Just ask Tyler Toffoli about the greener pastures with the New Jersey Devils.
The former Calgary Flames forward has eight goals through 12 games and is on pace to score 55 goals in an 82-game span in his first season with New Jersey.
However, things just got a lot harder for the Devils. They already lost Nico Hischier to injury a few weeks ago, and now Jack Hughes is down for what looks like at least a month.
Yet, it’s not the Devils’ offense that’s struggling despite missing their top two centers, nor is it the goaltending. Vitek Vanecek — seemingly New Jersey’s starter — has given the Devils a chance to win almost every night. Instead, New Jersey’s defense continues to break down time and time again. They’ll need to play better in front of Vanecek, even the GM said so.
Perhaps the loss of Ryan Graves and Damon Severson is more impactful than we think.
Take last night’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche for instance. New Jersey forked over odd-man rushes over and over again, directly resulting in half of Colorado’s goals. That was the literal difference in the 6-3 game.
According to a report by The Fourth Period, Calgary is evaluating the market for defenders.
“While a move is not imminent, sources have told TFP that the Flames are gauging the trade market for such players as defencemen Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, and Dennis Gilbert, all of whom are on expiring contracts.”
That’s certainly a handful of options to pluck from Calgary if they, in fact, decide to shake things up. Following the acquisition of Toffoli, the phone lines are open between general managers Tom Fitzgerald and Craig Conroy.
According to PuckPedia, New Jersey only has $383,742 in accrued cap space. That’ll be an issue. However, once New Jersey returns to full health, it’s unlikely these defensive issues will dissolve. Perhaps New Jersey’s elite offense can mask the defensive woes once they’re fully healthy, but that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. After a 112-point 2022-23, the Devils want to take a step forward rather than a step back. It might be time for Fitzgerald to evaluate his roster and consider how to acquire a defenseman.
Although Calgary is struggling, it doesn’t appear the blue line is their problem.
Hanifin is the obvious first choice to look at. The 26-year-old, two-way defenseman is certainly appealing for his services, fitting age, and relatively cheap cap hit at $4.95 million. At even strength, the Boston native is on the positive side of a 217-177 chance share (55.08 CF%) and has accrued a 54.68 xGF%, per Natural Stat Trick. He’s likely to come as the most expensive target in terms of compensation. However, he’d certainly be an upgrade over Brendan Smith and Colin Miller. The problem? The Devils have defensemen in the pipeline coming. Maybe not this season, but paying the high acquisition cost for Hanifin just to block the young talent that’s on its way doesn’t seem to make too much sense.
Tanev seems like a much more logical option. The 33-year-old, 6-foot-2, 193 lb defenseman could certainly be acquired at a cheaper cost than Hanifan. Plus, the Devils don’t have to commit to him if they don’t want to.
If it wasn’t clear before Tuesday, Colorado made it very obvious the Devils can be pushed around a bit. Tanev would certainly address that issue.
As for his defense, Tanev is playing quite well. He’s also on the positive side of a 178-144 chance share this season, and has accrued an excellent 55.85 xGF%.
Perhaps it’s because he pairs well with a puck mover like Hanifin. The Devils can provide that in the form of Luke Hughes who has experience on both left and right defense. He’d be a logical partner for the Devils rookie and, again, an upgrade over Smith.
Even Zadorov and Gilbert have each been helping create more chances than they’ve allowed. Zadorov is another Flames defenseman making $4+ million, however, Gilbert’s cap hit is a very affordable $762,500.
The bottom line is there’s something off with New Jersey’s blueline. Perhaps, it’s the 949 games of NHL experience they lost after the departures of Severson and Graves. Kevin Bahl has been fine in his elevated role, however, Smith’s role as an everyday NHLer has certainly hindered the blue line.
New Jersey isn’t surprising anyone this season. Teams are prepared when they face the Devils and part of that gameplan appears to be to hit them and hit them hard. A couple of big, bruiser defensemen who can also defend such as Tanev or Zadorov might very well be the medicine New Jersey needs. If they can make the salaries work, New Jersey should certainly be on the phone with Calgary.