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Who Was Third Best on the Devils' Blueline Last Season?

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Who was the third best defenseman on the New Jersey Devils last season? Was it David Schlemko? I think so and I explain why in this post and why that's relevant for next season (and maybe beyond).

David Schlemko.  Third best defensemen on the team last season?  Arguably!
David Schlemko. Third best defensemen on the team last season? Arguably!
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Only a few days ago, Mike wrote this article regarding whether the New Jersey Devils should re-sign defenseman David Schlemko. He thought it was a good idea, most of the comments appear to be in favor, and the poll within the post is a resounding 'yes, re-sign the man' with 89% voting yes so far.  I would agree.  This got me thinking, however.  Was Schlemko the third best defenseman on the Devils last season?

This is a more relevant question to the 2016-17 season (and beyond) than you may think.  Currently, the Devils have a first pairing on defense that is set for the short term: Adam Larsson and Andy Greene.  In our end of season awards, Larsson was a runaway winner for best defenseman with the only non-Larsson votes going to Greene.  Even though Greene is getting older - he'll turn 34 next season - it's a pairing the Devils can maintain as-is for at least the next season.  Yet, 5-6 can't play the entire game.  For the Devils to continue improving - the whole point of a re-build - they'll need to establish who should be on their second defensive pairing.  Especially if Greene and/or Larsson get injured or have a bad run of games.

It's arguably a team need that I think many fans did not expect to have by April 2016.  At the beginning of the season, there was reason to be excited about the defense. The team had four defensemen at age 25 or under: John Moore, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas.  Severson would be entering his second NHL season with the hopes he can improve while the other three had enough NHL experience to presumably establish themselves.  It looked like the Devils were on the path of having a young blueline that would be at least effective at limiting shots. That is even without considering who's in the pipeline.  As good as the Devils were at limiting shots, much of those hopes have been dashed.  Gelinas played his way out of the lineup and out of New Jersey as he was dealt to Colorado for a third round pick.  Merrill has only shown that he can be "just a guy" in the NHL with no discernible trait that makes teams want him.  Moore has been a solid contributor at times and at other times, opposing players loved it when #2 was on the ice.  Severson had a rough second season in the NHL and so the hope for him has been shifted to that he has a bounce back season in 2016-17.  With all of this in mind, that decision to sign David Schlemko looks real smart in retrospect.

At the same time, it means that the second pairing remains a big question mark for next season.  Who should be there?  Severson's poor 2015-16 means he's certainly not a lock for it.  If Merrill is there, then it is a clear sign the Devils may not be attempting to be better in 2016-17. Were Moore and/or Schlemko good enough to be there full-time?  I do not know.  If the answer for role is not in New Jersey, then Ray Shero must look at free agency. But let's look at what we do know: the Devils finished the 2015-16 season and there is data on all of the Devils defenders. Let's start from within before recommending any players from other teams.  Assuming Greene-Larsson remains as the first pairing - they should and likely will be - who was the third best defenseman on the team? Such that they could at least be considered for a second pairing spot for next season?  I think a case can be made for Schlemko; let's see if I'm right or not.

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to leave off the seven games played by Vojtech Mozik, the four games by Marc-Andre Gragnani, and the one game by Steve Santini.  While ten games of David Warsofsky is not exactly a good number of games to judge a player, he was at least playing somewhat regularly after he was acquired.

Let's start with production and icetime.  The following production and ice-time stats come from NHL.com:

Devils Defensmen GP G A PTS PIM PTS/GP PPG PPP SOG Sh% ATOI
Damon Severson 72 1 20 21 32 0.29 0 5 94 1.1 18:09
David Schlemko 67 6 13 19 16 0.28 1 12 104 5.8 18:38
John Moore 73 4 15 19 28 0.26 1 6 106 3.8 19:50
Adam Larsson 82 3 15 18 77 0.22 0 0 65 4.6 22:30
Andy Greene 82 4 9 13 26 0.16 1 2 63 6.3 22:57
Eric Gelinas 34 1 5 6 16 0.18 1 4 45 2.2 14:02
Jon Merrill 47 1 4 5 28 0.11 0 1 30 3.3 16:53
Seth Helgeson 19 0 1 1 17 0.05 0 0 9 0 13:57
David Warsofsky 10 0 1 1 2 0.10 0 1 19 0 16:21

