I read two articles today which reinforced in my mind the notion that the Devils need to do everything they can to bolster their defensive depth, but not necessarily acquire the "stud" defenseman we've all yearned for since the departures of Stevens and Niedermayer (Scott, obviously). These days, a Stanley Cup contender must have a blueline that can withstand two, or even three injuries - or else be tremendously reliant on luck.
Case 1 - Washington Capitals: Young stars providing depth
One piece was hater-in-extremis Scott Burnside's article about the development of Capitals' defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson into a shutdown/do-everything pairing. What Burnside failed to mention is how the Caps' blueline has been hit hard by injuries and the play of the two young Dmen has allowed the Capitals to not only survive, but go on a season-ending run to finish first in the conference - and how that momentum has carried into the playoffs. Mike Green has been injured for much of the season - most recently a concussion in February, and he just returned to the lineup in time for the playoffs. Dennis Wideman, their big trade deadline acquisition, has been sidelined for the past two weeks with a leg hematoma. Tom Poti has had groin issues all season - and even if he feels better he won't get into the lineup because the blueline is playing well.
The Caps continue to look strong because their young stars are stepping up to the big stage, being supported by a cast that includes Scott Hannan, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz. When completely healthy, their blueline would comprise 8 legit NHLers: Alzner, Carlson, Green, Wideman, Hannan, Schultz, with Poti and Erskine the extra defensemen. It should be noted that GM George McPhee acquired Wideman and Hannan during the course of the season - even though the development of Clarson and Alzner was patently obvious (but in some sense the trades were made to make up for the absences of Green and Poti).
Case 2 - Boston Bruins: One stud, poor depth
The Bruins, on the other hand, are not looking so good. After a strong finish to the regular season, they were touted as a favorite to reach the Conference Finals by many pundits, yet find themselves down 2-0 in their first round series with Montreal. Boston captain Zdeno Chara missed Game 2 with a stomach virus, and his status for Game 3 is unknown. The Bruins Blog laments that the Bruins were built too thin on the blueline to withstand any injury to their D-corps, much less an injury to a player of Chara's importance. The folks at the Bruins Blog are quite panicked, but they see history repeating itself before their eyes. Last year they saw their team struggle in the playoffs with Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart injured; the year before it was Andrew Ference and Matt Hunwick.
Chara is undeniably a great player, but even he cannot carry an entire blueline by himself. It worked well enough for the regular season - the D managed to stay healthy and the Bruins were second-best in the league in goals-against. Chara's supporting cast includes rental Tomas Kaberle, a serviceable second-pairing player in Dennis Seidenberg, and some decent NHLers in Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk. However, even when completely healthy, the Bruins are forced to play with either Adam McQuaid or Shane Hnidy. With just a single injury to their blueline, they must play with both. Next up on their depth chart should a second injury occur is first-year pro Steven Kampfer, who finished his NCAA career just a year ago.
Which makes GM Peter Chiarelli's decision to trade Matt Hunwick and his $1.45M cap hit to Colorado in exchange for D prospect Colby Cohen very curious. The Bruins were cap-strapped at the time and trying to make space to bring Marc Savard back into the lineup. I appreciate the difficulty of Chiarelli's decision, but he failed to address the lack of depth at defense later in the season. Yes, he acquired Tomas Kaberle, but he also separately acquired forwards Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley while jettisoning Blake Wheeler and Marco Sturm. The cap space allotted to one of Kelly ($2.125M) or Peverley ($1.325M), or even both, could easily have been used on depth defensemen instead. Now, with an excess of depth at forward, the Bruins have top pick Tyler Seguin and his $3.55M cap hit sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch in the playoffs.
Case 3 - Vancouver Canucks: The deepest blueline in the league
The President Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks have been both lucky and unlucky with their defensemen. Already boasting a blueline of Alexander Edler, Christian Ehrhoff, Kevin Bieksa, and Sami Salo, the Canucks signed Dan Hamhuis as a free agent and traded for Keith Ballard. That is six defensemen who are not only legit NHLers, but all pretty darn good. After them on the depth chart were some journeymen NHLers in Andrew Alberts and Aaron Rome, and youngster Lee Sweatt.
The unlucky of the season for the Canucks' blueline is that five of their top six guys have been injured at various points during the season. In fact, at one point, Edler, Bieksa, Hamhuis, and Ballard were all out of commission, forcing the Canucks to play with Ehrhoff, Salo, Rome, Chris Tanev, Yann Suave, and Evan Oberg (huh? who? what?). The "lucky" part for the Canucks is that their defense was never healthy all at the same time, and unlike the Bruins, they were never forced to make a cap-clearing move (thanks largely to the Salvadorian preseason injury to Sami Salo).
In any case, because of their defensive depth, the Canucks survived, and absolutely dominated as they got healthier. I will admit that the Canucks are a special case. With all that money allocated to the defense, they have just four other players with a cap hit over $3M: the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, and Roberto Luongo - and all four of those guys are providing great values for their cap hit this season. Four more forwards had cap hits between $2-3M: young forward Mason Raymond, secondary scorer Mikael Samuelsson, defensive/faceoff specialist Manny Malhotra, and scoring pest Alex Burrows. And somehow, filling in the rest of their forward corps with cheap forwards, the Canucks managed to be the highest-scoring team in the league (and with great defensive forwards, a stacked defense, and a goalie like Luongo, they were of course the best defensive team in the league as well).
See Part 2 of my FanPost on Defensive Depth to see the lineups put forth by recent Cup winners and finalists, as well as my opinion on what the Devils need to do with their defense.