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Passing WOWYs: NJ Devils Defense Pairings

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This article looks at how each New Jersey Devils defense pairing defended against the opposition passes. Read on for the details.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

In this article, I want to take a look a closer look at the defense pairings for the New Jersey Devils. Specifically, how much credit and blame we should place on them for what happens on the ice? There is a table below that you can download and play around with that contains the on-ice data for each Devils defense pairing over the forty-one games that were tracked in this fashion. The concept WOWY (With Or Without You) is not only a tremendous song one of the greatest bands of all time, U2, but also a metric of importance created by David Johnson of HockeyAnalysisStats.hockeyanalysis, and Puckalytics. You can view the Devils defensemen WOWYs here. We'll start by looking at each player in a brief manner.


Adam Larsson

Of the 799 events that we tracked while Larsson was on the ice, 723 of them were with Andy Greene. It's clear the Devils decided to roll with this pairing as often as possible. Now, we know that during the season when paired together, Larsson and Greene put up a Corsi (all shooting attempts) percentage of 47.7%. However, when we look at just passing offense, we see the duo come ahead more often than not. They finish just ahead of the opposition when we look at their SAG (Shot Attempts Generated) percentage (50.9%) and they finish well ahead when looking at their SC SAG(Scoring Chance Shot Attempts Generated) percentage (60.4%). The Devils as a team were 0.7% more efficient (higher proportion of attempts resulting in shots) than the opposition with Larsson and Greene on the ice. They did take a bath in the Royal Road department, on the ice for twenty-three for and thirty-nine against, so that is concerning. However, as Brian noted in Volume III of our data release, this could have been the result of their zone starts and quality of competition. The data at War on Ice would suggest there's validity to this. While I tend to think that the effects of zone starts and quality of competition is minimal over a full season, since we're only look at a half-season, there's bound to be more of an effect. Overall, they performed quite well given their usage and the resulting passing numbers. To top it off, Larsson had the highest on-ice Expected Goals For/60 (1.61) compared to the other Devils defensemen.

Andy Greene

Similar to what I wrote above: Greene simply didn't play much with other defensemen. The highest number of events he was on the ice for with another defenseman was the eighty-two with Damon Severson. Looks like the Larsson and Greene show in the future.

Damon Severson

Speaking of Severson, after coming back from injury and playing exclusively with Greene, he played most of his hockey down the stretch with Jon Merrill. Possession-wise, they came out ahead in every passing metric except for shot differential and efficiency (which go hand-in-hand). The duo were on the ice for more attempts than the opposition, but were less efficient in doing so, resulting in a high number of shots against than shots for. I think this would have turned around over a larger sample (only 237 events in total here). The possession numbers are impressive, especially the 60.5% attempt share of sustained passing plays. A2 passes are shot attempts generated by multiple passes, indicative of greater control of the puck and asserting a team's offense on another; or, conversely, disrupting the opposition offense and denying periods or prolonged possession.

Eric Gelinas

Gelinas played most alongside Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser, not exactly accomplished linemates. The interesting aspect of his pairing with Fraser was that they weren't terrible. From a passing possession standpoint, Gelinas and Fraser finished on the right side of 50%. They also did quite well in the sustained possession department (54%). This is likely due to Gelinas than Fraser, as Gelinas had the third-best A2 Possession rate (53.5%) and Fraser had the worst (43.3%) when we look at each defenseman's total figures. We know what Gelinas has been: a power play specialist who is average at best defensively. However, if the team is able to secure a serviceable defensemen in free agency and allow that player or Merrill to slot alongside Gelinas, we could see more consistent performance. Fraser is not long for Jersey and the team will need to sign at least one defenseman. Whomever Gelinas gets paired with in the fall will bear close watching.

Peter Harrold

All we really need to know about Harrold, besides the fact that he won't be back, is this: With Gelinas, whom he spent most of hist time with, he was a 46.9% Passing Possession player; without Gelinas, he was only 41.6%. Harrold isn't terrible at limiting chances, but does very little going forward as well. It's almost as thought the game slows way down and very little happens during his shifts. Thanks for your service, Harrold.

Jon Merrill

Merrill. What to say about Merrill. Oh, the rest of the article does a good job.

A Closer Look at Merrill and Sustained Possession

I've decided to isolate the sustained passing sequences (shot attempts for and against that were preceded by at least two passes) as based on the 6,000+ shots we tracked that were preceded by at least two passes, goals were scored 9.5% of the time. Compare to this the league average 7.8% goal conversion rate and it's apparent that when a team can successfully maintain possession through passes, they are forcing the opposing team and goaltender to work more, and they increase the chance of a lane opening up for that final pass preceding a shot attempt. Don't let me convince you though, hear it straight from someone that knows more about goalies than I do.

