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New Jersey Devils 2021-22 Season Preview Part 2: The Defensemen

The Devils made a big splash this offseason, and much of this was due to additions to the defense. Will the Devils prize UFA signing in Dougie Hamilton, along with trade acquisition Ryan Graves, be enough to transform the Devils blue-line into a respectable group?

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New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
The Devils Big Free Agency Acquisition
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome to the second post in the week-long preview of the 2021-2022 New Jersey Devils. Yesterday, Brian covered the forwards. In this second installment, we will look at the Devils’ defense. This is a group that has undergone somewhat of a makeover and as a result hopes to be much stronger than the previous few seasons. I’ll begin by reviewing what happened last season, then I’ll discuss the changes made to this unit, followed by what to expect this season, and end by giving my thoughts to what I would like to see happen. Let’s get started shall we?

What Happened Last Year?

Stats via Hockey Reference and Evolving Hockey.

I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone, but the Devils were not a good team last season. While the defense definitely contributed to the team’s lack of success, they struggled in most areas of the game as you can see above. They were average to below average in every single category. The silver lining is that last year was still a big step up from the previous season in most of these categories. Looking at the chart, you can see that while the Devils were middling in CA/60, they didn’t fare quite as well in the SA/60 and xGA/60 departments. Worse still are the GA numbers, which we can probably attribute to poor goaltending. We can see that the Devils fared better in terms of suppressing shot attempts than actual shots, particularly quality shots (xGA/60 will account for shot quality). I think this tracks with my recollection of about 50 thousand tap in goals against last season. I will point out it is necessary to distinguish between team defensive statistics and defensemen. They aren’t interchangeable. Forwards contribute to team defense and defensemen contribute offensively. And just because they’re called defensemen doesn’t mean their contributions need to come primarily from defense. However I still wanted to point out these trends because, in general, defensemen likely contribute more to defensive numbers than forwards. I also wouldn’t argue too hard with anyone who says the blueline was the weaker of the two skater groups last season. So we know the Devils were below average as a team defensively last year, let’s now look at how the group faired on an individual basis. Below you will find a table with the defensemen who saw action last season.

The first thing you should probably note is that the Devils used 12 defensemen last year. That number may seem high, however the only year in the last five seasons that they haven’t used at least that many blueliners was the 17-18 season, where they only needed 9. Some of this is due to injuries and performance, but it’s probably not a coincidence that 17-18 was the last time the Devils made the playoffs. When you’re dealing players away at the trade deadline every year you need extra bodies to replace them. The point being that you should expect the Devils to need to go at least 10 players deep on defense, and 12 is about the average.

Since the decline of Andy Greene the Devils defense has had to take a by-committee approach, with mostly negative results. Damon Severson was the defacto number one defenseman last year. Severson is somewhat of a divisive player among Devils fans, mostly because he has the tendency to make a handful of awful-looking blunders each year, and I suspect his laid-back demeanor doesn’t endear him to fans either. That said, while Severson had the worst GAR on the team thanks mostly to poor offensive results, his xGAR was the best on the team, which suggests he was unlucky last year (or does it?). He also has consistently been able to drive play (meaning he has a positive shot attempt differential) throughout his career and finished first in this category last season as well (among defensemen to play at least 50 minutes 5v5). Below you will see a very nice visualization by JFresh depicting Severson’s impact using data from TopDownHockey. I highly recommend following them on twitter. This is a different model from the data in the table above so that is why the numbers are different from the table above. I will be using these vizualizations throughout the post.

Finishing second in ATOI for the Devils last year was P.K. Subban. If anyone was hoping for a bounce-back season for the former Norris Trophy winner, he did not deliver. He continued to struggle against speed and quickness last season, and the biggest memory we were left with from his famed shot is when he hit the Devils Captain, Nico Hischier, in the face with it, giving him a concussion and a broken nose. Subban spent most of his time on a second pairing with Dmitry Kulikov last season. They were actually very effective together, with excellent results in every category except for goal differential. It seems Kulikov may have been the driving force here however, as Subban was generally a net negative, particularly in his own end, with a lower Defensive GAR than anyone on the blue-line except Ty Smith and a lower xDefensive GAR lower than anyone but Tennyson.

