Noah Hanifin Trade Can Fix New Jersey Devils' Defensive Woes

The New Jersey Devils have struggled defensively this season, and that's on the veterans, not young players like Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec.
Noah Hanifin
Noah Hanifin / Derek Leung/GettyImages

Goalie or defense? Defense or goalie? The New Jersey Devils need help in both areas, but one is exponentially easier to find reinforcements for than the other. The Devils' trade for Timo Meier last season showed that GM Tom Fitzgerald isn't afraid to swing big when he knows what he wants, and now would be another good time for that.

See, the Devils are actually one of the better teams in the NHL defensively. Per Moneypuck, they're sixth in the NHL in expected goals against. Of course, that suggests that the team isn't getting saves (they haven't been). However, further research suggests that a lot of this has to do with Luke Hughes. The 20-year-old features on four of the Devils' six best-performing defensive pairings, but among the pairings that the Devils roll regularly and not situationally, the difference between Hughes' pairing and everyone else is staggering.

Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler were a not-so-close second, but Hamilton is going to be out for a substantial period of time, if not the whole season, depending on the severity of his injury. Simon Nemec has been about as good as the Devils could have asked for, and that's a good thing. They need to avoid a player like Chris Tanev, and instead allow Nemec to get the minutes he needs to develop and improve at the NHL level. That's why the Devils need to target Tanev's teammate, Noah Hanifin.

New Jersey could use a better balance of foils and difference-makers on the blueline. That's why Hughes and Colin Miller have worked so well together, and that's also why everyone else has struggled. Anecdotally, it doesn't seem like Siegenthaler is cut out for first-pairing minutes at the highest level. Kevin Bahl has also struggled mightily in a full-time role next to John Marino, who hasn't been great either. The difference between the two is that you won't find an analytical model anywhere that has rated Bahl highly at any point in his career. In fact, Bahl grades out as one of the league's worst-performing defenders.

The 23-year-old just doesn't fit the Devils' system. He's a slow skater, not a fast processor, has very limited puck skills, regularly confuses defensive coverages, and doesn't make effective pinches often enough. Essentially, the Devils need a defender who can execute their system significantly better than Bahl, and that's where Hanifin comes in.

Noah Hanifin is no defensive ace, but his underlying numbers are still very good there. In addition, the 26-year-old is a very strong penalty killer, which the Devils need. Think of Hanifin as a left-shot Damon Severson without the back-breaking mistakes and mental lapses.

If the Devils trade for Noah Hanifin, they'll need to overcome two obstacles, mentally or otherwise. One is the cost the Calgary Flames are going to ask for, and the other is Hanifin's contract; he'll be a free agent at the end of the season. The Boston Bruins have been heavily linked, but their earliest pick in 2024 will be in the fourth round. The earliest they can move a first-round pick is 2026.

The Devils have a similar issue, as their 2024 and 2025 first-round picks are affected by conditions of the Timo Meier trade. New Jersey does, however, have far more prospects that would be worth Calgary's while in any deal. Or, it might not cost the Devils much at all. Nikita Zadorov only fetched the team a 2024 fifth-round pick and a 2026 third-round pick. Tom Fitzgerald and Co. will need to jump through some hoops here, in any case.

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As for Hanifin's contract, it's rumored that the number is in the ballpark of $7.5 million, which the Devils can afford - if they want to - with the salary cap going up $4 million next year. If not, Hanifin will become a free agent, after which the Devils can trade his rights. See: Severson to the Columbus Blue Jackets.