Part 1 of my campaign for defensive depth focused on three current playoff teams and their stories this past season. I will continue on by looking at recent Cup-winning bluelines and the Devils' blueline.
The D-corps of Stanley Cup Winners since the lockout:
A lot of pretty deep defenses among this group. Furthermore, the losing team in the Cup Finals in each of these years had a deep, but less impressively so, group of Dmen: 2010 Flyers (Pronger, Timonen, Carle, Coburn, Parent, Krajicek, Bartulis), the 2009 Wings and 2008 Pens were pretty similar to their Cup-winning versions, the 2007 Senators (Redden, Volchenkov, Phillips, Meszaros, Corvo, Preissing, Schubert)
The only team among all of these finalists which you could argue didn't have a very deep blueline was the 2007 Ducks, who won with the leadership of two stud defensemen and a supporting cast of mostly stay-at-home types, and the 2006 Oilers (led by Chris Pronger, but were pretty much a complete fluke that season). You could also say that the 2006 Hurricanes, 2007 Senators, 2008 Penguins, 2009 Penguins, and 2010 Flyers (arguably Pronger was snubbed in the nominee voting) were the only ones to not have a Norris-Trophy candidate. It also appears that the Cup Finalists each year were less deep in the first two years following the lockout, but all six finalists in the past three years have all been very deep.
The facts, as they pertain to the Devils' D:
The Devils have an issue with their defense. Yes, they have issues with aging overpaid forwards, but we see light at the end of the tunnel with that problem. Yes, our goalie is no longer in his prime. But the biggest weakness of this team, far and away, is a weak D corps lacking both depth and a true stud who can cover up for poor depth.
In 2010-11. the Devils started the season with five NHLers (Volchenkov, Tallinder, White, Salvador, and Greene). Salvador went down with injury during training camp and would likely have been a cap casualty anyway had he been healthy. So essentially, the Devils had four NHLers to start the season. Not only were Volchenkov and Tallinder new and slow to adjust to the team, but the Devils had to integrate a number of rookies into the lineup: Matt Taormina, Matt Corrente, Mark Fraser, and Alex Urbom at first, and eventually Olivier Magnan, Tyler Eckford, Anssi Salmela, and Mark Fayne as the season progressed and injuries to Volchenkov and White occurred. We should have known better than to think this team was ready to challenge for the Cup.
Three veterans will see their contracts expire in the next year: Andy Greene this summer, and Colin White and Bryce Salvador next summer (though arguably Salvador is a non-factor since his return to the lineup, even if healthy, is questionable for cap reasons).
Two youngsters have earned a long look in camp this summer: Taormina and Fayne. Another is a highly touted prospect who will certainly challenge them for a roster spot: Urbom. The rest (Corrente, Fraser, and Salmela) may have one last chance at making the team.
On the "need" for a stud:
The Devils have two possible ways to find themselves a stud Dman. The quick way is via free agency or trade - but they will not have the cap space to afford one until 2012-13. The long way is to hope a drafted player develops that well - perhaps Merrill, or perhaps the fourth overall pick that the Devils hold this summer.
I'm not holding my breath that a defenseman of the caliber of Pronger, Niedermayer, Keith, Doughty, or Lidstrom will emerge from one of our draft picks - not even one as highly touted as Adam Larsson. Defensemen like that are just a rare quantity, and so many variables come into play in the development of young star defenseman. Nor do I think the Devils have the assets it would take to trade for one, save for trading Zach Parise. Don't get me wrong - I'd love to have a truly great Dman, I just think it's easier said than done to end up with one.
The alternative - augmenting depth:
I would argue that the Devils need to bolster their depth with defensemen that may not be perennial All-Stars, or even one-time All-Stars, but will be solid contributors on a winning team. The additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder were a step in the right direction, especially given the loss of Paul Martin, but the Devils lack the cap space to do any more than they did.