Claire

That comment is from Claire Austin (@Puckologist) from this article where I introduced how we sequence passing events. Claire highlights the practical advantage of successfully moving the puck in the highlighted section. So, let's focus on these situations and how the Devils defensemen performed.

Now, the pairings above were on the ice together for at least 100 secondary passing events. That's why you don't see every defenseman. Also, some pairings were on the ice almost exclusively (Adam Larsson and Andy Greene) and others had a myriad of partners (Jon Merrill). The first graph shows you their A2 Possession numbers together. If you click the second option above the graph it will give you a second graph showing how well the first member did without their partner. So, Larsson did worse apart from Greene, Merrill was better apart from Zidlicky, but worse without Severson, and Gelinas was worse without Fraser. Also, I came across this way to visualize charts from this article at Japer's Rink. You can access all the passing data we have for the Devils pairings in the downloadable spreadsheet at the beginning of this article.

Since Merrill is the only defenseman who was on the ice for more than 100 secondary passing events with multiple partners, we're going to focus on him in this piece. I've tried to restrict this to events that one of these defensemen had an impact on or did something worthy of mention, be it positive or negative.

Another reason why Merrill is so intriguing to me is because he can have a tremendous say on whether or not the Devils have a respectable defense next season. We know Andy Greene is going to be good and whomever his partner is will likely succeed. Since Adam Larsson was still with Greene when Damon Severson returned from injury last season, I'm assuming that Larsson and Greene will remain together. John Hynes may have new pairings he wants to try out, but this is what I'm working from.

So, if Larsson and Greene are together, Severson and someone will likely be the second pairing. Since Merrill played with Severson once the latter returned, it's safe to assume that if the two of them click, they will be a solid second pairing and one that can stabilize the Devils back end. This is why I think that Merrill is so important and worth some investigation this offseason.

John Moore is another option for the Devils in a top four role, or as a fifth defensemen. I know some people want us to trade a defenseman for a young, established forward, but unless you're getting a very good young player (i.e. better than Kyle Palmieri), I wouldn't do it. The Devils defense is young and, apart from Greene, unproven. Sure, Larsson looked to turn a corner last season and Severson had a promising start to his NHL career, but if Merrill pans out to be a steady middle pair defenseman, the Devils could really have a deep group of defensemen, which will only help their forwards. Let's get to it.

Merrill the Playmaker.

I posted the below chart in the first piece on our passing data. This shows Merrill was the most frequent distributor of passes in transition that led to shot attempts. I went back and reviewed many of his passes in these situations to try and understand what Merrill was doing better than the other defenders. Let's take a look.

Def_A2

Since I'm strictly looking at secondary passes in transition (penultimate pass preceding shot attempt occurs prior to gaining the offensive zone) leading to shot attempts for Merrill, I've reviewed the twenty-five events we have of his in this fashion since the halfway point of the season. If you recall, this is when we decided on time-stamping our events so it's easy to recall them for viewing. Of these twenty-five, they break down into two groups: Controlled Breakouts and Regroups.

Controlled Breakouts

You all know what a controlled breakout is: a player skates behind the net  or delays in his own end and waits for his team to get set up to execute how they plan to exit their zone and enter their opponent's. Of these twenty-five events, fourteen were breakout plays. We're going to take a look at a few of these now.

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We pick this play up after Severson recovers a dump-in. He waits a few seconds as the Devils skaters get into position and then dishes to Merrill. Merrill is already being pressured by Alex Galchenyuk, who is angling Merrill to the boards to force him away from the center of the ice.

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Merrill is patient enough to allow Galchenyuk to over pursue, opening a lane for which Merrill can hit the wide forward, Jacob Josefson, and enter the zone with speed. Josefson enters the zone, delays, and then sets up Severson for a one-timer. Merrill likes this pass to the wide forward.

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Here, Merrill circles behind his own net and evades the only player to ever "shut down" Evgeni Malkin, Sean Coutourier, and skates out of the zone with ease.

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He lays off a pass in the neutral zone for Mike Cammalleri to touch to Travis Zajac for a shot generated off of a controlled entry.

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Merrill skates out from behind his own net. He has support to his right in the form of Zajac and Gelinas. On his left is Cammalleri. Jordin Tootoo is stretching at the Columbus blue line. As Merrill exits, Ryan Johansen takes away any pass to Zajac, leaving Cammalleri and Gelinas as the only options.

