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New Jersey Devils 2018-19 Season Preview Part 2: The Defense

The Devils managed to pull together a serviceable defense in 2017-18 and it was enough to get them to the playoffs. Now, with a full season of Sami Vatanen and a Will Butcher who has a full season under his belt, can the Devils inch closer to having a solid, consistent defensive unit?

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Day 2 of All About the Jersey’s week-long preview of the 2018-19 Devils season, where we will try to answer the question of what to expect from a resurgent team in Newark. Yesterday, Alex dug into New Jersey’s forwards in Part 1 of the series. Today, we head to the blue line to figure out if the Devils defensive group has improved from the one that looked dreadful on paper at the start of last season, but blossomed into a perfectly mediocre or perhaps even adequate unit based on on-ice performance. Boosted by an ascendant rookie and a big time mid-season pickup last season, the Devils will try to build on the successes of last season while dodging the specter of a lack of elite talent and an aging captain who still carries a hefty amount of responsibility.

What Happened Last Season

At this point, saying the 2017-18 Devils were a team that surprised a lot of people is a sentiment that has been firmly beaten into the ground. It is a lede that very nearly generates itself whenever you write about last season’s team in any context. It is a trope that only refuses to die, though, because it is extremely true. Not very much was expected from the 2017-18 Devils by most people. Even a hefty majority of the team’s own fanbase saw “take a step up from the basement and maybe finish within 10 points of the playoffs” as the realistic upside.

So why did people feel that way? Well, certainly one major culprit was the group on defense that they headed into the season with. It was a group that “maybe serviceable” was a pretty rosy outlook for. Here’s the bunch they went into the season with on opening night:

  • Andy Greene
  • Damon Severson
  • Will Butcher
  • Steven Santini
  • John Moore
  • Ben Lovejoy
  • Mirco Mueller
  • Dalton Prout

So that’s two players you could realistically consider “top-4” with any confidence, a rookie fresh out of college, a handful of third-pairing types, a guy who had been buried in the AHL the previous season, and Dalton Prout. Some things needed to go right for this group and they needed people to stay healthy in order to get to that lofty plateau of “meh.” Both of those things happened for New Jersey, though, and they also got a major reinforcement a couple months into the season to make it a group that was perhaps nothing special but could hold its own and keep the team in games until Taylor Hall did something awesome. Here is a sampling of where the Devils finished in a number of 5-on-5 defensive stats last season, via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica:

  • CA/60: 16th
  • SA/60: 15th
  • GA/60: 23rd
  • HDCA/60: 7th
  • xGA/60: 23rd
  • SV%: 25th

That’s... not half bad! The Devils were exactly middle of the pack in prevention of shots and attempts and were one of the better teams in the league in avoiding high danger chances (though, curiously, they were bottom 10 in Corsica xGF in spite of that). Their goals against were not great, partially undercut by a goaltending tandem that was white-hot in stretches but also fairly lousy in the aggregate, but these numbers are indicative of a team that was, well, okay on defense. Maybe not a world-beater but let’s go back to the end of last year’s defensive preview:

With improvements hopefully showing up elsewhere on the roster, a defense that can be okay may be enough to make this a team worth watching.

Obviously, they blew right by “team worth watching” thanks in large part to the MVP and a couple other key contributors, but that was made possible by a group on the blue line that generally held things together on defense.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Individual Performances

Individually, the Devils had some really good, expectation-beating performances on the back end as well as some disappointing and frustrating campaigns. First we’ll start with the most obvious bright spot in the form of a college free agent snagged just weeks before training camp that helped power one of the best offensive groups on the blue line in quite a while for New Jersey: University of Denver product Will Butcher. Butcher immediately looked right at home in the NHL and hardly looked back in a rookie season that was part of a whole group of young Devils screaming out of the gate. Will Butcher looked confident and comfortable in his first NHL season, and while he was undeniably sheltered, he absolutely thrived in the minutes he was given. To go along with top-end shot metrics, Butcher also found the score sheet a whole lot with 44 points as a defenseman. Here’s a list of Devils defensemen who have put up more points in the last 20 seasons: Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski. Not bad, kid. And his micro-stats were pretty solid to go with it, particularly on offense with his top-tier breakout abilities and shot contributions. Via CJ’s Tableau of Corey Sznajder’s tracking data:

