So far in this very early season, the New Jersey Devils have used all seven of their defensemen on the roster. Eric Gelinas, Damon Severson, and John Moore were scratched in each game so far. Moore was held out in part of a bone bruise he suffered when he blocked a one-timer by Alexander Ovechkin on Saturday. The other two were healthy scratches. Gelinas was quite poor in preseason, so he was held out for that. Severson was quite poor in the home opener, so he was the one to sit for Gelinas’ re-entry to the lineup. Head coach John Hynes at least tolerates what David Schlemko and Jon Merrill have been doing so far, but it’s entirely possible they’ll get the bench at some point of another this season for some reason. Over time, injuries and excessively poor play should establish the regular set of six defensemen. However, I would guess that the team will keep seven defensemen on an active roster as long as they can. It has the benefit of having someone immediately available in place of injury and/or poor pay.
While the scratching of Gelinas and Severson has understandable logic at the time, I would agree it’s better to have them active. We saw Severson demonstrate that he has a bright future. His initial start to 2014-15 was fantastic as the 20-year old was holding his own even in one-on-one battles with the Ovechkins and Stamkoses of the league. After suffering a broken foot, he returned and played solid hockey, which is still a feat for a young defenseman. Severson has skills that benefit in both ends of the rink and as the youngest member of the blueline, he’s theorhetically has more potential than the rest. He should be playing regularly. Eric Gelinas is older – he’s now 24 – but he’s been establishing himself as a NHL defenseman. I’m critical of his flaws because they do cause issues on the ice. However, when he’s able to keep composed, not over-estimate his skating ability (read: not go for neutral zone hits when the opponent rushes up ice), and make simple plays, he can be functional. His real positive is his killer shot and his willingness to unleash it. The game against Washington was one of his best in a while and it represents what Gelinas can bring to a team beyond just a power play goal. With a recent two-year contract under the new regime, he got a deal that says he should be playing regularly. And the end of his development would benefit from playing regularly. As of now, that has not been the case.
Tom Gulitti reported yesterday that both players defensemen want to push for a spot in the lineup. I can see and even agree with that. It's good to have that kind of confidence and drive. But they need the opportunity. While both played last night against Nashville, someone else may end up sitting when Moore is good to go. That person may have the same desire to stay in the lineup. So I’d like to make this suggestion to really see who belongs at the moment: go with seven defensemen in a game. This will get everyone, when healthy, on the ice and able to make their case in an actual game.
We’ve seen this a few times last season, usually with Gelinas only used in special situations like power plays. It can be a challenge to balance the time among the other six defenders; usually the seventh will be used in more limited action just from the rotation of who to use alone. However, Hynes can treat that as a feature rather than a bug. Should, say, David Schlemko start to have a rough night; then he can be rotated more with the seventh – be it Gelinas, Severson, Moore, or whoever else. Different pairings can be tried out and evaluated in a regular season situation as opposed to a meaningless preseason game. Should the Devils get a rash of power plays, Gelinas will be there to shine. Should the Devils need solid play at both ends, they got Severson out there. Everyone else still has their role. No one has to sit on the back end unless they can’t. This way Hynes can better establish who’s earning time rather than swapping players in and out in a game.
Of course, the back end would be fully active at the expense of another forward. In a way, this is the strongest reason to go with seven defensemen at the moment – even just for a game. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced the eleventh and twelfth forwards can contribute more than whoever is sitting among the defensemen. Among the bottom six, only three are truly safe in my eyes: Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, and Lee Stempniak. Not coincidentally, these are three players that do more than just play 10-12 minutes at even strength. While I understand the desire to give other forwards minutes, can we say that Stefan Matteau, Reid Boucher, Tuomo Ruutu, Brian O’Neill, or Sergey Kalinin have really earned it? All five of them have been scratched this early in the season. All five have played a little more than a sixth of each game so far and haven’t added much. Sure, Matteau looked decent last night and Ruutu wasn't too shabby either. But they didn't prove to be essential players. While three of those five are under 25, is it really worth keeping Severson or Gelinas or Moore or even Schlemko out to so they can play? I’m not so certain, especially since I have more faith in those defensemen improving or at least contributing more than the forwards mentioned. As much as Hynes wants to see Severson and Gelinas push for a regular spot on defense, it is arguable that they should be pushing to show they deserve spots in the lineup too. Since Hynes has shown no aversion for switching forwards out (or even in game, when he swapped Matteau and O'Neill), keeping a third out and giving those 10-12 minutes to a defenseman to hopefully yield more games doesn’t seem like a big deal to me.
Lastly, this is a re-building season and there’s seventy nine games left. There’s plenty of opportunity to give it a shot, see how it goes, and switch back. If there’s a time for Hynes to just experiment with his lineup, this is the season to do it as expectations are (correctly) low and establishing what works for the future is more important. Severson and Gelinas playing regularly should be a part of the near future. Given the current situation, going to seven defenseman is a realistic way to make it happen immediately and give them the opportunity Hynes wants to see taken. It can only be for a game here and there. He can go back to the standard twelve forwards and hope the latter two in the depth chart succeeds. Just let's see who on defense belongs with everyone getting ice time in the situation rather that sitting one and hoping the one who just sat can make an instant impact.
What do you think? Should Hynes try using all seven defensemen in a game soon? Do you think it’s the best way to get everyone an opportunity to play? Or should Hynes scratch players as needed to rotate them in and out? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on the roster’s makeup in the comments. Thank you for reading.