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Merrill skates at Cam Atkinson, forcing him to step up to play him. Merrill stickhandles and passes to Cammalleri who, again, can enter with speed. This leads to a tip chance in front by Tootoo from Cammalleri.

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Zidlicky starts this breakout from behind the net. He comes to the right and then passes back across to Merrill. Merrill skates up with loads of space in front of him. Boston is pretty passive here.

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As Scott Gomez pulls Jordan Spooner with him at center ice, Merrill slings a pass to the wide forward ready to enter the zone. This time it's Martin Havlat.

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Havlat is able to skate in and flip this puck out front to Gomez, who hasn't needed to slow down after skating through the neutral zone. Gomez misses, but Merrill's vision allows for a quick and dangerous chance to develop.

Regroups

Moving on to the regroup phase. These are when the team in possession would circle back in the neutral zone or slightly into their own zone before restarting another entry. These may occur after a turnover or a partial change. There were eleven of these events in which Merrill's secondary passes led to shot attempts.

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Here, the Arizona Coyotes dump the puck out of the zone and it is recovered by Cammalleri. He will pass it across to Merrill, who quickly puts the Devils back on the attack.

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He sends a pass into the neutral zone towards Severson, who gains entry and dishes off to Tootoo, who fires on net and Stephen Gionta scores on the rebound. Quickly transitioning is key, yet again.

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Here, Merrill could be in trouble. The Edmonton Oilers are pressuring both Devils defensemen and have another winger defending against any pass Merrill tries up the boards.

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Merrill doesn't panic. He keeps the puck and drifts back into his zone. With the Devils two wingers up high, this stretches out the Oilers defense. They now have all three forwards inside the Devils zone. This creates plenty of space in the neutral zone and Merrill recognizes this.

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One quick pass and the Devils have a 3-on-2 with another controlled entry.

Entry Assists

Now, all defensemen make these plays, but these screenshots are simply evidence of the chart I displayed above. The simple truth is this: Merrill makes these plays more often than any other Devils defensemen. If you think about offense generated in transition, what's implied in these events is a controlled entry. So, generating an attempt in transition is essentially assisting on a controlled zone entry. I put together a chart of the Devils defensemen and the rate at which they assisted on zone entries. This takes into account both primary and secondary passes that led to entries.

Entry_Assists

So, Zidlicky, obviously, led the group with how often he handled the puck in the neutral zone. After him, however, it was Severson and Merrill who were the best at contributing to zone entries.

Inside the Offensive Zone

Merrill can also contribute in the offensive zone as evident in this series of screenshots from the February 13th game against the Chicago Blackhawks. This shows a heads up play by Merrill that was vital to the eventual goal being scored.

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After a faceoff win in the offensive zone, this appears to be a set play. Steve Bernier immediately boxes out Brad Richards to prevent him from pressuring Merrill at the point.

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Merrill moves past Richards and into a patch of open ice. Bernier drops back to the point to cover Merrill's spot. You'll notice Gomez inching towards the end line, undoubtedly hoping for the pass to work behind the net. Adam Henrique has his stick on the ice, presenting as as option for a pass or redirect. Peter Harrold hasn't moved and Patrick Sharp is moving down into the house. The Blackhawks have all five defenders on the same side of the ice.

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Merrill drives at Andrew Shaw and forces him into a decision. Does he play Merrill or stay on Gomez? Once Shaw tries to get a stick on Merrill, he sends the puck down for Gomez. Henrique's presence has drawn Sharp and Niklas Hjalmarsson, while Duncan Keith, intially drawn to Henrique as well, comes off of him to reassess the situation as he sees Gomez is going to have the puck.

Merrill_4

Now, Gomez has the puck behind the net, where he likes to work so often. Bernier and Richards are still at the point and out of the play. Henrique settles into a patch of soft ice, readying himself if Gomez decides to attempt a pass to him. It actually wouldn't be a bad play as Merrill is tying up Shaw and there is a small seam for Gomez to pass through. Of course, there is also the wide open area on the weak side that is just begging for someone to skate into.

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Gomez passes this  into that open space as Harrold comes down. Sharp is reaching for it, but won't be able to knock it away.

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Sharp is successful in partially screening his own goaltender, however, so he has that going for him on this play. Harrold doesn't have the hardest shot, so the fact that he shoots it when Sharp is right over Corey Crawford helps. Harrold wouldn't even have to shoot here as Bernier is back in the picture and has position on Richards. Harrold could set him up for a quick shot closer to the net. No matter.

