Steven Santini has only played three games so far this season for the New Jersey Devils. Assuming he is not a healthy scratch tonight against Edmonton, that would make it four games. That is an extremely small sample size to gauge how anyone has played, period. The stats are too volatile, and even one bad period could seriously alter how those stats project that person is playing.
Despite that knowledge, however, and I would even say regardless of that, I want to make the argument that the Devils should let Santini stay up with the big club the rest of the year, cutting his teeth at the NHL level with consistent nightly minutes for the first time in his career. There are a few reasons that I say this; some will be stat-based, others will be simply argumentative, but in the end what I want to show is that apart from a complete breakdown in his game, there is almost no reason to send him back to Albany this season.
First, while the stats are of a seriously small sample size, let’s look at them real quick, as in my opinion they are not completely useless either. Despite averaging only somewhere around 13 minutes a night, which is very low for a defenseman, he has made the most of his minutes. He has a strong 62.7% Corsi over his three games this year, and that is despite taking slightly more starts in the defensive zone than offensive. He was a +9 Corsi differential against Boston, far and away the best on the defense. The following night he was a more modest +2 Corsi differential against Carolina, but was the only defenseman to be in positive numbers in possession at 5 on 5. And last night, despite the drubbing the Devils took, he was a +3. And again, these are all despite still not being sheltered in his 13+ minutes a game. Amongst the Devils defense, he was the best in possession in 2 of the 3 games he’s played, and was still positive in the other. That is excellent from someone playing their first few games at the NHL level, and to me it proves that the game is not too fast for him at this point. For the most part, he is ready for what is coming at him.
It is hard to say that those stats will continue if he maintains a regular third pairing spot. Being on the third pairing helps, as he is not playing against great competition, which is giving him a chance to succeed. His CF.QoT (average Corsi of those he is playing against) is only 47.41%, so the players he is lining up against are not exactly the cream of the crop. He is getting to defend against third and fourth liners for now. And to me, there is nothing wrong with that, and it is not a knock against his stats at this point. He just got up to Newark, why throw him in the fire and give him 20+ minutes a night against top competition? Start him against the other team’s checking lines, and see if he can succeed. If he keeps maintaining this success against them, then perhaps slowly promote him to play better competition. But for now this is working, and let’s see if he can continue to do well in this setting.
Then, there is the argument that he should stay here that is not based on his stats. Arguably, Santini is the top Devils’ defensive prospect that they have. He was ranked 7th in AATJ’s Top 25 Under 25 this year, with the only defenseman above him being NHL regular Damon Severson, who is definitely not a prospect anymore. It is clear that he has the potential to become an NHL regular sooner rather than later, and could really become a staple on this defensive corps for a long time. With the Devils in a rebuilding mode, and arguably in deep trouble already in the standings this year, why not let him play each night and gain valuable experience at this age? If playing in New Jersey will help him learn more and progress faster rather than playing in Albany, then there is no downside. I mean, the Devils were already playing Seth Helgeson last night with Andy Greene out, and while Helgeson may end up being a quality third pairing guy or a 7th defenseman one day, he does not have the skill or potential that Santini does. When Greene comes back, if it were up to me, it is way more beneficial on multiple fronts to send Helgeson back down and keep Santini up. One, he is flat out better than Helgeson, and two, his progression forward is way more important for the overall health of the Devils’ defense than Seth’s is (no offense to Helgeson).
As a quick aside, I would even argue that it is worth playing Santini over Jon Merrill. Merrill’s CF.QoT is worse than Santini’s is, at 47.02, and his own CF is a weaker 49.5%. A few years ago, the future was bright for Merrill, but once Scott Stevens was not retained as a defemsove coach, Jon’s progression has seemed to level off, and at this point I am not really sure that he will become much more than a third pairing guy. With Santini having much more potential, if there was only one spot left on the defense and it was between these two guys, I would personally let Santini play at this point.
Of course, all of this is predicated on the belief that the Devils really are not serious contenders this season. As Mike wrote yesterday, we saw some historically bad play from this team last month. Yes this team was only 6 points out of a playoff spot heading into last night’s game, but to me that is really fool’s gold. It implies that this team will find consistent winning, and will consistently play more like they did in October than what we have seen recently. It could be possible that they have some decent stretches, like we saw this past Monday and Tuesday, but when those are also coupled with what we saw last night, it does not lead to a strong push up in the standings, and that is what is needed. If the Devils all of a sudden pull a Columbus or Minnesota and manage to sustain a monster winning streak, then we could perhaps discuss the Santini argument differently in light of a potential playoff berth. But at the same time, if Santini is a reason for a Devils’ winning streak, why send him down after that?
In the end, this argument could drastically change in the next couple weeks if he starts to play like the NHL competition is overwhelming him, and he starts to get crushed in possession and competition. The main reason to keep him in New Jersey is to gain valuable experience playing against NHL competition on a nightly basis. If it gets to the point that he is not really learning anything, but instead is getting overwhelmed and is losing confidence, then by all means send him down to Albany and let him develop there. But assuming that he continues to play well in this setting, I see absolutely no reason as to why they would send him down again this season. Develop your top defensive prospect at the NHL level, so that perhaps instead of him becoming a top 4 defenseman in 2 or 3 years, he will reach that level of play in a year or two. It will only benefit the Devils in the long run.
What are your thoughts about Santini remaining with New Jersey this season? Do you also think that it is a good idea? What are other arguments to keep him here? Or, do you think he should be sent down and that developing in Albany will be better for him in the long run? If that is the case, why do you believe that? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.