On Thursday afternoon, the New Jersey Devils re-signed defensemen Sami Vatanen to a one-year, $2 million dollar contract. This is a fantastic move by Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald, who solidified the defense big time. Vatanen was the best defender for the Devils for parts of the last three seasons.
The biggest issue for Vatanen is staying healthy, especially with the Devils. He has only played 69 (including 15 with Anaheim, 50, and 47 games in the past three seasons. On a one-year deal, this is not a problem. Vatanen is a temporary solution and a fantastic one while we continue to wait on Ty Smith, who should be on the team this year, to move into a higher slot up the lineup and for players like Kevin Bahl to make the big club.
His ability to play both sides of the ice will go a long way this season as will the newfound depth. While I would expect him to play top-line minutes again some of the burdens will be taken off him by guys like Murray and perhaps he could even take off a back to back if he is banged up in this shortened schedule.
The effect down the lineup this will have is huge for a lot of players, but especially P.K. Subban and Ty Smith. Subban was terrible last season, so what can be expected is an absolute wildcard this season? If he had to take more responsibility, it could spell disaster for the team. With a smaller role, he may be able to find some more success.
As for Ty Smith, he will have to work harder to make the team now but I expect him to be on this team and playing in the very least 75% of the games. The downside is if we have a coaching staff who decides one mistake by a young player has him sitting for long stretches as it can be detrimental but now is the year for Smith to finally make the step. Once again, the condensed schedule makes depth key, especially on defense.
Ryan Murray-Damon Severson
Will Butcher-Sami Vatanen
Ty Smith-P.K. Subban
Dmitry Kulikov-Connor Carrick
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The pairings are still up for grabs, but compare this to a defense last year where Matt Tennyson and Mirco Mueller played significant time. This is a major upgrade. The competition will bring out the best in them, and with the goaltending upgrades, the Devils might not be in the basement.
Possibly the best part of this signing is that Vatanen can be traded again at the deadline. While yes, it would hurt the defense at the time of the trade, but the Devils are not making a run in the playoffs, so acquiring assets is still a part of the long-term plan.
Last year, they received Janne Kuokkanen and the pick that turned out to be Nico Daws from the Carolina Hurricanes for Vatanen. Kuokkanen is a top-five prospect and is close to the NHL right now, and Daws is our top goaltending prospect currently. If the Devils can make a flip like this again they should jump all over it and Sami could be a player several teams want. He can move the puck and play comfortably in the top four on a playoff team while the Devils can retain half the salary making his deal only one million for the other team. While this is a long look ahead already getting a one million dollar solid defender for the playoffs will be something a smart team wants, even if it may take two weeks of quarantine to get him in the lineup.