For years, the New Jersey Devils‘ defense held the team back from its goals. Both Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerald (and Lou Lamoriello before them) tried quick fixes to solve the problem. It actually started with the failures of Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill to become the next great defensive core that hurt this team. That led to trades and signings of P.K. Subban, Sami Vatanen, Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov, Will Butcher, Mirco Müller, Ben Lovejoy, and Egor Yakovlev. Those players all had various levels of success in New Jersey, but none could be considered “successful” overall.
That changed seemingly overnight. It all started with the Jonas Siegenthaler trade. Tom Fitzgerald “bought” him during the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline. They sent a third-round pick originally acquired in the Taylor Hall trade to the Washington Capitals for Siegenthaler.
Nobody could have seen what happened next. Siegenthaler, a healthy scratch for most of the year, became a defensive stalwart in New Jersey. He’s now on the top line with Dougie Hamilton. Speaking of Hamilton, he signed a seven-year deal as the top defensive free agent of 2021. After injuries derailed his first season in New Jersey, Hamilton bounced back in a huge way in 2022-23.
That also changed the way people look at the Devils. Hamilton signing in New Jersey shows that this isn’t the same team players once automatically had on their no-trade list. The Devils were a desired destination. Of course, having talented players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier helps, but it seems like management and ownership add an extra level of pursuit for the Devils.
Hamilton was given Norris Trophy votes this past season (even securing three first-place votes), scoring 22 goals and securing 52 assists. Now, he’s the veteran presence that should move into its next phase.
So, the Devils’ top two defensemen were brought in within a few months during/after a lost season. It sets the foundation for what comes next.
The Devils traded Ty Smith, a first-round pick that went from the future of the blueline to getting lost in Lindy Ruff’s system, and a third-round pick for John Marino. Marino turned into one of the better defensive defensemen in the NHL. He would have been amazing for this current Penguins squad, but now he’s a top guy on the Devils’ blueline.
Fitzgerald made these moves because he knew what was coming this offseason. Damon Severson and Ryan Graves were becoming free agents. They were both about to become more expensive than the Devils could afford. One might say if the Devils don’t sign Hamilton and trade for Marino/Siegenthaler, then Severson and Graves could have signed long-term in New Jersey, but who would you rather have at this point?
Losing Severson and Graves might hurt, but it really helps to have Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes in the system to replace them. Beyond that, the Devils added Colin Miller this offseason.
After years of making all the wrong defensive decisions, Fitzgerald’s approach now has the Devils on the path to being one of the best units in the league. According to Natural Stat Trick, they allowed the third-fewest high-danger chances at 5v5 in 2022-23. It might dip a little with changes on the blue line, but they still should be a top team in defensive stats.