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New Jersey Devils 2019-20 Season Preview Part II: The Defensemen

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As part of the week long 2019-20 Devils season preview at AAtJ, this post focuses on what the defense did last season and what to expect going forward. The New Jersey Devils were bad on defense last season among other areas. The addition of P.K. Subban should help out tremendously.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
P.K. Subban is the new star on the Devils’ blueline.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome to the second post in our week-long preview of the New Jersey Devils for the 2019-20 season. CJ wrote about the forwards yesterday. As is tradition, today’s focus will be on the defensemen. These are the players that are responsible for taking care of business in their own end, facilitating plays to have the run of play go in the right direction, and supporting the offensive attack. They are an important part of any hockey team. For the New Jersey Devils to get to where they want to be, then we must look at the defensemen. Are they going to be better than they were last season? Let’s start with the past.

What Happened Last Season at the Team Level

Since 2018-19 was so bad for the Devils as a whole, it is tempting to wipe away last season and start fresh. We cannot do that. We must identify the issues and lessons from last season if we want to have an idea of what to reasonably expect for the 2019-20 season. More important than that, the majority of the defensemen from last season are returning for this one.

How did the Devils do as a team on defense? The perception is that it was bad. The team gave up a lot of goals and played a lot in their own end of the rink. Was it? Let us look at the data in terms of the team’s rate per 60 minutes of allowing shot attempts (Corsi), unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick), shots, goals, expected goals, scoring chances, and high danger scoring chances (chances in the slot and the crease). For the sake of the perception, I placed the team’s save percentages alongside these against-rate stats. This data is all for 5-on-5 situations because it is the most common situation in hockey and because there will be a post on Thursday dedicated to special teams. (And if you want to really dig into penalty kill data for the defensemen, then check out this post I made back in the Summer.) This data comes from the essential resource, Natural Stat Trick.

2018-19 Devils Team Defense Stats
2018-19 Devils Team Defense Stats
Natural Stat Trick

I highlighted in light red the stats where the Devils finished in the bottom third of the NHL. There is a lot of red here. The Devils’ offense did struggle due to injuries and, well, just not being a very good team with nothing to play for by the midway point of last season. However, the Devils conceded quite a lot in 5-on-5 play. They allowed rather high rates of shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, and just plain shots on net. These rates were still high even after adjusting for venue and score effects. Allowing a rate of close to 60 attempts per sixty minutes and nearly 32 shots per sixty minutes is not good.

There are some mitigating factors here. As much as the Devils as a team allowed attempts and shots, the Devils were actually decent in terms of allowing scoring chances. They were one of the best for high danger scoring chances, which are typically attempts made in the slot and the crease. Relative to most teams in the NHL, the Devils protected the most dangerous part of the zone very well. The expected goals model takes all shooting events and determines how many goals would be allowed (or scored) based on historical data. Based on what events the Devils allowed, their expected goals rate was not half-bad. It was not half-good but ranking in the high teens suggests that the Devils’ defensive efforts were not so terrible. At the least, we can say they kept quite a bit to the lesser dangerous areas.

So why is there the perception that the defense stunk? Easy - the goals against. This is why I included the save percentages. With the terrible goaltending that beset the Devils in 2018-19, they gave up many goals to go with their many shots. I do not want to steal too much thunder for the goaltenders part of this weeklong preview - which is tomorrow - but the relatively low save percentages point to making the defense and even the team to be worse off then they actually were. There is some absolution here that despite the Devils doing so well to give up fewer than ten high danger chances per sixty minutes, the goalies combined to stop less than 80% of them. That is still approximately two goals per sixty minutes right there. Few look good with that.