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Harrold's shot eludes Crawford and banks in off the near post and in. This play had many elements of successful passing and forcing the goalie to keep track of the puck around the net from behind, then back to the point, and trying to make a save on on a partial screen from his own player. Merrill's action forces Shaw into a decisions which allows him to lay the pass off to Gomez and continue the play on from there. There are many secondary assists that are bogus and phantom in nature; this is not one of them.

Passing Defense

Now we'll move on to sequences from several games in which Merrill and Severson were on the ice together and the opposition had the puck.

Merrill_8

This sequence begins when Curtis Glencross wins a loose puck against Severson and lays it off to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has created some space  between him and his trailer, Henrique, in transition. Merrill is up ahead, ready to play Kuznetsov except...

Merrill_9

Except for the fact that some terrible defending by Travis Zajac and Jordin Tootoo force Merrill into an undesirable situation. Zajac has his head straight ahead, likely aware of Marcus Johansson's presence, and right now Merrill is reading Zajac to see if he goes to Kuznetsov or turns back to Johansson. Also, Severson decided to finish his check up near the blue line rather than abort and try to get back as quick as he could.

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This next shot illustrates that Zajac has waited too long to decide on who to cover. He sort of glides down the center of the ice, then swerves back towards Kuznetov in the next frame. However, Merrill now sees that Tootoo has, unsurprisingly, blown his coverage on Johansson and needs to decide how to play the backdoor on this.

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Kuznetsov is able to get the puck through both Merrill and Zajac and Johansson misses on the attempt. Tootoo is able to get his stick on Johansson's, but between him losing Johansson at the blue line and Zajac a step slow in positioning and decision-making on this play, it makes for a tough sequence for Merrill.

Merrill was on the ice for four other A2 passes against, though was in good position and did nothing wrong as far as I could tell. This was the only one where, depending on your reading of the play, you couldn't say he did everything right.

Merrill_12

This next situation is one in which several Devils won't be happy. The Minnesota Wild carry into the zone and the Devils don't step up to challenge Nino Niederreiter. Severson and Merrill are closer to the faceoff circles and Mike Cammalleri is sort of waiting for the Wild to do something.

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Neiderreiter lays a pass to Mikko Koivu on the wing and heads to the net. Chris Stewart is hanging back slightly, but he will also go to the net. Koivu is shooting for a rebound here, knowing the aforementioned wingers are headed that way. Merrill is on Niederreiter and Cammalleri should have Stewart. Severson is free to handle the rebound. In theory anyway.

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Niederreiter takes Severson and Merrill out of the play as he goes to the net. The puck bounces to Cammalleri, who should be able to claim it and avert what's coming. As John often says, Alas! He does not.

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Cammalleri lets the puck bounce off his stick and right to Stewart. Stewart hits a backhand past Cory Schneider for a Wild goal.

With Koivu taking the shot as early as he did, Merrill and Severson could have done a better job of containing Neiderreiter and being aware of Stewart coming late. Of course, Cammalleri sort of left everyone hanging with his error in front of goal.

Later in the same game...

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This play comes about eight seconds after the Devils lose a faceoff in their own end. Merrill is in front of the net with Zach Parise. The Wild pass the puck to the boards. Severson is at the faceoff dot and is actually the closest defender to the Wild player who is about the receive this pass. Parise is going to release from Merrill and find the soft ice in the high slot. Merrill cannot chase him because there's another Wild player that will take Parise's in front of the net.

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Severson doesn't close down on Jason Pominville fast enough to prevent the pass. Zajac isn't marking anyone. Merrill has to respect the player at the far post. This leads to Parise getting a shot off from a good area.

Earlier in that same game.

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Erik Haula carries in after a Devils turnover at the other end. Severson and Merrill are marking closely, limiting Haula's options. However, one only has to look at Stephen Gionta to see he's on the wrong side of being useful in this sequence.

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Merrill's man drops off as they get to the net. Severson follows Hauls below the end line and tries to defend against Haula's pass to Kyle Brodziak, who has maintained his inside position on Gionta. I suppose you could fault Severson for allowing the pass, but the coverage by Gionta is horrendous.

Later on in that same game...

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After two failed attempts to dump the puck in during a line change, the Devils turn it over. Minnesota is completing a line change of their own and set to regroup while it finishes. Notice Parise is heading off the ice. This is important as Henrique, Bernier, and Gomez are setting up their neutral zone forecheck and will not account for him in a moment.

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Charlie Coyle gives the puck to Ryan Suter in their own end. Suter leaves Gomez behind him and starts to exit the zone. Henrique and Bernier are close, but there's an obvious lane for which Suter is about to pass to across to the wide forward streaking through the zone. Who he is passing to? The Wild player who has stepped onto the ice after Parise skated off.

