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Butcher vs. Kulikov: Who Should Have a Bigger Role for the Devils?

With the Devils acquiring a new left-side defenseman, they have a decision to make on who get the second pairing.

New Jersey Devils v Winnipeg Jets

After the New Jersey Devils signed Dmitry Kulikov, some people debated whether he or Will Butcher should have a bigger role on the team. Will Butcher had the appearance of a down season in counting stats, and Kulikov played 20 minutes a night with Winnipeg last season. So, between the two, who should get more ice time?

Butcher and Subban

If Will Butcher played on the second pairing next season, he would in all likelihood be playing with P.K. Subban. This was not Butcher’s main pairing last season, but it was his best. According to Natural Stat Trick, when Butcher played with Subban at even strength, he had:

  • 173:27 TOI, 52.63 CF%, 109-91 shot ratio (54.50 SF%), 9-11 goals ratio (45.00 GF%), 8.1-8.03 xG ratio (50.22 xGF%), 0.962 PDO

In all other pairings, Butcher had:

  • 734:51 TOI, 45.42 CF%, 364-419 shot ratio (46.49 SF%), 34-38 goals ratio (47.22 GF%), 26.47-30.23 xG ratio (46.68 xGF%), 1.003 PDO

While Butcher and Subban were mostly tasked with offensive zone duties, the team could probably afford to give them a normal amount of offensive zone starts while keeping the pairing together. This would be a very offensively-focused pairing, but under Lindy Ruff, the team should have a heavy focus on offense. And while some may worry about the defensive acumen of this pairing due to Will Butcher’s general lack of physicality, Will Butcher has allowed fewer shots than average from high-danger areas on his side of the ice. From Hockeyviz, here is Will Butcher’s isolated shot chart over the past two seasons:


What we see in Will Butcher is not the defensively unreliable player we saw in his rookie year who needed a stay-at-home defenseman to keep him afloat on the back end. Rather, Butcher needs to be given more time to show that he can be a top-four defenseman. If he cannot do that, then Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl are left-handed defenseman looking to make an impact in Binghamton or New Jersey in the next season.

Evidence For and Against Dmitry Kulikov

In his past season with the Winnipeg Jets, Dmitry Kulikov played nearly half of his even strength minutes with Neal Pionk, who Devils fans might remember as a not-very-good defenseman for the New York Rangers, who floundered at even strength while padding his counting stats on the power play. In his two seasons with the Rangers, Pionk had Corsi For percentages of 41.9 and 43.9, for relative rates of -6.3 and -3.5. Pionk not only had a negative effect on shots allowed, but on shots taken for the Rangers. And after being traded with a first-round pick for Jacob Trouba in June 2019, Pionk had a breakout season with Winnipeg, in which he had 45 points in 71 games while playing 23:23 per game. From Natural Stat Trick, here is the pairing with and without each other:

  • With: 456:15 TOI, 53.00 CF%, 246-222 shot ratio (52.56 SF%), 19-14 goals ratio (57.58 GF%), 19.34-18.58 xG ratio (51.01 xGF%), 1.014 PDO
  • Pionk w/o Kulikov: 925:37 TOI, 51.21 CF%, 510-505 shot ratio (50.25 SF%), 48-44 goals ratio (52.17 GF%), 40.3-42.51 xG ratio (48.66 xGF%), 1.007 PDO
  • Kulikov w/o Pionk: 481:34 TOI, 48.47 CF%, 211-252 shot ratio (45.57 SF%), 15-24 goals ratio (38.46 GF%), 14.16-19.98 xG ratio (41.48 xGF%), 0.976 PDO

While it is great that Dmitry Kulikov helped elevate Neal Pionk with the Winnipeg Jets, it is unfortunate that Kulikov could not find any success with other defensemen on the team. During the past year, Neal Pionk was more effective than P.K. Subban on both ends of the ice, and I worry about whether Kulikov would be any good with Subban. From Evolving-Hockey, here’s a comparison of their impacts on their teams at even strength:


P.K. Subban had a very porous year last season, being on the ice for 60 goals against at even strength. Usually, this would be offset by solid or great offensive output from Subban, but the Devils got the worst season of his career out of him. We might be looking at a repeat of that, or we might see a resurgence from Subban next season. But all I know is that I do not think that P.K. Subban should be paired with Dmitry Kulikov. Therefore, in order for Dmitry Kulikov to be put on the second pairing, Damon Severson would have to play with him while Subban plays with Ryan Murray - but that would most likely weaken the top pairing.

