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Which Defenseman Breaks Out in 2014-2015?

A youth movement is finally upon the New Jersey Devils! With the off-season departures of Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov, the Devils could work Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas all into the lineup regularly this year. Today, we will look at the careers of all three so far, and examine why each could have their best NHL season yet.

Will we see more of The Truth this year?
Will we see more of The Truth this year?
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

It's no secret that the New Jersey Devils have had to deal with a crowded blue line ever since the 2011-2012 season; carrying 7-8 NHL defensemen on a roster means that 1-2 players are going to have to sit out each game, and if you're a veteran heavy team as the Devils were, it means younger (potentially better) players are sitting.  Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill have all suffered the fate of demotions, scratches and injuries that have held them out of the New Jersey lineup at points.  With the upcoming season however, Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov are gone, and the youngsters will have to step up and play their minutes.  Who is most likely to step up?  Who is most likely to succeed?  Let's take a look at each one's career so far, and why each might have a breakout season.

Adam Larsson

Career So Far

As the Devils 4th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Larsson has had a somewhat up and down career so far.  He was having an excellent rookie season scoring 2 goals and adding 16 assists in 65 games, until he got absolutely rocked by P.K. Subban and wound up missing time as a result.  When Lars did return from injury, Peter DeBoer was unhappy with his play, and as a result he was a healthy scratch a couple of times after his return, and for majority of the 2012 Playoff run.  Since that time, he has been in an extended "sophomore slump," playing in 63 of a possible 130 games mostly due to injuries and spending time in the AHL (due to the logjam), while posting only 9 NHL points (1-8) in that span.

Why He's Poised to Breakout

Larsson to me seems poised to break-out by proxy; his upcoming 4th NHL year looks to be set up as a "do or die" season for him, as Adam looks to be in line for a much bigger role with the team.  Unless the Devils decide to play two left-handed players together (usually a DeBoer no-no), he will most likely wind up as the righty next to Andy Greene on the top defense pair due to the hole left by the departing Mark Fayne.

If Lars is looking at big minutes with Greene, he's going to have to show the skillset from his rookie season that began to resurface last season when he was paired with Gelinas.  He has the ability to be a good, solid stay at home defender, but has also shown offensive flashes; this needs to be the season that Lars puts everything he has learned so far together.  If he fails to do so, Adam could find himself demoted to sheltered minutes, or worse: press-box purgatory.  Larsson is still young, and still has a good amount of potential, but you have to believe the Devils want that potential to turn into production relatively soon.

Eric Gelinas

Career So Far

Gelinas burst onto the big stage in a big way last year; recalled from Albany on October 23rd, Eric would debut the next night against Vancouver, scoring his first ever NHL goal.  He continued to provide point production that the team desperately needed, and made the team's power play noticeably better.  In the 60 games that he played for New Jersey last season, Gelly would finish with 7 goals and 22 assists for 29 points.  Despite playing 20 less games than some teammates, he finished 8th on the team in scoring.  His defensive play started out fine, but it seemed to slowly deteriorate as the season went out, resulting in some healthy scratches and a pair of reassignments to Albany.

Why He's Poised to Breakout

While currently still a restricted free agent as of this writing, Eric possesses a skill set that is quite different from his fellow youth defensemen, namely "The Truth."

The only other player on the back-end that provides a similar spark to the one Eric does would be Marek Zidlicky; Zid won't be around forever though, and that's why Eric needs to fix his defending.  The more he played last season however, the more defensive shortcomings surfaced, to the point that he was a healthy scratch quite a few times when the defense was healthy last season.

To be able to truly emerge this season, Gelinas simply must be better in his own end.  His offensive game is already good, and only stands to get better as he plays more games in the league.  A good training camp/preseason (if signed by then) could be the chance Gelinas needs to prove his defense is up to snuff; otherwise he could wind up relegated to being a third-unit power play specialist.  Another concern with Eric is that due to the fact that there are three lefties seemingly ahead of him on the depth chart (Greene, Merrill, and by proxy of the letter on his jersey, Bryce Salvador) the chance exists that he might start the season as the 7th defenseman.

Jon Merrill

Career So Far

The last of the young defensive trio to join the team last season, Merrill's career got off to an inauspicious beginning; he would be called up for the November 3rd game against Minnesota, only to be injured on just his third NHL shift.  After missing three weeks, Merrill would get another shot in a game against Winnepeg; he would stick with the big club for good at this point, minor injuries notwithstanding.  Merrill's stat line didn't jump off of the page, with 2 goals and 9 assists credited to him in the 52 games he played, but most of them came in the latter half of the season.  Merrill took all the right steps in his first NHL season, learning and honing his game as the season went on.

Why He's Poised to Breakout

Merrill started off shaky when he joined New Jersey, but as he was given more responsibility, he quickly blossomed and helped to solidify the top 4 last season playing alongside Zidlicky.  While he wasn't relied upon to provide offense, the times that he did contribute, it was in a big way.

Merrill gained more confidence and played better with each game that he was in the lineup last season.  If he can add a bit more on the offensive side of the ice, while continuing to play the same solid defense that he played last season, there's no reason to believe that Jon won't have an excellent sophomore season.

The one small concern I would have about Merrill would be his luck; he was injured twice during his rookie season, with both injuries being the result of some bad luck.  While the Devils can afford someone being out of the lineup due to injury, Merrill is not someone they can be without this season.  Less options on defense mean the Devils will need solid players like Jon in the lineup every night.

My Pick to Breakout

If I had to choose just one of these three players to have a breakout season, I'm going to have to go with Adam Larsson.  While Merrill has the most upside and is currently probably the best player of the three, the fact is that playing with Zidlicky means that Jon will have to play a lot of stay at home on defense; his offensive totals will probably stay similar to last season due to that.  I am a big Eric Gelinas fan as well, but due to the lefties ahead of him on the depth chart, he will probably be playing third pairing minutes with power play time; not exactly a situation that leads to one having a standout season.

So my choice is Larsson who has at times played on the top pair with Greene and probably will do so again.  While Andy had an excellent season offensively last year, he is more well known for his solid defending.  Adam will have a chance playing with Andy to jump into the play more as he did here:

After having a rough past couple of seasons, I just have a hunch that this will be the campaign where Lars puts it all together.  If he is paired with Andy, the spotlight will be on him for sure.

Your Thoughts

Now I would like to hear from you fans as to who you think will have a breakout year.  Which one of these three players do you think will have a season that stands out from their past years?  Do you predict different roles for them from the ones I predicted above?  Do you think all three will break out?  Leave any comments below and as always thanks for reading!