Not exactly a murderer's row of offense from the back.  Still, we can identify a number of pluses in favor of Schlemko. He was productive, particularly on the power play.  He finished second in points and shots on goal.  Among the defenders who played more than half of the season with New Jersey, he had the fewest penalty minutes. That's always good to see from any player, especially a defenseman.  Lastly, he played a decent amount of minutes; an average of over eighteen-and-half minutes per night.   Let's delve a little deeper into ice time, also from NHL.com:

Devils Defensmen GP ES TOI ES TOI/GP SH TOI SH TOI/GP PP TOI PP TOI/GP TOI ATOI
Andy Greene 82 1567:24 19:06 285:23 03:28 29:18 00:21 1882:05 22:57
Adam Larsson 82 1557:34 18:59 274:20 03:20 13:53 00:10 1845:47 22:30
John Moore 73 1191:05 16:18 146:49 02:00 110:17 01:30 1448:11 19:50
Damon Severson 72 1163:25 16:09 21:47 00:18 122:40 01:42 1307:52 18:09
David Schlemko 67 1009:00 15:03 106:04 01:34 134:25 02:00 1249:29 18:38
Jon Merrill 47 729:18 15:31 59:26 01:15 05:24 00:06 794:08 16:53
Eric Gelinas 34 427:38 12:34 03:09 00:05 46:27 01:21 477:14 14:02
Seth Helgeson 19 255:42 13:27 09:26 00:29 00:02 00:00 265:10 13:57
David Warsofsky 10 142:04 14:12 00:01 00:00 21:34 02:09 163:39 16:21

From this, it is clear that the coaches used John Moore as the team's third choice on defense. He did finish only behind the Greene-Larsson pairing in both total time on ice and average time on ice.  He was also used in all special teams. Schlemko received less minutes per game at even strength than Moore and even Severson by more than a minute.  It was even less than Jon Merrill when he played.  In this bigger, season-long picture, Schlemko was utilized more on a third pairing than anything else.  One point in Schlemko's favor are special teams.  He was not uncommon on the penalty kill and he played more than any other defender on the power play.  The power play production presumably provided the people paid to play players in particular positions to keep picking Schlemko for power play shifts.  So there is that, but the ice time shows that Schlemko was not really used on the team's second pairing. He could still be the third best defenseman on the team, though.

Usage is critical for analyzing players, especially defensemen.  Where they usually start their shifts and how they are utilized against certain levels of competition and which teammates they play with makes a big difference to their performance.  War on Ice has bubble graphs that can be used to show how a player was used at even strength. Here's that graph for the Devils defensemen with respect to time on ice of the competition versus relative zone starts.  Higher values on the Y-axis means they played against the opposition's players who received more ice time.

2015-16 Devils Defensemen TOI Comp Chart

And here's a similar graph with respect to the time on ice of their teammates.

2015-16 Devils Defensemen TOI Teammate Graph

In both graphs, it is clear that the Greene-Larsson pairing played with the Devils who played the most, often against the players the opposition would use the most, and usually starting in their own end of the rink.  In short, Greene and Larsson played a lot of tough minutes at even strength.  Everyone else had it easier.   Again, this justifies the notion that the coaches used Moore and, to a lesser extent, Severson as the team's second pairing. Schlemko was protected more than them.   He was not as sheltered as Gelinas or Warsofsky, at least.

These two graphs are worth keeping in the back of your mind when you see the following 5-on-5 stats from War on Ice. (Note: 100 was the minimum for TOI; again, there's no Santini, Mozik, or Gragnani.)

5 on 5 Stats GP 5v5 TOI ZSO% CF% Rel. CF% On CF% Off CF/60 CA/60
Adam Larsson 82 1455.91 31.82 -2.50 44.57 47.07 38.86 48.34
Andy Greene 82 1440.58 31.98 -4.18 43.49 47.67 38.40 49.90
Damon Severson 72 1099.51 57.00 3.57 48.99 45.42 46.38 48.29
David Schlemko 67 969.94 57.96 3.57 49.00 45.44 44.11 45.90
David Warsofsky 10 138.28 67.16 5.86 45.37 39.51 44.69 53.81
Eric Gelinas 34 418.07 66.97 7.11 52.34 45.23 48.22 43.92
John Moore 73 1133.47 48.10 -3.21 43.82 47.04 42.24 54.15
Jon Merrill 47 706.60 57.97 -0.30 46.24 46.54 42.29 49.17
Seth Helgeson 19 261.62 57.72 -2.60 41.69 44.29 39.68 55.50

