Andy Greene is holding off Claude Giroux. Can the Devils have someone else on the Devils roster do this next season? I think so. Read on as to why and how. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Over the past few weeks or so, I brought up the question of whether or not the New Jersey Devils can replace defenseman Andy Greene from within for next season. It is an entirely realistic possibility. Andy Greene didn't have a lights-out season on the blueline. However, he's relatively young at age 28, he has played a ton of minutes in the last two seasons, and he wasn't at the bottom end defensively last season among impending unrestricted free agents - he was generally in the middle among them except in minutes, where Greene stands out. We can quibble on how much money he deserves on the open market, but all of this points to a substantial raise from his $750,000 salary last season.
Given that the Devils do not have a lot cap space available for 2011-12 ($7,222,500 with the current $59.4 million ceiling) along with the need to re-sign restricted free agent Zach Parise, even a more modest raise for Greene may not be in New Jersey's budget. Therefore, the question must be asked: can Greene be replaced on defense by players on the Devils' roster? It's why I've looked at the underlying numbers for several Devils defenseman along with Greene and approached the question from various perspectives.
The long and short of it: Yes, I believe Greene can be replaced from within by New Jersey. I also believe it will be the path the Devils take this summer. But it's not as simple as re-organizing the defenders to make up his workload. There's a real risk to this approach that cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. I'll go into further detail after the jump.
How It Can Be Done
Last season, Greene wasn't a giant difference maker at even strength. He was in the middle of the Devils in terms of on-ice and off-ice stats at 5-on-5 play last season, as shown in Part 1. Both for offense and defense. While he played a lot of minutes, the underlying numbers in Part 2 showed that he didn't always face the toughest competition, he had a favorable zone start percentage, and possession pointed towards the wrong end of the rink when he was on the ice last season. Again, this doesn't mean Greene was bad (Anssi Salmela, on the other hand...). Just that while he didn't look too bad getting 18+ of even strength minutes per game, the advanced stats showed that he wasn't excelling. Whoever does sign him should keep that in mind.
That all said, the good news is that defensively, Greene can be replaced. Henrik Tallinder led the team in even strength minutes and did fairly well at them. He had his best performances with young Mark Fayne on his pairing. While I wouldn't start proclaiming him to be the next big thing, Fayne's emergence last season suggests that he could be a solid defender. I don't see any reason why that pairing can't work again for a second season short of one of the two regressing.
The Devils have Anton Volchenkov was a 20 minute man in Ottawa, so he's capable of filling the minutes while dishing out some pain. When he was available to play, he averaged 18 minutes per game along with Colin White. White was very steady last season, which is something that one has come to expect from the veteran defensive defenseman. It's not an ideal second pairing since their offensive skills are limited; but it's definitely a viable option.
Beyond those four, the third pairing can be more experimental. We could see a combination of Mark Fraser, Matt Corrente, Anssi Salmela, or Matt Taormina back there. Fraser and Corrente are defensive defensemen, while Salmela and Taormina are more offensive. I'd personally would like to see a combination of Taormina, who may have actual offensive talent, and Fraser, who is physical and can do some PK work, to get protected minutes on the third pairing. But those four can battle it out for spots that are suitable for their current spots. None of these four will be asked to step into the top two pairings unless they perform really well in camp or holes on the roster open up due to injury. All four are RFAs, so who the Devils decide to keep on a one one-way deals, keep on a two-way deal, or let go entirely will provide a tell for these spots.
The biggest point to all of this is that the Devils can construct a blueline that can be quite effective in their own end without Andy Greene. By assigning minutes accordingly, there won't be a big hole on the defensive side of the puck because Greene isn't there to play 18-19 minutes at 5-on-5 anymore. Certainly, the Devils have players who performed just as well in their own end as Greene, if not better, at even strength last season. Therefore, I do not think the Devils defense will suffer greatly by not retaining Greene and instead using players already signed or lesser RFAs.
It's not as simple as that, though.
Let's be frank about what suffers in replacing Greene from within: offense. Andy Greene was not a point machine nor was he ever a possession beast like, say, Paul Martin. However, as I pointed out in Part 3, I liken his production to being the one-eyed man among the valley of the blind. 23 points may not be a lot, but it's more than any other defenseman on the Devils roster has ever reached in a NHL season. I also believe Greene will rebound in terms of production; if only because he'd have to be incredibly unlucky to have his teammates shoot at 5.75% when he's on the ice for all those minutes he plays.
