Yesterday, the season preview here at AATJ began with Alex's in depth look at the forwards on the team and in the organization. Today, our preview series continues with the second installment, focusing on the Devils defensemen. This year's group will have feature some new and familiar faces. Gone are the likes of Adam Larsson, David Schlemko, Eric Gelinas, David Warsofsky, and Marc-Andre Gragnani. In are NHL veterans Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey, and players looking to make their mark in the NHL like Steve Santini, Yohann Auvitu, and Josh Jacobs. They'll be joined by returning defenders Andy Greene, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, John Moore, and perhaps Seth Helgeson or Vojtech Mozik. Let's take a look at the past, present, and future.
What Happened Last Season
Last season, the Devils ranked 8th in the NHL with a 2.46 Goals Against per Game rate and 8th with a 28.6 Shots Against per Game rate. In terms of 5v5 play the Devils had the 12th ranked Goals Against per 60 rate at 2.03, 5th best Shots Against per 60 of 27.0, 2nd best Corsi Against per 60 rate at 49.2, and an overall Corsi For% of 46.2% which was 2nd worst in the league. As a team the Devils had a league high 34.3 Defensive Zone Faceoff% at 5v5 play. That helps to explain that while they were relatively decent at suppressing shots against they were often unable to stay out of their own zone and create their own shot attempts, hence the bad CF%. If it wasn't for the strong play of Cory Schneider in goal and Andy Greene and Adam Larsson on the blue line, things would surely have looked worst from a goals against perspective. Below let's take a look at the counting, possession (5v5), and usage stats (5v5) for last year's defensemen using stats from NHL.com and Corsica.
Let's first focus on the 6 main defensemen the Devils used last season. Just from watching the games it was clear to anyone that Andy Greene and Adam Larsson were heavily relied on by the Devils to take on the tough assignments. They both averaged over 22 minutes per night, had the toughest Zone Start Ratio (ZSR) in the low 30's, and were often deployed against the opposition's best players. Despite this they put up respectable Corsi numbers relative to their teammates and had the best Goals Against per 60 and Goals For% among the Devils D. The Devils didn't get a lot of point production from the blue line last year, but Larsson and Greene were able to chip in enough relative to their teammates despite the tough assignments.
The Devils defense after the top pair of Greene and Larsson was a bit of a mixed bag and didn't feature as consistent pairs. John Moore was brought in on a low risk deal with the opportunity to showcase his game in a more active role. In his first season with the Devils he averaged almost 20 minutes per night after only averaging 15 minutes and change over the course of his first 230 career NHL games. He was used in a two-way role but wasn't always solid defensively, prone to lapses in judgement and getting beat by the opposing forwards. Still he ate a decent chunk of minutes and was able to provide some offensive spark to a Devils team that needed all the help they could get. Moore was often paired with Damon Severson who struggled somewhat in his sophomore season. Severson led the defenders in points but also had some of the most favorable zone starts on the team. Severson at times seemed to be pressing mentally which would lead to mistakes in his own end and in transition. Still, even though his 2015-16 season didn't go to plan, he still displayed flashes of brilliance that reminded everyone of what type of defender he could turn into.
Injury and inconsistent play saw Jon Merrill limited to 47 games last season. Unfortunately due to his play, he would see his average ice time drop from nearly 20 minutes a night in his first two NHL seasons to just under 17 minutes. He seemed to have a much harder time earning the trust of Coach Hynes unlike the trust he had gained from Coach DeBoer. Merrill's age 23 season saw him not produce much offense with favorable zone starts, not suppress shots against well, and be on the ice for a lot of goals against. He's shifted back and forth between playing on his natural left side and his right which has been tough for him. Merrill seemed to struggle with mental errors and 1v1 defending last season. Still, there were moments where you would think he would be turning the corner only to take a step back.
Next, let's talk about David Schlemko who proved to be an awesome late pickup just before the start of the season by Ray Shero. Schlemko came in and produced at a decent rate at even strength and on the PP for a rebuilding Devils team. He led the regulars in points per game, shots per game, Corsi For%, and played a healthy 18+ minutes per night. He was put into a position to succeed playing against the other team's second tier options and received favorable zone starts. Still, he took that opportunity, grabbed it, and never let go in what provided to be a personally, very successful single season in New Jersey.
There wer 6 other defensemen that saw time for the Devils last season. Eric Gelinas was in and out of the line up throughout the beginning of the year with poor results and ended up being shipped to Colorado. Seth Helgeson was called up on occasion from Albany for his physical, no nonsense style, and did well enough to get his name in the conversation for the 7th spot going forward. The Devils took a flier on a former Penguin in David Warsofsky but he ultimately didn't do enough to warrant another chance with the organization. Vojtech Mozik had a decent showing in 7 games as a potential right sided option. Marc-Andre Gragnani had 4 brief appearances with the big club but wasn't able to provide enough offense from the back end to stick around. Steve Santini got into the final game of the season which was a nice way for him to get his feet wet so to speak.
This Year's Squad
While there are some familiar faces on this year's blue line, there has also been a bit of turnover. The two key departures from the blue line are Adam Larsson and David Schlemko. Both player's that were relied on to put up some offense and in Larsson's case, be half of the Devils top pair that did a lot of heavy lifting last season. The Devils have addressed this by bringing in some NHL veterans, a veteran of the European game, and some young players looking to earn spots.
First, let's take a look at the two NHL vets brought in to help bolster the defense, Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey. The 32 year old Lovejoy is coming off of a Stanley Cup Championship with Pittsburgh last season and inked a 3 year/$8M deal with the Devils. He appeared in 66 regular season games with 10 points, a 51.34 CF%, with mostly defensive zone starts (41.6 ZSR), and an average ice time of 18:52. He played in all of Pittsburgh's playoff games, adding 6 points while eating over 17 minutes of ice time per game. The right handed shooting defensemen should help strengthen the middle pairing and PK this upcoming season. The Devils also signed the left handed, 31 year old Kyle Quincey as some depth. While he has experience playing a top 4 role, at this stage in his career I imagine he was brought in on a cheap 1 year deal as a bottom pairing defender. Quincey had 11 points in 47 games for Detroit last season, with a 48.79 CF%, 48.25 ZSR, and an average ice time of 19:46.
Another new face is France's Yohann Auvitu who has quickly impressed in training camp and in preseason games. The 27 year old signed a one-year deal back in May after an impressive career in Finland where he had 57 points in 216 games along with a +33 rating. His offensive production has steadily increased in recent seasons and last year with HIFK he earned Best Defenseman honors for the whole of Liiga. He seemed destined for the AHL before camp, but he's done well to make sure that his name is in the picture as final cuts approach. The Devils bottom pairings are far from set and I think we'll see Auvitu playing there at some point in the season, whether it's right away or after a brief AHL stint.
The Devils also have a trio of young, right handed options that could play a part this season. The front runner to start the season with the big club is Steve Santini whose coming off of a standout college career at Boston College after excelling through the ranks of the USNTDP. The strong defenseman is known for his smart positioning, physical game, and ability to move the puck. He made his debut in the final game of last season and I think he'll be ready to go for the entirety of this one. Vojtech Mozik who had a brief stint with the Devils last season figures to return to Albany to start the season. He had a strong showing there with 17 points in 53 games last season with a +28 rating. The transition to North American hockey didn't seem too hard for him to overcome and a strong start in Albany will keep his name in the picture for New Jersey. Josh Jacobs is making the jump to pro hockey after a year in the OHL. He's a strong, physical, two-way defender whose defensive game is ahead of his offensive game at this point in his development as a 20 year old. With the depth the Devils have it will be hard for him to find time in New Jersey but he's certainly going to be on their radar should injuries arise with the big club. After that trio, we shouldn't forget Seth Helgeson as a 7th guy that can provide some physicality when called upon.
The Devils also have some AHL veterans in Reece Scarlett, Brandon Gormley, Andrew MacWilliam, and Karl Stollery. Though I'd be surprised to see any of those guys play a big part in New Jersey this upcoming season.
The big question on this year's squad is how do you replace Adam Larsson? I think the answer to that will be Damon Severson. The 22 year old, right handed defensemen is already a veteran of 123 NHL games and has usually stepped up and excelled when challenged in his career from juniors to the NHL. Back in his rookie season of 2014-15, he played the majority of his minutes with Andy Greene before suffering an injury that cause him to miss a decent bit of time. While he was Greene's partner they managed a 49.6 CF% together while starting the majority of their shifts in their own zone as they were tasked to shut down the opposition's best. While it would be a tall ask of him to immediately fill Larsson's skates on the top pair, I think if there is one guy that can get the job done, it's a young player whose shown plenty of promise and has a little bit of experience in the role.
It will be interesting to see who makes the cut and where all of these guys fit in. My guess to start this season is below, but with all of the competition for spots, it's really hard to put something definitive together. Guys like Auvitu and Santini could very well deserve spots but perhaps the Devils would prefer to see them get some AHL time first.
Greene-Severson; Moore-Lovejoy; Merrill-Santini; Quincey
Expectations for This Season
The Devils are still a team in transition in midst of a rebuild. With that said the expectations should surely be for them to show an improvement upon last season's results. Sure, they did well to suppress shots against but it would be nice if they could give Schneider more support in their own end and chip in some offense to take the burden off of him and the forwards to a degree. They have an interesting mix of veterans and young guys to make this an intriguing group to watch.
I expect Severson to regain his form, step up, and earn the top spot alongside Greene. I expect the Devils to have a top pair that can shut down the opponent's top forwards and then chip in some offense now and then. I also (hopefully) want to see Merrill and Moore play more consistent games a night to night, shift to shift basis. Those two players doing that, along with the additions of Lovejoy and to a lesser extent Quincey could really beef up the bottom 4 and take some of the burden off of Greene and his partner. I'm also hoping to see some of the new guys like Auvitu, Santini, and perhaps Mozik or Jacobs make their mark when given the chance.
At the end of the day, the Devils may only go as far as their defense and Schneider can take them. There is plenty of opportunity available for young players to step up as well as the vets to cement a big role on this group. Ideally, we want to see an improvement over last year's group which will help show that the Devils are moving in the right direction as they transition from the bottom and back towards respectability. Now it probably won't happen overnight and this year's group will have to work hard to overcome the departures of Larsson and Schlemko, but I do believe there is some potential there for a few players to show that they deserve to be here for the present and future of this club.
What do you think about the Devils defensemen? Which players are you looking forward to watching this season? Who do you want to see paired together? What are your expectations? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!