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Is Kevin Bahl a Dark Horse Candidate to Make the Devils Roster in 2021?

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The Devils lack physicality, and Tom Fitzgerald has stated he wants the defense to be bigger. Could Kevin Bahl be an answer?

Ottawa 67s v Oshawa Generals Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

Standing at 6’7”, and 240 pounds, Kevin Bahl might be an electric physical presence for the New Jersey Devils in the future. The key to ensuring that is giving him a good track for development. While that is a concern, the Devils have gaping holes in their defense with only one top four NHL defenseman on the left side in Will Butcher. As a result, the Devils might feel the need to quicken the process of Bahl’s path to the NHL - as he would help fulfill Tom Fitzgerald’s view that the Devils need to be bigger on the blueline.

Having played with Nikita Okhotyuk on the Ottawa 67s and with Ty Smith at the World Juniors Championships for Team Canada, Bahl has already made himself familiar with some of the Devils’ possible future defense. But how well has Bahl done at the OHL level?

Kevin Bahl’s Track Record

Elite Prospects

The last time the New Jersey Devils had one of their defensive prospects make a jump to the NHL straight from Canadian juniors was when Damon Severson made the roster in 2014. Severson, like Bahl, was a late second round pick (60th overall) and did not need any seasoning in the AHL before becoming Andy Greene’s main partner at the start of the 2014-15 season. Bahl, who was picked 55th by Arizona in 2017, does not have the same sort of offensive pedigree that Damon Severson had coming out of juniors. Compared to Bahl’s pace of 39 points per 68 games in his final OHL season, Severson had 61 points in 64 games in his final WHL season. However, Kevin Bahl has shown that he is capable of strings of good offensive performances, as seen in his 11 points in 15 playoff games in 2019. He also had an even better stretch of games early in the 2019-20 OHL season. From The Athletic ($), Scott Wheeler said about Kevin Bahl’s hopes of making the Canadian team in the World Juniors Championships in the early season:

Knowing he needed a hot start to crack Team Canada, he also put too much pressure on himself out of the gate. The result was a -5 rating and no points through his first seven games of the season.

But by the time Team Canada’s selection camp rolled around, those struggles were behind him. He’d followed up the next 21 games with 20 points and an almost unbelievable +Mi25 rating

Obviously, Bahl did not keep up that scoring pace, which is disappointing. But his juniors coaches definitely relied on him in a shutdown role - and I doubt how much they tried to develop his offense. Sure, he is a natural for the defensive side of the game (according to coaches) - but I would hope that a juniors coach would try to expand the game of a player who is about to age out of the league by using them in new situations - especially someone as apparently gifted as Bahl. However, it is what it is, and we’re left with a promising defensive defenseman.

The Style of Kevin Bahl

For Kevin Bahl to make the team, Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff are going to have to believe that he has the skating ability and positioning to not get burned by NHL forwards. Given his performance in the OHL, he might only score somewhere between 10 and 15 points in an NHL season. We’ve seen the Devils play several low scoring defensemen in recent years - but only a handful (Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy) have been long-term regulars. What Bahl has going for him is that not only does the Ottawa 67s coach believe he is a great player: but coaches around the OHL also do. From the OHL website:

The Coaches Poll is tabulated when each team submits one nominee per category, and coaches then vote for the top three players for each category within their conference. Players receive five points for a first place vote, three points for a second place vote, and one point for a third place vote. Clubs are not permitted to vote for players from their own team allowing for a maximum of 45 possible points for each winner.

As seen in the quoted text above, 45 vote points was the maximum Bahl could have gotten, and he did for Best Defensive Defenseman. Also finishing third in best body checker, Bahl is obviously able to play defense with his stick as well as his body, which bodes well for his ability to play in the NHL. It should be noted that the Ottawa 67s also had the winner of the Best Offensive Defenseman poll with Noel Hoefenmayer (also with 45 out of 45 vote points). This may have kept Kevin Bahl from getting as much of an opportunity to drive the offense as much as it may have been possible for him to in his overage juniors seasons. This leaves the Devils with a choice on whether they want to work on his offense at the AHL level, or just see how well he can influence play in the NHL. He certainly has the physicality to fend off even a lot of players in the NHL when he has the puck.

For Bahl to have success in the NHL, he is going to have to protect the puck from intense forechecking at times. He needs to be ready for players like Blake Coleman, who will fight tooth and nail to get the puck when he has it in his defensive zone. You can see Murray here trying to get around Bahl to strip the puck away, but Bahl’s elbow gives him no room to maneuver and he ends up crashing into Bahl’s backside. In the upper Tweet, Bahl shows good decision making but I doubt NHL forecheckers will give him that much room to make a stretch pass unless they go off for a line change.

Here, you can see how quickly Bahl closes down on opposing players. He certainly could have sat back and tried to play the puck off of Grondin’s stick at the blueline, but Bahl’s ability to make a smooth transition from skating backwards gives Grondin absolutely no time to make a pass or maneuver around Bahl along the boards. Bahl has the ability to make (clean) play-stopping hits that throw off the opponents, as seen by how quickly he is challenged to a fight in the above clip.

