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Sami Vatanen, Steve Santini, & an Improved New Jersey Devils Defense

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This post shows that the New Jersey Devils have made improvements on defense over the course of this season. It highlights the stats and explores how the Sami Vatanen trade and the removal of Steve Santini made an impact on the Devils defense during this season.

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils
The Devils defense has made real improvements as this season has went on. And Sami Vatanen (pictured) is a reason why.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Believe it or not, the New Jersey Devils have been a far better defensive team in 5-on-5 play than you may realize.

If you’ve read my month in review in January, I highlighted how well the team’s rate stats looked in what was a bad month for results but a good month in the run of play:

The for and against rates that lead to these percentages are worth looking at if you want to feel good about the team’s 5-on-5 play. As in, the Devils’ shot attempts against rate per 60 minutes was the second lowest in the whole NHL in January. The Devils’ shots against rate per 60 was the second lowest in the whole NHL in January. The Devils’ scoring chances against rate per 60 was the eighth lowest in the whole NHL in January. That’s all just impressive.

If you follow Micah Blake McCurdy on Twitter, @IneffectiveMath, then you may have noticed this graph of each team’s unblocked shot rates in 25 game sets.

Notice that the Devils, NJ, moved up from the left side of the red line (their tail is where Washington is) for league average to above and to the right of it (the “N.J” is their current state). That’s an improvement. The Devils went from being one of the poorer defenses to being one of the better ones with respect to shots against. That’s something to feel good about. It’s also something to dig into. What caused this improvement?

What comes to my mind are the changes on defense. There have been two significant events that have impacted the Devils’ top two defensive pairings this season. On November 30, 2017, the Devils traded for Sami Vatanen. On January 7, 2018, Steve Santini played his final game with Andy Greene and the New Jersey Devils. He was scratched after that game and after a few weeks as a healthy scratch, he was demoted to Binghamton. I think those events have played a role in the Devils’ improvement on defense in this season. In this post, I will show whether that is true or not - and by how much.

Legend & Notes

For those unaware of the abbreviations, a quick legend:

CF% = Corsi For%, the percentage of shot attempts by the Devils

GP = Games Played, how many appearances the player made.

CA/60 = Corsi Against per 60 minutes, a rate of all shooting attempts against the team. The player version of this means that the team faced a rate of that many attempts against the team when the player was on the ice.

SA/60 = Shots Against per 60 minutes, a rate of shots against the team. The player version of this means that the team faced a rate of that many shots against the team when the player was on the ice.

SCA/60 = Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes, a rate of scoring chances against the team. Scoring chances are the “home plate” area that includes the crease, goes out to the two faceoff dots up, and up to the top of the faceoff circles. Any unblocked shot attempt in that area is a scoring chance. This stat definitely assumes that the location data kept by the NHL is accurate.

HDCA/60 = High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes, a rate of the high-danger scoring chances against the team. The high-danger version of scoring chances are for unblocked shooting attempts in the slot and at the crease. These are the two most common areas where goals are scored; hence, they are the most dangerous. This stat definitely assumes that the location data kept by the NHL is accurate.

OZS% = Offensive Zone Start percentage, a percentage of offensive zone starts over a total of offensive and defensive zone starts. A lower percentage means the player is starting their shift on faceoffs outside of the offensive zone.

All stats are for the most common situation in hockey: 5-on-5 play. Rate stats are used to account for different ice times and games played. Special teams will not be considered as being up or down a man heavily tilts the ice. This post works on the assumption that a good defense prevents attempts, shots, and chances. Giving up goals involves the goaltender; this post does not look at that. All numbers come from the invaluable Natural Stat Trick.

Lastly: I am aware of the poor timing of this post. The New Jersey Devils were bodied by Columbus on February 9 from a defensive (and just about every other) standpoint. How can I or anyone else put the word “improved” anywhere the phrase “New Jersey Devils defense?” However, if we have learned anything from CJ’s post from Wednesday, it is to not take one game or one streak and think it applies for a whole season. Besides, the numbers I’m about to show from Natural Stat Trick shows that, yes, the Devils have improved on defense.

