The biggest concern for the Devils in both the short and long term currently revolves around one portion of the team: the defense. The Devils, long renowned for their stalwart defensive play, are currently struggling to find answers to the situation along the blue line heading into the 2017-18 season. Last season was largely a disaster for the team’s defensive corps and very little has been done over the summer to significantly address the issue. Beyond shipping a second round pick to San Jose in exchange for reclamation project Mirco Mueller, things are largely status quo along the Devils’ blue line heading into this season. As things stand, the hopes of having a quality, or even mediocre, defensive unit aren’t particularly high but if some things break the right way and certain players take a step forward, perhaps there is a chance for the Devils to have a serviceable group on the blue line (or something approaching it).
Perhaps one of the most important variables for this year’s defense will be the now second-year defenseman the Devils drafted back in 2013, Steve Santini. Santini was drafted in the second-round four years ago to be a guy who could serve as a future shut-down defenseman for the team. At the time, the pick was generally praised as a good get in the second round, even if forwards felt like the greater need when it occurred. Back in 2013, the Devils seemed to have a pretty sturdy pipeline of defensive prospects to go along with at unit in the NHL that was, while unspectacular on paper, still very good a preventing shots and chances. Fast forward four years and that, well, isn’t the case anymore. Santini, if you were inclined to still call him a prospect, is really the only one left that the Devils can hope will have a positive impact on the team’s immediate future.
Last season, Santini had what you’d probably consider a solid enough debut season in the NHL. He held his own on a blue line that didn’t offer much in the way of soft landing spots. His relative possession numbers were generally middling (via NaturalStatTrick), but the fact that he wasn’t getting caved in as a 21-year-old rookie defender is a positive sign. Santini, understandably, wasn’t given the toughest workload when he played but his minutes also weren’t super soft. He averaged only a shade over 16 minutes of TOI in the games he played and while he didn’t have sheltered deployment in terms of zone starts, he also wasn’t necessarily getting buried. Still, put it all together and account for the fact that, being on the 2016-17 Devils, he wasn’t in the most stable defensive situation and I’d say it was a relatively successful rookie campaign for the young Boston College product.
The issue for the Devils is that if they hope to be better on defense this season, they are likely going to need to see a big step forward for Santini, something that is much easier said than done. Being a serviceable third-pairing level defender is not something that is going to cure what ills the Devils. To realistically improve this defense, Santini will have to make a leap to being able to handle top-four ice time and at least tread water there. If the Devils go through another season with John Moore and Ben Lovejoy getting caved in as a second-pairing, they are gonna have a bad time. Essentially, what Devils fans should be hoping for is Santini stepping up to a point where he can diminish the role of Lovejoy to whatever extent possible. If Santini can take the reins on the right side on the second-pairing with Damon Severson continuing to grow into his own on the first, perhaps the Devils can limit how much of a liability the defense is.
The issue for promoting Santini to the second pairing will be that if the pairing is going to be any good, he will likely have to be the one driving it. If you assume that Andy Greene is on the first pairing with Severson, there is no one who approaches the ability to be a second-pairing cornerstone among the Devils’ LHD, meaning Santini would likely not only have to get to a point where he can handle himself in the top four, but be able to babysit someone else at the same time. That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old with less than 40 NHL games. It’s probably something that is necessary for the Devils to improve on the disastrous defensive unit of 2016-17, though.
Can Santini make this leap? I won’t say I’m betting on it, but if the Devils want to have an NHL-esque defense this season it’s something that probably needs to happen. There is unlikely to be any other help on the way, so to an extent, the Devils are depending on it. If Santini can step up into the top-four, coupled with Severson building on a strong season and perhaps Mirco Mueller being useful, then maybe this duct-taped together defense can survive this season. That’s admittedly a lot to bank on in addition to avoiding injuries and Andy Greene slowing his decline, but hey, stranger things have (probably) happened. If Santini steps up and things break right, we could be treated with the mediocre defense we’ve been dreaming of all offseason.