There is also some indictment of the defensive effort. As much as the Devils kept things to the outside, the goaltending performances were so bad that it did not matter much. Further, a shot attempt, unblocked or not, means that the opposition still had possession in the Devils’ end of the rink and tried to get something on net. An attempt against means the Devils did had to defend something. They did not have the puck; they could not attack. The whole point of playing defense in hockey is not just to keep the opposition from being in dangerous areas to score. It is to stop the attack, regain possession, and transition from defense to offense. The high Corsi, Fenwick, and shot against rates all strongly suggest that the Devils really struggled in that regard. To that end, so what if the Devils did at least a decent job keeping opposing players outside of the slot and crease? A lot of rubber was still fired against the Devils. A relatively low HDCA/60, while impressive, and not-bottom-third xGA/60 are not enough to claim that the team defense was that much better than perceived. I will agree that the goaltending play made it look a lot worse but it was not good in other regards as well.

That is how the Devils looked in terms of defending at a team level. Let us now look at the Devils defensemen individually.

What Happened Last Season for the Individual Devils Defensemen

Let us start with offense. Here is a summary. The Devils’ defensemen combined for 31 goals last season led by Damon Severson with 11. This represented about 14% of all of New Jersey’s 219 goals last season. Between injuries, opportunity, and talent, only four defensemen scored more than two goals last season: Severson, Will Butcher (4), Andy Greene (5), and Sami Vatanen (4). These four were also the only defensemen to put up over 100 shots in the season too. Vatanen’s injuries only held him to 50 games, so he had an outside chance at challenging Severson and Butcher for 30 points (Severson had 39, Butcher had 30, Vatanen had 17). The offensive production was kept to those four. Greene did play a lot last season and often with some offensive forwards ahead of him, so that is how he got to 25 despite no power play time whatsoever. The only other defenseman out of the thirteen defensemen that dressed last season for the defense that put up over ten points was Mueller. He had eleven in 53 games. Most bluelines do not have a ton of production. However, there not a lot of shots. Only Vatanen had a shooting rate above two per game and, again, he was limited to 50 games.

Of course with defensemen, the bigger concern is how well they did in terms of what they allow. I pulled data from Natural Stat Trick to list out each player’s 5-on-5 stats in the same categories without save percentages and Fenwick (Corsi and shots tell enough for individual defenders). I also added their on-ice percentages to represent whether the Devils out-performed their opposition in a given stat. The stats represent what the Devils allowed when that player was on the ice in 5-on-5. The rank represents how high the Devil finished compared to their teammates on defense. As adjustments did not really change the values at the team level, I am looking at the player’s 5-on-5 on-ice stats. Lastly, I focused only on the Devils defensemen who played at least 200 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey last season. This means the recently retired Eric Gryba, Josh Jacobs, Colton White, and Ryan Murphy are not presented here. Again, special teams will be covered later this week, so this is all 5-on-5.

First, here are the on-ice stats:

2018-19 Devils Defensemen 5-on-5 On-Ice Rate Stats
2018-19 Devils Defensemen 5-on-5 On-Ice Rate Stats
Natural Stat Trick

Here are five major takeaways from this chart:

  1. Will Butcher was arguably the team’s best defenseman last season. While Severson had more production, when Butcher was on the ice, the team was actually doing quite well. This may be a function of who he faced but it is very telling that he was the closest defenseman to breaking 50% in Corsi For% and he is the only returning defenseman who finished above 50% in Shots For%, Expected Goals For%, Scoring Chance For%, and High-Danger Chance For%. Despite his smaller stature and his not-very-physical, the opposition did not run all over him into the slot and at the crease. Definitely not compared to others. He earned more minutes last season; that should hopefully continue.
  2. Butcher and Ben Lovejoy made for a very solid third pairing. Lovejoy was much better in a limited role compared to a top-pairing role from two seasons ago. It is understandable why he was dealt at the deadline last season. He was not a waste in the role he served.
  3. Mirco Mueller and Sami Vatanen were also surprisingly not so bad. Mueller may be the definition of non-flashy depth defenseman, but he was relatively solid last season. Outside of scoring chances being conceded, he held his own. Vatanen’s numbers on their own are not great but they were not the worst either.
  4. The big minute pairing was Greene and Severson and, wow, they got wrecked. I blame Greene for this more than Severson. As bad as Severson’s numbers were, Greene’s were worse. And by a good margin in some stats. He finished dead-last out of all nine defensemen in six of these stats, including high danger chance allowance. While a defender having an on-ice rate of 11.41 HDCA/60 may be good on other teams, it was not on New Jersey. The next chart will really show Greene’s decline.
  5. Connor Carrick was acquired as part of the Lovejoy trade and was given twenty games of significant minutes. While I was mostly OK with his play initially, these stats are rather underwhelming. He should not be playing significant minutes. . They will not really be missed.

