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New Jersey Devils 2021 Season Preview Part 2: The Defense

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Much of last year’s sub-par defense will return in New Jersey, but some new acquisitions and newly-turned-pro prospects will create a deeper group in 2021 that can perhaps start inching back toward respectable.

Edmonton Oilers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2019-20 Team Results

The Devils were a bit of a mess on defense last season, to say the least. A defensive unit that was supposed to be bolstered by the addition of a brand name top-tier defenseman (even one on the downslope of his career like PK Subban) was expected to be a bit more solid than previous years and guide the Devils back toward playoff contention. Through the first 39 minutes of the season, that appeared like it might come true. The remainder? Well, not so much. The goaltending situation definitely had a substantial hand in this, but the Devils’ defensive unit was among the very worst in the league last season, finishing 28th in all-situations goals against per 60 and 29th in 5v5 goals against per 60.

The team was frequently blown out, allowing five or more goals against 20 separate times (not including games where the shootout loss was the fifth “goal”) in a truncated 69-game season. If you showed up to a Devils game last season, there was almost a 30% chance that you were going to see them get a five spot hung on them in the following 60-65 minutes of hockey. Only the lowly Detroit Red Wings were worse on that front. And while the goaltending problems were partially to blame for that fact, the defense independent of the goaltending was shambolic at times.

At even strength, the Devils struggled mightily to contain other teams, finishing near the bottom of the league in expected goals against. Looking at the team’s defensive performance on HockeyViz, we can see that their assessment roughly aligns with the linked Natural Stat Trick for the Devils defensive prowess at even strength.

Devils defensive heat map, relative to the league.
from HockeyViz.com

Opposing teams made themselves at home in the slot against the Devils last season. Couple that with the disastrous backup goaltending situation from last year and [gestures in the general direction of where the Devils finished in the standings]. The defense held up better on the penalty kill, which someone else will get into later in this preview series, but overall it was misery for New Jersey on the back end, with too many players playing in roles that were over their head.

Last Year’s Lineup

There was a lot of shuffling around of pairings for the Devils last season, but based strictly on ice time, this was how the lineup shook out.

First Pairing: Damon Severson, PK Subban

Middle Pairing: Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen

Bottom Pairing: Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller

7th D: Connor Carrick

Others/Call-ups: Matt Tennyson, Dakota Mermis, Colton White, Fredrik Claesson, Josh Jacobs

That lineup didn’t look particularly great on paper in 2019 and the on-ice result failed to reach even relatively meager expectations. Most of the performances from the defense could be fairly classified as disappointing and the results for the unit as a whole pretty much reflect that. Two of the de facto top four (Greene and Vatanen) were traded in February, leaving an even thinner group left over to close the season. Based on those results, the Devils did a little bit of retooling once the official offseason finally showed up (including now bringing back one of those trade departures).

The 2021 Roster

So for 2021, many of the same faces will be entrusted with substantial roles on this defense, but a couple of new faces are in the mix to try to help this unit get closer to respectable. Additionally, the Devils had several of their better defensive prospects jump to the pros this offseason, meaning they will likely be fighting for space on this roster as well. We’ll go first through the returning Devils, then the new acquisitions, then touch on how the prospects might fit in. Meanwhile, the Devils did not re-sign Mirco Mueller and will move forward without their longtime captain, Andy Greene, as well after he was traded to the Islanders and re-signed there this offseason.

Departures of Note: Andy Greene, Sami Vatanen, Mirco Mueller.

The Returns

Damon Severson - PK Subban - Will Butcher - Connor Carrick

Damon Severson

Last Season: Damon Severson had what might have been his best season as a defender last year. This was particularly true on defense, where he was able to perform better than he ever had before, even despite playing the toughest minutes of his career. Severson led all skaters in average time on ice last season at 22:58 per game. He led fairly comfortably at that, averaging almost a minute more than the player with the second-highest usage, and he was among the leaders on the defense in both power play and penalty kill ice time. Severson was also able to put up solid scoring numbers from the blue line, putting up 31 points (8g, 23a) in 69 games.

