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Game 1 Lesson: John Hynes Needs to Play Damon Severson in the Playoffs

As the New Jersey Devils lost Game 1, defenseman Damon Severson was watching his fellow defenders make crucial errors that contributed to the loss. This special post-game “lesson” post explains that coach John Hynes needs to play his best players in the playoffs - and that means playing Damon Severson.

Montreal Canadiens v New Jersey Devils
I wonder if the Devils had a defenseman who could have helped in Game 1...a defenseman who can handle a puck and shoot it well and so forth...who could it be now...
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In their first postseason game since June 2012, the New Jersey Devils lost Game 1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-5. Much was learned about this game. But the main lesson for the Devils to learn from that loss is this: Head coach John Hynes needs to play the best Devils players in the playoffs. Namely, Damon Severson. The biggest absence from Game 1 was defenseman Damon Severson. He was a healthy scratch as Mirco Mueller faltered alongside John Moore in Tampa Bay. This post intends to show why that decision was dubious while pointing out that Severson needs to be involved in Game 2.

On Wednesday, CJ had a post highlighting some specifics about the series as to what to look for. He had this as a “bonus point.”

Hynes lineup decisions - This is distinct from the matchups element above, which I view as more Hynes vs Cooper. This is just on Hynes decisions on who to even put in the lineup in the first place. In particular, if the Devils lose and Damon Severson doesn’t play a minute, you’ll likely get piece from me exclusively about that decision.

As I wrote in the comments, I would beat him to it. And I am now.

Ahead of Game 1, the line rushes in Wednesday’s practice and Thursday’s warmup showed that the Devils were going to be using the same lineup that beat Toronto. This meant that defenseman Damon Severson would sit as Mirco Mueller suited up next to John Moore.

This led to a good article by Corey Masiask at The Athletic as to why that would be the case. If you have a subscription to The Athletic, go check it out. The gist of it is this: While Severson has good numbers, he has not played well as of late. Combined with Masiask’s recent articles touting the Devils’ use of analytics to help the team’s decision making, surely there would be some justification for this. Something in the underlying numbers to make one think whether Hynes is doing more than just sticking with what won the last game.

A quick look at the last eight games of the season seems to show that Mueller has been the better defenseman in 5-on-5 play. As Severson doesn’t kill penalties and Mueller isn’t on the power play, 5-on-5 is basically the only playing field to compare them on. Per Natural Stat Trick, Mueller is a bit better than Severson in CF% and he has far lower SA/60, SCA/60, and HDCA/60 rates in the Devils’ last eight games. Looks like Mueller has been the better defender by far. Severson has been leakier and those leaks have led to more goals against. Checkmate, Hynes was right, case closed, right?

It’s not that simple. Let’s go into this a little deeper.

Mueller drew into the lineup on March 24 against Tampa Bay after not playing for about a month. He replaced Ben Lovejoy in the lineup, who committed a terrible turnover in a 4-3 OT win in Pittsburgh. Damon Severson was still in games until getting scratched after the 2-1 March 31 win against the Isles. Here’s how the defensive pairings looked for those games from March 24 onward (links in the dates go to the Natural Stat Trick game stats):

  • March 24: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Severson, Butcher-Mueller
  • March 27: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Severson, Butcher-Mueller
  • March 29: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Severson, Butcher-Mueller
  • March 31: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Severson, Butcher-Mueller
  • April 1: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Mueller, Butcher-Lovejoy
  • April 3: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Mueller, Butcher-Lovejoy
  • April 5: Greene-Vatanen, Moore-Mueller, Butcher-Lovejoy
  • April 7: Greene-Mueller, Moore-Severson, Butcher-Lovejoy

In the first three games, Moore-Severson had better on-ice numbers than Butcher-Mueller. Even if more attempts were allowed, the Devils were taking more of it themselves. Which has been the M.O. of that pairing for most of this season. It’s high-event; much will be allowed, but much will be generated. If the Devils generate more shots, attempts, and chances, then it’s not a negative. In contrast, Butcher-Mueller were lower on the list with respect to differential. So even if they didn’t allow as much, the Devils created even less with them - which is not at all ideal given that Butcher is this offensively skilled defenseman and the it’s a benefit in hockey is to out-do your opponents in this regard.

