If there’s one silver lining among the New Jersey Devils defense, then it is Damon Severson. The 22-year old defender is in his third season with the team and I think the larger issues with the squad have overshadowed what he has done. It isn’t easy for a defenseman to really stand out without being exceptional. I imagine it is even harder on a bad team. But after taking a closer look at the player, Severson has developed into a better defenseman than he may get credit for. Let’s delve into what Severson has done so far with the Devils as the 2016-17 season winds down.
A few weeks back, I wrote about whether Jon Merrill has improved. In that post, I noted the following as a bit of background:
It was not that long ago that Jon Merrill was one of the young defensemen that led New Jersey Devils fans to be excited for the future of the blueline. The hope back as, say, 2012, was that Merrill, Adam Larsson, Alex Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Damon Severson would form a solid defensive core. Now we know better. Gelinas proved to be only a shooter and was dealt. Urbom didn’t make it. Larsson became good, but he wasn’t the stud one hoped when he was drafted. At least he was worth enough to get Taylor Hall. Severson is still in progress.
Severson has been in progress as a player since this is his third NHL season and he’ll turn 23 in August. While defensemen do take a longer time to develop, it’s about by now that we can get an idea of what he’s about. Severson has played in Fortunately for the Devils, it’s something far more exciting than what Urbom, Gelinas, and Merrill have turned out to be. (And this is to say nothing about other defensive prospects of the past like Brandon Burlon, Reece Scarlett, Josh Jacobs, etc.) It does require looking at several stats - all pulled on March 18, so this doesn’t include yesterday’s loss to Columbus, which was a good game for Severson - to get it, but I assure you, it’s worth it.
First, let’s look at something the Devils defensemen really haven’t been so strong at: production. Severson is currently the Devils’ leader among defensemen in points with thirty. He’s also their leader in shots on net with 103 among defensemen. To put that in some more perspective, #2 in points is John Moore with seventeen and #2 in shots is Ben Lovejoy with 72. With respect to the whole team, Severson’s thirty points places him in a tie with Michael Cammalleri for fifth in points.
Severson has improved in his total points in each of his three seasons. In this season, Severson has been more productive on the power play and that has driven his total points up. Still, it’s a notable improvement as Severson played significant minutes on the power play as a rookie and a sophomore, but never generated much. Curiously, he really has not been much of a shooter on the man advantage. Twenty shots isn’t a lot. In fact, he’s never scored a power play goal in the NHL. Perhaps that will change soon. Still, he’s averaging close to 1.5 shots per game right now and 1.1 in 5-on-5 hockey. So he’s involved moreso than the other Devils defensemen, even if the majority of his points comes from assists.
All the same, some additional perspective shows that this season’s production is pretty good. At NHL.com and at Corsica, Severson’s total and 5-on-5 points places him in the top 50 defensemen in the NHL in those categories. OK, he’s on the lower end of each; he’s tied for 40th in total points and tied for 42nd in total points. For a not-so-successful shooter like Severson on a low-scoring team, that’s still notable to among other productive defenders. No, it’s not at an all-star level or to the point that it would make him a stud. But since that Severson has been involved in creating goals in both 5-on-5 and power play situations for the Devils, this suggests that a more potent offense would feature more points from Severson among others. If you want to see growth as an offensive defensemen, then Severson has the points and the shots already to show that in his third season.
5 on 5 Stats
5-on-5 is the most common situation in hockey. For a NHL player to be considered good, I strongly believe he needs to be good in this situation. Besides, Severson has not played enough on the penalty kill (a total of 23:37 so far this season, or an average of twenty seconds per game) to be concerned with that aspect of the game. And we already know that he’s been racking up assists but not shots and definitely not any goals on the power play. All the more reason to focus on what Severson has done in 5-on-5 hockey.
The Devils as a team are 47.22% in Corsi For percentage, which is near the worst in the NHL. So for Severson to beat that number is a good thing. In fact, only Yohann Auvitu has put up a better CF% than Severson. Among regular defenders, Severson has been the best for possession. Further, look at that relative Corsi For percentage (RelCF%) That’s the difference between the team’s CF% when Severson is on the ice compared to when he’s off the ice. For it to be positive means that Severson has had a positive effect when he plays in 5-on-5. And this season’s RelCF% is higher than the previous two seasons so he’s been a bigger factor for the team’s possession than before. It probably helps when he’s following Andy Greene (more on that later), but the point is that this shows that Severson has been positive factor.
Unfortunately for Severson, the good things in terms of Corsi hasn’t fully translated to shots against. His shots for percentage is still better than the team’s 47.18% SF%, but instead of flirting with the breakeven point, it’s still low. In other words, Severson has been out-shot. Worse, Severson’s SA/60 has risen. The mitigating factor is that relative SF% value. It’s still positive as it has been in previous seasons. Again, this means that when Severson is on the ice, the Devils improve in SF%. It’s not all because of Severson, but with three straight seasons of positive values, it’s hard to not think he’s a factor.