Devils Improvement Throughout 2017-18

To account for different score situations and different venues, here are the New Jersey Devils team stats for defense per Natural Stat Trick. All ranks are out of 31. Higher is only better for CF%, higher is worse for the other stats presented. Given when Vantanen was acquired and when Santini played his last game, I’ve taken the team’s stats at the first date after those events. For comparison purposes, I also highlighted their stats as of November 1, 2017 to show where the team started after their first month:

Devils Team Defense Stats through 2-10-2018
Devils Team Defense Stats through 2-10-2018
Data from Natural Stat Trick

The Devils were absolutely leaky after the first month of the season. Even with adjustments, the Devils tended to be in their own end of the rink in 5-on-5 play and give up quite a lot of shots and chances. As you can see from the ranks, they were near the bottom of the league in four out of the five categories. The only thing good were the high-danger chances against. Given that they were near last in chances allowed, that’s only limited solace. This also continued up until they went and traded for Sami Vatanen. There were some improvements before then, but they could accurately be called one of the worse defenses in the league.

The improvements continued up until January 8, 2018 - the first day after Santini’s last game with New Jersey. It just so happened to be the halfway mark of the season. The Devils were heading in the right direction in all five categories. They were still heavily in the bottom third of the league except for high-danger chances against. However, since Santini was moved off of New Jersey blueline, the Devils have since moved closer to average. This is true both without and with score and venue adjustments. Their CF% is just a percentage below break-even. Their CA/60 has continued to drop and is right by the league median. SA/60 is just ahead of the median; yes, even after giving up 37 5v5 shots to Columbus on February 9. SCA/60 remains in the bottom third of the league relative to other teams, but even that has went in the right direction. The only downside is that the team’s high danger chances against went up; but it’s still a top-ten rate and is not something to really be alarmed about.

The main point is that the Devils started off as one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL in this season with respect to allowing shooting attempts, shots on net, and scoring chances. The run of play was heavily against them. But they have improved in each of those as the season went on. Given that these improvements occurred with the acquisition of Vatanen and the scratching and demotion of Santini, it appears on the surface that the Devils made the right moves in both.

However, these stats were season stats through to those dates. That is, they included the entire season up until that particular date. To really see how the team performed before getting Vatanen, after getting Vatanen and before removing Santini, and after removing Santini, we will need to see the team stats in between those days. Fortunately, Natural Stat Trick makes this easy with their date filters.

Devils Team Defense Stats by Date Range until 2-10-2018
Devils Team Defense Stats by Date Range until 2-10-2018
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Despite the differences in population sizes (games played), this clearly shows some real improvement. From the beginning of October (no, it doesn’t include preseason) until the Vatanen trade, the Devils gave up a lot of shooting attempts, shots on net, scoring chances, and were heavily out-attempted. Only the high-danger chances against were good. Just as we saw before. But with these date ranges, we can see how much better the Devils performed in every category after getting Vatanen.

And I mean every one. The CF% improved to nearly breakeven during that range. The attempts and shot against rates were outside of the top-ten in the NHL. The chances against still ranked low, but they were improving significantly. (Note: These are rate stats, an improvement of even in one for a per-60 rate means that the Devils really cut down on it.) Even the high-danger chance rate was lowered; the rank went up only because other teams were even better in that date range. Looks like Vatanen really helped shore things up.

The improvement took a big leap forward after Santini was benched. Look at that CF%! It’s above 50%! Look at that SA/60! It’s below 30! Further drops in CA/60 and SCA/60! Even after the blowout loss in Columbus, the Devils improved by at least one stat per-sixty minutes. The only downside is that the high-danger chance against rate did rise. Now the Devils are two spots below the league median in that regard. Given that stat is subjective to where the scorer actually records where attempts are made and in light of the other stats heading in the right direction, it’s not that big of a deal. Doing relatively well in preventing chances at all is better in general than doing relatively well in only preventing very specific ones. If only the goaltending was anywhere near average over the whole last thirteen games; it would show up on the scoreboard too. And before you point out how the Devils slumped through January; do note that these improvements are also seen with score and venue adjustments. It was a real improvement after getting Vatanen and that improvement took another big step forward after removing Santini.

So those must be the reasons, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Let’s look at the players before we start patting the backs of the coaching staff or Ray Shero.

