With the most substantial portion of NHL free agency now in the rear-view mirror, a majority of the rosters around the league have now taken shape. In New Jersey, the Devils preceded the open of free agency with the blockbuster deal that sent Adam Larsson to the Oilers in exchange for Taylor Hall. The deal was a coup for the Devils, as they ended up with one of the best wingers in the entire league, but on the flip side, the move left a bit of a void for the team on defense. When free agency opened, the Devils remained mostly quiet during the frenzy, with mainly depth moves, RFA re-signings, and some AHL-geared pickups.
The one significant addition on defense came in the form of Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy is a veteran defender who is probably best described as a serviceable middle-pairing guy. He should be able to hold his own, but it certainly registers as a downgrade on the right side when compared to the now-departed Larsson. With that in mind, a New Jersey defensive corps that wasn’t all that deep a month ago has gotten that much thinner. As things currently stand, the Devils will head into the 2016-17 season with a defense that looks something like this:
LHD: Andy Greene, John Moore, Jon Merrill, Yohann Auvitu, Seth Helgeson
RHD: Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Steve Santini, Vojtech Mozik
As defensive corps go, that one is... pretty underwhelming. Beyond Andy Greene, there are an awful lot of question marks in that bunch and a few players who we know are probably third-pairing level at best. There are probably four players total in that group (Greene, Severson, Lovejoy, Moore) I’m comfortable saying are NHLers right now for sure, which is certainly not ideal. So how can this defensive unit end up decent enough to win games in 2016-17? Well, some of those question marks are going to have to step up, and most important among them is probably Damon Severson.
Back in 2014-15, Severson roared out of the gate as a 20-year-old rookie in a first pairing role alongside Andy Greene, looking like a player who had a chance to be really special. Severson was one of the stories of the first couple months of that season, getting some Calder buzz while looking like a major offensive weapon from the back end and a guy who looked like he could handle the tough competition of a first paring role. Of course, Severson slowed down after his hot start and then ended up with a significant ankle injury that kept him out for over two months. When he returned, he did not look like the same dynamic blueliner that showed up in the early season, particularly on offense. For example, Severson started that season with 17 games out of 20 where he had 2 or more shots on goal. In his final 31 games, he had 2 or more shots only 10 times. Whether it had to do with coming off the injury or no longer being paired with Greene, he didn’t look like quite the same player.
In 2015-16, hopes were pretty high for Severson heading into the season. Even with the second half slowdown, his rookie season as a 20-year-old was a success by most metrics. Severson looked mostly only okay for most of the 2015-16 campaign, though. He ended up with 21 points, which isn’t terribly impressive for a guy who was sheltered a fair amount at evens and was featured heavily on the power play. His possession numbers were good, with a relative CF of +3.6%, but that should also come with a grain of salt with every tough assignment pretty much heaped on the Greene-Larsson pairing. His defensive coverage was also pretty suspect at times, so it’s easy to see why portions of the fanbase are now a bit down on him.
With Severson though, it’s important to remember that he is still just 21 years of age (he’ll be 22 in August) and while he hasn’t been a world-beater like people were hoping he’d immediately be when he burst onto the scene in 2014, he’s been fine for the most part. And "fine" is a perfectly acceptable thing to be when you are a 20/21-year-old defenseman at the NHL level. It’s easy to forget that just two years ago, the dreaded "bust" label was being thrown around for Adam Larsson after what was his third NHL season and he just got traded for one of the top five wingers in the league. That’s not to say Severson improving like Larsson did is a guarantee, just that a defenseman not immediately being a rock-solid contributor when he enters the league isn’t a reason to write off his abilities.
This does feel like the season that we’ll need to start seeing more out of Severson, though. The fact of the matter is the Devils roster, as currently constructed, pretty much relies on that happening. The Devils are thin on both the right and left sides of their defense, but they are especially so among their right side. Ben Lovejoy, as was touched on above, is a decent enough defenseman, but he’s never been a top-pairing guy and age 32 doesn’t seem like an age where that is likely to change. Steve Santini is a rookie who isn’t a guarantee to immediately be an NHLer, let alone contributing to a first pairing. The one way the Devils’ lineup on defense seems remotely palatable is with Severson taking hold of that spot next to Andy Greene and keeping it (along with everyone important staying healthy).
So what signs have we seen that Severson can handle such a role? Well, if you're inclined to go there, he looked pretty good next to Greene when he came into the league two years ago free of any NHL experience. You don’t want to put too much weight on 15 or 20 successful games in a role but, at the very least it’s some evidence in support of him having the ability to handle it. Severson also seems to have a pretty decent set of offensive tools, even without a real breakout season yet numbers-wise. He skates well, has a good shot which he can get on net with decent frequency, and aside from the occasional brain fart, seems to pass the puck pretty well too.
The most significant argument in his favor seems to be his possession numbers, though. Looking at his with-or-without-you numbers from stats.HockeyAnalysis.com shows that the top 17 skaters he’s shared ice time with have all seen a positive CF% impact playing with him. Deployment likely has some impact in there, but it’s hard to ignore that consistent of an improvement versus the run of play. Severson seems like a player who can drive play, his main issue currently is that he can struggle with defensive zone coverage at times, though. This presents something of a conundrum when you are talking about putting a guy on the first pairing, but if someone is going to have the occasional gaffe, who better to have covering their rear end than Andy Greene? Beyond that, he's still just turning 22 and you figure the mistakes will decrease in frequency as a player matures. So that would make the potential pairings:
Andy Greene-Damon Severson
John Moore-Ben Lovejoy
Jon Merrill-Steve Santini
Extras: Yohann Auvitu, Vojtech Mozik, Seth Helgeson
It’s hard to say whether or not the Devils would go this route heading into 2016-17, but with the way the roster is currently constructed, Severson is now a major key to making the defense at least serviceable enough to survive. Putting him in a first pairing role is a bit of a risk but with the way things stand, the Devils are mostly bereft of better options. If Severson does successfully take a step forward and can succeed on the top pairing with the perpetually-underappreciated Andy Greene doing the heavy lifting, then perhaps the Devils can hold it together on the back end with the defense built the way it is. With Cory Schneider and a suddenly respectable group of forwards, that might just be enough for this team.