Tea New Jersey Devils have made a noticeable change to their blueline. The team announced this afternoon that they have traded defenseman Ty Smith and a 2023 third round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenseman John Marino.
Big John is coming to Jerz.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) July 16, 2022
If nothing else, it is somewhat of a surprise. Ty Smith truly had an awful 2021-22 season. The former CHL Defenseman of the Year really struggled in his sophomore season with the Devils. He became hesitant in a system linking on overloading puck carriers, which requires immediate action. His offensive skills were not enough to make up for the defensive errors or inaction. The 5-on-5 on-ice results from Natural Stat Trick were a sub-50% in CF%, a sub 49% in xGF%, an actual GF% around 40%, some of higher on-ice scoring chance allowed rates among the regular Devils defenders last season, five goals, and eleven assists. Objectively, Smith was one of the Devils’ poorest defensemen last season.
I personally saw a player that really needed to be sorted out. Smith’s first season was much better. He clearly had the talent to be an effective player in all three zones to some degree. This is still a 22-year old defenseman. I figured that would be the job of the assistant coach that will fill in Alain Nasreddine’s now vacant role on the bench. Clearly, the Devils organization found it fit to move on from the former 2018 first round pick rather than hope it figures it out in his third season and go into negotiations based on however that goes. This coming season will be the last of Smith’s entry level contract, so 2022-23 will be a crucial season for him. Now it is the Penguins’ concern.
In return for Smith and their own pick in next year’s draft, the Devils obtained John Marino. Smith is a 22-year old, left-shooting defenseman that could play on the right side, standing at 5’11”, weighing 180 pounds, and entering the last season of an entry level contract for a cap hit of $863,333 barring any performance bonuses (a maximum of $400,000). The Penguins were over the cap at the time of the trade by a couple million so they eventually needed to move someone. Their decision was to move Marino and his $4.4 million cap hit, which is on the books for the next five seasons. Marino is a 25-year old, right-shooting defenseman, standing at 6’1”, weighing 181 pounds, and is entering the second season of a six-year contract extension he received from Pittsburgh on January 3, 2021 worth $26.4 million. The contract contains no signing bonuses and Marino will submit an 8-team no trade list in each of the final three seasons of the deal, or when he’s 27, 28, and 29.
At a glance, the Devils got a little more experience on the blueline, a lot more stability as he joins Dougie Hamilton and Simon Nemec as the only defensemen on the team signed beyond 2024, and a little taller. Most importantly, the Devils got better on the blueline because Marino has been a good defender for the Penguins.
While Marino is not known for his offense (75 shots in 81 games speaks to that), he did out-produce Smith in 5-on-5 situations with a goal and 18 assists last season. More relevant to what he does well, his on-ice rates in 5-on-5 have been quite good in his three seasons as a Penguin. He was fourth among Penguin regulars in 5-on-5 ice time per game. When Marino was on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins had just under 52% of the shooting attempts (CF%), just over 52% of the shots (SF%), close to 51.5% of expected goals (xGF%), exactly 50% in actual goals, and differentials above half for scoring chances and high danger scoring chances. It is the statistical profile of an effective defenseman. Marino was also a mainstay of the Penguins’ penalty kill as he led their blueline in total shorthanded minutes played and fell just behind Brian Dumoulin in shorthanded ice time per game. In shorthanded situations, it was not always pretty but Marino did not get run over either on a Penguins team that finished third in the NHL in penalty success rate last season.
It may be an over-simplification, but he’s pretty much a right-sided Jonas Siegenthaler. I like Siegenthaler. You probably like Siegenthaler too. Now the Devils could have a Siegenthaler-Marino pairing should they want to try to lock things down. The offense may suffer for it, but I can see some situations where that would be appropriate (penalty kill, defending extra-man situations). From my perspective, Marino is a solid defensive defenseman. This is not just my view, others such as JFresh have pointed this out:
Moreover, Marino is only 25, so he is likely to continue to be effective throughout the remainder of his current contract. All the Devils coaches would need to do is to utilize his skills appropriately and Marino should be able to do the job.
This trade also opens up another set of options for Tom Fitzgerald to try and improve the team. Remember when I wrote that Marino joins Hamilton and Nemec as defensemen signed beyond 2024? Fitzgerald really does have the leeway to make some big changes to the blueline as Damon Severson and Ryan Graves are entering the last seasons of their respective contracts and will be unrestricted free agents. Should the Devils view their defensive depth chart to lead with Hamilton on the right side and Marino on a second pairing, then where does that leave Severson? On the third pairing with some power play time, maybe? That is a nice luxury to have, but also expensive with a $5.1 million salary set for this season. It also makes him not as crucial to keep. Severson may have an ‘A’ on his jersey, but this trade just made it a lot easier to move him and his expiring contract. And I write that has someone who has continually pointed out that Severson is a better player than his occasional catastrophes on defense suggest. His pending UFA status would make him a popular guy around the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline. Today’s move may lead to a potential Severson trade earlier than that.
I still believe that Smith can develop into a fine player. That is pretty much the main concern I have with this trade. Should Pittsburgh get Smith’s confidence and game back on track and he flourishes, then this could end up haunting the Devils. That is entirely possible between his age, pedigree, and what we saw from him as a rookie at points back in 2021. Even that concern would be mitigated or rendered moot if Marino continues to play as well, if not better, than he did in Pittsburgh. So it is not that large of a concern in my mind at the moment.
While my opinion may change pending further information or perspective, I think this trade was a good one for Fitzgerald to make. A really good one. Possibly their second best offseason move after signing Andrew Brunette for the coaching staff. (Third best, if you are a huge believer in Vitek Vanecek.) If they did not think they could salvage Smith, then moving on from him makes sense. They got back a defenseman who makes them better now, is not an anchor on the books, does not undercut Hamilton’s role on the team or necessarily blocks a Comet from breaking through on defense, and allows Fitzgerald to make another move. That’s all good. I like this trade. I like it a lot. I think General Manager Tom Fitzgerald did well with this acquisition.
Now that you know what I think of the trade, I want to know what you think. What was your initial reaction to the trade? Will you think the Devils will miss Ty Smith? Do you see Marino as an upgrade on the blueline? Is this a good trade in your eyes? Do you think this will lead Fitzgerald to move Severson or someone else sooner rather than later? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.