This all started as a sort-of a follow up to a post I wrote up about Jon Merrill back in January. Namely, my confusion as to what kind of defensemen he'll be come. In recent games, I've noticed that Merrill hasn't been as problematic as someone with a sub-45% Corsi For percentage would suggest. I've also noticed that he's been partnered up with Damon Severson, the rookie who showed signs of a bright future alongside with Andy Greene. With Severson's return, it was a question as to who he would be paired with. The co-coaches answered with Merrill. This kept the pairing of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene intact. And the answer appears to be a good one - as well as a necessary one given the other options.
On Monday night, I went to Puckalytics and used the Super WOWY (With or Without You; it's super because you can now compare entire five-man units) tool to see how each player has done with each other. I highlighted a number of the 5-on-5 stats to showcase how each pairing was doing from the bigger picture. I was surprised to see the results for Merrill & Severson:
|Severson + Merrill||113:27:00||3||6||26.44||26.97||49.5||55.00||44.95||55.0||6.00||88.24||48.4|
|Larsson + Greene||527:08:00||19||15||24.93||26.98||48.0||44.85||52.47||46.1||8.68||93.67||38.6|
While the two haven't played much with each other, it's down right refreshing to see a defensive pairing actually come out ahead in terms of shooting attempts. They almost break even in just raw shots. They're not facing difficult competition like Larsson & Greene or starting more often in their own end. But from a possession standpoint, they're doing well. This explains, in part, with what I've seen. The only downside are the percentages when they're on the ice. Despite Cory Schneider being amazing and Keith Kinkaid being more than acceptable, Severson & Merrill has not received the benefit of great goaltending.
As for the Larsson & Greene pairing, they have the advantage of significantly more ice time so this is a clearer picture of what that pairing can do. Unlike Merrill & Severson, they have not won their match-ups overall from an attempts standpoint. That can be forgiven because they start so many of their shifts in their own end of the rink and they go up against opposition's best. Also unlike them, they've benefited from better percentages. Goaltenders have been very good behind them and the other skaters have found the net more often.
If I were in the co-coaches' shoes, then I'd have four legs. More seriously, I would look at this and be satisfied the current set-up. While Larsson & Greene have spent more time in their own end, they're going up against difficult competition, they're usually starting in their own end, and it hasn't (yet?) been costly on the scoreboard. Merrill has looked his best from a possession standpoint with Severson, which can be seen as another encouraging sign. While they haven't played much together, the early signs look good with the exception of the goal differential. Even so, it's not hideous and if the puck goes forward in the right way more often than the other direction when they're out there, that won't last. Besides, what other combinations could there be?
Actually, that's a good question. Let's look back at some of the notable pairings involving Severson, Larsson, and Merrill that we've seen this season. Again, all data is at 5-on-5 and they come from the Super WOWY at Puckalytics.
|Severson + Greene||447:27:00||16||11||26.95||28.29||48.8||51.22||51.36||49.9||7.96||94.79||41.6|
|Larsson + Merrill||73:30:00||2||3||17.96||22.86||44.0||37.55||45.71||45.1||9.09||89.29||45.5|
|Larsson + Gelinas||84:15:00||2||2||32.05||19.94||61.6||54.12||39.88||57.6||4.44||92.86||53.8|
|Merrill + Gelinas||122:16:00||6||6||21.59||36.80||37.0||38.28||57.91||39.8||13.64||92.00||58.6|
|Merrill + Zidlicky||446:57:00||10||11||22.96||27.65||45.4||42.56||48.19||46.9||5.85||94.66||51.4|
|Merrill + Greene||68:43:00||0||4||20.96||25.32||45.3||34.05||48.02||41.5||0.00||86.21||36.7|
Before one discounts this data due to low sample size, two points must be considered. First, I'm not sampling data, so don't call it a sample size. Second, I'm of the opinion that if a pairing or a line combination is going to work, then it's going to show up earlier rather than later. It almost has to be that way. Coaches (or co-coaches) normally don't have the luxury of trying a combination out for multiple games. A faltering combination could cost shifts, periods, and even games. It is only right for a coach to mix up a line or a pairing if something isn't working well. That's not even including the even harsher reality of injuries and other factors (e.g. suspensions, penalties within the game) that could force changes.
Anyway, I didn't look at every pairing, but the other notable ones from this season involving those three young players. First off, check out Severson & Greene. Peter DeBoer was set on this pairing up until Severson suffered a fracture in his foot. The numbers are actually better than Larsson & Greene. That's pretty impressive since they faced a similar level of competition and also started their shifts mostly in their own end. So why not go back to it? Well, placing a rookie right back from injury right back on the top pairing is a risk in of itself. And while Larsson & Greene was worse, it was by no means a disaster. Knowing now that Merrill and Severson appears to be a combination that works from this standpoint, there's little reason to do so.
Furthermore, look at some of the other combinations. Merrill played most of his minutes with Marek Zidlicky until he was moved to Detroit. That pairing really didn't go so well, but it was left intact to keep other pairings going. The coaches could further justify it by the fact they didn't get scored on too much at evens. The latter doesn't actually mean the pairing was good defensively. An on-ice save percentage of around 94% can absolve a lot of defensive sins. Just that hockey is a results oriented game and so that can be used as a justification. Anyway, Merrill-Zidlicky was better than the short time Merrill was used with Larsson, Eric Gelinas (39.8 CF% together with a near 59% OZS? Barf!), and Greene. The less said about his even shorter time with Seth Helgeson and Mark Fraser, the better. Basically, there really aren't any other good options to pair with Merrill without hoping his initial set of games with other partners was just a bad start. In this regard, seeing Merrill and Severson together outputting a positive CF% is a pleasant surprise.
And what would one do with Larsson? The numbers suggest Larsson & Merrill as a dead-end. Severson and Larsson remain as an unknown and likely will be since Merrill & Greene was quite poor in their spot duty together. The answer could be Eric Gelinas. Their short time together went very well. Albeit helped out by weaker competition and more favorable zone starts. Yet, the results aren't nearly as ugly as the other alternatives. I don't know how Larsson would react to taking fewer minutes to help out #22. And, again, it creates questions for other pairings. Right now, Severson & Greene and Larsson & Gelinas would yield either Peter Harrold or Fraser and Merrill together. I don't think anyone should want to see that. Not to mention it would mean Larsson & Gelinas would likely have to face tougher competition and more minutes; who knows how well/poor that would go for Gelinas.
In conclusion, I think the Devils are trying to do the best they can with what they have on defense. The good news is that Merrill isn't a possession anchor with Severson. It can even be seen as another reason to feel good about Severson's future; he doesn't have to be next to Greene to succeed. The bad news is that Merrill's short time with others suggest that he is an anchor with others. This limits the co-coaches options. They could try to force Merrill with someone else. But I doubt that a pairing suddenly gets good in time; if it's not working in 60-70 minutes in 5-on-5, then it's not likely to work. With Merrill & Severson together, this means Larsson & Greene should remain. They haven't been as bad, but they're not a huge drop off from what Greene & Severson were doing earlier this season. While Larsson could work well with Gelinas, no one else on defense can handle top minutes with Greene. Therefore, Gelinas is stuck with whoever is left.
What do you make of the defensive pairings the Devils are using so far? Would you agree Merrill has looked his best next to Severson? What about the Larsson & Greene pairing; are they comparable to what Severson & Greene were doing earlier this season? Do you think a defensive pairing get better over time? Do those first twenty, forty, or even sixty minutes together mean that much, or am I overrating it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' defensive pairings in the comments. Thanks to Puckalytics for the Super WOWY tool and thank you for reading.