for defensemen this year is pretty dry. In comparison, star defenseman John Carlson got an eight-year contract worth eight million annually just last season. Since Carlson is undoubtedly a better defenseman, Gardiner will not get as much. However, a five to six-year deal in the $6.5 to 7 million-dollar range is likely. This is a big commitment by any team which may limit the market for Gardiner. This may just give the Devils a shot at landing the star defenseman and makes him a great option to fill out the team’s top four. 

Jacob Trouba

The 25-year-old Winnipeg Jets defenseman is an interesting case. Unlike Gardiner, Trouba is slated to be a restricted free agent, meaning the Jets still control his rights. Usually restricted free agents – especially ones of Trouba’s talent level – re-sign with their respective team. However, given the cap situation in Winnipeg, Trouba may be a casualty. 

As mentioned above, Trouba is an ultra-talented top-tier defenseman. His career 50.6 CF% shows whenever he is on the ice his team is usually generating chances. Another outstanding part of Trouba’s game is his grittiness and physicality, both things the Devils are lacking. In each of his six seasons, he has tallied 100 or more blocked shots and 80 or more hits, and three times both of these totals were in the 100s in the same season. It is easy to see why Trouba’s talents would be welcomed to the Devils’ defense core. 

This tweet lays out what the compensation would be based off the dollar amount of a contract signed.

Obtaining Trouba is going to be difficult. The only way he is acquired via free agency is by an offer sheet. And signing him to an offer sheet would most likely cost the Devils a first-round pick as that would be the compensation that would be given to Winnipeg via an offer sheet (offer sheet compensation can be found above). The much more likely venue of acquisition would be a sign-and-trade type of deal.

Tyler Myers

Another one of the Winnipeg Jets’ defense core from last season is slated to be a free agent. The 29-year-old defenseman is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and a reunion with the Jets is very unlikely thanks to their cap issues. 

The 6’8” defensive defenseman will be entering his 11th NHL season, and he’s totaled 635 career games and is averaging 34 points a season. Like Gardiner, his career 22:22 minutes of ice per game indicates he is used in every circumstance which is a great aspect to have. Myers is heavily regarded as a great shot blocker as he’s totaled around 100 on numerous occasions in his career. 

His underlying numbers are promising as he owns an average 50.28 CF% over the past five seasons. His zone exit numbers are also very encouraging as he ranks in the 82nd percentile at successfully exiting the defensive zone. Overall, he’d serve as a valuable top-four presence for the Devils.

As mentioned above, the defensive free agent pool is weak. This can very well inflate Myers’ value a bit so he receives a contract he isn’t exactly worth. An estimate of what type of contract Myers would receive is a deal in the four to five-year range averaging around what he does now, $5 to 5.5 million a year. This type of commitment is not too invaluable as Myers is certainly a solid defenseman. It’ll be interesting to see if general manager Ray Shero takes a shot at the veteran defenseman.

Michael Del Zotto

Journeyman Michael Del Zotto has played for six different teams in his ten-year career. The 29-year-old pending unrestricted free agent is currently a member of the St. Louis Blues after being acquired before the trade deadline. He has yet to appear in a postseason game for the Blues which makes it likely he will not be retained.

Del Zotto has appeared in 608 games over his career averaging just over 20 minutes a game. He has always served as a bottom pairing, fringe top-four defenseman. His vast experience and 32 playoff games may prove valuable to a younger Devils’ blue line. Another plus regarding Del Zotto is his price tag will be extremely cheap. A shorter one or two-year deal averaging between $1.5 to 2 million would most likely get the job done. Del Zotto would instantly help the Devils fill out their bottom pairing. 

Conclusion

It may be wise for Shero to turn to free agency to help fill out the defense. Above are just a few options that can help him do that. But several other names such as Alexander Edler, Oscar Fantenberg, and Chris Wideman also litter the market. However, the Devils must be very careful not to overpay in a market that is relatively dry on defensive talent. Whether it is in-house or via free agency, it’ll be interesting to see how Shero addresses the defense.

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