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Defense: From Hallmark to Question Mark

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The New Jersey Devils have always been known for strong defense, but going into this season there seem to be more questions than answers. We look at some issues with the defense and possible solutions today.

NHL: Boston Bruins at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Since their arrival in the Garden State, the New Jersey Devils have based their identity on building a team from the net out and playing strong, stingy defense; it may not have been successfully implemented right away, but the philosophy has always been there. It helps when you have rosters that include names such as Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, Brian Rafalski, and Slava Fetisov among others; even more recently the Devils have had strong defenders such as Andy Greene and Adam Larsson.

Going into 2016-17, Andy Greene is the last remaining life raft of strong Devils defense corps; that’s not to say that New Jersey won’t wind up having a strong defense this year, but there are certainly a lot more question marks that need answering than in previous seasons. Today, we take a look at the questions on the back end and the best case scenarios going forward.

1.) Will One of the Rookies Make an Impact and Solidify the Group?

Now obviously I’m cheating a bit here in calling Yohann Auvitu a rookie, but this is his first season in the NHL, so I will be discussing he and Steve Santini here for just a brief moment. The two of them were actually paired together a few times during the preseason and each wound up looking solid and deserving of a roster spot.

If the Devils hope to be successful, one of or both of these players will need to step up and earn some of the minutes that were being played by Larsson last season. New Jersey is in dire need of some of one or more defenders to find their way after the stunted developed of Eric Gelinas (now with Colorado) and Jon Merrill.

2.) Does Damon Severson find his way in Hynes’ System This Year?

Severson had some struggles in his second NHL season; while his first year was not a full year due to injury, his second season was marred by inconsistency and some healthy scratches. He still wound up being the Devils top point producing defender, finishing the season with 21 points in 72 games.

The Devils will need Sevs to shake off the sophomore slump and live up to his potential to be a top 4 defender if they are to have any success this season. Should Severson stumble this season, he may find himself playing his way out of the regular rotation, which would not be good for him, or for the team.

While he looked a bit shaky in the preseason, I do believe that having a regular partner (especially if it is Greene) will be what he needs to thrive. Once he’s familiar with how his partner plays, he can allow his offensive and defensive abilities to shine. We need a big season from Damon and I truly believe he’ll have one.

3.) Who Becomes the Odd Player(s) Out?

When healthy this season, New Jersey will have 8 defensemen on their active roster, as I’m assuming Brandon Gormley will be heading to Albany despite still being listed on the NHL roster right now. This means that every night, unless the Devils decide to play 7 defensement, there will be 2 guys up in the press box; again, this could change once everyone, including the forwards, are healthy.

If it were up to me, I would find a way to sit a Jo(h)n every night; the right side should be occupied by a combination of Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Santini, and possibly Kyle Quincey on his off-side. The left side of the ice should see Greene, one Jo(h)n, Auvitu and possibly Quincey on his strong side. In a perfect world, Severson, Auvitu and Santini set the world on fire and Quincey plays solidly on the left, allowing the Devils to stash both John Moore and Jon Merrill in the press box.

Again, this is a perfect world situation, but I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I say that Auvitu in limited action has already impressed me more than Merrill and Moore ever did. I’m not sure how Moore’s spot can even be justified after his brain fart giveaway in the final preseason contest; with the perception that our defense is weaker, that’s just a flat out dumb play to try and make.

4.) Veteran Prowess

The Devils obviously have their captain to lean on in the back end, but new additions Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey bring some veteran leadership to a fairly young New Jersey Devils defense. I could bring up Auvitu again, but he is in his first NHL season and despite his number of seasons in the league, I’m not sure a player who makes a blind pass and leaves his goalie out to dry can be classes as a leader.

I love the Quincey signing as it is one year and poses little to no risk for the team if it does not work out. He showed he is still a capable NHLer in the preseason and the fact that he is more comfortable playing both sides of the ice bodes well for a team that really doesn’t have any other players who can do that.

Lovejoy should be an interesting case, as he played well for the Pittsburgh Penguins during their cup run in the playoffs. If he can carry some of that momentum over and keep pucks from making their way to Cory Schneider, it will help the team to pick up some Ws.

Greene is Greene; we know what we are getting from our captain at this point. Should he and the other vets aid Cory in keeping the puck out of the net, then I see no reason not to be optimistic in hoping that this season provides New Jersey with a return to hockey relevance.

Concerns

Now obviously, most of what I listed above is projections of what happens should everything go smoothly or in the very least average. If the wheels begin to fall off of the bus, there will obviously be some rotation among the 8, possibly some demotions and call ups and maybe even a trade. The Devils had to part with their best (in my opinion) defender in order to bring Taylor Hall into the fold and unless we have a true breakout player, they will be replacing him by committee. The offseason additions though certainly won’t be worse than some of the replacement parts from last season, so I retain my optimism that the question mark will revert to a hallmark sooner rather than later.

Your Take

Now I’d like to hear your thoughts about the state of the Devils defense; are you concerned about any players? Who are you excited to see? Who do you think will have a breakout season? Do you think anyone will be gone by the trade deadline like Gelinas last season? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!