The on-ice stats show what the team’s rates where when that player was on the ice. Relative stats, also from Natural Stat Trick, show how those rates changed when the player was on the ice compared to when they were not. I highlighted any adverse changes of at least 1% or 1 in red and any beneficial changes of at least 1% or 1 in green. Spoiler: There is no green for Greene:

2018-19 Devils Defenseman 5-on-5 Relative Rate Stats
2018-19 Devils Defenseman 5-on-5 Relative Rate Stats
Natural Stat Trick

Similar to the previous chart, Butcher was a very positive influence on the Devils. Look at all of those green numbers. Yes, he did not play as much or against as difficult competition as Greene or Severson. However, Butcher succeeded very well against who he did face. As did Butcher’s most common partner in Lovejoy. Also: when Butcher did face the other team’s best players, he nor the team’s rates did not wilt. This chart further supports that Butcher was arguably the team’s best defenseman last season.

The relative rate stats also show that Mueller really was not at all a bad defenseman last season. Outside of Scoring Chance For%, the rates moved in the right direction in all other categories and he was nearly green in all of them. While I can agree that he should not be playing a lot or against the other team’s best all that often, Mueller may be more than “just a guy.” He is not something awful.

What is something awful? Greene’s relative rate stats. Whereas the rates went in a beneficial way when Butcher took a shift, they went in the other direction when Greene hopped over the boards. Sharply, in some cases. They are not just poor relative rates but they are vastly worse than Severson’s and just about everyone else’s relative rates. Severson did not rate well in either chart, but he finished well ahead of Greene in every category both in on-ice rates and relative rates. This suggests to me that the issue in the Greene-Severson pairing is Greene. I wrote about the ongoing decline of Greene back in 2018. It has yet to stop.

I will stop about the player’s performances from last season as we must look to see what the Devils did for 2019-20. Unlike previous seasons, General Manager did more than just sign some different AHL veterans to NHL deals

Additions and Subtractions for 2019-20

The key addition is P.K. Subban. I am very pleased to write this sentence and live in this reality. There were some off hand rumors that Subban was on the block at the 2019 NHL Draft. Just as the second day started, Shero made a deal and everyone was very surprised and very hyped for it. For the fairly low cost of Steve Santini, prospect defenseman Jeremy Davies (who was signed to an ELC earlier), a second round pick in 2019 (Devils had three), and a second round pick in 2020, the Devils acquired former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban (and Adam Helewka, who the Devils put on unconditional waivers). The Devils turned a prospect, Santini’s ability to be an anchor on the offense, and two picks into P.K. Subban.

He is a massive acquisition and not just because he is a celebrity with loads of charisma that simply dwarfs over everyone else’s charisma in the NHL. As I wrote in the post about the trade, he did not have a very good 2018-19 by his standards and compared to the other Predator defensemen. I am confident that he can and will bounce back in New Jersey. Subban is 30 but he is still one of the best at transitioning the puck forward in recent seasons, he can play a lot of minutes, and he has a dazzling blend of strength and skill on the puck. Subban can and likely will lead a power play unit to great success. His addition makes the right side of the Devils blueline downright tantalizing with Subban joining Severson and Vatanen. Subban has a lot to do to earn his $10 million salary for this season but he has a lot of incentive to do so.

The only other additions made in this offseason were at the AHL level. The Devils signed 29-year old Matt Tennyson and 25-year old Dakota Mermis to NHL two-way contracts. Both have plenty of AHL experience. Tennyson has surprised many by being one of the last cuts in New Jersey. He has been decent in preseason with a harder shot than some may have expected. He was placed on waivers on Monday so it is likely he will be going to the AHL soon. However, you may see his name again soon. With over 100 NHL games of experience, he could be a call-up in 2019-20. It is not much but with six of the nine defenders returning plus adding Subban, there was no need to sign many new defensemen.

