The New Jersey Devils have spent the past few years stockpiling some promising defensive talent through the draft and during this offseason, lots of people within the fanbase were hoping for a youth movement in the coming year. Adam Larsson, despite a down season in lockout-shortened
2012-2013 remained very young and still a hopeful cornerstone for the future. Waiting in the wings were Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom, who had served their time in Albany and were looking to make the next step, as well as Jon Merrill, a top talent fresh out of an at-times-tumultuous college career at Michigan. Add in superior WHL defenseman Damon Severson along with other possible candidates like Reece Scarlett and Brandon Burlon, and it seemed like the Devils almost had no choice but to start giving NHL time to some of their bumper crop of young defensemen. When Lou Lamoriello traded away Henrik Talliner back in the summer, he even specifically mentioned making room for a young d-man on the roster. Once the Devils re-signed Marek Zidlicky, however, room on the blue line was once again scarce.
So the question that lingered was whether or not the Devils would make a move that would jettison one of their other older defensemen. Many fake trade proposals featuring a Bryce Salvador or Anton Volchenkov were pitched by fans, but they all went wanting. A seemingly more likely trade involving the inexpensive Mark Fayne never came either. No the Devils would head into the season with only Larsson on the roster among the defensemen under 25 in the organization, much to the chagrin of those clamoring for some turnover in one of the oldest D corps in the league. They would even lose Alex Urbom to waivers along the way, as his waiver exemption had run out and no spot remained for him on the roster.
Fans were frustrated by the "status quo" blue line the Devils trotted out there to start the season after having hopes for fresh faces. Adding to the frustration was a big losing streak to start the season along with career 3rd pairing/press box staple Peter Harrold getting starts and big minutes over the likes of Mark Fayne or Adam Larsson. To his credit, Harrold wasn't playing particularly bad, but with many pieces of the perceived future sitting in the press box/the AHL/Washington, the continued lineup presence of the journeyman Harrold drew understandable ire from the Jersey faithful.
Things would take a turn after a Harrold injury and personal leave/a fractured foot for Bryce Salvador in late October led to Gelinas being called up to New Jersey. He would play his first game of the season (and second of his career) in the October 24th matchup against Vancouver and make and immediate impact. He scored a big power play goal in that game and he hasn't really looked back from there.
Gelinas has been a revelation for New Jersey and his presence in the lineup has changed the entire complexion of the blue line. His play, coupled with that of Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene means the Devils now have three people with legitimate offensive ability sitting on their blue line. Offensively speaking, Gelinas has probably been the best of the bunch, putting up 11 points in 19 games, only two less than Greene or Zidlicky have in an additional 9 games. His on-ice sh% is also way down at 5%, so you could argue he could have even more points if the team were getting a few more breaks with him on the ice. He has also bombed away at the net with as much frequency as anyone on the team since his arrival. He's putting up 2.36 SOG per game, which is better than everyone else on the roster, including some guy named Jaromir Jagr. If he continues to play this well (big if, of course) he could be the best offensive d-men this organization has seen in a while.
As far as keeping the play moving forward and not getting pinned back, his possession numbers look pretty nice at first glance as well. Gelinas has the best CorsiOn on the team of anyone who has played over 10 games. The Devils are way ahead in attempts with him on ice, but the conclusions from those numbers should certainly be tempered, as Gelinas has been sheltered in his minutes. He is getting among the most favorable zone starts on the team as well as some of the easier competition. He has certainly been put in a position to succeed by the coaching staff, but he should still be praised for steamrolling the competition that is put in front of him. He has had some rookie mistakes here and there, but for the most point, he has been extremely poised in his minutes. It's hard to argue that Gelinas has been anything but great for the Devils in his first significant stretch of NHL playing time.
The arrival of Eric Gelinas has also seemed to have a positive effect on Adam Larsson in the past month. Larsson has seemed more at-ease with the puck and appears to be cutting down on his gaffes. The with-or-without you numbers over at HockeyAnalysis certainly back that feeling up in a big way. Larsson's Corsi% is up at 62% with Gelinas and down at 48% without him. You don't really need me to tell you that is a massive margin. One might then think that Gelinas is dragging Larsson around, but his numbers are also significantly better with Larsson than without him. That leads me to conclude one, or perhaps both, of the following things:
- Larsson may not quite be ready to face top competition at this point in his career. His second most popular partner is Andy Greene, who more often than not is facing the best the opponent has to offer. Greene has seen improvement when he gets away from Larsson, so it may just be that Adam isn't strong enough to face the toughs right now and is better suited getting less grueling minutes.