Top Four (or so) Devils Defensemen by Date Range

First, one factor for the improvement on defense is improvement in generating offense. There is only one puck. If the Devils are attacking and are able to get forward to fire more attempts, get more shots on goal, and create more scoring chances, then that inherently helps the defense since, well, the Devils would not be defending when they were attacking.

Still, we must look at the team’s top four defensemen. No disrespect to Will Butcher, Ben Lovejoy, or Mirco Mueller, but the four have played more minutes and more difficult minutes than them throughout the season. Besides, Lovejoy, Butcher, and (to a lesser extent) Mueller have not been the issue. Let’s look at how the top four did from October to November 30, 2017.

Devils Top 4 Defensemen from 10/1/2017 to 11/30/2017
Devils Top 4 Defensemen from 10/1/2017 to 11/30/2017
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Your pairings tended to be Andy Greene with Steve Santini and John Moore with Damon Severson. Severson looks relatively good. A CF% above 50%, a SA/60 that isn’t super-high, and the best HDCA/60 of the bunch. The other three, no. It is not good. Santini was buried with defensive zone starts, followed by Greene, who was also buried. Unsurprisingly, they gave up a ton to their opponents. Even though, Santini was notably worse at it than Greene. It was enough for CJ to write this about Santini and these numbers justify it. Moore was porous as ever; although at least the Devils beat their overall CF% when he was on the ice. That’s small solace for a defenseman who has been all about allowing a lot on the ice since he’s been a Devil.

So on November 30, the Devils acquired Vatanen. It took some time for John Hynes, Alain Nasreddine, and the staff to figure out how to use him. But he was thrown right into the top four in some manner. Damon Severson was pushed to the outside; he’s included since he would return.

Devils Top 4 (plus Severson) Defensemen from 12/1/2017 to 1/7/2018
Devils Top 4 (plus Severson) Defensemen from 12/1/2017 to 1/7/2018
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Your most common pairings were still Greene with Santini and John Moore with Vatanen. Severson ended up with Butcher more than anyone else. The Butcher-Severson pairing did not go well for Severson. His stats went in the wrong direction in all categories even with more offensive zone starts. Based on the amazing Natural Stat Trick Line Stats Tool, the two just didn’t mesh well at all in this time period. But enough about that. The top four looked good. Surprisingly good. John Moore played great in these 17 games. I had to reload the page just to make sure I was reading it right. With and without Vatanen, Moore was not a bad defender by these numbers. And Vatanen was no slouch himself. Sure, he had a bad night or two, but putting up these rate stats is indicative of someone doing a good job. At the least it was better than what the Devils had from October to November 30.

The amazing there is that Santini was also excellent in this time period. Greene was notably worse. Greene had the team’s highest SA/60 among defensemen in these 17 games. Santini had the second best SA/60 behind Lovejoy’s six games in this period. The run of play was still negative for both, but Santini saw a big improvement. Santini has even saw the offensive zone on zone starts a little more than just totally rare. If anyone has suffered on that Santini-Greene pairing, it’s been Greene.

I’m coming away from this confused as to why Santini was benched at all. It’s not like the goaltending was bad behind him and so that could cause some to think he’s why the Devils were bleeding goals. Santini’s goals against per sixty minutes in this time period was 1.9; the only one below two on the team. His on-ice save percentage was above 92%. From observations, Santini has had trouble on the puck. But it wasn’t like it was turning into attempts, shots, or chances against. I can understand that as the team had four right-side defensemen and so someone had to sit. But in looking at the numbers, I don’t see the evidence that Santini was so bad in his own end. I don’t see that when Santini was out there, the team struggled in these 17 games.

In retrospect, the time to remove Santini for struggling and being overwhelmed was before Vatanen was acquired. But Hynes didn’t do that or give Santini an easier situation. He went right to the scratch list and, eventually, upstate New York. So how did the top four look after then?

Devils Top 4 Defensemen from 1/8/2018 to 2/10/2018
Devils Top 4 Defensemen from 1/8/2018 to 2/10/2018
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Your most common pairings are now Greene with Vatanen and Moore with Severson. Severson and Moore have not exactly been great. Severson is back to being above 50% CF%. However, all of the other stats have went in the wrong direction. Being with Moore has saw increases SA/60, SCA/60, and especially HDCA/60. The same has applied for John Moore. Can a player get hot on defense for 17 games or so? If so, Moore has since cooled off and reverted back to his form of being on the ice when a lot is allowed. The pairing was better in the season’s first 24 games but even then it was not all that good (or even average). Maybe it just needs time or some kind of tweak (e.g. who has been in front of them); but I’m not sold on this working.

