Free Agent Defensemen & the Devils: No One New

Today, I conclude this feature on free agent defensemen.  I feel that the majority of viable signings in terms of "names," roles, and salary for a top pairing or a top 4 defenseman - be they an offensive or a defensive defenseman.   If you want to suggest or talk about possible centers to sign, make them in the comments of this FanPost (not here) or reply/direct message me on Twitter.   So far the response is a little tepid (Blair Betts?), so I hope some of you have some good angles as far as who would be a good fit.   I will give you all a big hint: no Chris Grattons.

However, there is one possibility that remains - and one that always remains: doing nothing but keeping Oduya.

For today's closer look, the assumption is that the Devils will re-sign Johnny Oduya on defense and that will be it.  (Note: I am also assuming that if Oduya is not re-signed, someone new must be signed because, oh, Oduya would leave a big, 20-minute hole on defense.) After all, the other top 5 defensemen are already signed for next season. According to NHL Numbers, Paul Martin, Jay Leach, and Mike Mottau have one year left on their deals; and Colin White and Bryce Salvador are signed through 2012-13. The Devils can sign Oduya and go into 2009-10 with the same top 6 they had from last season.  Any other spots on the blueline will only be taken from within. 

Let's look at how well the Devils' defense performed as a team last season.  The Devils let up an average of 29.5 shots per game, which was 12th best in the league - the middle of a glut of teams ranging from 9th to 16th where the average shots allowed was between 29 and 30 per game.   That's certainly not bad. In terms of how the Devils do on even strength, their goals for/against ratio is 1.25, the second best in the league.  In conjunction with the Devils letting up an average 2.52 goals per game, the fourth best average in the league; I think it's fair to suggest that the Devils defense is effective to a point.  The Devils may not be shutting down teams with ruthless aggression, but they aren't easy to beat. (Of course, the goaltending factors into the goals against, but I am speaking in terms of team defense, after all.)

In terms of roles, the Devils defense is led by Paul Martin, who had a strong season and deserved to be getting the majority of the minutes.  While Martin averaged 24:22 per game last season, what is interesting how the minutes were divided up among the rest of the defense.   Oduya got 20:52 per game, Salvador got 19:28 per game, White got 19:01 per game, Mottau got 17:47 per game, and Greene got .  Martin was the only one who got significantly more minutes than the rest where as lot of the workload was shared among the rest.  It strengthens the notion, in my mind, that the Devils' defense was truly a sum of it's parts. And another season of the same parts could lead to an even better season what with everyone already established in these roles. The coaches and players can just focus on improving the performance instead of mixing things up.

In terms of what to improve, two areas stick out. First, the Devils' penalty killing was definitely not so effective at a 79.9% rate. That was the 20th best rate in the league, tied with Colorado.  While they stepped it up in the playoffs - and still manages the best postseason rate of 93.1% (though you can thank Carolina's awful, awful man advantage play for that), this is simply not a good rate for a PK.  Especially with the team doing so well on even strength.   You can argue that John Madden and Jay Pandolfo coming down from awesome 2007-08 seasons had a factor in that, but the Devils simply need to do a better job at this.

Second, out of the 238 goals the Devils scored in 2008-09, all nine defensemen who have played at least one game for the Devils combined for 21 goals. Paul Martin led the defense with 33 points, which places him seventh on the team between Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson in terms of points. I honestly don't know how this compares with other teams; but you would think a blueline can contribute more than 8.8% of the team's goals.  Correct my on my math if I'm wrong, but in terms of shots on net, 554 came from Devils defensemen out of the 2738 total that the Devils took, or approximately 20.2%.  The defensemen are just not producing, which is odd because it's a common play for the puck to be fed to the point for an open shot.  

None of the top 6 have that proverbial, heavy, low shot from the point that can lead to those goals, they don't have a very accurate shot either.  None of them could be considered as good offensive defensemen. Quite frankly, that explains why Sutter usually went with four forwards on the power play.   In terms of types of defensemen, the Devils don't have a defenseman with solid offensive skills. Only guys with flashes of it.  That's why I felt, and I suppose why most of you felt, an offensive defenseman would improve the team.   Another significant portion of readers felt that a defensive defenseman would be best, I suppose to bolster the good 12th best shots against average back into the top 10 or so as well as help out on the PK.

Yet, I feel like the current blueline - provided Oduya comes back - is not a detriment to the team.  Oh, I believe it can be improved and should be; but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. 

As far as prospects go, there is Lowell, the Devils' AHL affilliate.  Jared Ramsden at Hockey's Future has a solid review of the prospects down in Lowell from this past season and there are few defenders you may see in New Jersey in the future. Mark Fraser has been in minor pro hockey for two full seasons now and even got a small call up in 2006-07 for 7 games.  He's a defensive defenseman, gritty, and big at 6'3", 220 lbs.  He may not become a top 4 defender, but he could be useful on the third pairing.   Tyler Eckford is another name to consider.  He's more of a two-way defenseman and just lit it up in his final season at University of Alaska-Fairbanks with 8 goals and 31 assists in 37 games.  He just finished his first season of professional hockey and Ramsden is still high on the player.

But the most likely player you may see next season is Matthew Corrente. The Devils' first round pick from 2006 was in competition with Anssi Salmela in preseason last September. From what I saw of him in exhibition, he was alright but didn't wow me all that much.  The New Jersey organization felt that way as well and sent Corrente back to Lowell for his first season of professional hockey, where he could get minutes and properly develop.  According to what Ramsden wrote, that may have proven to be a wise decision:

Along with being a physical and nasty presence on the blueline, he also displays the ability to carry the puck up the ice and put a few points on the board. He might be best served to play another full season in the minors, but after making such a smooth adjustment to the pro game, he might not need much more time there and could very well challenge for a spot on New Jersey's blueline this fall. 

He was given the opportunity to challenge for a spot last season and if he has done as well as Ramsden notes, there's no reason to believe he won't get that opportunity again.  It's not like Andy Greene and Jay Leach are irreplaceable players.

Hopefully, with this sort of an ending to this feature, I hope I explained that I think that the Devils' defense isn't terrible or a major issue preventing from the team to succeed.   Keeping Oduya and using the rest of the available cap space would be a justifiable decision.  As far any new blood coming up on defense, Corrente, Eckford, and Fraser (in that order) may make some noise in preseason.  Like Salmela, it could be enough to get some games in on that third pairing.  I personally want to see the Devils go out and sign someone to improve the blueline, preferbly in terms of offense. Someone like Ohlund or Seidenberg or Aucoin or Bergeron or (if Lou hits a home run) Bouwmeester.   But if not signing an extra defenseman gets one or two centers who can produce right away, then that may turn out to be a smarter decision.  Just like the decision is up to the unrestricted free agent as to who to sign with, the decision is up to the Devils as to who to target.   As always, I trust in Lou.

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