Severson still had some of his customary brain farts at times, but he has a strong case for being the Devils’ best defender from last season. He was entrusted with the #1 defenseman role and acquitted himself fairly well for a player with his defensive reputation. Ideally, you probably wouldn’t be leaning on him so much as the Devils did in 2019-20 but he is much closer to part of the solution on this defense than he is the problem.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: Severson was always something of a Corsi darling, but as expected goal (xG) models arrived on the scene and started to improve, the weaknesses that showed up in the eye test for Severson started to manifest more in his stats. Looking at his career xG impacts from Micah McCurdy’s Hockey Viz, you can see the way Severson struggled as he was given more responsibility between 2016 and 2019. In 2019-20, though you can see the way that he stepped up on defense, actually suppressing it overall against tough deployment. He seems to have sacrificed overall offensive effectiveness a bit to do that, but he was also picking his spots a little better last season, allowing him to put up strong scoring alongside the improved defense. The Evolving Hockey GAR model shows similar trends for Severson, particularly on defense, where it found his defense added value last year in contrast to previous seasons, where his offense had been better. The three year aggregate below shows Severson as an all-around capable defenseman.

Severson 2019-20 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Severson career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Severson three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Was Severson’s defensive improvement last season a mirage or a sign of maturity?

The Outlook: For better or worse right now, Severson is The Guy for the Devils on the back end. He is likely to lead the team in minutes again and will serve as perhaps the primary cornerstone for this defense. He will likely get substantial minutes at all strengths and the hope will be that the more well-rounded Severson that showed up last season can remain and perhaps even be bolstered by a better partner than he had in 2019-20.

PK Subban

Last Season: PK Subban was a blockbuster acquisition for the Devils in the summer of 2019 and along with the return of Taylor Hall from injury, the drafting of Jack Hughes, and the trade for Nikita Gusev, it led to some seriously elevated expectations for the 2019-20 Devils. We know how that all ended up, and Subban may have been the biggest disappointment in a season filled with them. The hope was that after a bumpy 2018-19 season, Subban would be able to bounce back and help anchor the Devils defense. Instead of rebounding from that last season in Nashville, though, Subban’s spiral accelerated. The 2019-20 season was easily the worst of Subban’s career, with him being a drag on both the offense and the defense. He played top-pair minutes for New Jersey (22:07 ATOI), but he certainly didn’t perform anywhere near that level.

Subban’s game looked clunky last season in a lot of facets with perhaps the most glaring issue being his skating, where he just looked off and wooden at times, leading to a lack of the dynamism that had previously defined his career. His shot looked less threatening as well, as Subban registered a career low in points with 18, even with him finishing with a 4 points in 5 games flourish. Subban came to the Devils to become the focal point on the defense and ended up likely being a net negative for the team overall.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: Prior to the last couple seasons Subban was simultaneously an elite offensive defenseman and solid enough on the defensive end to make him one of the league’s premier blue liners. The past two seasons, and last season in particular, he was... not that. His 2018-19 season in Nashville was the first time in his career that Subban had a negative threat impact per the HockeyViz xG model and in 2019-20, he took it to the next level turning what was hopefully a blip into what looks like a full-on decline. His GAR numbers tell a similar story, with his last three seasons registering as below average but with that evaluation bolstered by three seasons ago when he was still playing at a high level. His latest season by the GAR model was ugly.

Subban 2019-20 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Subban career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Subban three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Does PK have enough in the tank for a bounce back?

The Outlook: Subban was undeniably among the biggest disappointments for the Devils last season, and if they hope to have a reasonably successful season on the back end, the are going to need him to pull out of the career tailspin he has been in the past couple seasons. Whether I would bank on that happening? I’m not sure, but Subban’s last year has be major motivation for him to get himself right, and if he is capable of recapturing any of his previous form, this season after an extended layoff may be his best opportunity left.

Will Butcher

Last Season: Last season was Will Butcher’s third with the Devils and I think a lot of people were hopeful that, based on his opening two seasons, he would be able to jump into a solid top-four role and succeed there. That didn’t really happen, as Butcher ultimately finished the season fifth in ice time (17:55 ATOI), a substantial distance behind the the number-four defenseman in ice time, Andy Greene. Butcher couldn’t quite settle into a role with top minutes and his offensive production was somewhat paltry for his role, with 21 points (4g, 17a) in 56 games.

