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Thoughts on the Devils Defense Regarding Rob Davison & Mike Mottau

Given that a big source among frustrations is the defense, I'd like to offer some of my own extended thoughts on one player who has been criticized heavily by Devils fans here and one player who I suspect will be: Mike Mottau and Rob Davison.

Let's start off with the latter.  With Jeff Carter's late, blindside hit knocking out Anssi Salmela in yesterday's 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the New Jersey Devils have called up Rob Davison from Lowell.  Per Tom Gulitti's posts from today's practice, Davison was in the lineup wearing #18 and he will play, at the minimum, tomorrow night against Philadelphia.

I'm sure the first thoughts from some fans will be, "Why him and not Tyler Eckford or Matt Corrente? They were up in New Jersey earlier in the season, why not bring them back?"

Well, I think that's the reason right there - the Devils have seen what they could do at the NHL level right now and they aren't ready yet.  Frankly, Jacques Lemaire wasn't comfortable with giving either player more than 14 minutes on any given night.  Corrente's average ice time in 10 games was 9:45, and Eckford's was only 7:49 across 3 games.  Considering Anssi Salmela played 19:59 in his first full game and 17:00 in his second with New Jersey, Lemaire needs a defenseman who can fill in that time or risk further overloading his current top four defensemen. 

Rob Davison knows he's a depth defenseman, but he has the experience, he's played at the NHL level before, he's been in these situations before, he brings some more size to the team (6'3", 215 lbs.). and he's worked hard with Lowell this season.  I don't see the problem with him filling in for a few games before the Olympic break.  He's not going be relied on to make big plays at crucial moments; he just needs to be decent for about 13-16 minutes.  By the time the break ends, hopefully, Salmela will be good to go.

On the bright side, this keeps Eckford and Corrente in Lowell for the next few days will be able to keep playing in Lowell when the NHL freezes the rosters for the Olympic break. This way they can continue developing through the two weeks.  I understand that they're young players and they have potential, but if they weren't given anything more than limited minutes, then that doesn't solve the larger problem of over-playing the top 4 defensemen.  (Related to this, I hope Lemaire gives Davison and Fraser some more shifts to balance out the playing time.)

Moreover, there's the cap to consider.  Per CapGeek's charts, Davison's NHL salary is the minimum ($500k), whereas Eckford ($984k) or Corrente ($821.6) would provide a larger hit.  It's not a very high amount, but every little bit saved helps with a looming trade deadline right after the Olympic break.  It's a minor benefit.

If anything, why wasn't Cory Murphy brought back up?  He too is an NHL-experienced defenseman and he's a two-way defender like Salmela, a blueliner with some offensive skills.  The Devils could still roll three pairings with a defensive defenseman and a two-way defenseman on each one. He also makes the league minimum, so the minor cap relief helps too.  I would think he'd  That said, I suspect the answer to that is the answer to why Corrente and Eckford weren't called up.  The Devils already saw what he could do early in the season and moved him to Lowell as a result and haven't looked back.

So Davison is likely up with New Jersey for the rest of this week.   Let's now consider a defenseman who likely isn't going anywhere, Mike Mottau, after the jump

I'll cut right to it: I don't think Mike Mottau is a legitimate #4 defenseman in the league.  I think he's more suited for the third pairing and he's been playing so many minutes that it has hurt him.   Defense is a game where being unnoticible is a strength and not a weakness; if you're noticed by everyone on the ice, either you did something very well or you made a big error.  Mottau epitomizes this.  In the big picture, Mottau plays a heavy amount of minutes (average TOI: 22:26), he does fairly well on penalty killing situations, he has a good sense on when to pinch in on offense, and he's maintained the same partnership with Colin White for three seasons across two different coaches.  He is not an experiment, he is not an AHLer in disguise, he is a defenseman for New Jersey.

2009 - Mike Mottau 56 1 8 9 -3 31 0 0 0 22:26 51 2.0

The problem is that when Mottau makes a mistake, it's usually a big, stinking, and foul mistake that often leads to a goal against, especially as of late.   He can sneak in for a few good shots or even stop an attack with a well placed stickcheck, he can have several strong shifts in a game; but they are overshadowed by these big mistakes - or even just one big mistakes - that leads to goals against.  The mistakes can come from a botched clearance, a turnover in their own zone, a bad decision like falling down to block a shot that never happens, or being in the wrong position in an odd-man situation or otherwise.  It's one thing if a defender gets burnt by good offensive players or great play by the opposition, but some of these errors are just simple ones.  Things you would expect a NHL defenseman to know better than to do at this point in one's career. 

Just look at second periods alone prior to last night's game, I found Mottau at fault in someway or form on three goals.  You can now add one more second period error from last night: his bad positioning on the 2-on-1 coverage that led to Carter's goal, the game's equalizer.  Not that it's limited to only the second period, he fell down on the PK to block a shot Kimmo Timonen never took allowing Timonen to set-up Mike Richards in front for the game winning score in the third period.