- Gelinas and Larsson's playing styles are complementing each other well. They do seem to be on the same page when they're on the ice together and perhaps the passiveness that we've seen from Larsson in the past is a good match for the always-willing-to-bomb-away style of Gelinas.
Whatever the case may be, Larsson has done much better since the arrival of Gelinas, so he is probably more than happy to see him stick around.
Merrill False Start and Second Chance
After Anton Volchenkov was added to the Devils' walking wounded in early November, Jon Merrill was called up for his NHL debut against a tough Minnesota team. That debut only lasted a couple shifts, as Merrill got tripped up by Torrey Mitchell and went face-first into the boards and had to leave the game with an injury. He got some facial lacerations and a concussion for his troubles and ended up back in Albany when he recovered. Just a week later, the injury bug would again strike the Devils, with Adam Larsson going down with a lower body injury this time.
This stint has lasted much longer for the rookie as he has played in all five games since his call up and looked generally pretty good, if a little jittery to start. He registered his first NHL point on Friday, when his shot was tipped in by Dainius Zubrus against Carolina. He has started to look pretty comfortable out there for the most part and he has gotten a pretty good bit of ice time, including over 20 minutes against Buffalo on Saturday. His Corsi%, albeit in a small sample and with sheltered minutes, is way up over 60%. He was also the only Devil to think to cover one of the three Habs on the doorstep for Monday's GWG against, so he can be responsible in his own end when given the chance. Overall, I would say he has looked pretty good, especially for a kid with only two-plus months of professional experience under his belt.
So Will It Last?
Gelinas and Larsson have seen a ton of ice in the past month (until Larsson's injury) and Merrill plenty this past week. And, for the most part, both they and the Devils have looked good during that time. So the question becomes: what gives, if/when the blue line starts to get healthy? Larsson should hopefully return soon, Salvador's foot won't be broken forever, and Peter Harrold, while his play has slipped, is still around. That means a healthy roster has nine defensemen on it.
Does Merrill get immediately returned to Albany once the injured Devils return? Probably, would be my guess. I think Merrill is showing that he can hold his own in the NHL, but short of him starting to put up points like Gelinas did, the Devils will probably have no qualms about sending him down.
The real conundrum is with Gelinas. I don't think the Devils have the gall to send down a guy playing as well as he is right now, so what is the answer once the team is healthy? Do they send down a forward and carry 8 defensemen? I don't think many folks, players included, were huge fans of that last year. If forwards start to return to the team (alleged living person Ryane Clowe apparently practiced today), then that just means they have some tough decisions to make on the forward side of the coin. Lou has been doing some serious roster gymnastics this year to keep from having to make moves, but if this team gets healthy, he has the options of A) finally waiving or trading someone or B) sending Gelinas down. Who is the odd man out if Gelinas stays in New Jersey? Beyond Janssen and Sestito, who are they willing to part with?
Beyond the roster move side of things, there still remains the question of playing time. If the Devils do decide to carry 8 D, who are the odd men out? Harrold, who was in the press box the last two games after Volchenkov's return, seems like a prime candidate. Will Adam Larsson be able to continue on playing with Eric Gelinas? Beyond Harrold, is Fayne, who struggled early but whose play has picked up significantly of late, the other man out? Or does Volchenkov, who has been decent this season but didn't look so great on Monday, get the hook? Either way, Pete DeBoer has some tough decisions to make. Personally, I ride a defense of Greene, Zidlicky, Salvador, Fayne, Gelinas, and Larsson of those eight, but that is just my preference.
So what do you think of the issues that could soon rise from the Devils crowded blue line? Do you agree that Merrill will likely be sent down when the team gets healthy? Will the Devils make some sort of move to clear some space on the blue line? Do you think they go with carrying eight defensemen again after last season? Could they actually send Gelinas down? The questions on this topic are clearly myriad, so sound off with your thoughts in the comments below with your take.