The New Jersey Devils find themselves in a pretty good position this offseason. While they do have to re-sign Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, they have $34 million to do it. Losing the salaries of Miles Wood, Damon Severson, Mackenzie Blackwood, and Ryan Graves helps give significant raises to Meier and Bratt. However, Severson and Graves leave major holes in the defense.
In theory, the Devils would replace them with Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. The 2021 fourth-overall pick and the 2022 second-overall pick are primed for the NHL. Hughes already got a taste, playing a few games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes. He even played a key role in their one win in the second round.
Hughes is clearly making the NHL roster next year. Nemec looked great during the second half of the Utica Comets season. Nemec finished the year with 12 goals and 22 assists in 65 games, adding four points in six playoff games.
So, adding two highly-powered young defensemen to the lineup makes it simple to say goodbye to Severson and Graves, who are both expected to sign contracts in the $20-30 million range. The Devils just can’t afford a commitment like that anymore. They have Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, and John Marino signed to long-term deals. Adding one more puts them in a long-term pickle.
It seems pretty cut and dry except for one major issue. The Devils penalty kill is now missing four useful defensemen. Marino played the most PK time, but Graves was next with 187 penalty-killing minutes. Severson added 83 minutes. The Devils have to find someone to make up 270 minutes on the PK. One would assume that Brendan Smith would take some of those minutes, but that would mean he’s in the lineup every night. Kevin Bahl will take some minutes, too. However, how often with both Smith and Bahl be in the lineup together with Siegenthaler and Hughes also playing on the left side?
The Devils have Siegenthaler, Marino, and one of Bahl or Smith to play the PK every night. That leaves a choice between Dougie Hamilton, Hughes, and Nemec to play that fourth spot.
The logical choice is Hamilton. It is time for him to earn that $9 million salary. On the other hand, he has been dealing with small injuries over his first two years in New Jersey. He just got surgery on his wrist this past week. Do the Devils really want to put him in more harm’s way?
Hughes played a little penalty kill in college, but NCAA hockey is nothing like NHL hockey. Nemec played on the PK in Europe, but it’s hard to see him do it as a rookie.
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Will the Devils sign another defenseman just because there’s an opening on the PK? Probably not, but it could lead to more time in the lineup for Smith. Either way, it’s something the Devils must figure out in training camp and the preseason before starting next season.