With the departure of two of the Devils' veteran defensemen over the past couple days, there is a changing of the guard now underway on the blue line in New Jersey. The Devils hit the eject button on Anton Volchenkov's contract on Monday, executing their second CBA-allotted compliance buyout on the slowing Russian defenseman. In turn, Mark Fayne departed New Jersey of his own volition, signing a 4-year,
$14-million $14.5-million (per CapGeek) dollar deal with the Edmonton Oilers after he and the Devils were unable agree to terms prior to him reaching unrestricted free agency. With these two exits, the Devils are down to 7 NHL defensemen on a healthy roster for the first time in what feels like ages, and now that there is ample space for them, a lot of responsibility will be shifted to the shoulders of the Devils' core of young d-men -- the trio of Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Adam Larsson -- next season.
What the Departures Mean
While opinions vary on the contributions of each of the Devils' now-elsewhere defensemen, its clear that they will both leave significant roles to be stepped into in the coming season. Those roles will require others to pick up slack and with few people aching for an expanded role for Bryce Salvador along with Marek Zidlicky not getting any younger, it means that slack will fall to the younger Devils defensemen. So what responsibilities are the former New Jersey defensemen leaving behind?
For Mark Fayne, his role on this team was in doubt early in the season -- though it likely never should have been -- but he progressed into one half of the team's top paring alongside Andy Greene.That top pairing, when together, generated dominant possession numbers (57.6% of shot attempts were from the Devils with them on the ice) and will be hard to match going forward. Greene seemed to be driving the bus a little more than Fayne was in that particular pairing, but they were very synergistic and when they were paired, the Devils were a force to be reckoned with in terms of driving play. So the big challenge will be to find a proper even-strength replacement for Fayne's contributions to the top pairing.
For Volchenkov, his even strength role was much more limited but he was still the team's second-most-used penalty killer and an effective shot suppressor at evens. The team will have to overhaul its top-ranked penalty kill to an extent, as two of their top 4 penalty killing defensemen are now outside the organization. No regular PK defenseman even came close to blocking shots at the rate Volchenkov did, and while that's not always a good sign, Volchenkov was so good at it that it certainly made an impact. Volchenkov definitely had his shortcomings, and, to say the least, his puck handling and mobility leave something to be desired, but his will be a role the Devils have to fill all the same.
Are They Ready?
So after establishing what the Devils will need to replace this upcoming season, the question that needs to be answered is whether or not the group of young defensemen will be able to handle these expanded roles. Each has had their ups and downs thus far, but all three look to be worthy of a place on an NHL roster at this point. To try to get a handle on where each player is at, lets take a quick look at what their careers have looked like thus far.
When Jon Merrill first came up last year, he didn't last too long. The second shift of his first game against the Minnesota Wild saw him careen into the boards head-first and ended up with him having to leave the game with facial lacerations and an apparent head injury. When other injuries eventually necessitated his second call-up after he recovered, he appeared shaky at times but eventually grew into a very solid-looking defender for a rookie. He certainly had his gaffes, but he seemed to get more confident as the season wore on. The coaching staff appreciated his contributions as well, giving him enough even-strength minutes to put him 3rd among the entire defense in TOI/60 at 5v5. Merrill's possession numbers are a work-in-progress to an extent (his 53.6 CF% is good, but his relative CF% is near the bottom of the team), and his offensive contributions (11 points in 52 games) are still not particularly standout, but I would say most people were generally satisfied with Merrill's rookie season in New Jersey.
Gelinas came up to the big club early last season after injuries led to his call-up and made an immediate impact in New Jersey, scoring a goal in his first game after arriving. After that, the season became a bit of a whirlwind ride for Gelinas, going from difference-maker and darling of the fanbase with his offensive fireworks to a player who landed himself in the coaches' doghouse with missed assignments and misplays on defense. His highs were high enough to earn his shot it's own nickname, "The Truth," from our very own John Fischer, but the lows were low enough to see him relegated to very limited minutes, the press box, and even Albany for portions of the second half of the season. Gelinas' game certainly has shortcomings right now at even-strength, where he needs to reverse the bad habits that seemed to develop in his game as the season moved along, but he was undeniably a difference-maker on the Devils' power play, where he led the entire league in points/60 among defensemen. Gelinas may have some warts on his game, but he has the chance to be the most dynamic of the three young defensemen if he can clean up his game in his own end.