It is a bit concerning that Severson has faced a higher number of attempts and shots against. Let’s go a little deeper and look at chances and goals in 5-on-5 play.
After a somewhat rocky 2015-16, Severson has had his best season yet in terms of scoring chances - the most dangerous kinds of shooting attempts. While he’s still below 50%, Severson is second on the team among regulars throughout this season in SCF%. Only Andy Greene has been better in that percentage. However, it’s not because he’s allowing so few chances. In fact, Severson (and Greene) have two of the higher SCA/60 rates on the team (it’s better than 2015-16, though). But when Severson (and Greene) are out there, the team is generating more scoring chances than most of the other defenders. Combined with the Corsi and shots data, it points to the fact that Severson is doing what he can to keep those shots and attempts more to the outside.
As for goals, well, the 44 goals against may point to why some may think he hasn’t been all that and a bag of chips. The odd thing is that it’s not that the goaltending has been awful behind him. It’s actually the best it has been in his young career in 5-on-5 play. Severson, among others, was likely caught among that bad run of goaltending in the middle of this season. If there’s some bad luck here, it’s with the other skaters and Severson to a degree. The shots just aren’t going in even though 32 goals for is the most among Devils defensemen in 5-on-5 play. A 5.9% shooting percentage is low in of itself; only Greene and Ben Lovejoy have a lower team shooting percentage. If 2016-17 Severson witnessed the hotter sticks that he did in 2015-16 Severson, then it would be more apparent that Severson’s play on the ice contributes (or at least does not hinder) good things.
Still, what’s all this then about rises in attempts and shots against with a relatively high rate of scoring chances against in 5-on-5 play? Shouldn’t that be a bigger problem? Not so when we consider how John Hynes and his staff has been using him.
Severson’s Usage in 5-on-5 Play
Severson has not only played more minutes in fewer games compared to last season and his rookie season in 2014-15. He has played more difficult minutes. His offensive zone start percentage (offensive zone starts over offensive and defensive zone starts) dropped to below 50% for this season. His quality of teammates went up a bit in terms of ice time, but those teammates have yielded a lower weighted average of CF% (CF Quality of Teammates, or CF QoT). The point is that his teammates haven’t been strong possession players. That should surprise no one as, again, the Devils are a weak possession team as a whole. As for his quality of competition, he’s facing the kind of competition he initially faced as a rookie - which included plenty of top competition.
In order to verify that, I decided to look up some data Woodguy (a.k.a. Woodguy55 on Twitter) of Because Oilers made me aware of a while back. Woodguy and G-Money of Oilers Nerd Alert collaborated last summer and came up with WoodMoney, a method of binning levels of quality of competition. I think it’s impressive, I’ve delved into it with last season’s defensemen, and it’s a good way now to show a breakdown of who Severson has been playing against. Also, for reasons made clearer later in this post, I included Greene, Kyle Quincey, and John Moore.
This is all 5-on-5 data for both home and away games and while some of the numbers are a bit off from Corsica (probably a difference in data scraping?), they’re not so far off to detract from the major point. Anyway, Severson has played a good amount of “Elite” level minutes - shifts against the top players in the league. He hasn’t seen too much of the “Gritensity” level - think of fourth liners, sheltered players, etc. - but he’s not unfamiliar with them. Most of his work has been against larger “Middle” bin.
Impressively, Severson’s relative CF% to these competition levels have not only been positive, but by at least 1%. The run of play with Severson against top tier competition is is only just below 50% and he has the largest relative CF% within that band of competition. In other words, Severson has held his own against the best. And he hasn’t really struggled against the Middle group. Yes, the CF% and CF% RelComp are lower, but so is the CA/60. And Severson against the lower tier has been quite successful when that matchup is made. Contrast that with Greene, Quincey, and Moore. None of those three had a relative CF% to their band of competition greater than 1%, those three are only surpass 48% - much less 50% - when they’re facing the lowest tier, and they’re net negatives in relative CF% across all three bands of competition. This data shows that Severson has really been a positive factor.
Woodguy’s data also included the five most common teammates by competition level (I used their player numbers) and Severson’s most common partner is one he hasn’t partnered with recently: Greene. But he’s also played quite a bit behind Hall, Zajac, and Palmieri too. Michael Cammalleri, Quincey, and P.A. Parenteau all make cameos. Now we know Severson played a lot with Greene, now look again at Greene’s numbers. He’s faced more time against the Elite than the other three defenders on this list and he’s been rolled. Just attempts against everywhere with Greene. It gets better with weaker competition. Severson has been Greene’s most common partner too with each band. So does this mean he’s dragging Greene down? Let’s find out by looking at Severson’s With or Without You numbers.
