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After the draft, defense has to be next on Devils’ to-do list

Topping New Jersey's to-do list this summer is the choice between Nolan or Nico, but once the draft is done, defense has to be the Devils' primary focus.

In the past two drafts, the first-overall choice has been the turning point for the organization that held the selection. 

For the Edmonton Oilers, owning the top pick meant landing Connor McDavid, a true-blue generational talent who was the league’s only 100-point player this past season in only his second campaign. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs changed their own fortunes when they drafted Auston Matthews, an already elite-level scorer and skill center who helped put Toronto back into the post-season.

The same won’t be said for the New Jersey Devils this summer, however. While Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier, the consensus one-two selections who are battling it out blow-for-blow for the right to go first overall, are both all-star level talents in their own rights, no one is ready to call either the type of player who can become an overnight sensation, a game-changer in his rookie year that propels New Jersey out of the league’s basement and right into post-season contention. For both players, it will be a work in progress, with both possessing high ceilings as NHL players even if it does take them some time to get there.

But the reality is that even if either player was an all-world talent ready to take the big league by storm, the Devils still wouldn’t be in a position to compete next year. This isn’t a team that has the strength on its roster to fight its way into the playoffs come next season, and that’s why GM Ray Shero’s job will be far from over once he decides between Nolan and Nico. And if there’s one area Shero needs to look to improve this off-season, it’s his club’s defense.

One could easily argue that this team needs help everywhere but between the pipes. That would be accurate, too. However, that said, the acquisition of Taylor Hall last summer was a savvy move by Shero to bring in a high-level offensive piece and there are a handful of scorers — Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha — who can contribute up front. That’s not to mention that either Patrick or Hischier adds another offensive element and one who can potentially play down the middle if whoever the Devils draft continues on in the NHL as a pivot. It’s not exactly what one would call a deep attack, sure, but when it comes to skaters, the offense is much deeper than the defense, which is saying something.

This past season, veteran rearguards Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy, who also happen to be the two highest paid defenders in New Jersey, were often paired together but were absolutely caved in by the opposition attack in terms of possession, scoring chances and goals for percentage. Meanwhile, Damon Severson and John Moore, who comprised the second pairing and closed the season playing together, made up arguably the best defensive duo in New Jersey. After that, the depth was and is made up of a group consisting of Steve Santini, Jon Merrill, Yohann Auvitu, Dalton Prout and Karl Stollery. That should give you an idea of the type of depth the Devils currently possess. It’s a long way from the days of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko.

And that’s why Shero’s primary concern, beyond the draft and the expansion draft, has to be targeting a defender or two who can help improve what is a dire defensive situation in New Jersey. 

The trouble for Shero, of course, is there isn’t much in the way of defensive help available this summer on the open market. Truthfully, there’s not a whole lot of anything available on the open market this off-season. But that doesn’t mean New Jersey can’t take a chance and swing for the fences. The biggest target available, and one that fits New Jersey’s needs, is Kevin Shattenkirk, the puck-moving defender who has long-been rumored to be interested in heading to New York. The problem is a move to the Big Apple only works if the Rangers clear up some much-needed cap space to sign Shattenkirk, which could open up the chance for the Devils to slide in and ink the defender.

New Jersey has more than enough cap space to pursue a top free agent such as Shattenkirk, too. But how much money they would want to throw at him is another question altogether. Some reports have suggested Shattenkirk could be after a massive payday in the $7-million range per season. That’s the kind of coin that some will scoff at and it is a pretty penny for a defender who had a rough post-season, but it might not be the most ill-advised move for the Devils on a deal that goes five or so years. Look at it like this: as it stands, the top and really only defensive prospect New Jersey has with significant upside is Santini, so spending money to beef up the defense is going to be the only way a team with no bluechip defensive prospects builds a stable of rearguards with playoff potential in the next few years.

That’s not to say there aren’t options outside of spending big on Shattenkirk. Defenders who will come cheaper, not to mention potentially be more amenable to joining a rebuilding Devils squad, include Michael Stone, Dmitry Kulikov, Michael Del Zotto or Brendan Smith. But there’s a reason why Shattenkirk is the big fish.

No matter who it is Shero chases this summer, though, he desperately needs to use the $21 million-plus in salary cap space to make a move to shore up a defensive corps that is sorely lacking. No one is going to kid themselves into believing the Devils are a playoff team next season or even the season after that, but with a solid foundation in goal and some talent on the way up front, building a defense that can provide puck-moving support to the attack and supply some protection for goaltender Cory Schneider can lead New Jersey in the right direction.

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