Adam Larsson's early NHL career has been a bit of an odyssey to this point, which seems like a strange thing to say about someone who is only 21 years old, but it is the truth. Selected 4th in the 2011 NHL Draft, some thought the Devils might do well to send Larsson back to Sweden for an additional year to continue to develop his game, but they immediately brought him to New Jersey and pushed him into a big role in his age-19 season. Larsson performed admirably in the big minutes he was handed and saw himself appear in 65 games his rookie season while putting up decent possession numbers and point totals.
The 2013 season saw him take a bit of a step back, as his play dipped and he saw himself demoted to a healthy scratch on occasion. In 2013-14, Larsson had perhaps his strangest season yet, with him starting slow but then thriving on a pairing with Eric Gelinas before getting injured in late November. After rehabbing, Larsson was held in the AHL at Albany for a long time before finally getting the call-up in late March and playing generally pretty well. There were some minor doubts about Larsson's future here at the end of the season, but with a new contract and room for him on the blue line, it appears the Devils are ready to place some faith in the youngest of their NHL blueliners again.
Next Season's Roles
So with larger roles likely waiting for them all next season, who will be tasked with what among the young defensive corps? Will one of them be tasked with taking over Mark Fayne's spot on the top pairing, or will the Devils choose to move Marek Zidlicky or [gulp] Bryce Salvador alongside Andy Greene? The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but in the meantime we can speculate on how the lineup might shake out. My best guess is as follows:
Andy Greene - Jon Merrill
Marek Zidlicky - Bryce Salvador
Eric Gelinas - Adam Larsson
Jon Merrill gets the nod for now in the top pairing. I think the coaches really like what he brings, and while he needs to progress a little bit to succeed in that role, I think he is capable. Merrill and Greene are both lefties, but the Devils are likely going to have to endure that on at least one pairing this season unless they are starting Peter Harrold every night. I think Adam Larsson is also a possibility at that spot next to Greene at some point, but I think there is little chance he starts the season there, based on his deployment and extended time in Albany this past season.
Poor Marek Zidlicky is likely to be saddled with Bryce Salvador once again this season, but he should be used to it at this point. It's probably better that Zidlicky serves as caretaker for Salvador than any of the younger players right now, anyway. He has found ways to be productive alongside him and to an extent, you get why the coaches like to balance the aggressive style of Zidlicky with someone who will typically try to make the safe play in Salvador. There is a chance Zidlicky sees top-pairing time, but again, I'm not so sure you want a young guy to deal with being anchored by Salvador.
Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson is a pairing many fans have been itching to reunite based on how strong they looked together last season. I think it makes sense, as Larsson is generally a little more conservative in his play and can make strong passes, which will allow Gelinas to jump up and fire away offensively when his instincts tell him to. There are likely to be some growing pains as this pairing gets eased into tougher minutes, but they looked really in tune with one another last season when they were together, so it feels like the right move to feature them as a duo. Ultimately, I think Gelinas is the least likely to see time on the top pairing next season. Tough competition could be difficult for him in his own end and I doubt the coaching staff will be too high on putting him in that position.
As far as special teams go, the younger defensemen will be called on to fill significant roles going forward there as well. For the power play, I think it's a no-brainer that Gelinas should be getting big big minutes on the Devils' top unit, as they were a different group with him out there bombing away from the point. I don't think Merrill or Larsson are currently big difference makers on the PP, but I would be fine putting either on the second unit as I believe they are both capable. On the PK, it is Larsson and Merrill who will be required to take on the most minutes, almost by default. Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas are both unlikely candidates for PK duty, so it will be the other young defensemen who have to adjust to that increased role. Again, they are both fairly well rounded players, so I expect them to be able to handle the increased role, even if there are some missteps along the way.
Overall, it's easy to see that much of the Devils play will rest on the abilities of the Larsson/Merrill/Gelinas group in the upcoming season, especially if the team encounters any injuries as the season progresses. Yes, the youth movement that has long been discussed appears to have finally arrived on the blue line (and that's before even getting into others who are not to far behind in the system) and all three of these players are about to get thrown into the deep end of the pool whether they are ready or not. I'm optimistic they will be able to handle it, but it still there is certainly a level of anxiety that goes along with giving players in their early 20s big roles. Either way, the Devils will find out exactly what the future could hold on the blue line this season, for better or for worse.