The New Jersey Devils locked up 31-year-old defenseman Andy Greene to a five-year extension that will kick in after next season, the final year of his current contract. The new pact will have a cap hit of $5 million.
Greene is a leader and underrated player on the Devils’ blueline. His 24:34 of average ice time led the team by nearly three minutes over the next highest total from Marek Zidlicky. And, according to GM Lou Lamoriello, they’d like to have him on the ice even more, if it wouldn’t wear him out.
“He's the top defenseman right now if you have to look at who the top defenseman is," Lamoriello said in a conference call. "He carries the most minutes in each critical situation, whether it's 5-on-5, in a defensive situation, or in a power play situation, or in particular penalty killing. We have to try and keep ice time away from him, that's how important he is, to make sure late in the game he isn’t tired. That's in indication of what we think of him.”
Lamoriello praised Greene as an “all-situations” defenseman, a relatively rare value that left the GM confident to lock him up for five years beyond the next one. And given where the Devils are at, Greene will be the leader of the blueline as they transition to a younger core of defensemen with solid upsides.
Right now, the Devils have six NHL defensemen under contract, including Peter Harrold who played 33 games for the club last season. Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky are the elder statesmen of this group at ages 38 and 37, respectively. Both of them have one year remaining on their contracts and by the time those expire (with perhaps one more one-year extension) the next crop of New Jersey defensemen will hopefully be ready to take on a larger role.
The three to watch this season for New Jersey are Jon Merrill (22), Adam Larsson (21) and Eric Gelinas (23). Merrill logged 19:13 of average ice time last season, with barely any on the power play. Larsson, who once had by far the greatest upside of the bunch after he was picked fourth overall in 2011, spent 33 games in the American League last season and struggled to produce in the NHL despite getting the highest percentage of offensive zone starts among Devils defensemen. Gelinas, who showed great promise and offensive punch in 60 games, remains unsigned as an RFA, but will be central to the new direction.
With Anton Volchenkov and Mark Fayne gone, pressure will increase on these three guys, who didn’t have to start their shifts in the defensive zone very often, a responsibility that fell to the vets. The three youngsters ranked fifth, seventh and ninth among Devils defensemen in D-zone starts last season.
Who had the most D-zone shift starts? Greene, of course. As more ice time gets put on the plate of these three youngsters, and as their workloads gradually get tougher, Greene will be the backbone of this transition. He logs piles of minutes that often start in unfavorable positions on the ice, but he still had the best corsi for percentage at even strength on the team and was second to only the offense-minded Zidlicky in D-man scoring with 32 points.
“He’s respected by the players as evident in the post-season awards by the players, what they think of him, and the way he can handle the young defensemen,” Lamoriello said. “They look up to him. He knows what to say, when to say it, and when he says something it means something and they never take it personal.”
Considering the Devils only had one defenseman signed beyond next season before this Greene deal was announced (Merrill), it’s a good investment to lock in such a reliable player who has proven his capability to post strong all-around numbers while often playing the most difficult situations. It gives the Devils a backbone to lean on and build around for the next few years.
And, if all goes perfectly, by the time Greene’s contract is up, he’ll be the aging player closing out his career that Zidlicky and Salvador are today. And Merrill, Larsson and Gelinas will be signing extensions that would lock them in as the next leaders of this blueline.