Butcher had a ton of buzz coming out of his rookie season when he looked dominant in a third-pairing role and put up over 40 points. Many were hopeful that he would transition into something of a cornerstone on defense but that hasn’t really happened in subsequent seasons. His ability to drive play in a sheltered role is well-established at this point but it just hasn’t really translated in a more difficult role yet for Butcher. Now, the Devils have not been the best environment for fostering the development of defensive players in New Jersey, but Butcher’s continued struggles to adapt to a larger role certainly did not help matters last season.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: The advanced stats have always liked Butcher from the moment he stepped on NHL ice in 2017. His rookie season showed him as an elite offensive defenseman, driving a huge increase in offense overall to go along with his 44 points. Since then, his impact has been positive but much more muted, likely due to the team trying to give him more responsibility. It’s not that Butcher is a net negative for the team, because he’s still seeing positive impacts, but the disappointment comes from his inability thus far to take hold of a top-four position effectively. The Evolving Hockey GAR model is even more bullish on Butcher based on his three years in the NHL, though its assessment of him has tailed off a bit in the past season. I think this displays Butcher’s ability to make hay in a sheltered role where other depth defensemen are unable, and it would be a more valuable asset if the Devils had a deeper bench, but for now fans will continue hoping he can translate his impact to bigger and tougher minutes.

Butcher 2020 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Butcher career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Butcher three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Can Butcher perform in a role that isn’t just beating up on other teams’ third pairings?

The Outlook: Butcher is a tough player to evaluate because he can make such hay with favorable deployment but seems to evaporate when burdened with too much responsibility. The Devils seem to have better depth on the back end this season, particularly after they reacquired Sami Vatanen, but they could still benefit greatly from Butcher taking another step in tougher situations. I’m beginning to grow skeptical that he has another level he can get to, but even if his age (25) doesn’t portend too much improvement I think there is some hope remaining that he can learn to handle bigger roles in his fourth pro season.

Connor Carrick

Last Season: I won’t dwell on Connor Carrick’s 2019-20 season for too long because it’s pretty easy to sum up. Carrick was a depth player for the Devils and his performance in that role was not particularly good (to be extremely generous). Carrick seemed like a more effective depth option a few years ago before he arrived in New Jersey, but his time here has been lackluster at best and downright ugly at worst. Last season was rough for Carrick as he was a weak link, even relative to an already not-so-good defensive unit.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: Whew. The fancy stats are not a fan of Carrick these days, which shouldn’t be too surprising for anyone who has watched Devils games. His xG impacts were brutal on both offense and defense and while 29 games isn’t the largest sample, it’s enough to conclude that he probably shouldn’t be in anyone’s regular top-six at this point without an injury catastrophe. His GAR stats are similarly rough, with Carrick ranking near the bottom of the league in overall performance in the past three seasons.

Carrick 2020 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Carrick career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Carrick three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Is Carrick’s spot on this roster even safe?

The Outlook: Ideally, Carrick doesn’t see much ice this season. I think the Devils have enough other options now that his role should be more of an emergency fill-in, rather than a semi-regular feature in the lineup as he was last year. He might actually be an ideal fit for the taxi squad heading into the season, but if he appears in more than 10 games, I don’t think it bodes well for the Devils’ blue line.

The Acquisitions

Ryan Murphy - Dimitri Kulikov

Ryan Murray

Last Season: As with a number of his previous seasons, Ryan Murray’s 2019-20 was somewhat marred by injury. While he was on the ice, though, Murray was very effective as a shutdown defender. Murray wasn’t a total offensive black hole while doing it either, as he scored at a 27-point pace per 82 games, showing some similar offensive capability as previous seasons. Murray had middle-pairing ice time last season (likely somewhat influenced by injuries) but played generally strong competition primarily paired with David Savard for Columbus. That shutdown pairing served the Blue Jackets well and made them a pain to play against and the Devils, while they probably don’t have another stalwart like Savard to pair Murray up with, will hope that Murray can bring some of that stability to the ice in New Jersey.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: It’s a little bit of a mixed bag for Murray in the advanced metrics over his career, but over the past few seasons he has started to really solidify himself as a strong defensive defenseman by the numbers. That reached a crescendo last season when Murray ranked among the best defensive defenders in the league in both isolated xG impact and in GAR. I think he will have a challenge on his hands continuing that trend in New Jersey, but solid defense was something the 2019-20 version of this team was aching for, so Murray can hopefully bring some stability on the back end.

