Devils' fans, who were already distraught over the loss of their captain, sunk even deeper into the dumps when the Hurricanes drained the free-agent pool dry by signing Russian sniper Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7 million deal last Thursday (via CBS sports). With the free-agency pool at its thinnest, the Devils have one last trick up their sleeve—trade defense for offense.
The immensely underrated defense in Newark is deep with players of all ages, from the 19-year-old Adam Larsson, who was drafted fourth overall in 2011, to the 36-year-old defensive leader Bryce Salvador. As one of few NHL teams with a surplus of capable defensemen, New Jersey has to empty the extra defensive weight for some offensive support.
Former franchise star defenseman Scott Stevens will be behind the Devils bench next season as Assistant Coach to Head Coach Pete DeBoer. No one played defense and crushed bodies like Stevens did—his insight will be huge for New Jersey's defense.
With a solid defensive coach in Stevens and eight strong defensemen in the lineup, it would not be much of a risk for New Jersey to trade a defender.
However, there are two directions the Devils can go with this: The safe trade, and the big trade.
The Safe Trade: Henrik Tallinder
Though only a second—or more realistically, third—line defenseman, Henrik Tallinder has proven himself as a solid depth defender. Tallinder has put up a solid career plus/minus rating (plus-29) over his 10 years in the NHL.
A player like Tallinder is valuable to teams that have a reverse of the Devils' surplus, such as the Edmonton Oilers (who have been stockpiling first-round forwards for three consecutive years). Trades circulating around Tallinder could provide the Devils with a solid secondary scorer like Ales Hemsky or Jordan Eberle.
Both Hemsky and Eberle have shown they can perform at a point-per-game level. The two Oilers are capable of big rewards if they can stay healthy and stick to their game.
A trade with Tallinder as the centerpiece could bring to the Devils one of the Oilers' depth forwards, who would replace the loss of Ponikarovsky—and then some—without jeopardizing the strength of the Devils' defense.
This trade will not be able to replace the void left by Zach Parise’s departure and may not be enough to get New Jersey back to the Stanley Cup Finals. There is also a risk in keeping these players healthy as the two have a history of injury-shortened seasons.
The Big Trade: Adam Larsson
Adam Larsson, who is the highest Devils' draft pick since Scott Niedermayer was drafted third overall in 1991, could develop into a dynamic defender—especially with Scott Stevens as a mentor.
Having said that, if New Jersey is serious about reaching the Stanley Cup Finals again, Parise’s role needs to be filled and Larsson is the key to acquiring that forward.
Earlier in the week, Hudson River Rivals the New York Rangers had dished away Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick to Columbus for franchise star Rick Nash. With Rick Nash in New York and Semin in Carolina, the last movable impact player is Anaheim Ducks young forward Bobby Ryan.
Unlike New York, the Devils would not have to dish out a chunk of their scoring and top prospects for the skilled forward—Larsson will be enough. As striking a player as Ryan is on the wing, Larsson is equally as striking on defense.
Ryan has already proven himself to be a star forward. With an impressive 259 points in 332 games with Anaheim, it is likely that the 26-year-old has yet to put up his best season.
Both players are young and have a ton of potential. Ultimately, this would be an equal trade.
Bobby Ryan puts up strong numbers and will only get better. Point-wise, Ryan could be an even bigger contributor than Parise and bring the Devils right back to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013. With only a couple of years on his contract, Larsson might eventually opt to leave the Devils regardless.
Adam Larsson is a very promising defender—even at such a young age. With Stevens coaching the defense, Larsson could develop into the franchise’s next star defenseman for many seasons to come.
Resigning forward Petr Sykora and hoping for the best will not be enough to make New Jersey a Cup contender. The Devils need to empty their defensive surplus and strengthen their offense.
Attempting to make the long-term investment with Larsson and trading Tallinder for a respectable forward could make up for the loss of Ponikarovsky, but would hardly make a dent in the Parise-shaped hole in their offense.
However, taking the risk in trading Larsson for Ryan could keep the Devils on track to another Stanley Cup Final.