If there’s anything to be frustrated about during this season for our New Jersey Devils, it would have to be the play of the defense. While the offense tended to be the focal point of the team’s problems in past seasons, a number of additions up front along with an outstanding first half from Taylor Hall have alleviated those concerns. It seems in most games that the Devils have lost this season, it’s been the defense that has let the fans down.
Yet from watching the games this season, it doesn’t appear to be the entire defense that is letting the team down. Yes, at times Damon Severson and Sami Vatanen have made errors, but they’re not consistently making the same errors; at the same time, some fans seem to be jumping down their throats and claiming that they are the issue. Today, I look at what I believe the true issue to be.
Again just from watching games, and not looking at advanced stats, the right side of the defense has done better in the run of play. Severson, Vatanen, Steven Santini and even Ben Lovejoy have for the most part done really well; again there are occasional mistakes and I do believe having Santini on the top pairing is an error, but overall they’re not the guys making the same mistakes.
No the “same mistakes” crowd would be the left side of the defense consisting of Andy Greene and “The Un-scratch-ables” John Moore and Will Butcher. The captain and the rest of the left side haven’t looked spectacular this season. When the Devils traded Adam Henrique and Joe Blandisi, I was hoping for a left defender in return, as I was more worried about that side long-term; while I’m thrilled with Vatanen, he’s a right-side player.
Andy Greene has been a good soldier for a long time, but he’s regressing; he’s still a quality player, but he’s lost a step from previous seasons. I think he still has a spot on this team (regardless of captaincy status) but he needs to be playing less minutes. What can the team do to alleviate his workload? We’ll be discussing that a bit later.
Will Butcher is someone who is already playing low minutes, and also as a bit of a power play specialist. He already plays the least minutes out of all of the defenders on the team, and of every defender who has played at least 40 games, he averages over 2 minutes less of ice time per game! Butcher is helpful with moving the puck and picking up points, but his defending leaves a lot to be desired in many cases.
The biggest issue on the left, in my opinion, is John Moore. While Moore has a reputation as an offensive defender, he only has 1 more point than Severson and way fewer than Butcher. Moore also seems to be the veteran player who makes the most boneheaded plays, and despite having great speed, he seems to be constantly out of position. The staff seems to love him, and his speed and puck carrying are assets, but it doesn’t outweigh how often he is out of position or making a dumb play. Last night’s giveaway/fall down/allow a breakaway would get a lot of other players on this team benched; it just doesn’t seem right.
The Solution (?)
I’m not sure the Devils will tinker with the issue this season, even though defense is what is costing this team games they should have won. Mirco Mueller will be back from injury soon, but who does he play over? Unless the coaches finally want to give Moore or Butcher a night off, or there’s an injury, I don’t foresee Mueller drawing back in anytime soon.
The Devils will have to eventually strengthen their D core further, because as much as we want it to happen, the current one isn’t likely to win us a Stanley Cup. Could the Devils stand to upgrade both sides? Absolutely, but the outlook on the right looks more solid. The team has a couple of options for the left, and with John Moore a free agent this summer (who I think they should let go) and Andy Greene having 2 years left, they might need to look into multiple options.
Option 1 is obviously the draft; the Devils have retained their first round pick up until this point, and I don’t see them trading it for a rental this year. While it may be a later pick if the team makes the playoffs it would still be a first rounder in what is expected to be a deep draft. While the player chosen probably wouldn’t be ready for next season, a talented youngster would go a long way towards helping to fix the blue line.
Option 2 is another trade; there’s no rule that states the Devils are only allowed to acquire one blueliner in a season, but I just don’t see this as a viable route. The Devils don’t have very many assets available to trade, and I’m not sure there’s any team with a dependable defender that also fits our system available. This could be an option down the road, but it appears unlikely compared to others.
Option 3 is to wait and attempt to get stronger through free agency. As a team on the rise, with a good young core, the Devils may once again become a desirable destination for free agents. Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson is another right side player, but he’s one of the best names available this offseason; if the Devils could get someone of his caliber, they would wind up with a player on their off hand side, but a stronger defense overall. They could also try one of the lefties from the New York Islanders (Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey) who are UFAs if management thinks they would fit the team. It all depends on the mind and vision of Ray Shero.
Maybe I’m completely off with this, but watching the games leads me to feel upgrading the left side of the back end is the most important need for the team to be consistently successful in the future. Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on this; do you think the left side is the problem? Is the right side of more concern to you? What would you like to see the Devils do to strengthen their defense? Leave your comments below and thanks as always for reading!