5 on 5 Stats GP 5v5 TOI ZSO% SF% Rel SF% SF% Off SF/60 SA/60
Adam Larsson 82 1455.91 31.82 -0.27 46.18 46.45 21.92 25.55
Andy Greene 82 1440.58 31.98 -0.98 45.72 46.70 21.78 25.86
Damon Severson 72 1099.51 57.00 1.38 47.33 45.95 25.10 27.94
David Schlemko 67 969.94 57.96 2.95 48.95 46.00 24.50 25.55
David Warsofsky 10 138.28 67.16 9.07 46.61 37.54 23.87 27.34
Eric Gelinas 34 418.07 66.97 6.85 53.06 46.21 27.41 24.25
John Moore 73 1133.47 48.10 -5.87 42.77 48.64 23.19 31.02
Jon Merrill 47 706.60 57.97 -1.23 45.82 47.05 23.27 27.51
Seth Helgeson 19 261.62 57.72 -2.24 41.51 43.75 20.18 28.44

If one was to just look at the CF% (Corsi For%) and SF% (Shots For%) values in 5-on-5 play, then Schlemko really does look like he was one of the better defensemen on the team.  When he was on the ice, the Devils' ratio of both shooting attempts and actual shots on goal went up.  Not to necessarily great values because, hey, they were still the Devils; but it is an improvement.  It reflects on how well Schlemko played.  Additionally, his on-ice CA/60 (Corsi against per sixty minutes) and SA/60 (shots against per sixty minutes) rates are among the lowest on the team.  Contrast that with Moore, who has the highest CA/60 and SA/60 on the team. The latter is especially impressive in a bad way as the Devils as a team had a SA/60 of 26.9; being above 30 is telling.  Again, opposing teams really enjoyed their time against Moore at times in this past season.  Going back to Schlemko, these numbers support the notion that he was one of the team's better defensemen last season.  It's even more of a standout given the number of different partners he had all season in 5-on-5 play, per Hockey Analysis.

Yet, it is hard to really get excited for Schlemko with these numbers because of his utilization.  Remember, Schlemko not only started more of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to the defensive zone, but he also faced lesser competition than Greene, Larsson, Moore, and Severson.  He also played with lesser teammates, but those last two points really highlight that he was used on the third pairing. What that all means is that the previous stats I espoused are not so impressive.  His 49% CF% is really less than that because he started so many shifts on offense.  Having a better SA/60 and SF% values than others loses its shine considering he did it against lesser players than others. (This is also why Gelinas' and Warsofsky's stats should be taken with a grain of salt.)

For the purposes of comparison, while Severson had it harder, Schlemko still compares favorably to him to a point where I wonder whether the two should have switched.  Likewise, Moore definitely struggled with his usage if only because when he was on the ice, the shots started to mount.

Of course, did those shots go in? Unfortunately for Moore, Schlemko, and Severson, they did at a higher rate than Greene-Larsson, who had seriously tough minutes at even strength.

5 on 5 Stats GP 5v5 TOI ZSO% CF% Rel. CF% On SF% Rel SF% GF GA On Sh% On Sv%
Adam Larsson 82 1455.91 31.82 -2.50 44.57 -0.27 46.18 41 34 7.71 94.52
Andy Greene 82 1440.58 31.98 -4.18 43.49 -0.98 45.72 39 36 7.46 94.20
Damon Severson 72 1099.51 57.00 3.57 48.99 1.38 47.33 37 42 8.04 91.80
David Schlemko 67 969.94 57.96 3.57 49.00 2.95 48.95 28 41 7.07 90.07
David Warsofsky 10 138.28 67.16 5.86 45.37 9.07 46.61 2 6 3.64 90.48
Eric Gelinas 34 418.07 66.97 7.11 52.34 6.85 53.06 9 14 4.71 91.72
John Moore 73 1133.47 48.10 -3.21 43.82 -5.87 42.77 34 47 7.76 91.98
Jon Merrill 47 706.60 57.97 -0.30 46.24 -1.23 45.82 21 35 7.66 89.20
Seth Helgeson 19 261.62 57.72 -2.60 41.69 -2.24 41.51 2 7 2.27 94.35