This run ended on March 31. The Butcher-Mueller pairing was quite good and Mueller helped create a goal. Moore-Severson were shot up and were present for two goals against. Severson went right to the press box after this.

Moore-Mueller legitimately had a great night on April 1. Lovejoy was steamrolled but got to keep playing for reasons. Lovejoy did rebound and Moore-Mueller had another strong night in the run of play on April 3. Against Toronto on April 5, Moore-Mueller did really well again whereas Lovejoy was caved in similar to what happened on April 1. Severson would draw back into the lineup as Vatanen was rested on April 7 in D.C. Mueller got the chance to play on the top pairing with Greene and that pairing was creamed in the run of play. The Devils didn’t even get ten attempts on net when they were on the ice, while they conceded at least twenty. It was bad. Moore-Severson was not so hot either and Severson did have that one giveaway; but if being on the ice for goals against is supposed to matter, we can’t ignore Greene-Mueller going 0-3 either. While the three games beforehand would justify a Moore-Mueller pairing, it was not like Moore-Severson was awful before March 31. If anything, the March 31 game was a bad night. April 7 was a bad night in general for the top four.

As I see it, one bad night for Severson compounded by a not-so-good night in a game where other players were rested was enough to bench him for a defenseman who had three good games with Moore, arguably one out of four games with Butcher, and one bad night with Greene on the same night Severson failed to earn redemption. And let’s not forget that the first four games listed in this eight-game block were arguably tougher than the last four. In a game-by-game basis, it’s not a slam dunk that Mueller was doing that much better than Severson.

Further, even if the three games together really do mean that Moore-Mueller is a better way to go, it doesn’t mean that Severson should sit for it.

When I did my massive series preview, I made a point of it to not look at recent play only. Yes, a player’s form going into a series can matter. But if the point is to identify which players have been doing well and should be expected to do well, then it is better to have as large of a sample size of games as possible. A player can look great for a few weeks, but if we’re looking to see who’s really good, then the ones doing it over 82 games will really stand out then. Severson has been better than Mueller throughout the season and his on-ice numbers are better than most of the other defensemen on the team (e.g. The Captain, Andy Greene). While their utilization is different, Severson yielding better percentages shows that the team can perform with him on the ice and to a degree better than others. Considering he’s been doing it with John Moore, who has consistently been an attempt and shot sieve in his career, that’s saying something. That Severson has done this over 70 games means it is more likely he can perform well than hoping Mueller out-performs what he has done so far. This is the playoffs - this is not a time to hope if it can be avoided.

And let’s also not ignore the offensive production. Severson is tied with Butcher for the most 5-on-5 points among defensemen on the team, he’s third on the team in total scoring among defensemen, and he leads all defensemen with nine goals. If it wasn’t for Butcher being a revelation and Vatanen being acquired, Severson would still get significant power play time - which could have boosted his totals more. Even so, Severson has provided more offense with offensive skills that Mueller, Lovejoy, and even Greene do not have. Not even Moore. Given that the Devils could use all of the additional offensive support they can get against a very productive and offensively talented Tampa Bay team, Severson can help.

I’m not saying Severson would have turned Game 1 into a win, but he could have helped given how the game went against Tampa Bay. With the amount of space the Moore pairing had at the points, having a far better shooter than Mueller would have helped a lot. As Moore and Mueller often played with Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri, Severson could certainly helped them generate more with passes from the point to keep plays going. Having Severson able to make some exit passes or assist on a breakout could not have been worse than some of the exit attempts from the Devils in general too.

