Devils bring Sami Vatanen back as defense takes shape

Sami Vatanen ended his extended free agency on Wednesday, signing back with the New Jersey Devils, the team announced. The deal brings him back for a year with a cap hit of $2 million.

Vatanen, 29, was one of the last remaining defensive free agents after Zdeno Chara signed with the Capitals last week. He joins a group that already has a few days of practice under their belt and had a bit of turnover as well. With Vatanen, a power play specialist, under contract now, the entire blue line is starting to take shape.

The right-handed Vatanen, who netted five goals with 13 assists last year, likely pairs on the third defensive group where he could have the opportunity to play with the 20-year-old Ty Smith, competing for a role out of the WHL.

A first-round pick in 2017, Smith has come close to earning a spot out of the last two training camps. He’s skated with veteran Damon Severson a few times at camp before Vatanen signed.

Vatanen’s best asset is his power play ability, and that could earn him time despite his even strength struggles that have presented thepast few seasons.

Ryan Murray, brought in from the Blue Jackets, likely pairs with Severson while Will Butcher plays with P.K. Subban. Kulikov could fit with Vatanen if Smith doesn’t make the roster, or even in a rotation.

New head coach Lindy Ruff has already begun implementing a more simplistic system for the group.

“The defense is very simple,” Subban said to reporters earlier this week. “It’s work ethic. It’s paying attention to details. So that’s what we’re working on in practice right now. But as a defenseman, I can tell you, I have played in a lot of systems in my career and this one’s a little bit simpler. For a defenseman, you know exactly where you need to be, and it’s going to come down to communication.”

Subban’s offensive numbers dipped to career-lows last season, albeit in a pandemic-shortened campaign, so any sort of change could inject a spark back into his game. The rest of his game outside of offense was equally as not-great, ranking in the bottom 20 skaters in the league. Murray has been paired with him at times during camp when Butcher hasn’t been on the ice, and either pairing could assist in some sort of resurgence; at least, the Devils would hope so.

Even so, the best case scenario for guys like Subban or any other veteran like Vatanen might be to help aid the Devils young defenders like Smith along in what’s expected to be another playoff-less campaign; Vatanen especially has a role to play on the power play if Subban’s struggles extend to this season.

The Devils have some ability to stop the puck, despite their abysmal 28-29-12 record before the pause. Mackenzie Blackwood is one of the league’s brightest up-and-coming goaltenders, while Corey Crawford — if healthy — adds a terrific veteran presence as a tandem.

The group upfront is going to have its challenges, and a simple outlook from Ruff could be to their benefit, especially if young skaters like Smith see ample ice time.

“There’s an opportunity for these young players to step in and be difference-makers,” Ruff told reporters earlier in the week. “We’ve added a couple of really good defensemen that I think can make our team better. We’ve we’ve added another goaltender which has given us two goaltenders. So I’m going to talk about the hope.”

Vatanen’s presence in a group he’s experienced with before will help that system get implemented quicker, and likely more effectively.

The Devils won’t be a playoff team in 2021; they’re not supposed to be. Under Ruff, some of the defensive struggles of a year ago might still dissipate. Vatanen has a role to play in that, especially as the young defenders find their footing.

______________________________

Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.

Scroll Down For: