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State of the Defense Address

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Looking at the New Jersey Devils’ defensmen and how their shortcomings as a group are affecting the team’s play.

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils
A summary of Jon Merrill’s season in one image.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Our New Jersey Devils have not been the New Jersey Devils that we know and love this season; while they raced out to a hot 9-3-3 start, the team has dropped off as of late due in large part to losing now 7 games in a row. The play during this recent losing streak (outside of the second game against Our Hated Rivals) has been atrocious, especially in the team’s defensive zone.

John wrote an excellent article a couple of days ago detailing how New Jersey’s players have been screening (or allowing opposing players to screen) our goaltenders, and as any hockey fans knows, if a goalie can’t see the puck as it’s coming towards the net, there’s a good chance that he won’t stop the shot. Sadly, the trend returned against the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, with 3 players blocking Schneider’s line of sight on Filip Forsberg’s goal.

One large part of the problem is the lack of quality defenders on this year’s Devils team. Damon Severson has emerged from his sophomore slump to play good hockey this season, and he has consistently been one of the bright spots on the blue line. He’s still prone to some minor mistakes, but he is contributing at both ends of the ice, which is more than we can say for any other defenseman on this team.

Andy Greene seems as though he may be a step slower this season; there are plays he hasn’t made this season that a year or two ago I could see him making every time. He’s still absolutely a top 4 defender, and still plays a solid defensive game, but I just can’t help feeling as though a few goals that have gone in this year would have been prevented by Andy in the past. The most recent in memory would be Goalie Runner’s tap in from this past Sunday’s game against Our Hated Rivals; Greene usually would tie up the stick in that situation and I was honestly shocked when I saw he was the closest player on that play. Mental gaffes happen to every player, but it just seems more frequent this season from our defensive rock.

Ben Lovejoy is somebody I was down on at the start of the season, and while I think he’s truly best served as a bottom pairing defender, his play has improved enough as of late to the point where I no longer detest the fact that he’s a Devil. Pairing him with Andy Greene seems to have helped him a bit as well, since Greene is a more solid partner than any of the other defensemen Lovejoy has spent time with this season. I just wish he would cut it out with the really poor offensive zone pinches; he’s not much of an offensive dynamo any way you slice it, and it seems like almost every time he tries to keep the puck in the zone, an odd man rush develops the other way.

The rest of the defense I could pretty much do without; Kyle Quincey has been “meh” at best this season, but I could live with him if he was our 6/7 guy. At this point, I really don’t think I need so say much about my disdain for Jon Merrill and John Moore; CJ and I might be president and vice-president of the “Get the Jo(h)ns Away from the New Jersey Devils” fan club with how much we have written about them. The limited positives they bring to the team are outweighed by the amount of times they’re caught out of position or they make a mind-boggling decision with the puck. One observation on Merrill: he is an EXTREMELY weak passer, especially when in trouble; he seems to fan on/weakly push the puck when under duress, leading to favorable situations for the opposition.

So what do we do? Where does the solution come from? Unfortunately, I think this raises even more questions than answers. There are certainly some players currently in Albany that could help the team (Yohann Auvitu, Steve Santini, and Vojtech Mozik) but the team would need to suffer a rash of injuries to see all of them enter the lineup; that, or management finally wakes up to how utterly useless some of the current defenders we have are at playing defense. We may get one or two if the current trends continue and/or a player or two gets hurts, but it all depends how much Ray Shero and John Hynes want to shake things up.

Now I know some people are probably saying that for all we know, these guys could come into the lineup and we could be worse. Honestly, can it get any worse than the number of goals per game we’re allowing during this streak? Could it get any worse than the team going 0-8-2 when Jon Merrill is in the lineup? Something with the defense has to give, and the previous move to demote Auvitu was definitely the wrong move, especially when the player called up to replace him as we know was Luke Gazdic rather than a different D-man.

There may be an opportunity for bolstering the defense this coming summer via free agency, trades, and possibly tricking Las Vegas into taking an undesirable defenseman, but that doesn’t solve the here and now. The Devils are sliding badly down the standings right now, and the goal bleeding needs to stop; with four bottom pair caliber defenders in the lineup every night (and other teams learning how to exploit their weaknesses) the Devils are simply being outskilled and outclassed by their opponents. We’ve taken strides to fix last season’s lack of goal scoring, but now the problem has become keeping the puck out of our net instead, and if we keep rolling out the same 6 defenders every night, then the second half of this season is going to be the definition of insanity.

What do you think of the state of the New Jersey Devils defense? Are there moves within the organization that you think should be made? Who do you think should be in the lineup and who do you think should be out of it? Is it too late to salvage the season? Leave any and all comments below and thank you as always for reading!