As for the subtractions, they were at the depth level. Lovejoy was dealt to Dallas before the trade deadline last season. He announced his retirement by the end of August. Gryba also recently announced his retirement. Yakovlev signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Murphy also went to the KHL; he signed with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk. John Ramage also went to Europe, but to Germany. He signed with Eisbären Berlin. As mentioned earlier, Santini and prospect Davies were moved to Nashville in the Subban deal. Again, most of last season’s blueline is back and Subban will join them.

Looking Ahead to 2019-20

Expect Subban to play a major role on this blueline. He is capable of playing lots of minutes. He is easily the team’s best option the power play, which is telling since Butcher and Severson (and to a lesser extent, Vatanen) have not been slouches at all in the last two seasons. As Greene is not getting any younger, Subban can take over right away as the minutes leader.

He can also get the puck moving in the right direction. Check out Corey Sznajder’s results from a sample of games from the last three seasons in CJ’s tableau:

Subban and Greene All Three Zones Tableau
Subban and Greene All Three Zones Tableau
Data by Corey Sznajder, Tableau by CJ Turtoro

Subban has ranked very highly in the entire NHL in terms of generating zone exits with possession (e.g. instead of clearing the puck, moving out of the zone with it), breaking up zone entries by the opposition, and generating shots with passes. Compare that to Greene, who simply has not. Outside of breaking up zone entries, most of the league has passed him by. This shows a good reason why Subban should be taking over as the minutes leader on the blueline. He will contribute and in ways that will help the team in the run of play and transition from defense to offense. Yes, Subban may make a mistake here and there but every body does that. The difference is that Subban can make up for it. Someone like Greene, well, has struggled to do that in recent seasons. Also: this picture is also a good reason why a Greene-Subban pairing should probably not be a thing.

You know, this graph for the other Devils defensemen will best illustrate a point on what to expect for this season’s defensemen. Here’s a similar tableau for Butcher and Vatanen.

Butcher and Vatanen All Three Zones Tableau
Butcher and Vatanen All Three Zones Tableau
Data by Corey Sznajder, Tableau by CJ Turtoro

While helped out by his utilization, Butcher has done a rather good job with zone exits, generating shot assists, and breaking up zone entries. This further justifies the argument that Butcher should receive more minutes. Since Butcher has shown tendencies at being good at the same things as Subban with respect to Sznajder’s All Three Zones project, a Butcher-Subban pairing may be more viable than one may think. As for Vatanen, he is not half-bad either. It is tempting to make him available in a trade as he is on an expiring contract. But he has been somewhat solid in transition on top of playing defense. He can still contribute; even if it should not be on a top pairing situation. With Subban on the team, he will not have to.

Mueller and Severson All Three Zones Tableau
Mueller and Severson All Three Zones Tableau
Data by Corey Sznajder, Tableau by CJ Turtoro

Severson really needs a better partner than Greene and one of the challenges for the 2019-20 roster is whether the coaches can do so. Severson may not be particularly physical or sharp on defense. And he will take penalties. But he has been money when it comes to contributing to shots, forcing zone entries by the opposition without possession (read: dump ins), and getting pucks out of the Devils’ end with possession. Would Mueller work? Probably not. His profile is one of what one would expect from his reputation. Mueller may be solid at what he does but what he does is not flashy, it is not going to break a game wide open or make the difference between winning or losing, and it is not going to help much at all on offense. But given the other options, is it worth trying? Possibly?

Carrick and Lovejoy All Three Zones Tableau
Carrick and Lovejoy All Three Zones Tableau
Data by Corey Sznajder, Tableau by CJ Turtoro

Lastly, here is Carrick and, because I wanted to keep the comparison thing going, I just used Lovejoy as a placeholder. Carrick actually has not been so bad from this standpoint. It is not particularly amazing save for high shot rate. But for someone who plays depth-level minutes, he can have his moments in transition. The departed (and now retired) Lovejoy represents a type of a player that is fading away from the NHL: the one-dimensional, defensive-minded defenseman. While Lovejoy had his uses in spots, it was not in the transition game. And with the way the game is going, transition is key.