The goals for and goals against does not really say much about a defenseman but it may informs one's perception in how they've done.  The low on-ice save percentage for Schlemko (among others, especially Merrill) tells me that the goalies were not helping him out.  But was it a case of those defensemen giving the goaltenders too many situations to bail them out from - too many shots to deal with?  Or was it just happenstance? Unfortunately, it's a little bit of both. Schlemko's somewhat saving grace is that he's played with several different defensemen; that confounds whether Schlemko contributed anything to these goals against.

Let's briefly look at some special teams - also from War on Ice - stats since Schlemko did participate in both.  Let's start with the PK:

Shorthanded Stats (50 TOI Min.) GP SH TOI SF% SF% Off SA/60 On Sv% GA
Andy Greene 82 289.29 9.44 19.72 53.72 89.96 26
Adam Larsson 82 274.91 7.69 21.94 55.00 90.08 25
Jon Merrill 47 52.91 18.00 9.24 46.50 82.93 7
John Moore 72 134.06 16.79 11.15 48.78 89.91 11
David Schlemko 66 89.92 25.00 10.00 42.04 82.54 11

Schlemko did not feature much in shorthanded situations and this clues us in as to why.  When Schlemko was there, while the shooting rate was at its lowest, so was the save percentage.  On the flipside, here are power play stats:

Powerplay Stats (50 Min TOI) GP PP TOI SF% SF% Off SF/60 On Sh% GF
John Moore 72 101.49 84.15 85.87 40.79 13.04 9
David Schlemko 66 133.32 91.13 81.03 50.86 16.81 19
Damon Severson 72 114.70 85.00 83.53 44.46 11.76 10

Not many defensemen played a significant part on the power play but Schlemko was a standout.  When he was there, the shooting rate was higher.  He benefited from the on-ice shooting percentage, leading to more power play goals, which led to more of a reason to have him there.  That said, the Devils did not really have two power play units so if Schlemko got on to the first one with Palmieri (all season), Cammalleri (that first half of the season), etc.; the others had issues beyond their control. That said, Schlemko was the better of the few that was the top one in the team's 1-3-1 formation.

Overall, just looking at 5-on-5 stats, I think the case that Schlemko was the team's third best defensemen still exists.  While his usage means that he did relatively well against relatively easier situations, Schlemko's on-ice rates were better than Severson, Moore, and Merrill.  (And it speaks really well of Larsson given his usage, as an aside.) And his usage was at least less limited than Gelinas and Warsofsky.  Combined with the facts that Schlemko was relatively productive on the blueline and how he contributed to the power play, he certainly had a season worth more than the $625,000 he got last season. It also helps that it is not at all clear who was really better among Devils not named Adam Larsson or Andy Greene.  Moore wasn't. Severson wasn't. Merrill wasn't.  It certainly was not the others, utilization aside.  So, yes, I would say he was the third best defenseman on the Devils' in last season. However much that means.  At least enough to agree with Mike that Schlemko should be re-signed.

So let's go back to the larger question: If we agree that he was the third best defender on the team last season (I think so), should Schlemko be a second pairing defenseman for next season's team? We know Moore had that role and struggled.  Severson's issues last season give me pause  before giving it to him. I don't want Merrill anywhere near that spot.  While Schlemko did do relatively well compared to others on the team, I can't say he was exceptional enough to warrant more minutes, tougher competition, and more defensive zone starts. The coaches didn't and that didn't really change outside of necessity as the season went on.  So I am less confident about having him in that spot for a full season.  Even if he could, then who could be with him? Moore? Severson? Someone else?  Considering the rest of the blueline, I would almost recommend that Shero find someone on the open market this summer for the team's second defensive pairing rather than just hope Severson gets better or Moore/Schlemko can be decent enough - again, I don't think Moore was, just look at the stats - for those minutes.  Assuming the plan is to get better in 2016-17, of course.

What do you think of all of this? Would you agree that Schlemko was the team's third best defensemen last season? What should the Shero do for the second pairing next season (and beyond)?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about all this in the comments. Thank you for reading.