The New Jersey Devils have been overachieving in the eyes of many so far, but that doesn't mean that they have been successful in every facet of hockey. The team is still in transition, adjusting to a new coach and his new system, and some players still seem as though they haven't found their comfort zone just yet. In general, our promising, young defense seems to still be adjusting to new pairings and the new system. They've done some good things and there are some things they need to improve on. Will they become more successful as the season advances? We attempt to investigate today.
What's Going Well
As it stands right now, the Devils are tied (with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes) for 9th worst in terms of Goals Against with 26 allowed. That's not a good number if we're talking about league position, but it's not terrible considering that it means we're allowing less than 3 goals a game, and the number looks better for our goalies as 4 of the goals were with the net empty. We expected the scoring to be somewhat anemic this season, but the Devils have actually potted 21 goals so far in 9 games for a differential of -5. While being 20th in the league in terms of goals scored isn't exactly lighting up the world, it's not much worse than the season prior. At this point last season, the Devils had played 9 games as well, scoring 28 goals while allowing 39.
If we look solely at the statistics compared to last season, the Devils defense (along with the forwards who play defense and our goalies) are doing exactly what they need to do; they've allowed 13 fewer goals this season than they did at this point last year through the exact same number of games as well. While scoring is down, the record is not much different either (4-4-1 as opposed to 4-3-2 last season) so as long as the wheels don't fall off the bus this season (and Cory Schneider stays healthy) the team may find themselves in a better position than last year as the season progresses.
Cause for Concern
The one thing that the Devils defenders have yet to really do is get their offense going; while none of our guys are the caliber of say an Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban when it comes to point production, they aren't exactly slouches either. Out of the 54 points registered so far by Devils players, our 7 defensemen have tallied a mere 9 of them. Eric Gelinas, renowned for his "Truth" slapshot, so far has only 1 goal in 7 games with only 7 shots on goal. Mike wrote a bit about his struggles yesterday, and I have to agree that if he's not putting up points, he's not helping the team.
Currently Damon Severson leads all Devils defenders in points with 3 (all assists) in the 8 games he has appeared in. I have to say that's not a bad number at this point for a defender who's game isn't solely based on offense. Adam Larsson has a goal and an assist in 9 games, but both of those came in the Devils game against the Coyotes. He finished strong last season, and while he is taking on the toughest competition along with Andy Greene, it would be nice to see Larsson on the score sheet a bit more. Speaking of Captain Greene, he sits tied with his partner with 2 points, both of Andy's being assists. Greene and Larsson have looked strong as a pairing so far, but for this Devils team to continue to succeed this season, they will both need to contribute a bit more on offense.
With 3 defense players to go, I've already accounted for 8 of the 9 points; David Schlemko scored the other night against the Buffalo Sabres for his first point of the season. I took an in-depth look at Schlemko last week, and even after a few more games, he still hasn't had one defensively that has made me think, "This guy should be in our lineup every night." His stats show that he is not contributing offensively, and he's at an age where his potential as an NHL player is known; with Jon Merrill healthy, hopefully John Hynes begins to recognize that Schlemko is more of a problem than a solution.
Moving on to Merrill, he gets a bit of a pass offensively, as he has missed some games due to illness. He absolutely had his worst game of the season against Columbus, and maybe that's due to it being his first game back, or because the team was rotating 7 defenders. Either way, he needs to step his game up, or he may find himself in Press Box Purgatory, as may his one time defense partner John Moore. Moore has been fairly solid on defense, but absolutely offensively unimpressive for a player who has a good slap shot as he does; he is someone I want to see contribute more (pun partially intended?) as the season continues.
Shake It Up?
Based on how well things have gone for the team this season (Did anyone see us having 4 wins at this point?) it may not be a good thing to mess with a formula that has brought us some success. That being said, there were some defense pairs that worked over the past few seasons for the Devils that might be worth revisiting:
Top Pair: Andy Greene and Damon Severson
Upon making the opening night roster last season, Damon Severson was placed beside Andy Greene and he really seemed to thrive in that spot. Severson and Greene looked like a legit top pairing until Damon got injured, and I think that putting them back together might do wonders for the team.
Second Pair: Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas
This is where I'm confident I will cause a bit of controversy, as some fans do not believe Gelinas is an NHL level defender. When he and Larsson were paired together back during the 2013-14 season, Gelinas played some of the best hockey of his career; with Larsson's growth as a player, I don't think he would have a problem "anchoring" this pairing; in the very least, it couldn't be any worse than the Schlemko-Gelinas teaming that makes me nervous each time they hit the ice.
Bottom Pair: Jon Merrill and John Moore
These two haven't been bad together per se, but I think using them in more of a limited minutes role could be good for their confidence. Merrill could definitely use some limited minutes right now just to re-adjust himself after his outing against Columbus, and I think it would help to take some of the pressure off of Moore.
Extra: David Schlemko
Is there anyone who would disagree with me on this one? From watching the last few games, I honestly think Gelinas is improving and adjusting his game more than Schlemko, who at this point should be thrust into Press Box Purgatory until an injury strikes.
Now I'd like to take some time to hear your thoughts on the Devils' defense; should John Hynes be looking to change some pairings to spark some offense from the back end? Which players would you like to see step up their game on the back end? Should the team not make any changes to a lineup that has produced some unexpected wins already? Do you think Hynes will ever hit David Schlemko will the ol' healthy scratch? Leave any and all comments below and as always thanks for reading!