This brings me to this larger point on what to expect from the 2019-20 Devils defensemen. They will absolutely be much more dynamic. Outside of Greene and Mueller to an extent, the Devils now have four defensemen that can absolutely contribute in terms of contributing to shots, making zone exits, and denying zone entries to a degree. Now that the regular defenders involve Subban, Butcher, Severson, and Vatanen (4 out of 6 regulars), there should be fewer issues with breakouts and starting plays in transition. If the Devils still struggle with either, then there are more issues with the coaching than there is with the talent. I will leave further discussion about that in the post about coaching on Thursday. In any case, the Devils appear are transitioning away from the past tradition of one “two-way” defenseman and one “stay at home” defenseman. Having more than three defenders to move the puck is a plus in general and a necessity in certain situations. It is where the game has been going and the Devils stand to benefit in this regard. If not with better defensive efforts overall but at least better offensive efforts to make up for defensive issues more often.

It is important to realize that it is still a transition - and that the blueline is imbalanced. The right side is strong at the moment with Subban, Severson, and Vatanen. Carrick is basically a spare. The left side is not as strong. As good as Butcher was last season and as good as he could be this season, Mueller and Greene bring it down. Mueller is what he is; it is not bad but it is not all that good. Greene has become less and less useful outside of a penalty kill. (Mueller is not too shabby at that either. There is that, at least.) He is going to turn 37 in a month and the Devils have drowned in the run of play when he has been on the ice. He dragged Severson down last season and opponents generated a lot against him. He cannot continue to be used as a first-pairing defender. He should be on a third pairing. However, both Mueller and Greene cannot play on the third pairing at the same time unless two defenders go on their off-hand. (Aside: Maybe this is possible? Mueller and Vatanen could try it?). It will be on the coaches to figure out who should take the big minutes on that side along with Butcher. There is no immediate answer.

There is a wild card: Ty Smith. Despite a lackluster preseason effort, he is the Devils’ best defenseman prospect in the system. He nearly made the team last season. He could very well make this season just because his only other option is to go back to juniors, which he has already dominated. Of course, his preseason performance was lackluster enough to a point where he really did not earn a NHL spot yet. Either way, the 19-year old has a bright future and could very well be the left-sided defenseman of the future to strengthen that side of the blueline. If he makes the roster (which is not a guarantee), he will likely rotate with Mueller and Carrick into games as needed. Smith may have to learn quickly for the Devils to get value from him and they would be wise to shelter him. At the same time, if he does show much more promise early on, then it may behoove the Devils to increase his role as they see fit. If not, then he will likely be rotated with Mueller and Carrick as needed. If he is sent back to Spokane of the WHL, then this is all moot. Regardless, Smith represents the future of the blueline. The question is more about timing than talent.

Another concern is depth beyond New Jersey. Beyond the seven defensemen discussed in this post, there is not a lot of immediate help out of Binghamton. Smith may be kept on just as additional cover. Colton White and Josh Jacobs got small tastes of the NHL last season and were cut along with most of the B-Devils in preseason. Tennyson got an extended look in camp presumably because with his past NHL experience, he may be the best immediate fill-in option from the farm team. But beyond him, it gets dicey. And if a major injury befalls Subban, Butcher, or Severson, then the Devils will just have to struggle and deal with it. They may need to do so anyway, but the main point is there is not a budding NHLer in the AHL waiting for a shot. Right now there is Smith, who cannot play in the AHL this season since he is 19, and the other prospects are not professional players in North America.

