It’s been a few days since the NHL Trade Deadline passed and now that the dust has settled, this New Jersey Devils roster looks quite different, namely on defense. The team shipped out captain Andy Greene and pending UFA Sami Vatanen—two of their lineup regulars and most tenured veterans.
Although they’re in the second wave of a rebuild, this trade deadline left New Jersey’s defense in bigger shambles than they were before — somehow. In Tuesday night’s matchup versus the Detroit Red Wings, they brandished three defense pairings featuring Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller (we know what they bring), Dakota Mermis (career AHLer who’s only appeared in 13 NHL games) and Fredrik Claesson (a journeyman defenseman with 150 NHL games under his belt who spent 2019-20 in the AHL), along with veterans Damon Severson and P.K. Subban.
It’s worth noting Will Butcher, who has been ruled unavailable for New Jersey’s current road trip normally would occupy one of those spots, but this defense corps is nonetheless an absolute travesty.
The defense’s woeful shortcomings this season were highlighted by PK Subban and how big a flop his inaugural season in New Jersey has been. With seven goals and 14 points, Subban will likely finish 2019-20 with the lowest point totals of his career. It was certainly a season of firsts for the 30-year-old defenseman. This trend of career-firsts for Subban will continue through this season and especially if he winds up sticking around with the New Jersey Devils after this year.
It’s reasonable to say the most likely returning defensemen on this current roster will be Butcher, Severson, and Subban. Butcher is still relatively young at 25 and only has three seasons under his belt. Severson has played over 420 NHL games, but he too is just 25 years of age. That leaves Subban, who has played over 700 NHL games in parts of 11 seasons as the defense’s true NHL veteran, a role he has never before found himself in through his illustrious pro-career.
Especially with Greene and Vatanen gone, Subban must become the locker room’s central figure the team’s young defenseman will look up to. He will be key in the team building a new identity. In addition to younger blue liners like Severson and Butcher, the New Jersey Devils have a modest crop of young defensive prospects that will vie for roster spots in camp this fall. Prospects Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl and Reilly Walsh (assuming he doesn’t return to Harvard for his senior year) headline this group. Next year’s defense will look vastly different from the current backend, since it could feature at least 1-2 rookies who make the final cut.
For someone like Subban, this is an opportunity to grow into a leadership role and help mentor these highly-touted young defenseman as they acclimate to the NHL. It will certainly be a situation Subban has never before found himself in, and given his vocal outgoing personality, one where could thrive if he embraces a leadership and mentoring role on next year’s team. Subban has been resilient throughout much of his career when faced with change. Especially now that expectations will be significantly less for the New Jersey Devils next year, it provides an ideal environment not only to mentor the organization’s young defensemen, but potentially help Subban rediscover his old game.
While utterly and painfully disappointing, PK Subban’s first season with the New Jersey Devils was a humbling one. Assuming he remains part of the organization’s plans after this season, he could serve as a great teacher and leader to the defense’s young up-and-comers while they and their games begin (or continue) to mature in the NHL. Subban has to decide if this is something he wants to do, or if winning his first championship is a higher priority.