More on Butcher - His 2019-20 Season Was Not Bad

A lot of people like to look at Will Butcher’s career stats and think that he is getting worse every year. 44 points in 81 games, then 30 in 78, and then 21 in 56. But what they fail to take into consideration is 23 of his points in his rookie season were on the power play, as well as 14 of his points in his second season. If you were to strip away his power play time, and judge him only on what he does at even strength, this is what Butcher’s career would look like:

  • 2017-18: 81 games, 2 goals, 19 assists, 1081:50 TOI. 0.11 G/60, 0.44 A1/60, 0.61 A2/60 (1.16 PTS/60). 2.88 S/60, 0.18 ixG/60.
  • 2018-19: 78 games, 3 goals, 13 assists, 1227:31 TOI. 0.14 G/60, 0.14 A1/60, 0.47 A2/60 (0.75 PTS/60). 4.13 S/60, 0.19 ixG/60.
  • 2019-20: 56 games, 4 goals, 16 assists, 908:18 TOI. 0.26 G/60, 0.46 A1/60, 0.59 A2/60 (1.32 PTS/60). 3.63 S/60, 0.18 ixG/60.

Given this, Will Butcher’s worst offensive season was not 2019-20, but 2018-19. He produced very little at even strength, and over half of his points were secondary assists. By far, Butcher produced his most primary points per 60 minutes played in the 2019-20 season. He even had more total primary points in the past season than he had in his whole rookie season, despite playing 25 fewer games. This is in part because Butcher played nearly as many minutes in the shortened season at even strength as he played in his rookie year. In his rookie season, Butcher played only 13:21 per game at even strength, compared to 16:13 in the past season. Still, Butcher made improvements on his goal scoring, going from even strength shooting percentages of 3.85 and 3.41 in his first two seasons to 7.27 in the past season.

If he can replicate his 2019-20 season at even strength, Butcher’s biggest issue going forward will be trying to play his way back onto the power play - which was shaky on a team-level last season. In his 74 power play minutes last season, the Devils only scored three goals while allowing three. That was a pathetic performance - but on the bright side, it would be extremely difficult for Butcher to perform worse than that ever again in his career.

What to Expect from Kulikov

Dmitry Kulikov is not a useless player. Looking at his career statistics, it looks like spending his age-26 year in Buffalo really did a number on how he plays the ame. Prior to his 5 points in 47 games with Buffalo, Kulikov had 138 points in 460 games from age 19 to 25, playing an average of 20:40 per game in those seasons with the Florida Panthers. He even had 48 power play points, with two of his first three seasons in the league being years where he had 10 power play points. Since leaving Florida, Kulikov has had 32 points in 217 games, playing an average of 18:26 per game. He’s dealt with some back problems in the past few years, which might also explain his premature decline.

My personal hope for Dmitry Kulikov is that he plays on the third pairing with Ty Smith, and in the absence of heavy defensive responsibilities (which are hopefully handled by a Murray-Severson pairing), regains some of his early-career offensive touch. He turned 30 on October 29, and it’s not too late for him to prove he can be a solid player moving forward.


In the past few years, Kulikov has transitioned away from getting lower in the offensive zone to use his wrist shot in favor of staying back at the blue line. If the Devils can keep him against lesser competition on a pairing with Ty Smith, then I would like to see him be more aggressive than he’s been in his late 20s to see if he can be more than a 10-point player. But if he ends up back in the top four, do not expect the Devils to have a very easy time offensively with him on the ice. It is because of his offensive ineffectiveness, rather than any issues with his defense, that Kulikov needs to stay on the third pairing.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about Dmitry Kulikov? Do you think his past four seasons are cause for concern as an injury backup for Ryan Murray? How concerned are you with the lack of depth behind him, considering his own injury history? How would you feel about Will Butcher being given a full second-pairing role? Do you think the Devils have any better options? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credit to Natural Stat Trick and Evolving-Hockey for the statistics and RAPM charts used in this article, as well as Hockeyviz for isolated shot maps and as a reference for shot locations.