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Will Defense Scoring Improve?

While we debate on this website whether or not the Devils will have more secondary scoring next year, today I wanted to add in defense-specific scoring to add to that discussion.

Tampa Bay Lightning v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Yesterday, Mike made the argument that overall, the New Jersey Devils could be deep in terms of scoring for the 2018-19 season. I definitely hope that turns out to be true. But going off of that, I wanted to specifically look at defense scoring. While the forwards should produce the bulk of the scoring at 5 on 5 action, defense scoring can be vital in tipping the scales. When a team’s blue line struggles to produce quality points when not on the power play, it can drag down the entire point production of the team, leading to more losses. This is especially true for teams that play a lot of close games.

To see how New Jersey did last year versus the entire league, I decided to tally some 5v5 points into a chart. Below, you’ll see each team, how many defensemen they had last year score at least 15 points at 5 on 5 play, and the total number of points these defensemen scored for the team. The total points are not for all d-men, just for those scoring at least 15 points at 5v5. Info for the chart from Natural Stat Trick.

Note: For defensemen traded mid-season, like Sami Vatanen, I included them and their points only for the team they ended the season with, not the team they started the year with. So some information is technically slightly skewed, but the general idea still prevails.

As you’ll see, in terms of the pure number of defensemen who scored 15+ points, the Devils were in decent shape, in line with most of the rest of the league. Having three defensemen score 15+ 5v5 points was clearly the mode in this chart, with 14 teams having three skaters meet that threshold.

However, those three defensemen did not put up a whole lot of points for NJ, at least compared to most of the league. For NJ, we are of course looking at Will Butcher, Damon Severson, and Sami Vatanen. Butcher and Severson both produced exactly 20 5v5 points, while Vatanen was at 15 (again, not all of those for NJ either). Those 55 points ranked NJ 24th in this chart, quite low in the standings. Now, to be positive for a minute, after Ottawa at 25, the point totals fall off a cliff. The Devils were at least much closer to the teams above them, and not below them. In fact, the Devils and their 55 points were closer to the 8th ranked Hurricanes and their 77 points than they were to the 26th ranked Blackhawks and their 32 points. So that is a positive indeed. That 24 rank is not as atrocious as it looks on the surface.

Nonetheless, only 55 points on this list is not great. The question for next season is will that rise? I think it probably will, which puts me in agreement with Mike’s thesis from yesterday. Butcher is an up-and-coming defensemen who I think is going to be a top 4 stalwart on this team for a decade plus. He is as much the core of this team’s future as anyone else not named Hall and Hischier. I also think Severson is better than people make him out to be, and while he is more of a two-way defender than Butcher, he should still be solid for 20-25 5v5 points for many years to come. I also think Vatanen has some offensive upside, and given a full year in NJ, could come close to the 20 point barrier. Those three combined next season, given they remain relatively healthy, I think should eclipse 60 5v5 points, if not push for 65.

The real issue comes after these three. Who else on the blue line is going to produce solid points? Last year, the next highest point producers were Andy Greene and John Moore, who each produced 12 points at 5v5. Moore is gone of course, and Greene is getting older and becoming less and less productive. Beyond them, question marks abound. Steve Santini had 9 5v5 points last year in 36 games, which would have put him on pace for just over 20 points in a full season. So he is a possibility should his game continue to improve, but that is far from a certainty. After that, who knows what will happen this year, so it is hard to predict, but the odds of someone breaking out as an offensive defenseman with regular NHL minutes is not great.

So in the end, I think that the Devils defense should manage to produce more even strength points next year than they did last year, specifically because I think the top three point producers should manage to improve and increase their point totals. After them, however, I have hopes for Santini, but that would be about it. Overall, I think that means the Devils improve their defense point production during 5 on 5 action, but not by a significant amount.