Elsewhere on defense the Devils had some other solid performances as well. Sami Vatanen arrived in the blockbuster Adam Henrique trade last season and, after taking a little time to settle in, became John Hynes go-to defenseman. Vatanen led the team in ATOI by a fairly wide margin at 22:45, with captain Andy Greene finishing a somewhat distant second at 21:07. Vatanen was perhaps not an ideal #1, but he took on the difficult minutes and gave the Devils another bona fide top-4 body on a defense that desperately needed it. Vatanen played in all three phases for the Devils and put up almost a half point per game to finish a shade behind Butcher’s scoring pace.

Ben Lovejoy in a third-pairing role was another relative bright spot in the season. Much maligned in 2016-17, where he was trusted with far more responsibilities in terms of minutes and matchups than he should have been, Lovejoy had a nice rebound season riding along with Will Butcher in a level of deployment he was able to handle.

It wasn’t all great for the Devils on the back end, though. Steve Santini got elevated into the graveyard-deployment shutdown role that John Hynes had heaped on Ben Lovejoy the season prior and drowned in a similar fashion. Santini got the toughest matchups and zone deployment next to Andy Greene and the pairing was largely buried in that time, finishing around 40% in share of attempts and goals. After being buried in deployment, Santini was subsequently buried in the AHL as the odd man out who also happened to be waiver-exempt.

Damon Severson and Andy Greene are two of the Devils’ longest-tenured blue-liners at this point and both of them had uneven seasons with some definite rough patches. For Severson, he had his usual stretches where he looks like the solid puck mover and play driver that he is capable of being, but he also has not rid himself of the mental lapses that drive coaches crazy, leading to several scratches late in the season and even in the first game of the playoffs. Whether or not this is a good strategy for Hynes to deploy in important games (I don’t happen to think it is), it’s understanable how a coach can get to that point with the frustrating Severson.

Greene, meanwhile, had a season performance that is a little tough to parse as well. In some lights, Greene looked bad and overmatched at times in his role as top shutdown defender. On the other hand, there is some evidence that Greene can still play good hockey in a slightly less brutal role. Greene fell on a lot of deployment grenades for New Jersey and arguably it worked out, but last season it felt like he was hanging on for dear life for much of the time and you wonder how sustainable that state of affairs is.

John Moore played a whole bunch of minutes for New Jersey as well last season, many with Damon Severson, and on the whole was likely positioned in a role too prominent for his abilities. Moore has always been a guy that looked the part okay, but the results rarely measured up to that. He is a player who, like Lovejoy, should probably mainly see third-pairing minutes, but was shoved into a larger role out of a general lack of perceived options by Coach Hynes (though luckily not first-pairing large like Lovejoy was).

Rounding out the defensive group who played minutes of substance last year is Mirco Mueller. Mueller arrived in the summer of 2017 in a bit of a head-scratching trade at the time, but arguably exceeded low expectations in the minutes he received in New Jersey. He looked capable enough at times and not-so-great at others. Ultimately, much of his season was cut down by injury, leaving any potential grade for him as incomplete. He didn’t look out of place in the NHL, though, and that is a bit better than at least a decent portion of the range of expectations for him heading into last season.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What to Expect This Season

You may have noticed that I dwelled on last season’s performances for the Devils for a while. Well, this is because the Devils will head into this season with a largely identical group of defenders to last season, so last season’s group at the end is pretty much what we’ll be sailing into 2019 with. In all, there is really only one addition or subtraction of note, and it’s one that some might consider addition by subtraction to some extent.

Additions: Eric Gryba

Subtractions: John Moore

The departure of John Moore was largely welcomed by the New Jersey faithful, particularly for the term he received in Boston (five years!). Moore can be a useful piece, and may well be in Boston on a third pair, but he had somewhat outlasted his usefulness on a New Jersey roster that is hoping for some better players to step up into the top four. As far as additions by addition, the Devils didn’t do much, aside from bringing in NHL journeyman and warm body Eric Gryba.