The most anticipated addition to last year’s blue-line was rookie Ty Smith, who made the roster following a strong camp. Ty Smith led the Devils blueline in points last season with 23 points (2 goals), a total that was boosted by a blazing hot start where he put up 8 points in his first 10 games. Despite the solid point totals however, Smith didn’t look nearly as good under the hood. He would start the year on a pair with Matt Tennyson which got absolutely destroyed, posting a 32.31 CF% in 71 minutes together. Ruff eventually settled on putting the rookie blueliner with the veteran Severson, and this would become the Devils most effective pair for much of the season. They were completely dominant together, with a CF% of 56.47, SF% of 52.6, and xGF% of 54.37. Goal differential was not as kind to them (42.86), but considering they played the most minutes together of any pairing on a bad team with bad goaltending, maybe that’s not a total shock. While, Smith finished with a positive GAR total, he ended with a -1.3 xGAR, and by either metric he was bad defensively. It seems that Severson was the driving force on that line, which is fine. Smith was a rookie defensemen playing top-4 minutes. I’m certainly not worried about Smith, despite less than impressive underlying numbers. But this year will be a big test for him.

Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov, Matt Tennyson, and Jonas Siegenthaler were all newcomers to the Devils last season. Murray was widely considered a smart acquisition for a 5th rounder, brought over from Columbus for his defensive ability, and he ended up being just fine. His ice-time reflected this as it decreased after the first 9 games, as the Devils eased Sami Vatanen back into the line-up once he was finally able to get his visa issues sorted out and quarantine. Seriously, I kind of forgot Murray even played for the Devils last year he was so average. Kulikov was a surprisingly great addition for the Devils last year. He was extremely effective defensively from day one, leading the team in defensive GAR. Matt Tennyson was not extremely effective in any category. He had a solid enough training camp to make the roster (aka he was the 3rd best right-shot defensemen) and pretty much immediately showed why he’s never stuck in the NHL. He got 10 games on the 3rd pair before Lindy Ruff and co gave up on that experiment. He comes out looking better than I expected by Evolving Hockey’s GAR model but it’s a case of the results not being indicative of the process. His xGAR by the same model is 2nd worst on the team and he bled shots and xGA/60. Siegenthaler came over from Washington for a 3rd round pick in a lowish risk, mediumish reward trade at the trade deadline. He wasn’t getting ice time for the Capitals and the Devils decided to take a chance on him. He has had great defensive results in the past in a bottom-pairing role so it was a smart gamble. He pretty much lived up to his reputation, albeit in a very small sample, and this year will be a better test for him.

The return of Sami Vatanen seemingly wasn’t in the plans for the Devils last season. But at some point during training camp the front office realized they had a choice between Connor Carrick and Matt Tennyson for the 3rd spot on the right side of the defense behind Severson and Subban, and realized Vatanen wasn’t such a bad option. He ended up being a definite upgrade over Tennyson and was generally solid for the Devils in a bottom-4 role.

The last player I will touch on is Will Butcher. Prior to last season, Butcher was a regular on the Devils blue-line. He has never truly been able to recapture the magic of his rookie year, but he consistently had a positive impact on shot differentials until last season. However he never seemed to fit into Lindy Ruff’s system, which relies more on speedier defensemen who can join the rush. He ended up losing his spot in the lineup to Ty Smith and never really was able to regain it.

What Changed?

Well... quite a bit. The Devils were sellers at the deadline last season, and as such they sold everyone they could who was on an expiring deal. The first moves at the deadline were Sami Vatanen being waived, officially (probably) ending the Vatman era in NJ, and the acquisition of Siegenthaler. The following day Dmitry Kulikov was traded for a 2022 4th round pick from Edmonton. The Devils went into the offseason with some work to do on the back-end, but with plenty of cap space to make some moves. And they certainly delivered.

