In 2015-16, the Devils gave up 208 goals, which was 9th least in the NHL. Put another way, the Devils, despite being a bottom 10 team in the standings, were a top 10 defense.
Then we gave up our likely top defender, Adam Larsson, for Taylor Hall, and let David Schlemko walk, replacing them with only Ben Lovejoy and piecemeal other fringe NHLers. Because of this and a tough year from Schneider, the Devils plummeted to being the 5th worst in the NHL in goals against with 244.
That fall made the Devils fans pay attention to the position during the offseason. We had the expansion draft for which we were in a good position to pull a guy away from someone like Anaheim. We had the entry draft to possibly draft a defender or trade up/down. And we had free agency which had top pairing man, Kevin Shattenkirk. And we had Ilya Kovalchuck possibly coming back to use as a bargaining chip.
With all of those options, the big change in our defense for next year is that Jon Merrill will be replaced by (drumroll ....) Mirco Mueller ... maybe .... if he cracks the lineup.
This, combined with likely rookie Devils Nico Hischier and Mike McLeod, and trade acquisition Marcus Johansson has led the Devils fans to the unanimous conclusion that defense is now the problem with this team.
To address this, I will look at surface-level statistical trends, then more advanced stats like Dawson Springing’s GAR model to figure out if this assessment is accurate.
Timeline of Goals for and Against
As you can see, the Devils have been an average-to-good defensive team much of the last 6 years. Then last year, they plummeted. What changed? Well you’d think that it was the loss of Larsson right? We’ve lost defenders before and it’s never really mattered. According to DTMAboutHeart’s model, our top three defenders in “Pure Defense” were Anton Volchenkov, Mark Fayne, and Bryce Salvador in 2011-12; Greene, Fayne, and Volchenkov in 2012-13 and again in 2013-14; The next year, only one of those 4 players remained on the team. And we didn’t miss a beat. Marek Zidlicky slid into the top three in 2014-15 with Greene and Larsson. He was gone the next year and we went UP to 9th in the league defensively with Schlemko as the 3rd. Andy Greene was still the best defensive defender though.
So the losses of Larsson and Schlemko, while significant, should not have been trashed a previously perpetually respectable defensive team. It was the confluence three separate things ... 1) losing two good defenders, 2) unexpectedly below-average goaltending, and 3) the strongest strength of schedule in the NHL. Two of those things should improve this year and if Greene can stave of father time, and Severson and Santini can continue to improve, I see no reason we can’t regress up a few slots to league average defense like we used to be. Why? Well, I may have buried the lead here a bit, but out forwards are among the best defensive forwards in the league. Furthermore, they are some of the worst offensive forwards in the league. And as such, offense is more likely to be the problem this year — just like it always is.
We’re going to look at some Goals Above Replacement graphs to help explain this. If you can’t see the graphs below, skip down to the appendix for an all-encompassing picture.
5v5 Offense GAR
Below is the graph of even-strength offense as contributed by forwards and defenders.
As the graph shows, the Devils are last in the NHL in even strength offensive goals above replacement, thanks to a worst-in-the-league showing from the forwards and a 3rd-worst showing from defenders.
5v5 Defensive GAR
Below is the graph of even-strength defense as contributed by forwards and defenders.
Our defenders were actually pretty good at their main job of preventing goals, coming in 9th in the NHL. But our forwards were even better. Only Florida had better defensive forwards in the whole league.
Furthermore, the difference between these stats won’t actually change all that notably this year because Brian Boyle is about as good defensively as Marcus Johannson is offensively.
This is the main reason why we don’t need defense. But, I’m sure that I’ll get the complaint “well okay, maybe we don’t need ‘defense’, but we still need better overall players that play the defender position.” I might agree with that, but it’s not impossible to argue the contrary there either. Let’s look at the GAR distribution for each position. This is now overall GAR. To see the breakdown of components contributing, see Dawson’s original piece on Hockey-Graphs here.
Our forwards registered as the 20th best in the NHL last year. Our defenders, led by Severson (7.2 GAR) came in at 19th in the NHL. Now THIS discrepancy WILL likely change this year with good young forwards and Johansson coming in. But, it’s far from certain, given that we also lost two of our top 6 forwards in Mike Cammelleri and P.A. Parenteau. If Nico underwhelms, or Mojo can’t handle elevated responsibilities, we might find ourselves right back where we started offensively.
The summary of the Devils in the league-wide rankings in the 4 graphs above can be seen in the chart below. EVOGAR and EVDGAR are (even strength offense goals above replacement and even strength defense goals above replacement).
The Devils do not need improved defense to be good in the coming year. The Devils do not need improved defenders in the coming year. We were 3rd best in even-strength defense GAR last year, and close to league-average in overall GAR from defenders. We’ve been talking about how the Devils have not made up for the loss of Larsson, but the more pressing matter is that we have NEVER made up for the loss of Parise and Kovalchuk. We’ve been a poor offensive team forever, and after one down season, suddenly defense is the problem? The bigger issue is that despite adding Kyle Palmieri and despite adding Taylor Hall, this offense can never seem to get off the ground of the NHL.
With regards to competing this year, the forwards should improve from incoming prospects and Mojo. I’d say that improvement from Severson and Santini will offset any ill-effects of aging to Greene and the defense will pretty much stand pat. With 1) modest forward improvement, 2) defense staying at last seasons levels, and 3) better goalie play, I see no reason to not expect the Devils to notably improve this season.
Do you think the Devils need defenders for next season? Do you think the Devils need defense? If our forwards are scoring and providing defense, will that be enough? How much do we need to improve the defense to be competitive in future seasons? Leave your thoughts below and thanks for reading!