The biggest wild card that could have changed that mostly ‘status quo’ state of affairs though was first-round pick Ty Smith. Many were hoping to see Smith in the fold after a solid showing in the preseason, but the Devils thought better of it and sent him back to Spokane for another year of building his game in the WHL. See you on opening night 2019-20, Ty. After Smith’s departure, the list of defensemen who will likely see most of the NHL minutes this season is as follows:

  • Andy Greene
  • Sami Vatanen
  • Damon Severson
  • Will Butcher
  • Ben Lovejoy
  • Mirco Mueller
  • Steve Santini
  • Eric Gryba

In New Jersey, Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen are solid bets to lead the way in ice time again this season (for better or worse), and there’s a decent chance they end up as a fairly consistent pairing as well, based on John Hynes tendencies with his deployment. After those two is where the questions begin.

The biggest of those questions is how much more responsibility will be given to Will Butcher in 2018-19. Butcher had a stellar rookie season in a sheltered role for New Jersey, but in order to improve upon last season’s results from the defense, the Devils will likely need Butcher on the ice for more (and more difficult) minutes. Subsequently, the Devils will need Butcher to handle those minutes well. If they can get similar play from Butcher this season in bigger minutes, you have to feel good about the chances of this unit improving.

After Butcher, the other biggest x-factor to me is the play of Damon Severson (as well as his deployment). I think most objective analyses would have to put Severson within the top-four of this team, but we know there is at least some friction there based on Hynes’ decision to bench him for a number of games at the end of last season. Severson remains a talent and a capable player on the blue line, but can he maintain his focus and be a true driver of success for this team in 2018-19? If he can, that means very good things for New Jersey as well.

Beyond those four, the group of Ben Lovejoy, Mirco Mueller, and Steve Santini will see most of the remainder of the minutes on defense. Lovejoy proved to be a capable and steady presence on a third pair last season, and has probably earned a continued spot in the lineup for now. Santini seems likely to be able to handle a lighter role than he was given last season, based on his rookie campaign the year prior, but he’s probably the odd man out, at least to start, with Mirco Mueller rounding out the early season lineup.

I think the other relative lock in terms of ice time is that Eric Gryba will function mainly as a 7th/8th D and probably get scratched most games.

So with this bunch of players, where are the Devils at as a team on defense? Ultimately, I think this is a defense that, under the right circumstances, can be a pretty decent one. I think they still lack real solid top-end ability (barring another big leap from Will Butcher) and there are enough question marks to be at least a little concerned that things could spiral if bad breaks or injuries start piling up, but this is a group that is definitely better on paper than they were one year ago and can maybe eke into the top half of defenses if things go exactly right.

So what should the lineup look like? Lets set up a hypothetical opening night squad on defense:

Will Butcher - Sami Vatanen

Andy Greene - Damon Severson

Mirco Mueller - Ben Lovejoy

Steven Santini

Eric Gryba

As I’ve said, I think there’s a chance that Hynes might gravitate back to his top-two guys, Greene and Vatanen, spending most of their time together. The idea of splitting those two up, though, and spreading the tougher assignments around a bit makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure any one player on this defense is equipped for the kind of superhero minutes Hynes likes to give out, so I think some splitting of responsibilities is best for everyone. Going top-four by committee rather than firm first and second pairings can ease the burden on an aging Andy Greene while simultaneously shielding Will Butcher from being thrown into the deep end with a lead vest on like Hynes did to Santini last season.

If the Devils can maintain that balance and avoid piling the minutes on any one player, I think they can mitigate the fact that they don’t have something I would call a true top pairing. Behind that top four, I also think they have three guys in Mueller, Lovejoy, and Santini who can handle those third-pairing minutes, too. And if the team can stay healthy, I think this is a defensive group that can be middle-of-the pack in the NHL and even build slightly on a surprisingly competent 2017-18 on the back end. If they can be solidly in that middle-10 of NHL defenses, that should at least keep them in the conversation for the playoffs again in the spring.