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The Devils Blueline Is a TON of Question Marks

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The Devils defensive corps is filled with question marks of various types — debatably and upgrade from recent past seasons,

NHL: Preseason-New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the days of Mike Cammalleri, those of us on this blog used to refer to him using the acronym MCWH (Mike Cammalleri, When Healthy). This was a necessary caveat when discussing what we expected of the Devils lineup because he was a helpful player while playing, but pretty much always seemed to be injured. Cammalleri ended up averaging 57 games a year across his 3 full seasons. If that was frustrating for you, Ryan Murray seems likely to bring out your PTSD because he hasn’t played 57 games in any of his last 3 seasons.

And Murray is just the start of the question marks for the Devils blueline.

The highest paid man on the unit, P.K. Subban, could very recently have laid claim to the title of “Best NHL Defender”. But he struggled in his last season in Nashville, and completely cratered last season in NJ. His defensive game continued to decline, and his offensive production got PDOed into oblivion. If the percentage Gods are on his side and we can help him out with easier usage, than he could regress up back to a reasonable downward trajectory as opposed to the cliff he fell off over the last two seasons. A decent-to-good P.K. would completely change this defense.

While P.K. is the biggest star, the player with the most hype is probably one that hasn’t played an NHL game yet. In between 1st overall picks, Devils fans were delighted to have highly touted defensive prospect Ty Smith fall to them in at 17th. And while he’s continued to tear up juniors, he’s yet to command an NHL roster spot. And, for that matter, the degree to which he’s dominating the WHL has not grown as much as we’d have hoped. According to Byron Bader’s model, while his NHLe has grown each season, his probability of becoming a star or an NHLer at all have decreased since his draft year.

Ty Smith is probably the biggest unknown because we have no NHL data on him, but if he could turn into a top 4 defender this season, that would totally upend the structure of this defense. But if he flops, the future of the blueline looks quite bleak.

It goes to show just how wide the range of achievement for this defense is that guys like Damon Severson and Will Butcher are considered the “safe” bets. Butcher is an analytical darling($), but struggles when playing up in the lineup so always seems to settle into thriving statistically in a bottom 4 position. Damon Severson was much maligned for his defensive miscues and as a younger player, but has developed his overall game and led the Devils in ice time while playing in all 3 situations last season. There’s a nonzero chance he crashes and burns (particularly defensively — which was a new skill this past year), but he’s also probably the best bet to lead the team in minutes yet again.

Here are two legitimate possibilities in my opinion for how the defense pans out:

1) PK is done, Murray gets injured, Smith hits the AHL, Butcher fails to move past the 2nd pair, and Damon reverts defensively. The first pairing can never keep up with top lines, the 2nd pairing gets dragged to competence by a stagnant but efficient Butcher, and there are not 6 NHLers on the roster so the 3rd pairing is a constant surprise, but primarily features Kulikov and Carrick.

2) Damon continues to mold himself into a top pairing player alongside healthy and reliable Murray, which allows PK, Butcher, and Smith to feast on the bottom six of opponents. The “starting 5” can hold steady against most NHL lineups, and the bottom 4 defenders will be enough to put the unit as a whole in the plus column.

Which of these is more likely? I have genuinely no idea. But I guess “questions marks” are better than “obviously bad.” So, you could argue that this is an improvement over what we’ve had recently.

Thanks for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below.