After dropping last night’s game in Boston, the Devils are off to a bit of a slow start through the first week of 2016-17. The team has had some stretches of decent hockey over their first four games but overall, the team has felt a little bit discombobulated. Admittedly, it’s somewhat predictable that a team with as much turnover as the Devils would have some early troubles. This is particularly true on defense, where half of the lineup to start the season wasn’t on the roster in 2015-16 and expectations weren’t very high to begin with. The Devils’ blueline has had some struggles as a unit for sure, but one player who has been a bright spot on the back end thus far is 27-year-old NHL rookie, Yohann Auvitu.
This past summer was another fairly significant transition for the Devils but, despite a roster that feels largely new, they weren’t overly active outside of the blockbuster Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson deal. In free agency, they re-signed RFAs and plugged a couple holes, but nothing there looked overly impactful. One move that flew under the radar in the midst of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the buildup to the draft was the signing of Auvitu out of the Finnish Liiga. It certainly looked like a smart, low-risk move at the time the deal was made but, generally speaking, few were putting too many eggs in the basket of a 27-year-old undrafted rookie (rightfully so).
The defensive unit as a whole has struggled in some aspects to get the season going. This isn’t necessarily a shock, but the biggest issue for much of the defense has been breaking out of the zone and starting the transition game. Opposing teams’ forechecks have given the Devils fits at times, with most of the defense having some trouble in that department. The John Moore-Ben Lovejoy pairing has had a rough go of it, often getting hemmed in and struggling to collect pucks and move play through the neutral zone. The Andy Greene-Damon Severson pairing has been okay at times, but Severson has been a mixed bag with some very good plays and some groan-inducing turnovers and even Greene has made his share of uncharacteristic mistakes. Of all the defensemen, Auvitu is the one who has looked the most comfortable and confident on the puck.
It’s only been a week of hockey, but by my eye (and this sentiment has been shared by a lot of others, it seems) Auvitu has been one of the Devils’ most impressive players thus far. He carries the puck well and has made strong passes coming out of the defensive zone to turn the play up the ice. While some of the other Devils have seemed disjointed in their attempts to clear the zone, Auvitu has made good decisions and avoided turning the puck over. He’s also looked very good in the offensive zone, where he’s gotten involved in the play often and created chances with an accurate shot. In generally, he’s just looked very much like he belongs on the NHL ice.
The numbers back up the notion that he’s played very well, too (with the obligatory small sample size caveat). Auvitu’s pairing with Kyle Quincey likely hasn’t seen the toughest assignments on the team (the QoC numbers, for what they’re worth, do back that up), but Auvitu leads the team in 5-on-5 relative CF% thus far, which jibes with the feeling that good things have generally been happening while he’s on the ice. He also has a somewhat amazing 13 shots on goal from the back end in 4 games (second on the team behind Hall), backing up the feeling that he has helped generate a lot of offense while he’s been on the ice. Points-wise, he has just the assist on the Parenteau deflection from opening night, but he did also have a potential goal waved off on Tuesday and has helped generate pressure consistently.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that a guy who was voted the best player in SM-Liiga — a pretty decent international league — can hold his own to start his NHL career, but you just never know in situations like this. Every player adjusts differently and plenty of players who dominate in Europe end up struggling to find their footing on an NHL roster. Betting on a 27-year-old undrafted Frenchman who’s been playing in Finland for the past 8 years isn’t exactly what you would call a sure thing. But Auvitu has certainly looked like he belongs over his first four games.
Now, I’m not saying Auvitu is the answer to all of the Devils’ ills on defense because he has had a nice week. We’ve seen stretches of impressive hockey from rookie defenseman before that don’t hold up over the long run. Eric Gelinas, currently a healthy scratch in Colorado, may ring a bell on that front and Damon Severson is still, to an extent, chasing the amazing month that started his career two years ago. So it’s important to keep the right perspective on a small sample like this and not get ahead of ourselves. For now, though, Auvitu has started his NHL career in fine form and it’s certainly one of the major positives to take away from a somewhat slow start from the team overall. If he is able to continue playing at or near the level he is right now, that would undeniably be a big boost to a blueline with a lot of question marks.