Honestly, though I believe the Devils will be a playoff team in 2011-12 (and anything can happen in the playoffs), I don't believe they have the depth to be a true Cup contender. I think a real contender needs to have 7 legit NHL defensemen on their playoff roster (some of which can be talented rookies/sophomores who truly belong in the big leagues), and have 5 NHLers (with at least one full season under their belt) at the start of the season. If those 2 spots can be filled by rookies, great - if not, then trade for depth
Re-signing Andy Greene:
The Devils are far from being ready for that, so I think this team should be built for 2012-13 and 2013-14. The first step, I think, is to re-sign Andy Greene for 2-3 yrs, provided he does not come with a cap hit greater than $2.5M. You could spend the same amount of money on another defenseman, but there are no guarantees that player will fit as well in the Devils' system as Greene already does. Greene is (1) a good stopgap for 2011-12 who has played top-pairing minutes for this team already, and (2) a decent puck-moving defenseman who can play on the 2nd or 3rd pairing for a good team. He may be amenable to a 2-year contract, but given the plethora of contracts expiring in 2013 (Elias, Zajac, Zubrus, Clarkson, Steckel, Josefson, Tedenby), I think the team will have plenty of cap flexibility that summer and can afford to give him an extra year in exchange for a lower cap hit. I hope for a 3 year, $6.6M contract ($2.2M cap hit), but would be willing to go up 3 years, $7.5M.
Developing Fayne, Taormina, and Urbom:
The second step is to evaluate the three youngsters throughout the course of the next season. Taormina is currently up for a new contract, and Fayne will be up for one next summer. They should both be retained, and my hope is that they sign contracts that do not require them to pass through waivers when shuttling between the NHL and AHL. I feel both of them have potential, and both could be valuable depth pieces in 2012-13, but neither are have so clearly established their place on this team and I would not want to lose them to the waiver wire. I hope that one of them establishes themselves to that level this year.
Signing Colin White and another defenseman in free agency:
The third step is a critical summer of 2012. I, for one, think that Colin White played fairly well this past season and was probably the Devils' best defenseman during the team's atrocious first half. White will be 34 years old when he hits free agency in 2012 - it will likely be the last multiyear contract of his career. He has not quite been the same since his eye injury, but his game has probably gotten smarter (fewer defensive errors and fewer bad penalties), and he does a good job of covering up for his partners' mistakes - making him a good partner for a youngster or for Volchenkov, who tends to get himself out of position in order to make the big hit. I think White will probably be willing to take a significant discount to stay with the Devils - Lou has been extremely loyal to him and he would finish his career having played for one team. Much depends on how Colin White plays this upcoming season, how much he has left in the tank, and how the youngsters develop. But I'm comforted knowing the Devils have a good option to provide a steady defensive presence.
This brings our count of veteran defensemen in 2012-13 to four: the heavy-hitting Volchenkov, two-way guys in Tallinder and Greene, and stay-at-home White - a foursome that by this point will have played two full seasons together. A fifth veteran defenseman (an offensive defenseman with a right-handed shot, ideally) around a $4M cap hit could be signed at this point - the Devils will have the cap space to acquire one as Rolston and Brodeur's contracts expire. JM Liles, Brent Burns, Ryan Suter, and Matt Carle are among those that may be available that summer. Many of you will probably disagree with my propositions to bring Greene and White back. But as I said before, there are no guarantees that a free agent signing for similar money will provide a better fit than them. In fact, free agency rarely provides good value unless you're re-signing your own.
Defensive Dmen: Volchenkov ($4.25M cap hit), White ($2M or less), Tallinder ($3.375M)
Offensive Dmen: Free agent signing ($3-5M), Greene ($2-2.5M)
The sixth and seventh defensemen would then be two of Fayne, Taormina, Urbom, Merrill, or possibly the 2011 fourth overall pick - all of whom have some degree of offensive skill. Those that don't make the cut after camp could then be allowed to develop in the AHL until the injury bug inevitably hits. Is it an embarrassment of riches? I hope so. But it's not excessive - it's necessary to build a contending team.