Much like the previous year, this past offseason the Devils looked to the trade market to help solidify the position. On July 15th the Devils traded forward Mikhail Maltsev and a 2021 2nd round pick (Sean Behrens for those keeping track) to Colorado for Ryan Graves, who brings his 6’5” 220 lb frame to the Devils blueline. Graves was brought in hopefully more for his defensive play than his height, but I suspect it’s a little of both. As you can see below, Graves’s value comes primarily from his defensive play. Don’t expect much on the offensive side of the puck. Graves is a little tricky to evaluate because he was on a ridiculous talented team. His 57.31 CF% put him 6th among Colorado defensemen! I’m pretty neutral on Graves overall. He has not been very good as a penalty killer which is a shame considering he fits the profile and it’s a big need, and he’s been playing as a number 4 defenseman surrounded by 3 number 1 dmen. I understand WAR and GAR stats account for this, but I still am not completely confident we’ll end up liking this trade long-term.

A week after the Devils traded for Graves, the NHL draft took place. The Devils had the fourth overall pick and they used it to select the player they had been heavily linked to for some time - left-shot defensemen Luke Hughes out of the USNTDP. The younger brother of the Devils star center (yeah, I said it) Jack Hughes. Jack was happy. Luke, like his two older brothers stands out due to his incredible skating and he profiles as a potential top pair defensemen. You can read more about him in Brian’s profile of the youngest Hughes brother from back in June. Don’t expect to see Luke this season. He will likely spend at least a year in college, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he spent a couple seasons there. Speaking of which, he recently began his freshmen season at the University of Michigan this weekend, and currently has a pair of assists in two games, the first of which embodies what Luke brings to the table.

A few days after the draft the Devils made arguably the biggest move of the NHL offseason, signing unrestricted free agent Dougie Hamilton to a 7-year contract with a cap hit of $9 million (read about the signing here). Dougie Hamilton is an elite right shot defensemen who should transform the Devils blue-line. Coming off of a 4th place finish in Norris voting, his xGAR last season was 8th in the league among defensemen (via evolving hockey) driven by his top-notch offensive ability. His CF% 0f 56.03 puts him 3rd among his former Carolina teammates, and 1st among defensemen. As you can see below, he is no slouch on the power-play and should effectively transform a mediocre 1st unit.

Not hyped enough about Dougie yet? Here’s a quote from John from the post I linked above:

Last season, when he took a shift in Carolina in 5-on-5 play, Carolina took about 56% of the shooting attempts, 55.5% of the shots on net, about 56.7% of the scoring chances, and 57.7% of the high-danger scoring chances. In terms of expected goals, the Canes had a 56.5% xGF% with Hamilton on the ice and an actual GF% of 62.1%. These are better percentages than any other Carolina defenseman that played more than a handful of games last season.

Is that good?

The same day the Devils signed Hamilton, they also let Ryan Murray walk and traded away Will Butcher. Unfortunately they did not get much back for a player who was once thought to be a big part of the future for the Devils. Actually they got nothing back, less than nothing really, because Fitzgerald gave Buffalo a 5th round pick to take him off his hands. Butcher had been in and out of the line-up all last season and with the Hamilton signing his days were numbered. This obviously factored into tanking his trade value. Hopefully he can rejuvenate his career with the Sabres.

Those were the major moves made on the blue-line this past offseason. The Devils did make a few relatively minor transactions. They traded Nick Merkley away for right-handed defenseman Christian Jaros. Jaros is a depth player who will likely bounce back and forth between Utica and New Jersey this year. The Devils also signed AHL veteran Robbie Russo to a 2-way contract. Tyler Wotherspoon is still in camp on a PTO, and could get a contract depending on the health of certain players. More recently they claimed Mason Geertsen off of waivers last Saturday, but at this point it’s questionable whether Geertsen will actually play defense. If there was a theme to the Devils moves on defense this offseason, it was ‘get bigger’. Of the players they have currently signed to contracts who are likely to see NHL ice this season, Christian Jaros is the runt of the group at 6’3” (Wotherspoon would have him beat at a minuscule 6’2”) . Personally, I don’t see size as being an important quality in an NHL player, even for defensemen, but I suspect most NHL executives would disagree with me.