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You'll see the middle of the ice was quite open to pass through. Justin Fontaine was pulling Severson to the near boards and Merrill remained deep to allow the pass from Suter to reach Thomas Vanek as he moves with speed through the zone.

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As poor as their coverage was in the neutral zone, the Devils do a great job here. Vanek's best option really is to shoot, though Schneider isn't screened at all. Merrill and Severson are in perfect position here, almost baiting Vanek to pass it. Hernique and Bernier will close on Vanek momentarily. Vanek will have to take a gamble here, something he has been known to do in his career.

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Vanek tries to pass to Fontaine, but Severson knocks it away and the Devils skate away. Contrast this with the first example from this game in which both Severson and Merrill end up Niederreiter in front of the net and only Cammalleri left to defend against Stewart. Better positioning and discipline this time around.

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Here, the Pittsburgh Penguins attempt to break through the Devils forecheck in the neutral zone. Tuomo Ruutu engages the puck carrier, Kris Letang...

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and Letang "oles" Ruutu, forcing Jacob Josefson to come up and check him. He does, but not before Letang can pass off to Andrew Ebbett for a controlled entry.

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Ebbett has Maxim LaPierre driving the midlane, which will back off Merrill on the weak side. Severson will have to respect LaPierre down the center and cannot step up on Ebbett. This leaves us with asking Michael Ryder to take away the cross-ice passing lane and actually play defense. How will that work out you ask?

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Yea, not so much. Ebbett completes the pass to Craig Adams who fires on goal and Schneider makes the save. Adams misses the better play which is to pass it back across the slot to Letang. Notice that Josefson and Ruutu are still not back in the frame. Letang's creativity and speed in the neutral zone made this play happen, but Severson and Merrill correctly marked LaPierre driving midlane and cut off the angle without screening Schneider on Adams' shot.

After this save, it's nice to see Merrill check LaPierre off the puck and then poke check it from Ebbett. He'd likely seen enough from the forwards' horror show and decided to just handle it himself.

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A little later in the period, Severson fails to chip the puck out of the zone and the Penguins go to work. Beau Bennett will pick up the puck at the near boards and feed it down low to Steve Downie.

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Now the Devils could possibly be in trouble. As Downie continues to skate to the other side of the net, Merrill will have to come out and challenge him. Severson will go to the front of net, but has to be wary of Bennett behind him, should he also move to a shooting position. Nick Spaling out front has his stick on the ice and is waiting for the feed from Downie.

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Bennett never comes to the net, opting to follow Downie's path behind the net, which is a curious choice. Downie is able to get the pass by Merrill and the combination of Severson and Tootoo can't quite prevent the shot from Spaling. Severson somewhat interferes, but it's still a shot from a dangerous area. Tootoo actually doesn't even move that much from the previous shot.

Conclusions

I know: this was a lot to throw at you. If you've even read this far, put "ZZPops" in the subject line of your comment. However, if we really want to get a better understanding of how players perform, it needs to be a mix of the right data and reviewing the sequence of events. When we do that, we see that Merrill is one of, if not the best, Devils defensemen in transition, quickly turning from defense to offense and keeping possession into the zone. He does not panic and is quite patient with the puck, regularly leading to open lanes and passes to the wide forward with speed.

Defensively, Merrill is usually in good position and more than a couple of times was strong enough to take the puck or shield it from pressure. He's not the fastest skater, but Merrill appears to understands patience and a well-timed pass are quicker than trying to skate past defenders. His impact is generally positive on pairings. He and Zidlicky were not a great pair and both were better in the passing game apart than together. However, we also see that Severson's numbers took a hit possession-wise in the passing game (52.3% with and 47.8% without) so Merrill wasn't propped up by Severson, though he was certainly helped.

Certain players might be better together than apart and I wonder if that's the case with these two. Merrill is a steady presence, solid distributor, and good at transitioning defense to attack; Severson likes to get up ice and fire the puck. We'll see what the rest of the offseason brings, but if these two are a pair and can come out ahead in possession on a consistent basis, this team will be that much stronger.

The addition of Moore only solidifies a potentially deep Devils defense. I would not trade for a young forward unless it was an absolute steal. With the way the NHL is trending, you can never have enough defensemen who can exit the zone with possession (and if you need a reminder, Merrill was the second best at doing that two seasons ago when I tracked them) and make good passes in transition. Let these defensemen play together for a season that is likely to be another one without playoffs.

Your Thoughts

I'll take your "tl;dr" comments now.