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New Jersey Devils 2014-2015 Season Preview Part 2: Defense

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As we at ILWT continue our season preview for the New Jersey Devils, today we take a look at defense. Last season, and historically in general, defense has been an asset for this team. Will this be the case again this year? Let's see what NJ has.

Andy Greene...the leader of this defense
Andy Greene...the leader of this defense
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the season preview here at ILWT began with an in depth look at the forwards on the team and in the system.  Today, that preview continues with the second installment, this time focusing on the defensemen.  This season, the blue line for the Devils will look somewhat similar and yet somewhat different than it has over the past few years.  New blood is finding its way into the fabric of this defense, while some seasoned veterans still remain to guide the young guns where need be.  The big question, of course, is will the new guys be able to replace and bolster what has been one of the top defenses in the league, albeit a largely unheralded one?  Or will the changing of the guard require a rough patch?  Only time will tell that answer for sure, but let's dig into what we know and what we can hope to expect.

What Happened Last Season

Last season, the Devils were one of the top defending teams in the league.  In terms of shot prevention, the team was the cream of the crop in the NHL, keeping opponents to only 23.8 shots per 60 minutes at 5 on 5.  That did not entirely translate over into goals allowed per 60 minutes, where the Devils finished 7th in the league with a 2.05 GA/60 during 5 on 5, but much of that can be placed on the goaltending situation which Gerard will be covering in the next couple of days.  Overall, the team gave up 195 goals, 138 at 5 on 5.  The 195 put them at 6th in the league, which is anything but terrible.

In terms of possession, the Devils ranked 4th in 5v5 close situations last season with a CF% of 54.7.  But were the defensemen contributing to that?  Of all defensemen last season, only Adam Larsson, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, and Peter Harrold had positive relative Corsi percentages at 5 on 5 (that is to say, relative to the rest of the team, these players were positive in possession).  Eric Gelinas was just under with a -0.7 relative Corsi, but Jon Merrill was way under with a -4.5 relative Corsi.  While those are not bad possession numbers overall for this squad, hopefully next season more defensemen can work to move the puck forward.  Bryce Salvador was at a paltry -10.5 relative Corsi, which really could use improvement this season but may not get better.

While in general the defense was quality in terms of defending, were they producing points as well?  Below is a list of major Devils contributors on defense along with their point production last year.  Stats here are courtesy of the Devils official website.

Player

Games Played

Goals

Assists

Points

Marek Zidlicky

81

12

30

42

Andy Greene

82

8

24

32

Eric Gelinas

60

7

22

29

Jon Merrill

52

2

9

11

Mark Fayne

72

4

7

11

Anton Volchenkov

56

0

8

8

Bryce Salvador

40

1

3

4

Peter Harrold

33

0

4

4

Adam Larsson

26

1

2

3

These numbers are definitely improved over previous seasons, where the defense seemed to do nothing for the scoreboard.  Zidlicky's 42 points ranked him 5th on the team in that category, while Andy Greene's 32 points ranked him 7th and Gelinas' 29 points ranked him 8th.  Those are decent numbers overall.  After those three, however, there is an obvious falloff.  Merrill did a respectable job defending in his first year with the big club, but his offensive production was limited.  Fayne was never an offensive juggernaut, but then Edmonton did not sign him to do that anyway.  And Larsson only played 26 games in New Jersey, so it is hard to criticize those numbers too much.  In the end, we can only hope that this season those point totals continue to increase for this defense.

This Year's Squad

This year, as alluded to earlier, will feature some new players on the blue line.  This is the season where the wealth of defensive talent in the system hopefully begins to pay dividends for the big club.  Let's look at who has departed, who will likely be replacing those who have moved on, and who will still likely be playing in Albany.

In terms of who has left, there are two names to bring up.  The first, Anton Volchenkov, was bought out by New Jersey at the end of June.  His contract was too bulky at a $4.25m cap hit with two years still remaining.  He was above average at penalty killing, but his 5 on 5 play had suffered to the point where he was more of a 3rd pairing defenseman.  And since 3rd pairing defensemen do not make over 4 million, it was the right call by Lou Lamoriello.

The other departure, and the one that could really hurt the Devils, was Mark Fayne.  During free agent frenzy, Fayne inked a 4-year deal with the Edmonton Oilers for $14.5 million.  He played consistently on the top pairing last season with Andy Greene, and the two combined to shut down opposing top lines night after night.  One can question how effective he will be away from Greene, but nonetheless it will be sad not seeing those two together next season.  New Jersey needs to hope that whoever replaces Fayne on that pairing with Greene will be just as effective.

