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Potential Defensive Pairings for the Coming Season

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NHL: San Jose Sharks at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Change is on the way for the Devils, particularly in the defensive side of the ice. Gone are Mirco Mueller and Dakota Mermis (With Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene traded prior to the deadline). Added to the fray are long time Blue Jacket Ryan Murray and the recently signed Dmitry Kulikov.

In the previous season, according to Money Puck, the most commonly used pairs were Greene-Subban and Severson-Vatanen before the trade deadline, and Subban paired with Severson after.

Before we talk about what the defensive pairings could look like with these new additions, let’s start off with some pairs that didn’t work at all last season.

What Didn’t Work

Severson-Butcher

In terms of defensive pairings that worked out terribly for the Devils, Severson and Butcher can be found near the top of the list. In 56 games of on and off time played together, Severson and Butcher recorded a CF% of 42.69 - good for 3rd lowest out of 15 pairing combinations with at least 100 minutes together.

In terms of what went wrong - this makes perfect sense. The Devils often found themselves on the backfoot throughout the 2019-2020 season, and having two offensive minded defensemen together lead to swarms of opportunities for opposing teams, creating a huge black hole defensively.

Butcher - Carrick

This pairing was tough.

While the pairing were only together for 12 games, those 12 games were absolutely brutal for the two. When playing together, the pair recorded a CF% of 42.02, the worst on the team. As two of the smaller defenders on the team, the pair often found themselves struggling against more physically dominant players, and the mix of the two certainly didn’t provide optimal results.

Could Explore Further

Subban - Severson

The advanced statistics don’t look too bad - in 221 minutes of ice time together, they had a CF% of 52.81, showing that they weren’t being outmatched play-wise. Results wise, however, Subban and Severson were battered. While together, the pair were on the ice for 5 goals, whilst allowing 13 goals during their time together - The 2nd lowest GF% of any Devils’ pairings with over 100 minutes played together.

Overall, however, I wouldn’t want the Devils’ two biggest impact defensemen to be together on the same line, as both could be paired with a more defensively minded player for a more balanced approach.

Of note - The Devils ended the campaign splitting the two, choosing to place Mirco Mueller with Subban and Dakota Mermis with Severson.

The Newcomers

Ryan Murray

Ryan Murray, prior to his trade to the Devils, was a lifelong Blue Jacket and formerly 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. For Murray, the story of his career has been injuries - he hasn’t played close to a full season since the 2015-2016 NHL season, only breaking the 50 game mark twice. However, for a 5th round pick, Ryan Murray is a worthwhile wild card player.

In the previous campaign, Murray spend the majority of his time with David Savard, an all-around defenseman for the Blue Jackets. While with Savard, Murray was slightly below average, recording a CF% of 47.15 through 253 minutes together. Besides Savard, Murray played sparingly with other defensemen, recording 9 games with Markus Nutivaara and very sparingly with Zach Werenski, where he succeeded in that limited time.

Stylistically, Murray is a defensively sound player with excellent passing abilities, but suffers from injuries which have hampered his career. At his best, Murray is a top four defenseman who offers stability from the back. At his worst, Murray isn’t on the ice at all.

Dmitry Kulikov

Dmitry Kulikov is a soon to be 30 year old defenseman and former first round pick of the Florida Panthers. He debuted with the Panthers directly out of the draft and spent the next seven seasons with the team. From there, he had one disappointing season with the Sabres, before signing a three year deal with the Jets, where he spent his last three seasons. While with the Jets, Kulikov has offered little to no offensive value, recording a season high of 11 points in his debut season. What he does offer, however, is a physical veteran presence that the Devils were sorely lacking last season, and was someone the Jets trusted to average over 20 minutes a game last season.

In the previous campaign, Kulikov spent the majority of his ice time with Neal Pionk, an offensive specialist and the quarterback for the Jets on the powerplay. That pairing was the most effective for the Jets, as they were both the 2nd most played pairing, and also the most effective according to Corsi stats. Kulikov also spend a good amount of time with Morrissey, where they recorded a Corsi % of 52.13 through 142 minutes together.

How They Fit

What the Devils are likely hoping for in this situation is for a healthy Ryan Murray to establish himself as a legitimate top four option, and offer some stability and creativity to the backline that the Devils lost when they traded away Sami Vatanen. Murray is an excellent gamble for the Devils, and could pair with a more offensively minded defenseman like Damon Severson or Will Butcher to offer support for their games.

In an ideal world, Kulikov serves more as a depth piece for the Devils, with little to no offensive value left in his game. However, a lot does need to be said about a player that the Jets trusted to average 20+ minutes a game and pair with Pionk to fully bring out his potential. He can stabilize a lineup with physical play and offers a type of player that the Devils haven’t truly experienced in the past couple of years. Will the Devils plug him in their top six to start? I find that unlikely, as Butcher and Murray are likely locks on the left side, and Ty Smith will likely get the first opportunity to claim a spot on the roster.

As such, I can envision the Devils opening with defensive pairings like this to start the season.

Butcher - Subban

Murray - Severson

Smith - Carrick

Kulikov

Final Thoughts

I’m excited for this Devils team. I think that Ryan Murray, if he can stay healthy, will surprise fans and prove himself as a reliable anchor for the defense. I do also think that Kulikov will eventually find significant ice time with the Devils and hold hope that there are less flashy parts of his game that warranted his previously significant ice time with the Jets, and the Devils will utilize that to help the team.

With prospects like Kevin Bahl and Reilly Walsh knocking on the door as well, this is an exciting time to be a Devils fan.

Let me know what you guys think in the comments below.