The offseason continues to quietly creep along, with Ray Shero continuing to hoard his cap space for a time to strike and improve our New Jersey Devils. The team resisted making an expensive commitment in free agency, and now they look towards other options for improving the team. One of those methods is through improving the defense, and today we look at some stories surrounding the blue line that if solved correctly, could help the Devils progress again next season.
1.) Sami Vatanen must get away from Andy Greene
Sami Vatanen was a revelation in New Jersey after being brought over from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for fan favorite forward Adam Henrique; while the trade was originally frowned upon for giving up a beloved player, it wound up being the extremely rare trade where both teams could say that they improved as a result of it.
Vatanen became the anchor that the Devils needed, providing 28 points in his 57 games with New Jersey while also being relied upon to play heavy, important minutes that were previously assigned to a variety of suspects. By season’s end, he was averaging over a minute and a half more ice time per game than any other defender on the team. He was however, seemingly weighed down by carrying around the aging Andy Greene.
It will be interesting to see if the Devils can find a partner who compliments Vatanen while also being sure that said player can handle being in a top pairing role. I would suggest giving Will Butcher more minutes, but he plays a very similar style to Sami, and the offense as a whole could also stagnate without having them on separate pairs.
John’s post from Monday goes into great detail about Andy Greene and based on both stats and the eye test, one thing is for certain: Greene can’t remain next to Vatanen next season.
2.) Does Ben Lovejoy get relegated to being the 7th defender this season?
Okay, in seriousness, Lovejoy has been fine in a reduced role, but he’s slowing down just as much as Greene, and The Reverend was never as skilled as Greene to begin with. The Devils are trying to grow their team by injecting more youth, speed and skill into the lineup; Lovejoy sadly checks none of those boxes anymore, and at this point he’s simply taking away a spot in the lineup from someone with a higher potential ceiling.
While there’s not very much potential hanging around in Bingahamton, I personally believe Steven Santini is better than Lovejoy (more on that later) and there are others, such as recently signed Egor Yakovlev that deserve a fair shake. Lovejoy is in the final year of his contract, and is a good veteran presence for the locker room, but the best spot for him to aid in improving the team during games is up in the press box.
3.) The Tale of Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller
Last season we saw a couple of young defenders in Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller rotate in and out of the lineup, with the results being a bit of a mixed bag. Both were bottom 3 on the team in Corsi and Fenwick (along with Greene) and while they showed some promise, there were definite struggles as well.
The eye test for Santini was a lot more kind than it was to Mueller; before Santini was banished to Binghamton for the latter portion of the season, the Devils had amassed 52 points in 41 games, good for second in the division and tied for fifth in the conference. He must have been doing something right, as the team was performing well as a whole with him around. While he and Greene weren’t a pair that was driving play forward, they weren’t bleeding goals either, which can sometimes be just as important to winning games.
I know he didn’t really have a fair shake last season due to circumstances and injury, but I’m still not sold on Mueller. I’m not even sure what type of defender he is, as he hasn’t shown himself to be particularly good in either end of the ice. When a “defensive defenseman” like Santini is producing more points than him, and playing better defense, I question how the Devils’ staff left Santini in the press box while Mueller was given playoff ice time.
One thing is for certain: with the state of New Jersey’s defense, having one of these players step up and showed marked improvement would go a long way towards the team continuing to travel in the right direction. Improved defense can lead to less goals against and that could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs as well as winning or losing a playoff series.
4.) Will the Butcher
The biggest bright spot on the blue line last year would have to be Will Butcher, who the Devils signed last summer as a free agent out of college. In 81 games as a rookie, Butcher posted 44 points and did well quarterbacking the first unit of an NHL power play. Without the contributions of Butcher, the Devils probably don’t make the playoffs.
I think Butcher could be an even greater contributor to the team provided that he receives more minutes this season, but it’s tough to figure out how to slot players and apportion minutes. I don’t think Butcher is ready for top pair minutes (nor again does he compliment Vatanen), but if Greene is bumped down, that leaves Will right where he was this season on the bottom pairing. I think Ray Shero needs to figure out a way to find Vatanen a partner, and to (somewhat sadly) bump Greene down into a third pairing/PK specialist role, which in turn would give Butcher more ice time.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the Devils defense and how to help it strengthen the team; should the Devils go out and acquire a new partner for Vatanen? Do we need to entrust Will Butcher with more minutes next season? What of Santini and Mueller and their battle for more games and minutes? Does Lovejoy get to be the ambassador to the press box? And what of Damon Severson who was just enough above average to avoid all mention in this article up until the end here? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!