Basically, there's not a lot of sense in hoping that Henrik Tallinder can pick up that slack or to hope White or Volchenkov somehow bust out career highs in points. They are who they are, and they aren't offensive defensemen. Tallinder has a nice first pass out of his zone; but he's not going to be bombing away from the back end. There's not a lot to believe Anssi Salmela is an offensive defenseman, much less anything beyond a third pairing guy. Who's left?
The hope will be placed on Taormina (who will be re-signed, I hope) and Fayne to step up on the attack. Maybe they can do it - whether or not it will be this season or later down the line is another question entirely. Taormina hasn't played a full NHL season yet and Fayne just finished his first. Sure, Taormina has some good awareness going forward and I like how Fayne keeps his shots from the point low and on-target. Either way, It's asking a lot out of two inexperienced players to take some sort of offensive lead among the blueliners, in my opinion.
From a skill standpoint, I'm not really sure who has the offensive skills to play the point on the power play. As I noted in Part 4, defensemen on the power play for the Devils last season were rare except for when Taormina was healthy. Even then, giving that spot to a player with only 17 games of NHL experience is asking for quite a lot. Of course, for all I know the new head coach may prefer to use 4 or 5 forwards in man-advantage situations,anyway. That would mitigate this concern; though the lack of proven offensive defensemen may be the cause for such a decision - which would be exacerbated without Greene around.
Needless to say, if you thought the Devils were lacking an offensive punch on defense for the last few seasons, then it's could be a lot more obvious to others without Andy Greene to show some promising glimpses of offense. Unless something drastic happens, we would be talking about this need next summer as well. This is the main drawback to replacing from within, and it cannot be understated.
There is also a defensive drawback for the penalty kill. As demonstrated in Part 4, Greene was quite good in 4-on-5 situations and had a significant role on the PK units. While the Devils will still have Colin White, Anton Volchenkov, and Henrik Tallinder; that fourth spot remains open if you remove Greene from the picture. Who would take his minutes, much less provide a strong performance like he did last season? The answers aren't so clear at this juncture. I wouldn't trust Fayne with the position right away since he had very little PK experience last season. I wouldn't mind giving him a shot, if only to see if he can do it. This may be a spot for Fraser, who had some not-insignificant PK time last season, should he be re-signed and stay on the NHL roster. However, Fraser didn't perform all that well in those situations, suggesting that he shouldn't be a regular.
In terms of personnel, I believe there are two players who could shake things up. The first is Bryce Salvador, who has not played all of last season due to concussion issues. Salvador is a physical defensive defenseman, like White and Volchenkov. I don't think Salvador is as good as those two, but he's definitely responsible in his own end of the rink. His return, assuming there is one and he's 100%, gives the Devils another 16-18 minute man who can also provide some quality PK play. I feel that he may not be necessary on the team because the Devils have several players who play like him. That said, he is in the final year of his contract and may not draw a lot of interest from other teams. It could be a "make the best of it" situation and so he may be one the roster for that rationale alone. Still, he would help spread out that workload.
The second is Alexander Urbom. Urbom got a taste of the NHL last season (8 games). My understanding is that he's well regarded in the organization, and why not? He has had a full season of the AHL under his belt to go with his large frame and defensive skills. I'm not sure he'll have much of an offensive game to speak of, putting his first NHL goal aside (a wraparound of all things). I think if the Devils don't retain Fraser and/or let Corrente walk, then it may be a sign that they think Urbom is close to stepping in next season. Either way, I think he will be fighting in training camp for a permanent spot and if he does well, that changes things on the lower end of the blueline.
The biggest factor that could throw all of this thinking into disarray (or more order) is the new head coach. We don't know who it will be, but whoever it is will certainly have their own ideas on what to do on defense. He may see what Lemaire did last season in terms of the roster construction and decide to go with it or go with something different. The new yet-to-be-named head coach will have his own preferences and likely favor different players. For example, just because Tallinder-Fayne worked under Lemaire does not mean the new head coach will use the same pairing or use them in the same way. While the stats suggest the Devils can definitely move on defensively without Greene while taking another hit to a weak offensive dimension from the blueline, the new head coach with his tendencies and tactics will greatly affect whether that holds true or not.
Some of you may have figured the answer to this question the moment you saw it. All the same, I hope you took the time to read and appreciate the stats in all four parts. They did, of course, drive this conclusion. If you haven't yet, here they are: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. What do you think of all four parts? What do you think of this concluding piece? Do you think the Devils can really replace Andy Greene from within, or would you prefer some other option like re-signing him or signing someone else? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thanks for reading.