Of course, I’m writing this special post about Game 1 because the scratching of Severson really hurt because Mueller had a bad game himself.

If Severson’s turnovers were an issue, than Mueller showed he’s got the same issues too. He coughed up the puck behind the net that led to the second goal against. He knocked a puck through Palat’s skates that set up Gourde’s PPG early in the second. If coverage is an issue, then Mueller showcased that. The biggest example would be dropping to a knee and going to the middle that helped create a massive screen on the back-breaking fourth goal against. In terms of the game, the Devils were out-attempted 16-20, out-shot 9-12, and out-chanced 4-8 in 5-on-5 play when Mueller was on the ice. It was only worse for his partner Moore - who he couldn’t help out much - and Greene. What did Mueller provide on offense? Nothing of real consequence; he took four attempts all game and only one was actually on target. At least Mueller didn’t take a penalty, but Severson has been on good behavior with only three minor penalties since the trade deadline (February 27 to April 7, or 17 games by my count).

Is he prone to errors? Really, no more prone than any other defenseman - which would be all of them. It’s unfortunate that Severson’s last eight games yielded a GA/60 of 4.08 in 5-on-5 play, but that doesn’t mean that Moore’s not making errors because his GA/60 was smaller. A goalie playing well - like Keith Kinkaid - can and does bail out errors. Issues with positioning? Yeah, Severson has some poor shifts. His usual partner is even spottier and, after Game 1, it’s arguable he can’t be much worse than Greene at it. Can Severson take bad penalties? Sure - like any other skater. But, again, he’s been on good behavior for over a month. Is he physical? No, but defense isn’t about being physical. If it was, Ben Lovejoy would be far more valuable than what he actually is (a third pairing defender).

I’m not saying that Severson is absolutely wonderful or that he’s the cure for what ails the Devils. But he’s absolutely one of the top six defensemen on this team. Even if Mueller has had better numbers over the last eight games, a game-by-game look at those eight provides more nuance to the decision. Over this whole season, it is not a question whether Severson is one of the best six defensemen on the team. He is. He has proven that in this season. He can hang with Moore, he can provide offense, he’s another power play option for the second unit, and his issues aren’t that much different than others on the team. Maybe the Devils have different numbers and analyses from what is publicly available. I’d love to know what I’m missing, especially after what happened in Game 1.

This is the playoffs. Every game matters, every opponent is a quality one (especially Tampa Bay, who finished first in the East) and it is not the time to send a message or play favorites or just focus on what worked in the last game. John Hynes needs to identify who can provide the most in their role and put them in positions to succeed. Severson can help in both ends of the rink (he’d have to try to have the turnovers Mueller had) and quite possibly more than half of the Devils’ blueline. He can’t do it from the press box.

Hynes needs to learn from the Game 1 loss that he needs to play his best players to give his team the best chance to win future games. Severson needs to be involved in Game 2. So whether that means Mueller sits (likely after his Game 1) or Lovejoy sits (not so likely, but the Devils need a slow, defense-only player in this series like a wet bag of groceries), Severson needs to play. So unless the word comes out that Severson is hurt, if Severson doesn’t step on the ice on Saturday, then I honestly question what Hynes is doing and what information he’s looking at.

(Related to that, Hynes should consider swapping in Bratt for Gibbons. Not that Bratt’s been great, but Gibbons was just a dude on the ice in Game 1. He had few, if any, positive contributions. At least Bratt can provide some pace and speed in a fourth-line role. I could see Wood sitting too, but I don’t know. I wouldn’t want both because it could mean Drew Stafford could be in and I don’t think that would really help.)

I don’t know if I’ll do these special “lesson” posts after every game. But for this one, I feel it is warranted. What say you? Was it a mistake for Severson to sit in Game 1? Should Severson play in Game 2? Who sits for Severson? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Severson, Mueller, and Hynes’ roster decisions in the comments.