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Split the Top 2 Defensemen?

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During the preseason so far, John Hynes has had multiple different combinations of defensemen dress during each game. It begs an interesting question: will he leave the team’s top 2 defensemen on a pairing, or split them?

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Leading up to the start of the regular season, there has been some talk around the forward group about who should be playing with whom. Specifically, with Travis Zajac out for several months, who would get the role of centering Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, assuming those two would even be staying together on the same line? How would the second line then flesh out? There are still plenty of questions surrounding that, but during the first preseason game on Monday night against Washington, Marcus Johansson centered the two while doing a pretty good job. Johansson finished with at least a 50% Corsi when playing with Hall and/or Palmieri on the ice at even strength. That is a fairly good sign to start the preseason.

While the forward group has received a decent amount of attention with respect to lines, the defense has received less coverage. The infusion of Will Butcher to the team sparked some conversation for sure, but in the end the talk has not really been about defensive pairings. The general consensus is that Damon Severson is the top defender on the team and is only getting better, Andy Greene is the leader of this team and has been an excellent under-the-radar guy but has lost the title of best defender on the team to Damon, and everyone else is basically either really young or really not that good (some disagree on Ben Lovejoy being not that good, but most would say so). Some certainly argue that Steven Santini is not just a “really young” guy anymore but could turn into a solid defender really soon, and I hope that is true, but either way he is certainly young and has not reached his full potential at all yet. In this scenario, while you do have the signing of Butcher which adds a little more promise, I doubt anyone would call this defense one of the better blue lines in the NHL.

In that scenario, which again you could certainly disagree with in terms of player ability, you have two solid defenders and others who need help. That help could range from a veteran presence to help guide the young guys like Butcher or Santini, or the help could simply be to not be awful at pushing the puck up the ice. The intriguing question which arises from this, then, becomes how you break up the parings. Last season, Severson played more time on the ice with Greene than with any other defender. The two were quite good together, posting a better than 50% Corsi at 5 on 5 action. They were hands down the best pairing the Devils had last season, and took most all of the top pairing duties, being placed in tough situations to play against tough competition.

This season, what do you do? Do you continue to consolidate your two best defenders onto one pairing and play them against the best competition as much as possible, or do you separate the two and hope that their presence can raise the play of other defenders on the team?

In the first preseason games we have seen, it has been clear that John Hynes and Co. have been trying out different scenarios. On Monday against Washington, Severson was dressed while Greene was not. Initially, it was reported by Amanda Stein that Butcher would be paired with Severson on Monday, but sadly for Butcher that basically never happened. During that first game, Butcher played with Severson for only 1:27 at all situations, and they did not have a single second of ice time together at 5 on 5. Instead, Butcher saw most of his time with Dalton Prout while Severson was mostly with John Moore.

I know when I read the initial lineup card, I was intrigued to see how Severson and Butcher would play together. Butcher has been billed as a puck-moving defender who is good at getting the puck up ice and contributing in that fashion. Severson is also a quality puck mover. Considering both are young as well, if they were able to gel together, that could be a pairing that could last for a long time and contribute in a big way to the Devils present and future. Instead, however, Butcher was forced to play most of his time with Prout, who we know is definitely not anywhere near on Severson’s level. Even still, Butcher was still able to end up with a 50% Corsi at 5 on 5, so that is a good sign there at least.

On Wednesday against New York, both Severson and Greene were dressed together, and also played a significant amount of time on the same pairing. Of Severson’s 22:28 of ice time and Greene’s 25:57 of ice time, they spent 16:16 together. They were also quite good, with a Corsi well north of 50% when paired together. Of course, however, that left Yaroslav Dyblenko, Tim Erixon, Ben Lovejoy, and Viktor Loov to have to make up the 2nd and 3rd pairings. Neither of those pairings would really scare anyone. That there is your real tradeoff.

When the season starts, of course the top 6 defenders will not have most of those names. Other than Greene and Severson, you will have Santini, Lovejoy, Moore, and Butcher. Others could enter that equation for sure, but there is a decent chance that those are your 6 starting defenders come October 7th. So what do you do? Do you have a definitive top pairing of Severson and Greene? Then your second pairing may hold Lovejoy and Moore, while your third pairing has the youngsters Santini and Butcher. Even with the better talent, those 2nd and 3rd pairings are scaring no one.

On the opposing side, you could split the top two. Severson played a lot of time with Moore on Monday. They could make up a pairing, while Greene gets to play alongside Santini and really help him develop. That would leave Lovejoy and Butcher as your 3rd pairing. Does that look better? It makes the top 4 look decent now, but that third pairing still has the potential to be nightmarish.

I personally think that in the end, if the Devils are really looking to compete as much as possible, Hynes should keep Damon and Andy together. The main reason I have for this is because we know that they are a really good pairing when together. We don’t know how Greene or Severson would play with other skaters, but we do know that when together, they can properly defend some of the better lines in the NHL. They will each log around 25 minutes of ice time each night, taking the tough zone starts and penalty killing duties. While you do have to hope that the other 35 minutes or so are not totally destroyed because of the defenders out there, just having the known quantity of Greene-Severson is a good thing to bank on. Come January, if the Devils are buried at the bottom of the Metropolitan with no real path to a competent season, then break up the top pairing and see if they cannot help the development of the likes of Santini and Butcher. Until then, however, let them play together and continue to dominate the competition.

That’s my opinion, however. What is yours? Do you think that Severson and Greene should play together at the expense of the bottom 2 pairings, or do you think that they should be separated in the hopes of improving the overall quality of the defensive pairings? If you do think they should be broken up, who should each be paired with come October 7th? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.