Upgrade Options for Devils’ Defense
Any New Jersey Devils fan that watched last season can tell you that the team needs major upgrades on defense. Turnovers, sloppy positioning, and lack of production were all too common of themes from the blue line in 2016-17. The Hockey Writers’ Will Agathis went more in depth on the current state of the Devils’ defense and its deficiencies just a few days ago. It appears to be a pretty bleak picture.
Fortunately, there are several players hitting free agency that could help them in both the short and long term. General manager Ray Shero should take a run at a few of those players, conveniently mentioned below, and give Devils fans more optimism for next season.
Kevin Shattenkirk is the biggest name on the free-agent market. Shattenkirk did not overly impress in his brief stint with the Washington Capitals, especially in the playoffs. However, Shattenkirk does have seven 40-plus point seasons under his belt. At 28 years old, he is young enough to fit into the Devils’ rebuilding phase and be a part of the team’s long-term strategy. On paper, it seems to be a good fit, especially considering Shattenkirk wants a number-one role next season.
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Luckily, the Devils can offer him that. The only real competition on the roster for that spot would belong to Damon Severson. Severson, in my mind, needs a few more years to mature into a number-one defenseman. As of right now, sliding him into the number-two role would be a far better development strategy for the young defender. This opens the door for Shattenkirk to slide directly into the top pairing and number-one role he covets. There will need to be significant money thrown at the former Blues defenseman to lure him to New Jersey. Nevertheless, Shero has the cap space, a need to fill, and can give him the starting role he wants.
It really is tough luck for the cash-strapped Capitals. After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in a series in which they dominated, they will be losing a lot of key pieces that won them the Presidents’ Trophy. Shattenkirk will be the first defender to leave, as his price tag will prove to be too high. The second potential cap casualty on the blue line would be Karl Alzner.
Alzner is a solid defender who eats a lot of minutes, is sound defensively, and can offer some offensive production. The former fifth overall pick has accrued 117 points in 519 games. Not an amazing feat, but solid production from a responsible, stay-at-home defender.
Alzner would fit nicely on the second pairing and be a valuable asset on the penalty kill. If the Capitals let Alzner walk as well as Shattenkirk, Shero could potentially weaken a divisional rival by stealing two starting defenders. Both defensemen would instantly be in the top four and make the Devils a much better team. A two-birds-with-one-stone scenario is one I am sure Shero would love to accomplish.
Michael Del Zotto
There are probably a lot of people looking at the name above and immediately saying “yeah, no thanks,” but hear me out. Del Zotto has been plagued by inconsistency and injury throughout his career. He will have stretches that make people wonder why he is not signed long-term and then have stretches not too long after that showing people why he is not. This past season was no different. Del Zotto recorded 18 points in 51 games but missed the rest either due to injury or being a healthy scratch.
Eighteen points would have ranked third in points by a defenseman on the Devils last season. Only Severson and John Moore had more. It is a mixed bag with Del Zotto, but he does put up points and can join the rush. I would take an offensively capable defenseman who is a liability defensively rather than a defenseman who is a liability at both ends of the ice any day.
The problem is the Devils have a surplus of the latter. Del Zotto could slide into the third pairing and the second power-play unit with relative ease. These two roles would allow him to not have an abundance of minutes and put him in a position to succeed. It is a risk, but it is worth trying.
Stone does not have the same name recognition as Shattenkirk or Del Zotto but is a pretty good player in his own right. The Calgary Flames defender struggled to replicate his 36-point season from 2015-16, posting only 15 points this year in 64 games. However, nine of those points came when he played 45 games with the offensively starved Arizona Coyotes.
The Coyotes finished fourth-worst in the league this past season in scoring and only had 11 more goals than the Devils. It is not hard to see why Stone struggled offensively. Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson only mustered 39 points on the same blue line as Stone. That may sound impressive, but it is a sizeable drop-off from the 55 points he posted in the 2015-16 season.
In Calgary, with a better supporting cast, the right-handed defenseman had six points in 19 games. It is a small sample size, but if averaged out over a full season, that comes to 26 points. That would be second on the Devils’ defense in points. Additionally, Stone is only 26 years old and could be had for cheaper than the three above. With the youth influx in New Jersey, along with the first overall pick, the Devils can achieve a good supporting cast to make Stone thrive. This would be a low risk, high reward move by Shero if he decides to go this route, and it could yield great results.
Shero should look at all four of these players once free agency begins. Not all four will be signed, but one or two could definitely happen. That most certainly would count as an upgrade for next season.
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