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Which of the Rotating Defenders Has Earned More Playing Time

The Devils have 5 defenders that have had safe spots on the roster and 3 others that have rotated into the 6th spot. I analyze which has earned the slot the most

Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I should clarify a few things about how I perceive the Devils defenders before pressing on.

There are 2 immovable pieces of the defensive roster — Andy Greene and Damon Severson. They were viewed as mainstays and deservedly remain so. They’ve both performed quite well — landing at 14th and 16th in the NHL among defenders in Expected Goal Ratio relative to their team (RelxGF%) according to Corsica. They’ve been a legitimate NHL top pairing so far and are a big reason why the Devils are performing so well.

Next, there is John Moore. I list him next because his position was viewed as safe coming into the year and it has appeared to stay safe — he’s 2nd in ice time right now. That said, I’ve been on record on numerous occasions as thinking he is a bad defender who’s offensive skill is massively overvalued due to high shooting percentage and clutch goals. I will likely, again, at some point in this article, claim that his playing time should be drastically decreased. I say this without having looked at the stats yet — fully confident that they will support that conclusion, as they always do.

The last 2 “safe” spots are occupied by the young defenders who did not have definite spots in the lineup at the start, but have earned regular and significant roles with strong play — Steve Santini and Will Butcher. Santini has had the toughest assignments of anyone on the team between his NHL-low-among-defenders offensive zone start percentage, and his usage against the oppositions best players and has handled it well — he’s just 4 attempts short of being even in high-danger scoring chances. Butcher’s value is really centered around his heavy usage on the powerplay in which he has 7 assists — 2nd only to Shayne Gostisbehere in the NHL. They’ve both taken on heavy responsibility and provided quality hockey in those minutes.

What remains are the 3 defenders in the rotation for the 6th spot. Ben Lovejoy was assumed to be about as safe as John Moore coming into the season. I even wrote an article about how we should expect just as much of him this year — though that was before we had signed Butcher. It appears as though, after an encouraging preseason, Hynes found it to be clear that the Devils were ready to go a different, speedy, direction with the team right now. That did not match Lovejoy’s strengths and so he became part of the platoon with Mirco Mueller and Dalton Prout. The aforementioned platoon partners are both young defenders that have never consistently proven that they deserve and NHL roster spot. One difference is that Mueller has a higher pedigree, being a first round draft pick and worth a 2nd and 4th to Devils brass evidently.

Let’s look at this group of players.

The Members of the Platoon

Mirco Mueller has led this group of 3 players in ice time and games played so he’s been given the most opportunity to claim the spot. He’s been dreadful. According to hockeyviz, despite being given average competition and zone starts, Mueller is constantly getting pinned in his own end and unable to break out. This is likely partially the cause for the fact that Mueller has registered only 1 shot on goal in over 100 minutes of ice time. The Devils are at their worst when he’s on the ice. Look at their shot attempts with him versus without. Personally, this jives with my eye test. I’ve seen almost no positive contributions from Mueller since the preseason. If you think I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.

Ben Lovejoy is next. I must have said thousands of words about Ben Lovejoy at this point. The thing is, I don’t think Ben Lovejoy is good. I just think that he’s an NHL defender and many Devils fans don’t. It’s hard to get a statistical assessment on a guy that is so bombarded with bad situations. He’s got low zone-starts again, though not as low as Santini. He’s playing against a first line most of the time. Also, he is once again an effective penalty killer. He gives up scoring chances and high-danger chances at the lowest rate on the team of killers who played 5 or more minutes. Only one goal has been scored against the Devils in the 19 minutes of PK time Lovejoy has played. All that said, Lovejoy once again cannot crawl out of the red in possesion. His 44% is lower than everyone except Santini (who’s been inundated with Dzone starts) and Mueller. He also continues to be slow; a poor passer; and an infrequent, ineffective shooter. According to Corsica he also has the second lowest expected goal ratio no the team.

Dalton Prout comes in with the least expectations of the three. He’s a relatively low draft pick and was acquired in exchange for Kyle Quincey. Prout has had a very different experience from Mueller and Lovejoy. Rather than strugglign in difficult situations, Prout has excelled in easy ones. According to Natural Stat Trick, Prout is #1 or #2 on the team in all possession stats and scoring chance ratios. However, it’s done playing with typical zone starts, but against a LOT of bottom 6 talent. And Corsica has him with the highest expected goal ratio, by far.

So, let’s look at them all together in the context of the team.

Based on this data, Mueller seems to obviously the lowest step of the totem poll. Conversely, Dalton Prout seems to really need to be given more chances. It’s a small sample for him with only 3 games, but his underlying numbers are excellent. I find Moore to be indistinguishable from the other roster-fringe players. None of his numbers indicate that he should be immune to being scratched. Butcher an Santini are both difficult to assess for opposite reasons. Butcher’s done pretty well in very beneficial circumstances at even strength. Santini’s numbers are poor, but not ridiculously so, despite actually ridiculously low zone starts and high-level competition. Greene and Severson are unambiguously good.

What would I do about this?

I would have Greene, Severson, Santini, and Butcher play almost every game. They all have clear roles and do well in them. The fact that Moore is 2nd on the team in minutes is inexcusable, to me. Moore, Lovejoy, and Prout should be rotating into the last two defensive spots. If the team needs shooting, go with Moore; defense/penalty kill, go with Lovejoy; and possesion, go with Prout. Mueller has had enough NHL chances. Give him a few more this year — maybe get him to 150-200 minutes total — just to make sure he’s this bad, and then waive him. What you gave up to get a player should be irrelevant in roster decisions. Ice the best team. With Boyle nearing a return, and Zajac ahead of schedule, the Devils will soon need to make a move with a defender because our blueline is not talented enough to warrant holding on to 8 of them with the forwards we have.

Your Thoughts?

What do you guys think? What should the minute distribution be between the defenders? Who’s untouchable? Who needs a demotion? Who is first on your waive list?