While we do not get to see the lead-up to the hit and the route that Bahl took here, we do get to see his hitting form. He leans into Mysak with his lower body, and follows through with his arm to prevent Mysak from taking the loose puck. This type of hit is more borderline, as he could be called for interference at times - and some opposing teams might see Bahl’s arm raise after conter contact act and go after him for the hit. He also seems to prefer leading with his backside at least slightly, if not fully turned to the opposing player, as seen in this hit:

This time, Bahl was not able to prevent the puck from getting into the offensive zone, but he closes his gap quite well to take Brink out of the play. You can see how low Bahl gets to gear up for that hit, and throws another hard check with his backside.

Who Would He Fit in a Pairing With?

When Damon Severson made the jump directly from juniors to the NHL, he was paired mostly with Andy Greene - the best defenseman on the team, who started to need some offensive skill on his right after playing with mostly defensive partners. If Kevin Bahl were to make the jump from juniors to the NHL, he would probably have to be paired with an offensive defenseman who needs a shutdown player to cover up for their mistakes with the puck. The clear answer to who that is on the New Jersey Devils is P.K. Subban. Subban struggles with turnovers and defensive zone play, and Kevin Bahl might be the booming physical presence on the back-end that might dissuade opposing players from keeping the puck on their stick when Subban loses it. Rather than Bahl run the breakout at even strength, he could rely on Subban’s passing and physically punish those who manage to intercept Subban’s breakout passes. Bahl may be a better straight-from-juniors option than, say, Ty Smith due to Smith’s relative lack of physicality and offensive focus. Smith would likely have trouble dealing with how many times Subban finds himself out of position off a turnover, while Bahl’s ability to close the gap with his long reach or his body might help make up for the aging Subban’s defensive deficiencies.

Of course, this would be a huge responsibility for a first-year defenseman with no seasoning in the AHL. But the good thing about Bahl is this decision is not an all-or-nothing matter. He could make the team at the start of the season, and end up in the AHL (whenever it actually starts) after some games due to his status as being too old to be sent back to juniors. Additionally, the Devils could limit his minutes and use Will Butcher with P.K. Subban in high pressure and late-game trailing situations. This would allow the (current) best left side defenseman to get more minutes than on his own pairing, while Bahl gets a chance to play with someone who can make up for his underdeveloped offense.

Who are the Alternatives?

If Kevin Bahl were to make the team, it would likely mean that Mirco Mueller is out of the lineup at the very least. Fredrik Claesson is an unrestricted free agent - but he like Mueller is a seventh defenseman type who should probably not be given a top six role with a team. Claesson might be better than Mueller, but neither should be playing with Subban - and we know that Mueller should definitely not get those minutes. Dakota Mermis could also be given an extended look in the NHL - but he mostly played with Severson, and not Subban last season (and performed rather well in his 150 minutes with Severson with a 52.86 xGF, according to Natural Stat Trick). However, Mermis is an unrestricted free agent and must be re-signed just like Claesson if the Devils want to use him in the NHL.

So aside from those three, the Devils would have to look to free agency for their next immediate options for filling out the defense. Brenden Dillon would probably make a great partner for someone of P.K. Subban’s style, which would effectively keep Bahl in the AHL barring the injury of a defenseman. But if the Devils get any of the better left-handed defensemen on the market, I assume they would be paired with P.K. Subban. But if the Devils adopt a conservative approach, then Bahl might end up with a chance to make the team come the start of next season. This is also true if the Devils sign an established NHL defenseman, but someone who is right-handed (i.e. Justin Braun, Dylan DeMelo) and can be a solid third pairing defenseman. But on the left-side, the options are rather thin. From CapFriendly, here are the unrestricted left handed free agents sorted by ice time per game played, excluding the top three of Zdeno Chara and Ron Hainsey due to age and likely unwillingness to play here, as well as Jay Bouwmeester for health reasons.

CapFriendly

As you can see, the options are thin. Aside from overpaying Torey Krug, the next best option here is TJ Brodie and Brendon Dillon. I would not be against the returns of Andy Greene or Jon Merrill - but Greene only as a third pairing and Merril only as a replacement for Mueller as a seventh defenseman type. Aside from that, I’d avoid pretty much most of the free agents available, and that leaves the Devils with the option of acquiring another defenseman via trade.

So, while Kevin Bahl is certainly a young player with more time of developing ahead of him, he might have a better chance than many think of making the New Jersey Devils roster next season - especially considering the weak group of left-handed defensemen in the free agent pool. If he were to make the team, it could be exciting for fans to watch in my opinion given the fact he would immediately be one of the biggest players in the NHL and seems to have much less trouble on his skates than other similarly sized players that have come and gone in the league - or never made it to the NHL.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about Kevin Bahl? Would you be upset or happy if he made the team next season? If he were to make the team, do you think he should be paired with Subban, Severson, or the as-of-now unknown third pairing right-side defenseman? If the AHL season is delayed compared to the start of the next NHL season, how would that affect your opinion on the matter? How do you think someone like Bahl would function in Lindy Ruff’s high-event style? Do you think he is just the right person to handle the defensive downsides of that system, or do you think that the Devils should try to keep the pressure off of him? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.