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Dmitry Kulikov Has Been a Welcome Surprise for the Devils

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With the young players hogging all the offensive glory, and the defensive praise siphoned towards the goalies, you might’ve miss a strong start from an unpresuming source.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Note: This was written before the loss to Philly last night. Stats will be based off the first 5 games. The conclusions on Kulikov (and Smith, for that matter) aged well IMO, but the statistics will be based on the first 5 games.

In my never-ending quest to snatch depression from the jaws of jubilee, I’ve recently become “that guy” when it comes to assessing the performance of some players like Ty Smith. I have audacity to bring up that he’s been really rough defensively, but goalies and bailed him out; and not particularly transformative offensively, but lucky bounces earned him a point streak. So, once the lucky point streak stops, we’ll be forced to confront his defensive struggles (Note: Again, this was before the Philly game, I think we can agree I nailed that).

It’s hard enough to preach process over results in normal circumstances with ample data — but 5 games into a short-anyway season with the future of the Devils blueline on the docket? It was hard not to be wooed. The thing is, though, Ty Smith is just a manifestation for all problems with assessing any player early in a season. There is literally no Devil whose seen more goals allowed than expected while they’re on the ice. This isn’t that surprising seeing as, going into the Philly game, we’d given up only 3 goals (on 9.4 xGs) at even strength over the first 5 games. But it probably leads us to believe out skaters (and our defencemen, in particular) are doing better than they are. While the goals allowed results have been great, the expected goals rates for most Devils D-men have been terrible. There are 199 NHL defenders that had received at least 20 minutes of 5v5 ice time in Evolving-Hockey’s database. So, if we look at the chart below, we see that, despite all our guys being in the top 3rd of NHL defenders in goals against, they are all in the bottom half in expected goals against... except for one.

Dmitry Kulikov has yet to see a 5v5 goal scored against him (still true after Philly) and, while he’s certainly gotten help from the goalies, he’s also just been flat out excellent at preventing shots and chances while he’s out there.

I think it’s probably important, given this strong start, to see if this was predictable. And, more importantly, if it makes sense that it would continue. The chart from Hockeyviz below shows Kulikov’s isolated impact on shot traffic each year — this means that, accounting for the situation and skaters in which he was deployed how many shots came from each area of the ice relative to what we would have expected. The bottom is his defense.

After being a poor defensive impact player in 2019, Kulikov turned it on in 2019 and is now coasting in the defensive zone, causing a 7% reduction in expected goals against while he’s on the ice. If we look to transition metrics (recorded by Corey Sznajder) for an explanation as to why this might be happening, we see that last season was the first in a while that Kulikov was able to marry two important defensive skills — denying controlled OZ entries, and committing controlled DZ exits.

This all combines to make him a positive overall impact on the defensive end of the ice. In 2 of the past 3 years he had positive defensive value (according to xGAR) and he looks headed towards his 3rd.

And, perhaps burying the lede here, he’s been a perfect fit alongside Damon Severson — who has a legitimate claim to being the most effective overall defenceman this year (it’d be a stronger claim if it weren’t for the dumb penalties). Giving Seves a defensively reliable linemate is not something new — he was very good with Andy Greene in the past. But two things have changed since then that make this pairing even more encouraging. The first is that Severson’s defensive chops have improved as he’s matured and that has made this pair our most effective unit thus far this season, especially defensively. Murray and Subban may have been the sexy additions of the past two seasons, but when Ruff needed someone to clamp down on Barzal and the Islanders to secure the 2-0 win, he gave Kulkov 4 shifts played him for 3 of the last 5 minutes minutes including finishing the game.

The second thing that’s changed is our defensive system. In particular, Lindy Ruff’s system is designed to take advantage of the Devils strong-skating defenders by asking them to join the rush. This is probably why you’ve seen him go with one offensive (Subban, Severson, Smith) and one defensive (Murray, Kulikov, Tennyson?) in each pairing, and also probably why Will Butcher is out of the lineup (as effective as he is, his speed makes him a bad choice to join the rush, and his defense makes him a bad fit to stay back). Jack Han did a great job of diagramming out this change in philosophy over at his newsletter. For illustrative purposes imagine that the defender (D1) pinching up to join the rush and help gain the zone is Severson.

And that defender staying back (D2) is Kulikov. The ability of this defender to limit the danger of an odd-man rush coming the other way is essential to mitigating the risk of the additional rusher. As an example, sometimes, Seves will get carried away and Kulikov will have to do something like this:

Do you see that very last Devil the drifts lazily into the lower right of the screen at the end of the gif? That’s #28, Damon Severson who had been deep, DEEP in the Islanders zone when this counter-attack happened. But, Kulikov was able to backcheck, deflect a dangerous pass, and prevent a prime scoring chance because he excels at being the stay-at-home complement in Ruff’s system who is tasked with bailing out the filed entries of the 4-man rush.

We all knew that the Devils talent on the blueline had no natural heir to Greene’s role, but the general consensus had been that Murray would take the reins and Kulikov would just try to make the roster. As it turns out, we might have a fight on our hands. Kulikov has continued his strong defensive impacts from last season, and serves as a natural complement to Damon Severson in Ruff’s aggressive scheme. If the undermanned Devils are to continue keeping up with teams in 5-on-5 play, Kulikov will likely be key to maintaining defensive order in Ruff’s chaos.

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What do you think of Kulikov’s play so far? Are you as impressed as I have been or do you think he’s just been okay? Did you expect him to be better, worse, or about this good? Do you see him as a good fit alongside Severson in Ruff’s scheme or should Ruff try to play around with the defenders a little bit more?

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