With Or Without You in 5-on-5 Play
Puckalytics has been a solid resource for hockey stats for years as Hockey Analysis. One of its key features is their With or Without You (WOWY) stat pages. Basically, you can see what a player’s stats are with a teammate and at the same time see how the player does without the teammate and how the teammate does without the player. So let’s look at Severson’s WOWY’s to see how his impact has been from that perspective. Also, to answer whether he’s been a drag on Greene, who has some horrid looking numbers in this season.
I focused on skaters who played at least 200 minutes prior to the Columbus game with Severson. It just so happens the three defensemen were: Greene, Quincey, and Moore. That’s why I chose those three to show off their WoodMoney data along with Severson’s data so far:
I highlighted Greene and Quincey in green to show that Severson has been better without those players (not by much!) and the combination has been better for them than without Severson. This quickly shows that Severson has not been a drag on Greene. On the contrary, Severson and Greene have done rather well. Yes, they’re not above 50% CF%, but it’s a far cry better than the 43.6% CF% Greene has had without Severson. The really interesting thing about it is their zone start ratio. Greene and Severson together had a low OZS% of about 44%. Apart, it’s a world of a difference. Severson received many more offensive zone starts, which only helps CF% and puts him in more attacking situations where he can get a shot off or make a play that can become a point (or a shot assist). Greene, on the other hand, has had an extremely low amount of offensive zone starts such that his OZS% is below 25%! That’s some crazy usage, it helps explain why he’s been drowning in possession.
Why? That deserves it’s own post, but the short answer is Ben Lovejoy. But this post is about Severson, so let’s ignore him and look at the other two defenders. Quincey and Severson were a commonly seen pairing after Greene and Severson were split apart during the season. Like with Greene, together they were just below the breakeven point and apart, Severson thrived while Quincey sank. Again, Quincey saw many more defensive zone starts and Severson saw many more offensive zone starts, which affects CF%. But the drop in Quincey’s CF% is so much lower that fewer offensive zone starts doesn’t fully explain it. Basically, it suggests that Severson helped Quincey out - just like these numbers show that Greene was also helped by Severson.
What about Moore? I highlighted this in yellow because the pairing has been better together than apart. And it’s been rather good in the recent weeks we’ve seen #2 and #28 together. I’m surprised that their CA/60 is pretty low at 51 and more surprised that the team has been able to generate more attempts than that when they’re on the ice. Yes, it’s a Devils defenseman pairing that’s played more than just a little bit with over 50% CF%. Huzzah. They’ve also been primarily used on offense, which helps possession. And probably Moore moreso than Severson. While Severson’s numbers are lower away from Moore, it isn’t nearly as significant as Moore’s drop from 52% CF% with Severson to nearly 44% CF% without him.
This all begs a question: Why were Severson and Greene kept apart? If I recall correctly, they were together off-and-on and not permanently split until Greene’s injury. Since these numbers show that Greene plus Severson equals some actually decent possession and results, probably against tough competition, so why not stick them back together when Greene returned from injury? In a word: goals. Somehow, Greene and Severson together has had a GF/60 of 1.61 and a GA/60 of 3.03. The pairing was getting lit up. They certainly weren’t helping create nearly enough goals to make up that difference. Even with good possession numbers, or at least better than most on this roster, I can’t see too many coaches keeping those two together. In contrast, Moore and Severson have a more palatable 1.81 GF/60 and a 2.17 GA/60; while Quincey and Severson managed an even 1.50 for both stats. Since Moore and Severson have been successful by at least the run of play with their usage and zone starts, I suspect we’ll see those two stay together for the rest of the season.
That’s all well and good with defensemen. But forwards also play a role, too. We know that Zajac, Hall, Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Cammalleri, and Parenteau have been common teammates for some or all three bands of competition identified by WoodMoney. Again, they all have had at least 200 minutes with Severson. So has Pavel Zacha and Beau Bennett. Here’s how that breaks down.
There’s a lot of yellow here because the combinations have been more favorable together than apart. The members of the team’s current top line of Zajac, Hall, and Palmieri have each been positive with Severson behind them. Interestingly, it’s been the most successful with Hall and the least with Palmieri - who’s within the breakeven percentile. They also have had high OZS% values, which means that their grouping is usually starting on offense. That helps the positive possession. It also explains the drop off for the forwards without Severson as their OZS% sinks to 37-38%. There too, Being apart hasn’t helped Severson much either. He’s been much worse off without Hall than Palmieri and Zajac. It seems to me that #28 and #9 should be frequent teammates on the ice, especially for offensive zone situations. They definitely help each other drive the play.