I am sold on Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen being a pairing. Again, guys will have a bad night or two or make a mistake here and there. In the bigger picture, this pairing has been fantastic. Seeing Vatanen and Greene with SA/60 rates well below 30 is great. Seeing the two with sub-50% OZS to go with positive CF%s is great. Vatanen has flirted with being below 50 CA/60, which is astounding given where this team was earlier in this season. But the big gain is for the captain. The numbers look a lot better for Greene compared to the previous date range. Maybe he’s hot too, but Greene-Vatanen has absolutely worked over the last 13 games.

Greene-Vatanen would not have happened if the coaches kept Santini up and with Greene. Given the past three tables, I question why the coaches didn’t consider Moore-Santini or even Butcher-Santini instead of just dropping him. Since this post is digging deep into Santini and Vatanen, let’s take a closer look at their common pairings to see if we can find something. Maybe we can unearth a set of pairings the Devils should use going forward. Or maybe a reason to justify Santini’s demotion. Thankfully, Natural Stat Trick has a line stats tool that can use a date range. So we can see how Greene-Santini did before and after Vatanen’s arrival.

A Closer Look at the Common Pairings for Santini and Vatanen by Date Range

Santini was mostly with Greene before the Vatanen trade. This is how it went for both Santini and Greene in 5-on-5 play.

Santini with and without Greene before the Vatanen trade
Santini with and without Greene before the Vatanen trade
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Before the Vatanen trade, it was fair to say that this pairing was not doing so well. They were buried in defensive zone starts, they played a lot of minutes, and they gave up quite a bit. The minutes Santini had away from Greene were even worse. A SA/60 over 33 isn’t good; one that is in the mid-40s is abysmal. Greene benefited from his time away from Santini. In retrospect, the time to make a change to this pairing was during this time frame. Again, that did not happen.

Santini with and without Greene after the Vatanen trade
Santini with and without Greene after the Vatanen trade
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Weirdly, after Vatanen was acquired, Greene-Santini became more competent. They were still deep in the red with respect to CF%, but they kept their SA/60 below 30 and their HDCA and SCA/60 rates dropped big time. Santini did not play a lot away from Greene, but when he did, he was really good. Greene, on the other hand, suffered. Definitely not what I would have expected after putting the data together from the first two months of this season. Again, I look at this, and I don’t get why Santini had to be removed entirely from the defense after January 7.

Greene and Vatanen had a few games together in this timeframe. So while Vatanen’s most common pairing was with Moore, I included Vatanen’s with and without stats for both.

Vatanen with and without Moore and Greene before Santini demotion
Vatanen with and without Moore and Greene before Santini demotion
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Vatanen and Moore was a great pairing together in this 17-game time frame. Moore did pretty well without Vatanen. While he dipped below 50% CF%, he maintained a sub-30 SA/60 and sub-30 SCA/60. This leads me to think that he was hot at this moment. Vatanen did not do so well without Moore. But together, they were shutting things down and helping the play go in the right direction, even with a very favorable zone start ratio.

Greene and Vatanen had almost 60 minutes together and it did not go well at all. Their SA/60 was bloated to be just above 35. Their CA/60 was also quite high. Yes, they prevented chances and high-danger chances. That just tells me that the opposition was bombing away outside of those areas. That may be preferable to letting them get loads of chances, but the ideal is to have them not bomb away at all. After all, that CF% of 44.25% means they were playing a lot of defense together. Vatanen was better away with Greene, mostly with Moore. Greene was not all that good away from Vatanen; only his SA/60 without Vatanen didn’t exceed his SA/60 with him. Point is, there’s not a lot of evidence here to suggest that these two would be an effective pairing.