Murray 2020 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Murray career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Murray three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Can Murray actually stay healthy and stabilize a shaky (at best) top-four?

The Outlook: If ever there was a spiritual heir to Mike Cammalleri, Ryan Murray feels like he might be it. Murray has the skill set to help this defensive unit significantly... if he can stay healthy. Murray got into 27 games last year and hasn’t played more than 60 since 2015-16, so a betting man might wager on him missing at least 25% of New Jersey’s games this season. The Devils gave up very little to bring Murray over from Columbus, so they don’t have an enormous amount of investment sunk into him, but whether he can remain healthy or not may have as much impact on the Devils season as almost any other factor.

Dimitri Kulikov

Last Season: Kulikov, despite a declining reputation in recent years, put together a half-decent season in a middle pairing role for the Winnipeg Jets in 2019-20. Prior to last season, his ice time had fallen down to a third-pairing level and his relative performance there was what you’d maybe call adequate. Kulikov, likely in part due to Dustin Byfuglien’s abrupt exit before last season, was jumped back up to 20 minutes per game last season, though, and he performed well enough there, at least as far as the defensive side of the puck goes. There isn’t too much more to say about Kulikov’s season other than “he handled it,” but that qualifies

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: The advanced metrics have never been a huge fan of Kulikov but this past season was actually not too bad for him on that front. Particularly on defense, Kulikov may have had what amounts to the best season of his career. On offense, however, whatever value he had in that direction earlier in his career has pretty much evaporated and he is typically a significant drag on offensive output, with last season being no different. Evolving Wild’s GAR model is a particular non-fan of Kulikov’s work, mainly due to that negative impact going forward. They do have him as an above-average defensive defender over the past few years, for what its worth, but he’s hit hard by his non-existent offense there.

Kulikov 2020 xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Kulikov career xG threat impacts.
from HockeyViz.com
Kulikov three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: Can the Devils find some synergy between Kulikov and one of their more offensively-inclined defensemen?

The Outlook: It’s hard to figure where exactly Kulikov fits into this lineup on defense. He played second-pairing minutes in Winnipeg last season and did decently enough, but that does not really feel like a great Plan A to be rolling with. With Sami Vatanen now back in the mix it no longer feels like Kulikov is a lock for an opening night lineup spot, depending on what the coaching staff feels about the several defensive prospects during camp. If Kulikov ended up as a day one 7th defenseman, that would bode pretty well for the Devils, but a lot of things need to go right elsewhere for that to be the case. Either way, Kulikov represents defensive-oriented depth for a team that needs it.

Sami Vatanen

Last Season: So, Sami is simultaneously both a returning player and a new acquisition, but given that he was in no way a part of the team’s plans (at least from an outside view) as of 48 hours ago, we’ll slot him here amongst the newcomers, even though the last regular season game he played was with New Jersey.

Sami had a bit of a confusing year last year. Scoring-wise, he had his best scoring rate since the 2015-16 season and did some good things on the power play in particular. Otherwise, he was not particularly effective as a play driver, particularly as the season wore on. He had a few catastrophic mistakes peppered in along the way and also had the back end of his season marred by injury, both before and after he was traded to Carolina. He was able to return to the ice when the NHL resumed in the summer for the playoffs, playing mostly a bottom-pair role on the deep Hurricanes defense (earning the Devils a pick through the condition on his trade in the process), but didn’t have a ton of impact as the Canes were shown the door in the first round after throttling the Rangers in the play-in.

