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There’s A Problem With the Rebuild — We Don’t Know Which Defenders Are Any Good.

I have no clue which of our defenders are good. All of them do well when demoted to a lower pairing and all of them get exposed on the first one. This makes deciding on a “core” difficult.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

During a rebuild, an NHL GM needs to be constantly re-evaluating the question: “Who are the pillars to build this team around?”

Various things can alter the answers to these questions from year to year — Andy Greene has aged out of the core — or even moment to moment — the Adams Larsson and Henrique were edged out of the core by trade offers for what Shero perceived to be superior pieces. But, at any given time, a firm grasp on what the value of each player is to the near and distant future of the franchise is necessary. That’s why, if I’m the Devils GM, I’m really racking my brain on these defenders...

Difficulty in Assessing Defenders

To illustrate the difficulty of determining which defenders it’s important that the Devils keep, I’m going to show the results of two (really three) people who have attempted to create single-number metrics for player value commonly referred to as GAR (goals above replacement) or WAR (wins). These are the GAR/60 (value per hour) results from Manny Perry’s model, posted on Corsica; and Josh and Luke Younggren’s model, posted on Evolving-Hockey.

So you see the problem — there’s very little in the “unambiguously good” section.

Will Butcher has clearly experienced the most irrefutable level of success the past two years, but currently Corsica has him at a 0 GAR for this season. He’s had his ice time raised by 3 minutes since last season (16 to 19 per game) and he’s handled it well so far. If eGAR is correct, he’s handled the time excellently. If cGAR is right, he’s been overmatched. Could Will Butcher handle ultimately ascending to a top pairing? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After him ... ho boy.

Lovejoy had a good season in 2018, but how much is due to being on a pairing with Will Butcher? Andy Greene narrowly above replacement level, but, as always, gets tough usage and performed well in limited time in a 2nd pairing — he and Severson were #2 to Mueller and Vatanen early. Vatanen had a strong finish to the year, but really struggled with his absurd workload at the beginning of the year. Severson has been, debatably, the best defenceman on the team this year, but also was at one point last year, before the Severson-Moore pairing trundled through the rest of the season. Some would say that this year is the more surprising one, though, given his history of below average GAR numbers. As for Mueller, Santini, and Yakovlev ... in any given Devils community, your bound to find one dude that thinks one of those 3 is the answer and needs to be given more time. In my experience, there’s always a “Santini Guy” in every forum. And despite their fervor, there’s little to no evidence any of them deserve significantly more time than they’ve been given.

Ever since about halfway into last year, I became aware of the fact that I have no idea how good any of the Devils defenders are. My hunch is that our top 4 (Butcher, Vatanen, Greene, Severson) are all middling 2nd pairing defenders in reality. But historically, Hynes has had to lean on one pair pretty heavily, and when he does, we end up with a 2nd pairing duo playing against elite competition. Severson and Greene both improved when on the 2nd pair earlier in the year. Vatanen has been better since being demoted to 2nd pair mid-year. Lovejoy is MUCH better as a 3rd pairing than he was with Greene on the top pair. It happens all the time on this team. Someone gets leaned on, and they subsequently get exposed.

The Problem With The Rebuild

The issue this difficulty with assessing causes is that we don’t know a lot of important information about the future of the team. Here are some examples of questions that do not have obvious answers to me:

  1. How much defensive help do we need from outside the organization?
  2. Which defenders (if any) are part of the core?
  3. Are any of our defenders worth more on the market than they are on the ice?

I would expect that the broad consensus on #1 is that we DO need help from outside the organization. How much? That’s less obvious to me. Ty Smith is, predictably, leading the WHL in points per game for a defender and many project him as a first pairing D. Will Butcher is still on the ascent and so might be a first pairing guy by next year. And so if those are two guys are our LD and our top two RD are Vatanen and Severson, is that really that bad? It hinges on how Butcher handles additional work and how Smith develops as a prospect, but it doesn’t seem impossible to me. We NEED to know the answer to this question because the opportunities are immediately worth exploring if the answer is yes. For example, I just got into it on Twitter about the degree to which the Devils should be interested in trading for Dougie Hamilton who is reportedly being shopped. If Severson and/or Vatanen are insufficient for the RD1 role, then it’s worth exploring for the right price.

This brings us to the next idea which is who is a member of the “core”? I’d say that the 30+ crowd (Greene/Lovejoy) have successfully aged out of that designation. Someone who is having a hard time cracking this roster is not a member of the core — so sorry “Santini Guys” but Steve, Egor, and Mirco are not making my cut here either. That leaves us with Butcher, Severson, and Vatanen. Butcher is 24, the most efficient defender on the team, and is an RFA after this year so he seems to profile as part of the core to me. Vatanen is under contract one more season and while I’m skeptical he’ll be worth the price tag and wouldn’t personally anoint him with pillar status, the fact that he plays in PP, PK, ES, and OT (although I think he’s overused there) likely makes him a pretty ingrained member of the core from management’s perspective. Severson’s contract looks like that of a core member, but he’s been tied to trade rumors in the past and as an offensive-minded RD with first pairing experience, he may garner a pretty high return — I’d say the jury is out on him and that kicks off a third question.

In 2015-16, the Devils had a 23-years-old top pairing defender who was in the top 50 in GAR, and had just signed to a 6-year/$4.2M AAV contract. Does that sound like a member of the core to you? It does to me. And he likely would have been if some idiot GM hadn’t offered us a future NHL MVP in exchange for him. Everyone, even members of the core, should be available for the right price. Is anyone on this roster a potential Adam Larsson? In my opinion, most of them, actually. When defenders get overused, it often can raise their pedigree somewhat in trade talks. For instance, if you’re trading Vatanen or Severson, you’re likely describing each as a low-end RD1. They’re a low end RD1 because they’ve been RD1s and bad at it — that doesn’t mean that’s actually what they are. There probably average mid-pairing D-men. If someone’s willing to give us the value for a puck-moving #1 RD in exchange for those guys? I’d do it. This would basically be undoing the Henrique trade (which btw, I think I’d do — but that’s a talk for another article), but we’d be getting an even better forward back.

All of these questions only have answers if we know the assessment of the defenders. I’ve given my hunch on each of the answers, but that’s honestly all it is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m basing it off of comprehensive statistics and years of watching every game played by these guys — but even considering all those things I’m radically unsure of the answers that I’d need to have were I the Devils GM. We can only hope that Ray Shero and Co have a better grasp of their personnel than analytics do.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of the Devils defender landscape. Who do you expect to be here in, let’s say 3 years? Scale of 1 (not) - 10 (very), how important is it that we get a defender from outside the org?

Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts below!