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It’s been another long offseason in New Jersey. There have been many changes and a number of new faces will take the ice when camp begins in just a few weeks. It’s safe to say the Devils are in much better shape than they were at this time last year. However, there is still one glaring hole the Devils need to address before the season starts. In trading Adam Larsson, they sent away a key piece of their defensive unit and they haven’t exactly done much to replace to him to this point aside from signing Ben Lovejoy.
Damon Severson and Andy Greene are the team’s two best defensemen and will most likely start out as their top unit. After those two is where things get a bit concerning. Of the Devils defensemen on the current roster, Severson has the highest Relative Corsi at +0.9, which is about average. The second and third highest rates after Severson would be Andy Greene at -0.2 and John Moore at -0.8. (This is over a span of three years (2013-16)). None of those numbers are particularly great and it just keeps getting worse after John Moore.
Another problem with the Devils is they don’t have a ton of effective puck-moving defenseman in their system. Damon Severson has the most offensive upside of any defenseman on the roster. He averages 0.69 points per 60 at even-strength, but that’s about average compared to other defensemen in the league. After that, your best bet for a puck-moving defenseman would be John Moore or Andy Greene and with Greene playing largely a shutdown role the last couple of seasons, I wouldn’t bet on him taking a big jump offensively this season.
Whether it’s on the current roster or in the pipeline, the Devils don’t have a ton of options that will contribute offensively from their defensemen. Ben Lovejoy and Seth Helgeson are not going to light up the scoreboard any time soon. Steve Santini is a fine prospect, but he doesn’t project as a big time offensive defenseman, so where does New Jersey turn to at this point? If we look at the free agency pool, there is not a whole lot left. Kris Russell is still available, but he’s not the ideal candidate to help the Devils on the back end. Someone like Christian Ehrhoff or Jakub Nakladal could join the team on a PTO. Ehrhoff’s best days are behind him, but he may still have something to offer as a third-pair, offensive defenseman. Nakladal showed promise with Calgary and had solid underlying numbers in limited time there.
If not the PTO route, the Devils can turn to the trade market. New Jersey has been mentioned as a possible destination for Kevin Shattenkirk by some, but the price is going to be sky high and it’s unlikely the Devils will be able to meet St. Louis’ demands. The Ducks have a glut of young defensemen and still need to re-sign Hampus Lindholm, so someone will likely be on the move in Anaheim. It’s possible Ray Shero could look to grab a defenseman from the Ducks, such as Cam Fowler. His underlying numbers aren’t great, but he can eat minutes and is an effective puck-moving defenseman, which is what plagues the Devils most. Still, they should be cautious in trading for Fowler.
The bottomline is the Devils can’t go into the season with this group of defensemen if they want to be legitimate playoff contenders. They’ve improved a great amount up front, but their blue line is a work in progress. As mentioned previously, their biggest problem is that they don’t have an effective puck moving defenseman. If they can’t effectively move the puck out of their own end, they’ll make life difficult for Cory Schneider and will have problems breaking out to create scoring opportunities for themselves. Whether they decide to go the trade route or just rely on PTOs to stabilize their defensive unit remains to be seen, but they need to shore things up on the back end. Once they take care of that, then we can start mentioning the Devils as legitimate contenders for a playoff spot.