As for the new blood on the squad, we have the youngsters Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Adam Larsson.  The interesting thing about this is that all three have played a decent amount in the NHL already. Larsson has been up and down over the past three seasons, and the other two received significant minutes last season due to injuries.   The only major difference now is that this year, these three will most likely remain up the entire season.  Larsson and Gelinas have to stay in New Jersey, as they both signed one-way contracts, but since Merrill would never clear waivers, he cannot be sent down either.

The veterans who will be joining these guys on the blue line are offensive distributor Marek Zidlicky, Captain Bryce Salvador and top defenseman Andy Greene.  The 7th defensive spot, previously held by Peter Harrold, was still up in the air when I wrote this.  Other names besides Harrold could be camp tryout Thomas Kaberle or 2012 2nd round pick Damon Severson who has been playing well in camp.

Down in the minors, the talent pool at defense remains strong.  The aforementioned Damon Severson may be ready sooner than later to join New Jersey, and he could be a strong contributor for this team one day, especially for his offensive skills.  Behind him, there is some real potential for the future.  Seth Helgeson had a banner year last season in Albany, posting a +12 in 75 games.  Steve Santini, the Devils' 2nd round pick in 2013, has been drawing great praise from talent evaluators, some who project him to be a top shutdown defenseman in the NHL.  Reece Scarlett had a quality year last year in Albany, and rookie Joshua Jacobs was a 2nd round pick this year who has the talent to develop into something special.  What is clear is that the Devils' defensive unit should remain one of the best in the league for many years to come if these players can develop and produce at the highest level.

Expectations for This Season

This season should continue to show quality, above average defensive play for the Devils.  Even though there is some changeover in personnel, the new guys have already proven themselves to be competent players in the NHL, at least to some degree.  This is not to mention that Gelinas, Merrill and Larsson should still continue to improve, given their ages.  If these three were already NHL-caliber players, with improvements they can all come to be successful as top 4 defensemen.  Gelinas should hopefully produce a bunch of points on the power play, and Merrill and Larsson should hopefully grow into consistent, above average defenders.

For the veterans on this team, Zidlicky needs to continue to be a force at distributing the puck.  The offense is in desperate need of his ability to dish the biscuit, even if he is a liability on the back end.  Andy Greene needs to continue to be a boss on defense, shutting down the opposition's top line on a nightly basis.  Whoever pairs up with him could turn out to be as good (fortunate?) as Fayne was.  And Bryce Salvador needs to be able to survive 3rd pairing minutes while still chipping in on the penalty kill.  If he can make that happen, it would be a huge benefit to this team.

Therefore, despite the changes and the new pairings that will have to come with it, I still expect this squad to regularly shut down the opposition.  They may not score the most goals or produce the most points, but most of them get paid to prevent goals, not score them.  If they can produce a similar amount of points to last season, maybe even a little more with Gelinas playing a full season, that would be a good thing considering that they should continue to perform well in shot prevention.

In terms of straight projections, Mike predicted the defense to score 32 goals this season, which is low for sure but could be worse.  Double digit goals from Gelinas is crucial.  On the reverse, Mike also predicted the team to give up 26.5 shots per game and allow only 186 goals, both of which would rank extremely well as compared to the rest of the NHL.  If I was given the option to take all of that as a package right now, I would absolutely accept.  186 goals against is a very solid number, and the offense should able to produce more than that.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that the defensive squad for New Jersey, both with the big club and down on the farm, is one of the biggest strong points of this organization.  The defense is not flashy, with big names lighting the lamps or getting big time hits, but they have proven over and over again that they can perform at a high level.  Their shot prevention is tops in the league, they do not hurt the team in possession statistics, and they work to keep the opposition from taking many high quality shots.  They also work to produce one of the best penalty kills in the league, which will be discussed on this site later in the week.

In the end, if the Devils can get similar play and production out of their blue line this season as they did last season, I think that it will put the team in playoff contention.  This would be especially true if the forwards can produce more points and if Cory Schneider can be Cory Schneider over the course of 70 games.  The defense was not the main culprit last season, and I doubt that it will be an issue again this year.  And perhaps the best part about it is that this squad should continue to get better and better, as the farm system continues to develop quality defensive talent.  Should the defense improve upon how it did last year, it can only benefit this team for this season and for seasons to come.

Your Take

What do you think about the Devils' blue line?  Do you think that it is a strong point for this organization as well, or do you see major holes that could lead to issues this season?  What are your expectations for this squad this upcoming season?  Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.