Vatanen with and without Greene and Moore after Santini demotion
Vatanen with and without Greene and Moore after Santini demotion
Data from Natural Stat Trick

Yet, that’s exactly what they were from January 8 until February 10. That’s a great set of stats from Vatanen and Greene. Yes, this includes that awful Columbus game. A top pairing putting up a SA/60 just below 24 hearkens back to the stingier days of this organization. The pairing helps drive the play forward and they’re not giving up lots of chances. Apart, the two haven’t been too bad. Greene has been leakier in terms of CA/60 and SA/60 while Vatanen sports more chances allowed. Still, both have CF%’s higher apart than together so the run of play hasn’t been bad. Yet, I’d keep them together. It’s a far sight better than Moore-Vatanen. They only got a little bit more than 34 minutes together and you can see why. The pairing has bled chances and Vatanen has been far better away from him. Moore, on the other hand, has been back to being his Moore-self.

Conclusions

The numbers at Natural Stat Trick are consistent with the idea that the Devils defense has improved. If the goaltending was better (and, in the bigger picture, it really needs to be), then we’d see fewer goals to go with that. But in terms of attempts, shots, chances, and the proportion of attempts for and against the Devils, the Devils’ have made positive strides in 5-on-5 play since the first month of this season. Short of getting bodied in several games in a row like Columbus did on February 9, the Devils should be able to sustain their gains from where they were at the start of November.

Based on the deeper dive into the players, the Vatanen acquisition definitely helped. The team’s stats made big improvements after he came in. His run with John Moore until the bye week was great. Despite some bad numbers in limited action with Greene, the coaches put Greene-Vatanen together since January 13. The two have been very good together; much better than the original Greene-Santini pairing that dominated the first half of this season. The stats show that Vatanen has contributed.

The stats also show that demoting Santini didn’t make a lot of sense at the time. Santini was playing rather well from these statistical standpoints. He wasn’t present for a lot of goals against either, so it’s not like he looked bad because of bad goaltending. While Greene wasn’t so good in that December 1 to January 7 time frame, the number suggest that the coaches could have done something else. They could have swapped Severson with Santini since Severson wasn’t doing so hot with Butcher and Severson and Greene functioned well last season. This would have also given Santini some more favorable and less overwhelming situations. To that end, I’m hesistant to agree that removing and demoting Santini has really led to the further improvement in the team’s defensive stats.

What can the Devils do now? Given that Moore has reverted back to his allow-a-lot-of-shots form and Severson hasn’t been able to quell that, a change to that pairing seems like a good idea as any. While Greene and Vatanen have done well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try Greene-Severson again and re-unite Moore with Vatanen. This may help out Moore given success together earlier in this season. Severson has experience with Greene, so there is some familiarity. They can help each other along. I’d keep the third pairing together because, again, they haven’t been an issue at all.

As a final point, I will state that I’m not a big fan of what they’ve done with Santini. Again, he wasn’t playing particularly poorly in December or in the early parts of January. Yes, you can pick out a bad shift or a bad period. But in the bigger picture, the guy turned it around from a poor two months with Greene. With Moore-Vatanen behind in them on the depth chart, Greene-Santini was good for a month. I don’t think that’s just a run of luck. I can understand that Santini is waiver ineligible and so there was a chance he could be moved down to make room, but the team didn’t need to bench him until Mirco Mueller was ready to comeback. It doesn’t need to be so binary for the young right-sided defenseman. There is a middle ground between tough, first-pairing minutes and no minutes at all. I’m disappointed that Hynes and his staff couldn’t find it for Santini. He should have been given a real chance to play in other situations and see how he did before benching and demoting him. With the active roster as it is, it’ll be tough to get Santini back in for the moment. At least he’s playing somewhere, but he wasn’t playing poorly at all before his removal and demotion. Again, while the team stats improved after what they did with Santini, I’m not so convinced that he was holding them back based on how he performed in the five weeks or so before he was removed.

Your Take

While the team may not be getting the results we want, the Devils have improved on defense in 5-on-5 situations as this season has went on. I think the Vatanen trade helped and I’m not so confident that the Santini removal and demotion really helped it further, even though it looks that way. Maybe I’m missing something big with respect to Santini; if you know, then please say so in the comments.

Still, the gains are what they are. What do you make of them? What would you do with the defense as it is to keep the numbers going in the right direction? Would you make a change with this defense, such as a trade? If so, for who and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils defense, Vatanen, and Santini, in the comments. Thank you for reading.