For those of you who are new to the fanbase… first of all, I’m sorry… second, you likely know that there used to be a time when the Devils were known primarily for being a first defense team. This started in the mid-90s when the Devils won their first Stanley Cup under the direction of Jaques Lamaire, who employed the infamous neutral zone trap, thus ruining hockey forever. The reputation for being a boring defensive team persisted with the organization throughout the remainder of the Lou Lamoriello era, even when they led the league in scoring. Anytime you listened to the opposing team’s broadcast or even the occasional national broadcast there was a good chance you would hear lazy commentary about the Devils implementing the trap and playing boring hockey, even at times when neither was true. It was extremely annoying.
And you know what? I miss those days. Not the post-2012 slowly fading into mediocrity with an aging roster version (obviously) but the lazy commentary that existed because the Devils were good despite their only recognizable star player being in net. The, ‘I’m the color guy for a Western Conference team too lazy to do my homework and all I know about the Devils is Brodeur, Lou, defense, and trap. Should I do any actual research on this team. Nah, it’s probably fine,’ At least then the Devils had a reputation for being good, even if it came with all that other baggage.
To play Devils advocate (hah) however, the Devils did earn their reputation for playing defensively sound hockey. From 1994-2015 the Devils gave up the fewest goals per game of any team in the league. And if you had to pick one word to define the Devils during Lamoriello’s tenure as GM it would probably be structure. This philosophy went beyond on-ice play and permeated every aspect of the organization. It certainly meant Lou gravitated towards skaters who played a simple, blue-collar game. The more recent embodiment of this style was Travis Zajac, but before him were players such as Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Jamie Langenbrunner, etc. Players who you could count on at both ends of the ice to get the job done. Or, at least players who excelled at making sure nothing happened while they were on the ice.
This is something missing from the current iteration of the team. Players who excel at shutting the other team’s offense down. The type of player who makes the game simple and boring. When you line up their shifts with the gameflow graph on Naturalstattrick, it should look like the ECG of someone who just flatlined. If you can’t rely on your goaltending, and there’s too much uncertainty around the position right now for me to be confident Fitzgerald can actually fix it this offseason, at least make sure the goalie’s job is as easy as possible. I’ve generally been satisfied with the job Fitzgerald has done so far as GM, but I do believe he needs to add this element during the offseason to supplement the young, highly talented core of this team. Or to put it another way, Fitzgerald needs to find replacements for Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac.
The simplest, fastest, and least expensive (asset-wise) option for acquiring players is always through free agency. While most big UFA deals end up being mistakes, sometimes really quickly, it’s not a reason to completely stay away from the UFA market. It just means Fitzgerald has to be smart, not get too desperate, and know what he’s willing to spend ahead of time. This year’s UFA crop is particularly intriguing in terms of forward talent available and I believe there are a number of defensively responsible forwards who could be a good fit for the Devils.
Data from EvolvingHockey and Naturalstattric
My parameters here were forwards 30 years old or younger with strong defensive impacts. Of the players on this list, Valeri Nichushkin is the big fish. He has consistently been a strong defensive player and if he chooses to test the UFA market, he’d be my top choice assuming the price tag is reasonable (which is a big assumption). Marchment is having a fantastic season, but this season coming completely out of nowhere at his age would scare me off unless he comes as a bargain. Aston-Reese has traditionally been a strong defensive player but he is more of a bottom than the line-up player. He would be a nice addition, but don’t expect him to be shutting down top lines. Evan Rodrigues and Ilya Mikheyev are my backup choices if Nichushkin is too pricey or Colorado re-signs him. Both are excellent middle of the line-up players who are capable of successfully killing penalties. The other players on this list would be nice options as well, but there does seem to be a drop off after Mikheyev on this list.
The potential for a big trade this offseason still exists and I maintain the Devils should put their first round pick on the block. My dream scenario is a trade for Matthew Tkachuk, a player with excellent defensive impacts in his own right. Artturi Lehkonen is another upcoming RFA who I hope the Devils look at, although he’s not quite as low event as the other players I discussed today.
The one caveat to all of this is that coaching can have a major impact on defensive structure. And while I do think the Devils need to overhaul the coaching staff, it would behoove the next coach to play to the team’s strengths, which happen to be a creative, fast, up-tempo brand of hockey, pretty much the exact opposite of their reputation throughout the 90s and aughts. That likely does mean sacrificing something on the other end of the ice, but they also don’t have to be anywhere near as bad defensively as they have been this season. But improvements in structure can only do so much. If the Devils want to be a playoff team anytime in the near future, they will need to add forwards who can be relied upon to slow things down and protect a lead or neutralize the other team’s best players.
Do you think the Devils need to add more two-way forwards or will their issues be solved purely with a coaching change and better goaltending? Are there any strong two-way players that I missed bringing up who could be great fits for this team? Please comment below and thank you for reading.