New Jersey Devils’ Offseason Grades: Defense

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - JUNE 08: Dougie Hamilton #19 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates with the puck during the first period in Game Five of the Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena on June 08, 2021 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

New Jersey Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald entered the offseason with the goal of upgrading the blue line at the top of his list. New Jersey allowed 189 goals in 56 games in 2020-21 which was the fourth worst in the National Hockey League. While not all of these goals are the fault of the defense, a weak defensive core did not help the team.

With young defensemen, like Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl, turning into full-time NHL players, adding veterans to the blue line is crucial in player development. Fitzgerald believes now is the time for the team to take a major step forward and that begins with building up their defense.

Acquiring Ryan Graves

The acquisition of Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche seems to be the forgotten move of the offseason since the trade took place all the way back in mid-July. New Jersey gave up forward Mikhail Maltsev and a second-round pick (No. 61) in the 2021 NHL Draft.

Maltsev showed promise last season as a depth forward as he accumulated nine points (six goals, three assists) in 33 games. With the addition of Tomas Tatar and more young forwards coming up for New Jersey this season, the 23-year-old forward’s spot the roster became less secure. Fitzgerland made the right choice to capitalize on Maltsev’s value and move him for a position of need.

Graves will slot in on the Devils’ second defensive pairing as a defensive-minded defenseman that gives the team some security on the back-end. The 26-year-old defenseman does have some offensive upside as he racked up 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in 54 games last season with Colorado.

New Jersey entered the offseason with a glaring need on the backend and Fitzgerald used the team’s surplus of forwards to land a very serviceable defenseman.

Grade: A

Acquiring Christian Jaros

In what can only be described as a depth move, the Devils acquired defenseman Christian Jaros from the San José Sharks in exchange for forward Nick Merkley.

Merkley was acquired in the 2019 trade that sent Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes. Since his acquisition, the 2015 first-round draft pick, had trouble finding a consistent spot in the Devils’ lineup. These struggles continued under head coach Lindy Ruff as Merkley appeared in only 27 games and was placed on waivers twice in 2021.

Jaros hasn’t had an overly impressive start to his NHL career accumulating only 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in 84 career games split between the Sharks and Ottawa Senators. As his one-year, two-way contract shows, Jaros will spend the bulk of this season with the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League and will be an injury call-up in depth situations for the Devils.

Trading a fan favorite like Merkley for a depth AHL defenseman is never going to be a popular move amongst the fanbase. Injuries and call-ups will happen over the course of an 82-game season and Fitzgerald knows that a team can never have too many defensemen.

Grade: C

Signing Dougie Hamilton

When was the last time the Devils signed a top free agent? If you’re having trouble remembering, that’s because there have not been many. Dougie Hamilton was the top free agent entering the 2021 offseason. With other defensive needy teams filling holes prior to the start of free agency, the Devils became the top landing spot for Hamilton.

Hamilton is a bonafide number one defenseman which the Devils haven’t truly had since Scott Niedermayer. His ability to help the team preserve a late lead and shut down offenses will help a young Devils team close out games. The 28-year-old will log heavy minutes on New Jersey’s top pairing and bring some much-needed security to the team’s blue line.

From an offensive perspective, Hamilton’s power play quarterbacking ability will jumpstart New Jersey’s anemic power play which operated at 14.2 percent last season. Hamilton logged an impressive 18 points (two goals, 16 assists) on the power play last season with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hamilton’s seven-year, $63 million contract is also a positive for New Jersey. An average annual value of $9 million is more than manageable for an organization with an abundance of cap space. A seven year deal means that the prime of Hamilton’s career will be spent on a contending Devils team.

Grade: A+

Not Re-signing Ryan Murray and Trading Will Butcher to Buffalo

A team upgrading at a position means that other players at that position become expendable. Ryan Murray and Will Butcher were two players who, simply, no longer fit on the roster.

New Jersey acquired Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a 2021 fifth-round last offseason. At his best, Murray was a calming presence and good defenseman for the Devils. At his worst, he had trouble breaking out of his own zone and was out of place positionally. While he was not overly impressive, Murray was the only defenseman with a positive plus-mins (plus-three) and accumulated 14 assists.

Murray signed a one-year contract with the Colorado Avalanche in free agency. The initial trade was a low-risk move by Fitzgerald and losing him was not the worst thing for the club after the additions of Graves and Hamilton.

Losing Butcher hurts a little more because of potential he possessed early in his career. Butcher potted 44 points (five goals, 39 assists) his rookie season. Many believed this was the first step in a great Devils career for the young blueliner.

Butcher has struggled with consistency since that season. His lowest point was in the 2020-21 season as he struggled to find a place in the lineup playing only 23 games. The simple fact is that Butcher was going to get limited ice time and was, most likely, the eighth defenseman on this improved roster.

Fitzgerland traded Butcher and a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for future considerations on July 28 in what only can be described as a salary dump. With his trade value at a career low, the decision was made to eat the draft pick to give the club some more salary cap flexibility.

Grade: C+

The offseason moves made by the Devils on defense will help the team immediately and for years to come. These moves on defense, along with the development of Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl, put the team in a great position to take a big step forward this season.

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