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New Jersey Devils 2015-16 Season Preview Part 2: Defensemen

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Season preview week continues here at All About the Jersey, with an in depth look at the Devils' defensive squad. How did the group perform last season, how has it changed this year, and what can we expect from them this season? Let's check it out.

Greene and Larsson could be a great pairing.
Greene and Larsson could be a great pairing.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, the season preview here at AATJ began with CJ's in depth look at the forwards on the team and in the system.  Today, that preview continues with the second installment, this time focusing on the defensemen.  This season, the blue line for the New Jersey Devils has gotten younger, much like the forwards have.  Gone is the ageing Marek Zidlicky, and gone is veteran 7th d-man Peter Harrold.  Instead, youth has infused the corps.  The Devils may start the season with 5 of their starting 6 defensemen under the age of 25, with potential captain Andy Greene being the only exception.  Despite the youth movement, however, do not expect a regression in performance.  In fact, the youth movement might actually improve this group's ability to perform on the ice.  Let's take a look at what the team has.

What Happened Last Season

Last season, the Devils were a far cry from what they had been in years prior.  Defense was always a mainstay on this team, but it certainly regressed.  Whereas the Devils had been at or near the top in shots against for many years running, last season they allowed 28.8 shots per game at 5 on 5 play, which was good for 14th in the league.  This may have been acceptable if the team also increased their shots for per game, but they did not, so the results were not pretty.

In terms of possession, New Jersey was of course a bad team last year, with a CF% of 47.2 at 5 on 5, good for 26th in the league.  But was the defense the anchor or the lifeboat?  Well, looking at their relative Corsi numbers from Behind the Net, it was a mix of both.  On the positive side, Damon Severson was a huge boon for possession, with a positive 5.2 relative Corsi in 51 games played despite having a 45.2% offensive zone start percentage.  Eric Gelinas was similarly positive with a 4.6 relative Corsi, but he was very sheltered with a 61.2% OZS%, so that numbered needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  Andy Greene and Adam Larsson were right on the bubble of the team, with a positive 0.3 and a negative 0.2 relative Corsi respectively.  However, both were playing tough competition with very tough zone starts, so the fact that they weren't bigger negatives speaks volumes.

After them, however, things begin to deteriorate.  Jon Merrill was a little under the average with a -1.4 relative in 66 games, which isn't great but isn't awful either.  From there, Peter Harrold was the next best, with a -3.9 relative in 43 games.  Taking up the rear, Seth Helgeson, Mark Fraser and Bryce Salvador were all worse than -10 in relative Corsi, with Salvador posting an abysmal -14.5 in his 15 games played.  The good news for this season is that those players on the better side of the possession numbers are returning, while those who were the true anchors are not (with the possible exception of Helgeson, who should hopefully be improving anyway).

Next, we need to see how the defense did in terms of producing points.  Were there some positive offensive producers on the blue line, or were they as anemic as the team was on average?  Stats here come from the Devils main website.

Player

Games Played

Goals

Assists

Points

+/-

Adam Larsson

64

3

21

24

2

Marek Zidlicky

63

4

19

23

-7

Andy Greene

82

3

19

22

1

Eric Gelinas

61

6

13

19

-2

Damon Severson

51

5

12

17

-13

Jon Merrill

66

2

12

14

-14

Peter Harrold

43

2

3

5

-10

Mark Fraser

34

0

4

4

2

Bryce Salvador

15

0

2

2

-5

These numbers are not as terrible as they may look on the surface, at least when you compare them to the rest of the team.  Larsson, Zidlicky, and Greene ranked 8th, 9th, and 10th on the team, respectively, in terms of points produced.  Gelinas and Severson were also 12th and 13th.  The main area of concern, of course, was goals scored.  Larsson produced a decent (if underwhelming) 24 points, but only 3 of those were goals.  Even Gelinas, with The Truth, only scored 6 goals.  The blue liners on this team last year had no issue churning out assists, but when it came to actually finding some twine, they were more often than not incapable of doing so.

And as an aside, I also threw in +/- for a little perspective.  I was shocked to see that Severson was 2nd worst in this category, but I was equally impressed with the fact that Greene and Larsson were net positive players.  They played against very tough competition with poor zone start percentages, but still ended up on the plus side.  That is definitely a reason as to why Larsson got paid.

This Year's Squad

This year, as alluded to earlier, will see the defensive corps get younger, and hopefully get better.  They may improve on the offensive front, but the main area of need is at preventing shots and preventing goals, and there is a distinct possibility that this could happen, with the younger players getting more experience and coming into their own.

In terms of who has left, there are a few names to bring up.  The only name of true consequence is Marek Zidlicky, who of course was traded back in March to Detroit.  While he was always a defensive liability, he was a great distributor, and his ability to help set up the offense was vital on a team that needed all the offensive help they could get.  Without him, guys such as Gelinas will need to step up to continue to produce offense.

The other departures are of much less significance.  Bryce Salvador of course retired, but he only played 15 games anyway, and he was nowhere near the level of a good defenseman anymore at the end of his career.  Mark Fraser and Peter Harrold were also not retained.  This could also be taken as a positive, however.  Both were atrocious in possession last year, and neither really brought much to the table except a body that could fill in for other injured players.  This year, if players get hurt, we will see different replacements, for better or worse (most likely better).