What To Expect This Season?

Unlike the forwards, the line-up is pretty much set in stone on defense. There is a clear top-6 and the closest thing to a bubble player the Devils have is probably Jonas Siegenthaler. As I write this there are 9 defensemen left in training camp.

  • Ryan Graves
  • Dougie Hamilton
  • Christian Jaros
  • Damon Severson
  • Jonas Siegenthaler
  • Ty Smith
  • P.K. Subban
  • Colton White
  • Tyler Wotherspoon (PTO)

However there being 9 blueliners still on the NHL roster isn’t because there’s a fierce competition for anything other than maybe the 7th defenseman spot and/or first call-up. Seeing as the Devils are done with their preseason schedule, this is instead likely due to questionable health of both Ty Smith and Damon Severson. Those two make up what is likely to be the Devils second pairing on defense this season. Either of them missing extended time could be an issue for the Devils (particularly Severson, IMO). If both of them miss any significant amount of time the Devils will be in serious trouble and it could spell serious trouble right out of the gate for the Devils, who play in a brutal Metro division. As I mentioned previously, the Devils are pretty much 6 deep on defense. Colton White hasn’t looked bad so far in camp, and neither has Jaros, but White is a 24 year-old rookie and Jaros is probably your 9th defenseman at best in an ideal world. Other players who could get time include Ohkotiuk (who was the last cut among the prospects), Reilly Walsh, and Kevin Bahl.

For reference, these are the defense pairs the Devils used during Friday’s practice (per Corey Masisak)

Graves - Hamilton

Siegenthaler - Subban

White - Jaros

Ohkotiuk* - Wotherspoon

*Ohkotiuk has since been sent down to Utica.

If/when everyone is healthy, the Devils should have a much better blueline than last season. The addition of Hamilton is the primary reason for this. Not only is he an elite defenseman, but adding him to the line-up slides Severson and Subban each down a slot, where they are likely better suited. Lindy Ruff says to expect Graves - Hamilton to be the top-pair come opening night, and those two complement each other perfectly, with Graves being more defensively sound while Hamilton takes care of the offense. Severson has held his own playing top-line minutes in the past, so putting him in a second pair role should put him in an ideal situation to succeed. His projected partner, Ty Smith, is the x-factor of this group. If Smith takes a big step forward this defense could go from middle of the pack to actually being legit good. That leaves a 3rd pairing of Siegenthaler - Subban. Depending on how much Subban has left in the tank, this pairing should be able to dominate easier minutes, but may struggle with greater responsibility.

Here is the projected opening night line-up, assuming full health (via JFresh’s roster builder) This model projects the Devils to have the 15th best blue-line in the league:

Dom Luszcyzszyn of The Athletic ($) is slightly higher on the Devils blue-line, and projects them to have the 11th best group in the league. After the last few seasons, I would be happy with either of those projections.

What I Would Do

My current recommendation is to pray to whatever higher power you believe in for a speedy recovery for Severson and Smith. More seriously, I am perfectly fine with the Devils projected line-up on defense (when healthy). In fact, it might be the first time I’ve ever said that about the Devils defense dating back to the Deboer days. But the depth leaves a lot to be desired. One of my top priorities would be to find another NHL defenseman to serve as a 7th defenseman. Maybe Michal Kempny is worth a waiver claim?

Your Thoughts

What are your expectations for the Devil’s defense group? Do you think they’ll be competent this year? What are your expectations for Hamilton? What about Graves? Do you think Ty Smith takes a step forward in his development this year? How are you feeling about the depth on defense? Is Colton White capable of filling in? Are you disappointed about the progression of some of the Devils other defense prospects? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!