Lovejoy has gotten his fair share of ire during his Devils tenure. The majority of the flack he received came in a 2016-17 season where he was thrust into a top pairing role with Andy Greene in the wake of the Adam Larsson departure. This very blog certainly didn’t mince words in our assessment of his play that year. And in the years since, the narrative has been very much of the “well he’s been better than he 2017, but he’s still not good and we should be letting the young kids play over him” variety. The Reverend has never been popular among fans — scoring 5 goals in 190 games with an organization will do that — but I’ve ALWAYS liked Ben Lovejoy. He did a lot of inglorious, but invaluable things for this team, and this post will focus on two of them — his PK greatness, and his role as Will Butcher’s partner.
Penalty Killing Extraordinaire
Over the past three seasons with NJ, Ben Lovejoy has been an expert at limiting dangerous attempts in penalty kill. According to Natural Stat Trick, among the 141 defenders with 200+ minutes of shorthanded ice time the last 3 years, Ben Lovejoy has allowed high-danger chances at the 3rd lowest rate in the NHL. And he’s leaned on way more than the two above him — Lovejoy has the 6th most PK minutes of any defender in the NHL over that span (Greene is 1st).
This combination of volume (minutes) and efficiency (chances allowed) is unparalleled in the NHL since Lovejoy’s been a Devil. The chart below is pulled from Evolving-Hockey’s GAR page and sorted by total shorthanded value since 2016-17.
Lovejoy is worth almost 2 full goals more than the next most valuable penalty killer. It’s no shock that the Devils have been able to carry on their legacy of elite penalty killing despite overall inept play in recent years. I wonder
It will be interesting to see if Greene, as a 36-year-old, will be able to shoulder the additional responsibility he’s going to have put on his plate. Monday, against the Canadiens (recap here) Greene had a penalty killing performance we’ve not seen from him since 2014. But if he has an off day, the entire penalty kill is likely to suffer as well. How long can we reasonably expect Damon Severson — famous for lackadaisical play in front of the net — to hold his own on a PK1?
Ben Lovejoy partnered with Andy Greene to make THE best penalty kill pairing in the analytics era. I wonder if, while everyone was reaming them in the media for their lumbering skating and aged out style, they were aware that they were part of something really special. It’s not common to be that far ahead of your peers in anything — and they were. And now that it's over, they they should get the credit they deserve.
Breaking in Butcher
Will Butcher came over to the Devils in the summer of 2017 and immediately became the best defensive prospect in the franchise. The Devils were eager to reap the benefits of his contributions so much as possible, but we're careful not to overextend their expectations of him.
In 2017-18, he was the most sheltered Devils defender, received no PK time, and ample PP1 time with future Hart trophy winner, Taylor Hall. The only thing that you can't protect him from it's deployment is within a shift, when the team gets trapped back, who will bail out the NZ and OZ expert while he's caught in the DZ? The answer was Ben Lovejoy.
This pairing would go on to be one of the most prolific and efficient pairings in the NHL for the two years they played together. According to data downloaded from MoneyPuck’s “About” section, Butcher-Lovejoy had the 10th highest expected goal ratio of any pairing with 500+ minutes the last two years, and the 3rd highest of any pairing with 750+ minutes.
According to Evolving-Hockey’s metrics (download), Butcher’s GAR over the past two years is 20.0 which is 3rd on the team behind only Hall (29.0) and Hischier (28.6) and leads the #2 defeneder by a ton. That 2nd defender? Ben Lovejoy (8.4)
It remains to be seen how Butcher will fare in Lovejoy’s absence. Butcher’s numbers away from Lovejoy are okay, but they’re even more sheltered than when he was with Lovejoy. In the first Lovejoy-less game, Butcher-Santini was out-chanced 4-12 and in the 2nd game, they were out-chanced 2-7 and out shot a catastrophic 3-14. They’ve PDO’d their way to avoiding disaster, but that plummet in efficiency from Lovejoy to Santini is nothing short of miraculous.
Butcher is one of the team’s few bright spots. He was excellent, but underutilized last year, and with additional minutes (though not necessarily tougher ones), he’s done well again this year. If you’re happy with Butcher as a Devil, you have Lovejoy, at least in part, to thank.
There are a few things I didn’t mention in this piece that also made me like Rev. First of all, I don’t think his 2016-17 was as terrible as others do — I said as much then. Secondly, it always felt from reports that he had the respect of the lockerroom the same kind of way Andy Greene did. I often saw quotes of him owning up to struggles or addressing the team and he clearly has the respect of reporters as well as his coach and teammates.
Ben Lovejoy was part of the best penalty kill pairing in the analytics era and he was part of one of the most efficient 5v5 pairings in the NHL over the last 2 years. To read that sentence, you wouldn’t think I’m describing someone that fans often asked to be sat for the likes of Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, or Egor Yakovlev. Ben Lovejoy was supremely effective when he was used in the role he was signed to have. We made the playoffs by the skin of our teeth last year, and his contributions were among the many cause for that success. In a period of the teams growth in which we are loaded with young skaters and a mostly terrible blueline, the steady and effective veteran presence of Lovejoy was invaluable. We thank him for his service, and wish him the best as he tries to help Dallas make the playoffs for a chance to win his 2nd Stanley Cup.