The other forwards are intriguing by the numbers. Take Henrique, for example. Together, they’ve been just above breakeven. Severson takes a small hit without Henrique. Without Severson, Henrique’s numbers crater - even worse than Palmieri’s. With Henrique seemingly getting different linemates every other game, I wonder if that shift to more defensive zone starts really hurts him knowing that? We see similar, but not as significant affects, with Parenteau and Bennett, who’s the only forward here who remained above 50% CF% with and without Severson. That makes sense as the team leader in CF% has managed to be quite good in the run of play in this season (finishing those plays, well, not so much).
The only forwards where the combination has not worked is Michael Cammalleri and Pavel Zacha. For Zacha, the two just haven’t done so well in the run of play. He’s in green because Severson has been better without him and Zacha has been worse without him. But together hasn’t yielded a lot of results even with a high OZS%. Cammalleri’s case sticks out even more than just being in red. Cammalleri and Severson are the only combination of forwards with a lower than 50% OZS%. Even with a drop in OZS% apart from Severson, Cammalleri’s CF% did rise a little. And Severson was definitely better off without him. It’s an odd case among the other seven forwards.
The one common factor among those seven is that with them, Severson has been given plenty of offensive zone starts to work with them and contribute on offense. Over all of this season, Severson’s OZS% is well below 50% largely because of all of those minutes with Greene earlier in the season. Those minutes went well, except seemingly on the scoreboard given their high GA/60 rate. But if Moore and Severson stick together and continue to get plenty of offensive zone starts, then his total number will rise. In any case, Severson starting in an offensive situation with the team’s current top line and some other forwards have been good for the team’s possession in 5-on-5 play.
What does all of this prove? Plenty. This all proves that, in his third NHL season, Severson has really improved as a player, from production to his relative Corsi For percentage. The context data from Corsica and the WoodMoney metric proves that Severson has played significant minutes in this season and that he’s been doing relatively well against all kinds of competition - more so than three of his most common teammates on the blueline. The With or Without You stats show that ten out of eleven skaters who played more than 200 minutes with Severson in 5-on-5 play have been better in terms of CF% with Severson than without him.
The most impressive thing about Severson is that he’s been such a positive influence on possession in a season where the Devils are pretty crummy at it. Yes, more offensive zone starts help that, but the data has shown that sticking Severson with Hall, Palmieri, or Zajac has been very beneficial. You’d want that group to take (and generate) offensive zone starts. On defense, Severson has done well with Greene, who has suffered greatly without Severson. While Moore has been a kind of shot sieve as a Devil, the two have been doing rather well together - and their usage helps both from being sieve-like. It’s not so great on its own, but I get the impression that if the Devils were a better team overall, then Severson would really stand out as a player who helps drive the play forward. That’s the kind of player the Devils need more of as they rebuild the roster.
And on this note, I do recall that he’s the team leader in shots and he was a top-50 scorer in total points and 5-on-5 points as a defenseman when I pulled the data. Between this, his usage, and his beneficial impact on possession, Severson is an offensive defenseman. No, he’s not an all star. No, he doesn’t have an easily identifiable skill like making great long passes or shelling goalies with heavy bombs from the point. But what he has been good at in this season all contributes to offensive play. The shots, the points, the CF%, the relative CF%, and so forth. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he’s been ahead of the other defensemen in CF% by at least 1.5% or power play time despite a lack of goals or plenty of offensive shifts with the team’s top forwards. If this is not consistent with what an offensive defenseman does, then please let me know why not and who does then.
By the way, a reason why I’m a big believer in CF% is that over a course of a lot of games, it’s a good measure about how the general performances have been. Making passes, making good reads and decisions, executing plays correctly, breaking the puck out, getting stops on defense, and so forth all can contribute to more attempts being taken than conceded. It’s not the be-all, end-all, but crummy performances tend to result in a bad CF%. Severson hasn’t had great nights in every game, but he hasn’t been crummy at all over this season. At least, he is less crummy than other defenders on this team. Knowing how he’s been utilized and how he’s impacted others makes it more impressive.
Regardless, the Devils need to keep this right-hand shooting defenseman. He’s turning 23 and he’s had a strong 2016-17 on a blueline that has been anything but strong. If anything, Ray Shero would do well to somehow find another Severson-like player for the left side as the blueline is re-built. How good Damon Severson has been for the Devils in 2016-17? Very good. I’d go as far to say that he’s been the best on the blueline, barring something weird happening in the last ten games of the season.
Let me know what you think about Severson and this deep dive into his stats in the comments. Thank you for reading.
P.S. Ben Lovejoy is definitely getting a post on him soon.