Last summer, Ray Shero traded away a second and fourth rounder to acquire then-22 year old Mirco Mueller and a fifth rounder back from San Jose. Originally the 18th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Mueller underperformed relative to that draft position with the Sharks. In 3 seasons with the team that drafted him, he only had 54 NHL games and six total points. And he played fewer and fewer games each year, culminating in only four NHL games in 2016-17. This tells us that the San Jose coaching staff felt that he was regressing as he was getting older, not the other way around as it should have been. I mean just think, if Ty Smith, drafted essentially at the same point in the draft as Mueller was, regresses each year in his early 20s, that will be a bad sign for the New Jersey Devils.
Therefore, it is safe to say that when Shero traded for him before the 2017-18 season, he was taking on a project, someone that clearly had lots of potential given his draft position, but someone who was struggling to adapt to the game at the highest level. And last year, there was no sign of definitive improvement in his new surroundings either. He only played 28 games for the big club, producing four points and a negative relative Corsi. Of course he probably would have played more, but he was downed with a fractured clavicle around this time last season and missed two and a half months. However, when healthy, he was not an everyday player, only dressing in 15 games between January 30th and the end of the regular season.
This season, however, the narrative has changed significantly. Instead of acting as a 7th defenseman, playing in a few games a month when needed, he has been a staple on the top pairing. He and Sami Vatanen have been on the ice for over 30% of New Jersey ice time this season, more so than any other pairing or line on this team. This time has also not come easily, as Mueller sports an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 38.42% (at least before last night’s game, but that should not have changed it considerably). That means that John Hynes only calls his pairing onto the ice for an offensive draw quite rarely. Instead, Vatanen and he are most often asked to handle tougher minutes trying to defend the defensive zone and get the puck up ice.
And given that knowledge, his numbers are really pretty good. He sports the second best relative Corsi among all the defensemen on the team, with a positive 1.01 relative Corsi (again, before last night’s game). Only Andy Greene has a better relative Corsi, and Greene has a better OZFO% at 47.83%, over 9% higher. And for those of you who think Mueller might be being carried by Vatanen, think again. According to their WOWY numbers, when together, their CF% sits at 48.13%. When separated, however, Mueller has a CF% of 52.78%, while Vatanen’s is only at 50%. This is further proven by Vatanen’s weaker 0.39 relative Corsi.
Of course, Mueller is still not a point producer. However, even that part of his game has improved, as he sits at 5 points over his first 13 games, for a 0.384 point percentage. That is far and away his best point percentage of his career, and it is not even close. In fact, 5 points in a season represents a career high for Mirco, and he accomplished that in only 13 games this year.
Mirco’s graduation from fringe NHL-worthy player to top 4 pairing staple could not have come at a better time for the Devils as well. With Hynes and Co. still not comfortable giving Steve Santini regular NHL minutes, and also wanting to keep Will Butcher sheltered with a high OZFO% (sitting at over 58% heading into last night), someone needed to step up into a top 4 role and handle tough minutes in the defensive zone. Without Mueller, Hynes would have had to rely on Ben Lovejoy, and we all know how that would have gone. That Mueller has not only accepted the role, but relatively speaking, has thrived in it, that is frankly huge.
To give one final indicator that Mueller has been playing well, check out Sean Tierney’s player shot rate chart. Mirco is sitting just barely in the “fun” category, with a CF/60 at 54.29 and a CA/60 at 50.72. And once again, think of those numbers in relation to his 38% offensive zone faceoff percentage. To have a CF/60 definitively higher than his CA/60 despite starting most of his shifts outside of the offensive zone, that is big time. Vatanen and he are performing quite well together, to the overall benefit of this team.
After last season, you would have found very few people who would have felt that the trade for Mueller was worth the 2nd round pick that Shero gave up to get him. At this point, however, that trade is looking more and more like a steal. 13 games is of course not a huge sample size, and his play could easily fall off once again, but the further we get into this season, the less likely that will be so. It is a fact that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, and to see a d-man hitting his stride at age 23 is not outside the norm. The large growth we have seen from last season to this one is definitely unusual I would say, but seeing real growth at age 23 from a defenseman is normal. Thankfully for the Devils, that growth happened at age 23 for Mirco and not 24. He is very much needed this year.
What do you think about Mirco Mueller’s progression this season? Did you expect him to be able to become a top 4 stalwart right away this season after what you saw from him last year? What do you think about him game overall, and where it is going in the coming years? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.