As for the new blood on the squad, the main name is John Moore, who signed with the Devils back during Free Agent Frenzy.  Moore has traveled around during his 4 year NHL career, starting in Columbus, moving to New York, then spending a half year in Arizona before being signed by New Jersey.  Moore is not an offensive powerhouse by any means, and he will not be the replacement for Zid.  He has produced 40 lifetime points, 9 of those points coming as goals.  He did score on Friday night against the Islanders, but you can't really trust preseason performance in this matter.  Instead of offense, Moore much better produces on the defensive side of things.  With the exception of his first year in New York, when Moore is on the ice, his teams give up fewer shots against at 5 on 5 play.  He also produced his first positive relative Corsi last season, posting a +2.2 during his time in the desert.  He has improved considerably in possession since his days in Columbus, when he had a negative 3.6 relative Corsi in 2011-2012.  This improvement is great to see, and it should mean that he is still improving and will become a better player and possessor of the puck as he gets older in NJ.

The returning players alongside Moore are all recognizable, and except for Greene, all very young.  First, however, we do have Andy Greene, who is still by far the best defenseman on the team at 32 years old.  He will be a staple on the top pairing, and will play against the other team's top line on a nightly basis.  Expect him to continue to dominate.  As for the young starters, we have Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas.  Larsson should continue to grow into a top line defender like Greene, and Severson is not far behind, if at all.  Merrill should hopefully improve and if all goes well, he can become a solid second pairing guy.  Gelinas is the lone offensive powerhouse of the group, and will certainly spend time manning the power point this season with his booming shot.  Hopefully he can also improve his defensive play so that he can play more all-around minutes.

It will be interesting to see how head coach John Hynes pairs these guys up to start the season.  Does he put Larsson with Greene on the top pairing, or leave him on the second pairing to spread out the talent?  My guess is we see something like this on opening night:

Greene - Larsson

Severson - Moore

Merrill - Gelinas

Of course, however, I could be totally wrong.  Feel free to come up with your own pairing ideas in the comments and let's discuss it.

After those 6 guys, the talent pool at defense remains strong, although not quite as strong as it was when guys like Severson and Merrill were still in the system.  Names for the 7th defensive position include Seth Helgeson, Raman Hrabarenka, and Vojtech Mozik, who was signed from the Czech Republic.  Helgeson played last season and was not the best, but he was not downright awful either, and should be improving.  People are high on Hrabarenka this year to make a jump and see some playing time in the NHL, and Mozik could also hold his own weight as a third pairing guy when his number is called upon.  We will almost likely see these guys at some point, because injuries are bound to happen.  The other name that you may see due to injuries would be Reece Scarlett, who will otherwise be playing this year in Albany.

On the farm, the top names have to be Steve Santini and Joshua JacobsSantini will be playing his junior season at Boston College this season, where he is an assistant captain and a beast on the defensive side of things.  Jacobs played for Michigan State last season, but has chosen to move to junior hockey instead, and will play this season for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL.  He may play with Pavel Zacha this year if Zacha is sent back down to juniors.  Both Santini and Jacobs should continue to improve, and will more than likely be ready for NHL action in a couple years.

Expectations for This Season

The main expectation for the defense this season has to be improvement.  And while that could and should mean improvement over last year, I am really referring to the growth of the young talent.  It is very likely that 5 of the 6 opening day starters will be under 25 years old.  Defense is a position that takes time to get better at.  Forwards may be able to come into the league younger and peak at a younger age, but defenseman take time to really grow and reach their true potential.  With that in mind, only Andy Greene has truly reached that pinnacle.  The other 5 guys should all still be improving as players in this league, and that improvement is vital for the health of this defense moving forward.  They can already be a good defense now, as they have the talent, but if they can also continue to hone their craft and improve their games, then the defense can go from good to great.

In terms of numbers, I am hoping to see goals against and more specifically shots against improve over last year.  The Devils need to be stingy when it comes to shots allowed, especially considering the offense does not produce that many.  While I do not expect to see this squad all of a sudden allow the fewest shots against in the league, if they can propel the Devils into the top 10 in shots against, that would be a huge improvement.

I am also hoping to see at least a minor improvement in offense, specifically goals scored.  The blue liners on this team were anemic last season when it came to producing goals.  If NJ wants to win more games, it needs some offensive production from its defenders.  Of course, I am not quite sure where these goals will come from, with the exception of Gelinas.  Perhaps Larsson can step up his offensive game this year.

Conclusion

In the end, I feel that the defense on the New Jersey Devils is one of the real bright areas.  It may not be as good as the goaltending situation right now, but it is an area that should be getting better and better, and if all goes to plan, should eventually become one of the team's real strong points like it was in years past.  That transition to a top notch defensive unit may not happen this year, but I do expect to see growth towards that goal.  By season's end, I would expect to look on this defense and, barring major injuries, see improvement from where it was at the end of last season, and even where it is now.  This improvement may not lead to a heck of a lot of wins this year, but if the progress is there, then the wins should eventually come (assuming the forwards also improve of course).

Your Take

What do you think about the Devils' blue line?  Do you think that it is a strong point for this organization, or do you see major holes that could lead to issues this season?  What are your expectations for this squad this upcoming season?  Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.