Heading into the 2017 offseason, one area that everyone knew the Devils needed to improve was in their group of defensemen. The team took aim at the big fish in the free agent pool and missed, but they were able to bring in a couple of other fresh faces that they hope can help now and in the future. Was what they did over the summer enough to take one of the league’s worst units and make them into a more competent blue line, though?
What Happened Last Season?
To be frank, not a whole lot of good things. The unit along the blueline was expected to be a weakness heading into the 2016-17 season and they, uh, delivered on that promise. Things on the back end were often a struggle on both offense and defense. Ultimately, the team just didn’t have enough talent (and/or structure) at the position to hang with the better teams in the league. The lack of quality up and down the defensive depth chart caused extensive problems for the team as a whole and was likely one of the main driving factors behind their woeful season last year.
The group that started last season changed quite a bit throughout the year due to the team dealing with injury issues and attempting to find successful combinations. This lack of continuity probably didn’t help matters but it was a reality of the team’s situation. The list of defensemen who played over 10 games last season is as follows (in order of GP):
- Ben Lovejoy (82 GP)
- Damon Severson (80 GP)
- Andy Greene (66 GP)
- John Moore (63 GP)
- Kyle Quincey (53 GP)
- Jon Merrill (51 GP)
- Steven Santini (38 GP)
- Yohann Auvitu (25 GP)
- Dalton Prout (14 GP)
- Karl Stollery (11 GP)
On paper, a lot is left to be desired from that group and the results weren’t much different. On the defensive side of the puck, the blueline was an integral part of some of the worst stretches of defensive hockey conceivable, including perhaps the worst non-80’s defensive month in team history last December. Missed assignments in the Devils’ end were not a particularly rare occurrence and the group also managed to turn screening their own goaltender into an art form at times. The team held opposing teams to the 9th-least attempts at evens with their generally conservative approach but actually saw their defensive rank fall to 18th when looking at xGF, illustrating some of the struggles the team had with preventing chances.
On the offensive side of things, the group had struggles in transition and featured only two players who managed to crack 20 points. Despite an improved group of forwards over the prior season in 2015-16, particularly with the arrival of Taylor Hall, the team was only able to improve from last to 28th in goals and actually scored fewer than the season before. A lot of this had to do with the team’s inability to break out of their own zone and transition from defense to offense. Beyond perhaps Damon Severson, the team was largely void of players who you might consider effective puck-movers. John Moore was able to chip in some goals, but his game in most other areas left something to be desired. Yohann Auvitu showed some promise as a puck-mover early on but then faltered and was banished to the Phantom Zone in Albany sometime around New Years.
I’m not trying to pile on here, but there just aren’t a lot of positives to pull from the wreckage of last year’s defense. Andy Greene, another year older, had a pretty rough season by his standards and certainly didn’t look like a player who can carry a top-pairing anymore. Ben Lovejoy looked completely out of his depth in the role he was given (reflected in his 44% CF) after arriving in free agency in 2016. Others like Karl Stollery, Michael Kapla, and Dalton Prout stopped by for a cup of coffee and some bad hockey at other points. It was a top-to-bottom struggle for New Jersey last season.
This Year’s Squad
After the rough 2016-17 season, it was clear that the Devils needed help on the back end. The team clearly agreed, as they were one of the more aggressive pursuers of top free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the open of this summer’s free agency. Without re-litigating that whole saga, we can just say they ultimately lost out and saw Shattenkirk go to the Rangers instead. The team was able to make a couple changes, though, even if they weren’t hugely splashy moves.
Ahead of the 2017 draft, the team traded a second-round pick and swapped fourth and fifth rounders to bring in Mirco Mueller from the San Jose Sharks. Mueller was a former first-round draft pick, but his recent struggles led to the move being panned by much of the fanbase. A strong 2017 preseason has people hoping Mueller will be worth the picks they traded to bring him in, though.
The other significant pickup over the summer was the signing of college free agent out of the University of Denver, Will Butcher. Butcher was the 2016-17 Hobey Baker Award winner for the best player in NCAA hockey and was highly sought-after following his decision to decline to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, the team that drafted him. The Devils did win the proverbial sweepstakes there and were able to add a player who can potentially serve as a part of the solution to their issues moving the puck.
As far as departures, for better or worse, there weren’t too many major subtractions from the team over the summer. The most significant departure was likely when the Devils saw Jon Merrill get picked up by Vegas as the expansion draft, ending the 2010 second-round pick’s once-promising tenure with the team. Beyond Merrill, Yohann Auvitu not being re-signed was probably the biggest loss and he didn’t see the ice in New Jersey after January 7th.
The Devils will carry over much of last season’s defensive unit in the hopes that the additions they have made can bolster the blue line and lead to a more serviceable unit on the ice. The Devils will need Severson to build on his 2016-17 season and become a player who can handle tough assignments. They will hope that Andy Greene can halt what is starting to look like his mid-30’s decline. Beyond that, they will want their new additions (and other young contributors like Steve Santini) to capture bigger roles and push some of the players who struggled last season — like, for instance, the much-maligned Moore/Lovejoy duo — further down the depth chart. For now, the defense will feature some combination of the following eight players heading into the year:
- Andy Greene
- Damon Severson
- Ben Lovejoy
- John Moore
- Mirco Mueller
- Steve Santini
- Will Butcher
- Dalton Prout
If some of the younger players on that list like Mueller, Butcher, and Santini can take on bigger roles and succeed in them, the team will be better for it. The inescapable fact, though, is that this season’s roster, despite a few additions around the periphery that will hopefully step up, has much of the same core right now as last year’s defensive unit, and that will be a problem they are forced to overcome.
Expectations for This Season
So what can we expect to see out of this unit in 2017-18? Odds are, this will not be a world-beating defensive group. Even being an average defense feels like a bit of a stretch for them. With the continued improvement of the forwards, though, and (ideally) a bounce-back season from Cory Schneider, perhaps they don’t necessarily need to be a good unit. If the team can get even serviceable play from the back-end, the Devils have a chance to be much-improved as a whole in 2017-18.
Is serviceable play possible, though? The team struggled so mightily last season that they have a ways to go to get there and they remain generally weak on paper as this season is set to begin. I do think it is possible for the defense to take a step forward though. Mueller, Butcher, and Santini are probably the crucial pieces in making that happen and if they can step into larger roles and competently take over significant portions of the middle-pairing duties, that would be a big help. If the team can remain a bit more structured on the back end and see some better play from the new faces, a group that isn’t regularly demolished at evens seems possible (a ringing endorsement, I know).
So what does the ideal lineup look like for this group? It’s not totally clear with all of the new faces, but lets take a stab at what a serviceable group might look like this season. This may not be the group that opens the season, but if the players who the team and fans are hoping will step up are able to do that, they will take over more responsibilities and maybe this lineup will become a regular unit:
Andy Greene - Damon Severson
Mirco Mueller - Steve Santini
Will Butcher - Ben Lovejoy
John Moore/Dalton Prout
Again, even if they get the play they want from some of the new/younger faces, this is not a unit I expect to be capital-g “Good.” The lack of a truly solid top-pairing will always limit them on that front. I do think it’s possible for them to be okay, though. Hopefully some additions in the forwards like Nico Hischier and Marcus Johansson will help with some of the issues in transition and the team can play structured enough in their own end to not lose assignments quite so often. With improvements hopefully showing up elsewhere on the roster, a defense that can be okay may be enough to make this a team worth watching.