Despite these concerns, I do believe the Devils defense should be better in 2019-20. The addition of Subban to lead the blueline alone will be a big help. The right side of the blueline should be seen as a strength. Should Carrick prove to be more competent as a third-pairing defender, then the Devils could even deal from that position as a strength. There are real issues with how Greene should be handled (and by extension, who should play with Severson), and depth beyond the NHL players. The Devils will need to add talent in the future - or if Smith develops really quickly - to the left side of the defense to bolster the group further. But combined with improvements at forward, there is a good chance they will not be as bad as they were last season on defense even with no major changes to the system (read: expect the emphasis on defending the slot and crease - high-danger chances - to continue). They may end up being just decent overall; that is still a step forward.

Conclusions & My Opinion on How to Set Up the Defense

In summary, here are the major takeaways about the Devils defensemen going into 2019-20:

  • It was bad last season regardless of how bad the goaltending was then and how well they defended high danger scoring chances.
  • P.K. Subban will be very useful to the team, even if he is coming off a not-so-great 2018-19 himself.
  • The right side of the defense will be strong. Subban, Severson, and Vatanen is a great trio on the right side and Carrick can be just kept as a spare to play as needed.
  • The left side of the defense is not as strong. Butcher is quite fine and there are two third-pairing quality defensemen in the declining Greene and the unimpressive Mueller. Ty Smith may join this side of the blueline but it is not a guarantee he can contribute a lot right away.
  • The coaches will need to figure out how to handle the workload for the left-sided defensemen. Andy Greene is declining, Butcher has not played a heavy load yet, and Mueller is not a viable option. By extension, they will need to figure out who would be the best fit next to Severson and Vatanen such that neither is dragged down too much.
  • The Devils defensemen are transitioning more to a more dynamic group with respect to zone exits, breaking up zone entries, and contributing to shots. Even if they falter on defense, they will have the skills and abilities to make up for it going forward. Breakouts and transition plays should be much better as well.
  • Unlike at forward, there is not a lot of depth in Binghamton to replace defensemen who get injured. This is also a concern.
  • I think the defense will be better even if they are more decent compared to the rest of the league instead of good compared to the rest of the league.

Here is how I would set it up for even strength:

  1. Butcher-Subban as a first pairing. Stick them behind a line centered by Hischier or Hughes and enjoy the dazzling array of skill. Subban has a lot of experience handling these situations. Butcher has proven capable to be much more than he was used last season. Make it so, Hynes and Alain Nasreddine.
  2. Mueller-Vatanen as a second pairing. The Devils ran with this last season and it was not bad. It was not that great either. But the secondary unit can survive being mediocre in place of the other pairing.
  3. Greene-Severson as a third pairing. They were crushed last season and also played a lot of big minutes against top competition. When Lovejoy was bumped down to the third pairing with more limited minutes and lesser competition, he thrived. I am hoping that Greene can receive a similar benefit. Severson would likely crush it and give a lower line an additional dimension in the attack. Given their respective involvement on special teams (Greene on the PK, Severson maybe on the PP), their total time on ice would not drop as much. Yes, I’m writing myself into believing this can work.
  4. Extras: Smith, Carrick. If Smith is ready to show, then swap out Mueller, try Smith-Severson again (meaning Greene would be with Vatanen), and hope it works. If it does, then there’s another upgrade.

At the risk of stepping on the toes of the Thursday post, power play options would be Subban, Butcher, and Severson in that order. The penalty kill should feature Greene, Mueller (if in the lineup), Vatanen, and whoever is fresh. I’m not a fan of Subban on a penalty kill and I am not sure the coaches trust Severson or Butcher enough to try it for long. But a risk may need to be taken there.

Your Take

I am confident that the addition of Subban will help the Devils overall on defense. I am less sure about how the team will deal with Greene’s decline and sorting out the left side of the defense. Now that you know where the defensemen came from and what to expect to a degree for 2019-20, I want to know what you think.

What do you think about the New Jersey Devils’ defensemen going into the new season? How much of an impact do you think Subban will have on the ice for them? What would you do with Greene? And who would you pair with Severson and Vatanen? How would you set up the defense? Would you make any other changes? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils defensemen in the comments. Thank you for reading. Please come visit tomorrow for a season preview of the goaltenders.