What Do the Fancy Stats Say?: Well the fancy stats have not liked Sami for some time and last season was no exception. Interestingly, Vatanen may have had one of his better defensive performances for New Jersey last season, according to is xG impact, but it found a lot of his scoring, particularly at even strength, to apparently be empty calories, so to speak, as his offensive impact was actually one of the worst on the team at 5v5 (though he was a net positive on the PP). GAR is also somewhat lukewarm on Vatanen, rating him as middling to slightly below average defender. Put short, he’s probably a good guy to have around for your third pairing at this point, but he is limited if you entrust him with much more than that.

Vatanen 2020 xG threat impact.
from HockeyViz.com
Vatanen career xG threat impact.
from HockeyViz.com
Vatanen three-season GAR player card.
from Evolving-Hockey.com

One Big Question: As a last minute addition to the Devils’ plans, where does Vatanen fit into this puzzle?

The Outlook: I think Vatanen is probably a guy you can pencil into the opening night lineup for the Devils, meaning that the competition for the final spot on the defense beyond him, Severson, Subban, Murray, and Butcher just heated up a whole lot. It probably guarantees Carrick is outside of the opening night lineup, which is good, but it also narrows the path for the young players hoping to break into the NHL this season, which is good in some ways but less so if it keeps everyone in the AHL most of the year.

The Hopefuls

Ty Smith - Kevin Bahl - Reilly Walsh - Josh Jacobs - Colton White - Nikita Okhotiuk

When I initially started on this preview it was likely that at least one of the above players would be on the final roster. Now, with the team bringing back Sami Vatanen, things look a bit different for this crew. If one of the top prospects, particularly one of Ty Smith, Reilly Walsh, and Kevin Bahl, is able to wow enough in camp, I could see them still earning a spot, but they will have to jump an established NHLer to do it now, rather than a more fringe-y guy like Carrick.

Ty Smith is obviously the guy that everyone is hoping to see in the NHL this season. After back-to-back dominant years in junior for the 2018 first-round pick, it would be disappointing to not see him on NHL ice in 2021. I think there’s an argument to be made that the AHL might not be such a bad thing for him as he transitions to the pros, but if you are an impatient fan like me, you want to see what he can do in the NHL right now. With a bit more depth in 2021, the Devils are a little more well positioned to shelter someone and ease them into the league than they were in fall 2019.

The other two prospects who I think could ultimately stake a claim to a spot if they wow in camp are Kevin Bahl and Reilly Walsh. Two very different players, Bahl the big, hulking defensive defender and Walsh the smaller offensively dynamic option, they could each figure into things if they look good enough in camp, depending on where Lindy Ruff thinks this blue line needs more help. I think both are likely to benefit from AHL time, but I think they are the two I wouldn’t completely rule out of the mix.

As for the rest of the prospects/younger depth defenseman, I think they all head to the AHL for the season. I could see Jacobs and/or White ending up on the taxi squad since they have been pro for a while and don’t have much more of a development curve to impact and have both played a handful of games now in the league.

The Projected Lineup

Strictly off of gut feeling and just knowing how NHL teams tend to operate, I don’t think any of the younger players are on the opening night roster at this point. As of right now, I’d expect the opening night lineup to look something like this:

Ryan Murray - Damon Severson

Dimitry Kulikov - PK Subban

Will Butcher - Sami Vatanen

Connor Carrick

If someone like Smith does manage to break into the lineup, that likely pushes Carrick to the taxi squad (assuming he clears waivers, which he likely would) and maybe Kulikov into the 7th D position. It’s not impossible that Butcher or late-arrival Vatanen could sit in that scenario as well, though I’d consider those options less likely. My impression of this group is that is could be average if things break right for them. A couple of poor performances or injuries to the wrong people though and this is a defense that could get unpleasant quickly. Lindy Ruff and his staff, including, yes, the still-here Alain Nasreddine, will have a job on their hands to get the most out of this group and try to balance one-year success/respectability with potentially starting to ease in a new generation of blue liners.


Research and stats for this preview collected from Hockey-Reference.com, NaturalStatTrick.com, HockeyViz.com, and Evolving-Hockey.com.

*The above piece was corrected to remove a reference to the taxi squad not needing waivers. Waiver-eligible players do need to pass through waivers to be sent to the taxi squad in the same way any player being sent to the AHL would need to.