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Devils Free Agency: 5 Defenseman New Jersey Should Target

Especially after dealing Kevin Bahl, the New Jersey Devils will need to address defensive depth this summer. Here are five candidates who GM Tom Fitzgerald should consider.

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Anaheim Ducks defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin (46) in action against the Vegas Golden Knights during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

New Jersey Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has already kick started a very important summer.

The first big domino fell after the Devils finally acquired goaltender Jacob Markstrom. However, decisions about other potential trades and the draft are on the horizon, as is free agency. The Devils could use help just about everywhere — other than goal — but one thing last season showed us was how important defensive depth is. Injuries, rookies, and regression on the blue line were a big reason why the team struggled to keep the puck out of their net.

Fitzgerald has the opportunity to address this when free agency opens on July 1st. We’ve taken a look at how he can fill holes at both the center and winger positions. Now, we’re looking at five defensemen the Devils should target to add depth to a young, exciting defensive core.

We used AFPAnalystics contract projections to help give us an idea as to what a contract for all five free agents may look like

Brenden Dillon, Winnipeg Jets – Projection: 2 Years x $2.8 Million

While Fitzgerald could certainly go big-game hunting for a top-four defenseman, his best bet may be to look for competition for a Kevin Bahl replacement, or an upgrade over Brendan Smith. One of the best bang-for-your-buck free agent defensemen on the market is Brenden Dillon.

Dillon has been a very solid 20-point, 18-minute-a-night defenseman for the majority of his career. Dillon has a 6-foot-4 frame that Fitzgerald would love to add on the backend and plays a defensively responsible game. While not lauded for his offense, Dillon did score a career-high eight goals this season.

What Dillon also brings to the table is loads of experience. He’s played nearly 900 regular season games to go along with 83 playoff appearances. Fitzgerald will greatly value Dillon’s experience, especially after trading Bahl who had only played 148 games. As a cost-effective third-pairing defenseman, Dillon should be near the top of Devils free agent options.

Alec Martinez, Vegas Golden Knights – Projection: 1 Year x $1.25 Million

Plenty of Golden Knights have ended up on our free agency targets list, and for good reason. They’ve been a team with immense talent, and their dire cap situation means their pending free agents are all but certain to hit the market. Alec Martinez would be a fantastic addition to the Devils; and not just because of his Stanley Cup clinching goal against the New York Rangers.

Martinez will be 37 years old when the season begins in October but would provide a veteran voice and Stanley Cup pedigree Fitzgerald and new head coach Sheldon Keefe would love. There are injury concerns for Martinez, however, if utilized as a seventh defenseman, they wouldn’t need to rely on him to play a full slate of games.

The offense isn’t what it once was, and his game has slowed down, but Martinez is still a very capable defenseman who averaged a little over 19 minutes a night in 55 games this season. For one year of depth and veteran leadership, Martinez should be at the top of the list.

Jani Hakanpaa, Dallas Stars – Projection: 1 Year x $1.5 Million

If the Devils want to add a bruiser to their backend they may not be able to do much better than Jani Hakanpaa. The 6-foot-5 Finnish defenseman has been a physical force of nature for the past three seasons in Dallas.

Since earning a full-time role with the Stars in 2021-22, Hakanpaa has accumulated 668 hits to go along with 40 points in 226 games. He appeared in just 64 games last season after missing time with a lower-body injury. However, when he’s on the ice the opposing team knows it. Hakanpaa’s stature is eye-catching and he’s unafraid to use it to make a big hit or separate the puck carrier from the puck.

At just $1.5 million, Hakanpaa would bring an element to the Devils that they sorely lack. He can kill penalties, plays tough matchups, and averaged nearly 19 minutes of ice time a night. Fitzgerald is frustrated at watching other players take liberties against his own players, adding Hakanpaa would go a long way in making sure that doesn’t happen.

Ilya Lyubushkin, Toronto Maple Leafs – Projection: 2 Years x $1.5 Million

New head coach Sheldon Keefe will have his fingerprints on the team building this summer, and adding a familiar face like Ilya Lyubushkin makes a ton of sense. Lyubushkin was acquired at the Trade Deadline twice by the Maple Leafs during Keefe’s tenure, so surely there’s a player in there that he likes.

Lyubushkin would bring something similar to Brendan Smith and on a similar contract. There’s not much, if any, offense to his came. However, he’s a solid penalty killer, plays physically, and can adequately defend in the defensive zone. While he won’t be a minutes eater, Lyubushkin averages about 17 minutes of ice time a night – a full minute more than Smith did last season.

As a depth defenseman, Lyubushkin provides solid value at just $1.5 million per season. Also, the 30-year-old has played in just 367 career regular season and playoff games, so there is still plenty of tread left on the tire.

Oliver Kylington, Calgary Flames – Projection: 1 Year x $1.1 Million

Once a promising prospect in the Flames organization, Oliver Kylington’s story about his battle with mental health is inspiring. He took off the entire 2022-23 and most of last season as he dealt with it. After missing a year-and-a-half he came back to play in 33 games this season, recording eight points.

Still, at just 27 years old, Kylington would be a great “buy low” option for the Devils. In his last full season in 2021-22, he put up 31 points in 73 games. Kylington is a solid puck-moving defenseman with good mobility. If he’s ready to continue forward with his NHL career and looking for a change of scenery, the Devils should be able to offer him the chance to ease back into the league as their seventh defenseman.

For the Devils, a $1.1 million cap hit is very doable for a player who has shown he’s capable of being a solid contributor at the NHL level. They wouldn’t be asking him to carry the load, and that may help get the best out of him.

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