To an outside observer or someone who's interested in stats, Mottau doesn't look that bad. For a player making $750,000, he's playing quite a lot (again, 22:26 on average), and his numbers at Behind the Net are quite favorable. He faces a quality of competition of .057 (4th on the team) in even strength situations; when he comes onto the ice, the shots against per 60 drops from 26.0 to 23.6, which is great; and on penalty killing situations, the goals against per 60 falls from 7.94 to 6.07.  All that for less than a million is very nice to the outsider.   

Yet, that's over the course of the season.  Let me hit you with one rather important one I just found from Behind the Net: taking the GVT numbers into account, he has more defensive ice time than anyone else on the entire roster.  I believe this is a big part of the "Mottau problem."  He plays so many shifts that he's more likely to have a few bad shifts over the course of the game.  No one is perfect on the ice, but again, a bad shift for Mottau yields a big mistake, and as we've seen, it's costly.  Even if he makes good decisions elsewhere, the one mark he makes on a game usually hurts the Devils. If he plays fewer shifts, then perhaps he would make fewer plays you'd expect from an AHL player or worse.

As an aside, that's why I'm not really convinced the "answer" is to dump Mottau to Lowell or move him down in place of a Lowell defenseman.  Replacing a player prone to errors with a player who's not ready or not consistently good enough at the NHL level isn't an improvement.  Unless the plan is to assume the called-up player would play out of his mind if given 20+ minutes right away.  Likewise, I'm not sure whether trading Mottau is the answer.  Given his cheap, expiring contract and his "ability" to be prone to some defensive lapses, I don't see why teams would want him in return.  Especially given his recent play.

As far as coaching is concerned, Lemaire and the staff really need to encourage Mottau's relatively good play while instructing him on the bad plays.  Maybe this is why Lemaire has no problems giving Mottau more than 22 minutes on some nights, the staff recognizes his good work when he does it.  Yet, the mistakes keep happening - something must be done, assuming it already isn't.  Maybe only Mottau can stop himself from doing dumb things on the ice?

Incidentally, I feel now is the time where Lemaire needs to consider giving more responsibility to Mark Fraser. When Johnny Oduya was back from injury, Lemaire still limited Fraser's minutes to less than 14 in a majority of of games.  In retrospect, I would have liked to have seen Fraser get more shifts and play with a more experienced Oduya to help acclimate him to more minutes while taking further pressure on the first two pairings.  But that didn't happen.   I don't think that Lemaire isn't willing to give younger players a shot; Salmela got significant minutes despite not even dressing regularly for Atlanta prior to the trade. 

So what does Fraser need to do to earn more time?  Practice harder? Make more of an impact in the shifts he does get?  Speak with the coaches to find out what he needs to do?  I don't know, but any of those three ideas would help.  It's not that Fraser will necessarily make the defense better, but if he and the other third pairing defender gets more minutes and performs decently, that would take some of the pressure off the other four defenders, give them a few shifts off, and they won't be so worn down as the game goes on.  Yet, we won't know this until he's given the chance. If Lemaire isn't considering giving more ice time to Fraser or whoever his partner is, then all I can think of then is whether the Devils need to consider bringing in another defenseman to bolster the blueline who can play significant minutes.

Going back to Mottau, what can he do about this? He's not going to develop into a great player at age 32, but that doesn't mean he can't learn from his errors. Surely, he hates it when he has these problems on a regular basis; surely, he'd want to avoid making them in the future.  Well, expecting him to play like an all-star is entirely unrealistic.  But he could stand to play more like Bryce Salvador.  I think what Mottau can and should do for himself is to limit the severity of his errors.   In the short term, he's still going to be on the top two pairings and only he can really fix these errors.  I would much rather him make several smaller, non-killer mistakes in a game if that's what it takes to avoid the one shift where blindly fires the puck up the middle to an opposition player or the one shift where he stupidly floats to the middle on a 2-on-1 to make it easy for the opposition to make the play.   

In many ways, this is Salvador's game.  Does he make some ill-advised moves? Sure.  I sometimes question if he's being too physical on some shifts, and he's not really a great passer. He's also relatively slow on the ice. But I also notice he's adept at recovering from his mistakes, he's usually in good position to make the right play, and he doesn't mess around when the situation becomes dire.  Over the last month, I can only think of one goal against that Salvador was specifically involved in and that was just a miscommunication issue on a loose puck - it didn't cost the Devils the game. .  That's far and away better than Mottau's recent games, in my opinion.  Sure, we may still complain about the little things, but as long as they aren't hurting the team overall in terms of goals, then they are only minor complaints.  Salvador's not an elite player, but he's solid.  Solid would be a big improvement for Mottau; if he can become a more solid defender and maintain that, then maybe the Devils only need Paul Martin to be healthy for this defense to be good to go.  For us, the fans, this would be a sight to see.

But until then, all we can do is hope that Mottau doesn't crap the bed in his own zone and directly cause a goal against.

These are my thoughts about Davison and Mottau as they stand.  Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading.