This week at AAtJ, we have been taking a look at a number of players on the Devils roster who have somewhat uncertain futures with the team. Each player we’ve looked at has been polarizing on some level (some more than others, for sure), but today we reach perhaps one of the most polarizing Devils of this past near-decade spent in the wilderness: Damon Severson. Severson is a riddle of a player, and from almost the time he broke into the NHL, he has elicited a wide variety of opinions on his quality from the Devils fanbase. Some see him as the best defenseman the Devils have at the moment and a necessary part of a defensive foundation to build on, others have long griped (often fairly) that he is just too mistake-prone a player to rely on and that the Devils might be better off moving on from him. Many others likely fall somewhere in between. So what are the Devils to do with their enigmatic blueliner? Should they consider moving him as part of a substantial trade to bring in new talent? Or is he just too important to a roster that is already paper-thin on defense?
Damon Severson looked like a revelation when he first broke into the league in 2014. After making the opening night roster out of camp, he looked like a player who might be something truly special over his first month in the league. In his first 11 games, Severson collected 8 points, a +6 rating, had great underlying stats, and just looked like someone who was ready to take the league by storm. Playing for Pete DeBoer — a coach who was often maligned for his handling of young talent — Severson made such an impression that he played over 27 minutes (!) in his eighth game (!) in the league, leading all skaters by almost five minutes. Severson closed out October of his rookie season with immediate Calder buzz, at least locally, and early returns had the 2012 second-round pick looking like he could perhaps be a franchise cornerstone.
Six enormously frustrating years later, Severson is one of three Devils left standing from that 2014-15 team (Cory Schneider and Travis Zajac are the others), and he can be described in a lot of ways as a player, but I don’t believe “franchise cornerstone” is one of them. Since that opening month, Severson has been a roller coaster to watch as a player and while I think it’s fair to categorize him as a pretty good middle-pairing-caliber defenseman at this point, he is a player who remains endlessly frustrating and certainly not as good as the sum of his parts as a player. He has size, speed, and good instincts for moving the puck up ice. He can be physical and he can wow you with offensive plays. His microstats indicate a player with good skills at both ends of the ice (shown below from CJ’s viz of Corey Sznajder’s tracking data). His shot metrics have almost always shown him pushing play in the right direction.
Severson is the player who expected goals stats were developed for. A consistent darling of the shot metrics over his first several seasons, his goal metrics always trailed behind, often substantially. He was one of the guys where hand waving away a divergence in CF% and GF% as an accident of luck or bad percentages turned out to be wrong. We can now see that in the more advanced metrics with shot location data that have gone beyond the reach of just shot attempts. Despite being fairly regularly positive in shot metrics, the more data on threat levels and scoring chances that was incorporated into models, the more that Severson’s stats started to mirror the lousy results he often got.
GAR metrics disliked Severson pretty much up until this most recent season and a overview of his isolated impacts shows how his defense has dragged him down and seen him be a net negative in threat level for each of the three seasons before this most recent one. Severson had his head above water for his first couple seasons in HockeyViz’s isolated impact measures, but slipped below them, at times substantially, the three seasons from 2016-19. He was a net -1.6% threat in 2016-17, followed by a -7.1% and -7-2% net threat in 2017-18 and 2018-19, with his defensive impact in 2017-18 looking particularly catastrophic. Matching those three seasons underwater (seen in the viz below) against the microstats from above is about as succinct an explainer for why Severson is so frustrating as a player as anyone can produce.
Severson can clearly play the game well at the NHL level, the issue seems to be something akin to lack of focus and attention to detail on the ice. The analytics and the eye test have seemingly converged somewhat on this assessment.
Performance in 2019-20
Notably, though, Severson seems to have made strides in his defensive game this past season. With the Devils putting more responsibility on him, he showed that he is capable of playing a relatively clean game against tough competition. Severson may be slightly out of his depth as a #1 defender, generally speaking, but he is clearly capable and would probably look much better in a situation where he was part of a quality defensive unit instead of, well, whatever adjectives you want to use for the Devils blueline.
Severson led all Devils skaters in minutes in 2019-20 and he finished sixth in scoring (comfortably first among defenders) despite being third in power play minutes among d-men. His net threat impact, surprisingly powered by solid defense, was +2.8% at evens. He also saw himself thrust into a substantial role on the penalty kill, where he had a positive threat impact and the lowest GA/60 of any regular contributor to that unit and second lowest xGA/60 behind Subban. He was a versatile and effective defenseman at both even strength and on special teams. If there was a knock on his game this season it’s that he wasn’t driving play in the offensive zone, which is not the complaint with his game that anyone is accustomed to.
Severson just turned 26 at the start of this month, so he’s now entering veteran territory as a player. That his game has quieted down and become a bit more conservative is not out of the ordinary, but I think people are probably not quite willing to accept the idea of “Damon Severson, defensive dynamo” just yet. His game has very clearly started to mature a bit, though, and the Devils are likely better for it. That doesn’t mean Damon can’t still pepper in the occasional catastrophically boneheaded play, but he was a steady contributor this season and I think you’d be fairly hard-pressed to make an argument for a defender who was more effective for the Devils this season.
So Why Would the Devils Consider Trading Him?
The reasons to trade a player can vary, whether it’s cap-space related, a swap of roster players for futures (or vice versa), or to deal from a position of strength to add to a position of weakness. Severson is entering his prime and is under contract at a reasonable cap hit for the next three years. Now, nobody is going to mistake defense for a position of strength of the Devils, but Severson might also be one of the more tradeable assets on the Devils roster. In terms of players they might even theoretically be willing to part with, he might have the most value of anyone. If Tom Fitzgerald and company feel that his value on the trade market surpasses his current value to the roster, that could be a reason to move him, even with the team’s issues on defense.
Severson is a tough player to rate, precisely for the reasons outlined at length above. He has the tools in spades and has ever since he arrived in the league. His issues are well documented but I’m sure there are plenty of teams that feel those issues can be mitigated or even fixed in the right situation. The question will be what teams would be willing to give up for a package built around Damon Severson. A name I’ve seen floated on Twitter is William Nylander of the Maple Leafs. Severson fills the Leafs need for a capable, reasonably-priced defenseman and Nylander looks awful nice as someone to slot into the Devils top-six at wing. It would also save the Leafs close to $3M in cap space. Would the Devils make this deal? Would the Leafs? I’m a little skeptical that the Leafs would do it (I think there would likely be other pieces attached on one or both sides), but this is the type of deal I think the Devils would have to be aiming for if they did consider moving a player like Severson.
Is a deal like that even possible? Like I said, I’m a bit skeptical, but it does at least have a ring of plausibility. And I think that’s the only type of deal the Devils should be considering with a guy like Severson (i.e. trading him for another good young(ish) player under contract for multiple years). The team cannot and should not offload a player like Severson for futures, and they have all the cap space in the world right now so a cap dump makes no sense. The Devils have to believe they are improving their roster with any move involving Severson. A talented forward like Nylander could fit the bill there, even if the situation on defense goes from bad to worse in the meantime.
I’ve long been more in the Severson apologist category than detractor, though the past few years of Damon have certainly tested my patience at times. In 2019-20, though, I think Severson showed he is capable of evolving and I think in the right situation, he still has the ability to thrive in this league. He showed this past season that he’s the best defenseman the Devils likely have at this point, meaning that any move that results in his departure will strike a blow to an already weak unit. It’s for that reason most of all that I think the Devils should keep Severson in the fold unless someone absolutely blows them out of the water with a Hall-for-Larsson type offer.
Severson is showing evidence of becoming a more responsible defender and combined with his overall abilities, I think that means he can be a part of a quality top pairing in the right situation. I don’t think the “What exactly were you thinking there?” plays will ever be eliminated from his game, but if he can keep the frequency of those moments down, he feels much more like a part of the solution than the problem. Given how much work the defense needs, it’s hard to walk away from a player with his level of ability at this juncture, and for that reason, I think the Devils are best served by building up around him rather than moving on at this point.