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Defensive Play Remains a Weakness for New Jersey

The Devils have been actually decent this year, if inconsistent. But they still have some major weaknesses that need to be addressed. One of them is their defensive play.

New Jersey Devils v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Roughly 20% of the way through the regular season, the Devils currently sit with an 8-5-3 record, good for 19 points in 16 games. Meaning that although they are 3 games above NHL .500, really they’ve won 8 games and they’ve lost 8 games. Normally that’d still be worth more than 7th place in the division, but this isn’t a normal year. For further proof of that, a win tonight puts them back in 4th place, pending the results of other Metro division games. However, If you’d asked me after the Jack Hughes injury report what I wanted to see in terms of their record with him out, I’d have said that all they needed to do is tread water until Hughes returns.

Well, they’ve done pretty much just that. But the return of Hughes isn’t going to fix all of the team’s issues, and they certainly have some issues. That’s if he picks up where he left off. There’s a nonzero chance it takes him some time to get back to the player we saw for 4 periods at the start of the season. But my point to all of this is that while the Devils have managed to stay afloat in Hughes’s absence, so far, they have some clear weaknesses that need to be addressed. And as you probably noticed from the headline, I’m not referring to special teams play. When examining Evolving Hockey’s team GAR a few things stand out for the Devils.

One, the Devils have been undisciplined and also awful at drawing penalties, which is a crappy combination. Fortunately, their penalty kill, after a rocky start, has been much better of late and their power play is garbage anyway so it’s not like they’re missing much not having it on the ice more. Amusingly (or frustratingly) enough, while they’re ranked 30th in xPPO, they’re 19th overall in GAR, meaning they’ve actually gotten better results than they’ve deserved. We all know the power play is awful though, and John touched on this the other day. What I really want to focus on today, is even strength defense. Here, they also drop a few spots from 28th to 31st when looking at xEVD (there was only so far to drop anyway). Honestly, I was pretty surprised to see that they were this bad. It’s not that I thought that the Devils have been good defensively, I just didn’t think they would rank bottom 5 in this category. They were actually better defensively last season at 5 on 5 (23rd in EVD, 22nd in xEVD). Personnel changes may account for team’s slight drop in this category. The only major loss was Kulikov, who led the team in this category with 4 GAR added, but Hughes being out all year actually does make a difference here as well, given he was second behind Kulikov at 3.5 GAR added. For Hughes, this positive defensive value was likely stemming from a combination of his play-driving ability (meaning he’s usually the one with the puck when he’s on the ice) and his ability to strip the puck from opposing players (he ranked 2nd in the league in takeaways last year).

Breaking things down by position group is somewhat more revealing. The defense moves from the 19th ranked club in 2021 to the 22nd ranked team this season. Not a major drop by any means. What about the forward group? They move from 22nd to 28th. So neither position group does very well here and both got worse from last season.

I find it frustrating that despite the major moves made to shore up the defense, all of which have seemingly paid off so far, they actually managed to get worse in this category. But this isn’t too surprising given what was a strong pairing last year in Smith-Severson has struggled greatly this year. While I appreciate that the Devils are trying to let Smith play through his struggles this year, at this point I actually think it might be worth giving White, who has been very effective in his limited minutes over the last few years, a look with Severson and sitting Smith for a few games. It’d be different if Smith was playing well offensively and just needed to work through some things on the other end of things, but that’s not the case. I don’t want to blame the struggles all on one player, but Smith ranks 235th out of 238 eligible defensemen in EVD and has been the worst defensemen in the league in total GAR. He’s providing negative value offensively and defensively. Yeah... it might be time to give him some time in the press box.

In regards to the forward group, there’s nothing that sticks out that much. Hischier, Zacha, and Sharangovich have been better this year. Johnsson and McLeod have been worse. Tatar is bad defensively. Studenic was pretty good in his short time with the big club and ranks 3rd among Devils forwards in total EVD GAR despite playing fewer than 60 minutes at 5 on 5.

Overall, this leads me to two conclusions, neither of which are exactly groundbreaking. The first is that the Devils don’t have the personnel to be a strong defensive team at 5 on 5. When Shero took over as GM his goal was to (rightly) get younger and inject skill and speed into the line-up. And he did those things, but while speed and skill doesn’t have to come at the cost of good defensive play, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that highly talented offensive players often have more work to do to get their defensive game up to NHL caliber. That generally improves with time and experience. We’re starting to see that with players like Bratt and Hischier, who are both having positive defensive impacts after struggling for their first few seasons. So some of this may work itself out as the team matures. I will say that I really miss Coleman, and it will hurt if the Devils don’t get at least one solid NHL player out of that deal. They could certainly use him right now. The second conclusion, and what I think is probably the more impactful of the two, is that the team’s defensive struggles are largely the result of coaching and the system they play. As far as systems go, I won’t pretend to know what I’m talking about here. I feel pretty confident in saying that Ruff’s system likes to activate the defensemen a lot, but it doesn’t seem to me that this has led to an increase in odd man rushes or breakaways against. Or if it has it’s usually due to an individual error rather than a system problem. I don’t know of a site that publicly tracks things like odd man rushes, so if anyone knows a good place to find that data let me know. I separated system and coaching because I view them as having somewhat different impacts. While we can’t know entirely how much responsibility assistant coaches have for their respective position group vs what the head coach is responsible for, it is fair to question whether some changes might not be warranted. For example, should Alain Nasreddine still be employed with this team? He’s been around since 2015. Have the Devils managed to effectively develop a single NHL defenseman under his watch? Have the Devils ever been good defensively under his watch? Certainly a lack of quality personnel plays a role, but has he ever gotten more than the sum of their parts from the defense in his time here? I certainly can’t ever recall that being true. The one thing in his favor is that the penalty kill has been generally effective in his time in NJ, but that was also true before he arrived. Bottom line, while I’ve generally been pleased with Ruff’s up-tempo, offensive minded system, it might be time for some new blood in the assistant coach positions.

Your Thoughts

Are you surprised at where the Devils rank defensively? Where do you think the issues defensively stem from? Do you think it’s a system, coaching, or personnel issue? Or a combination of the 3? Would you replace Nasreddine or would that disrupt things too much in-season? Leave your thoughts below and thank you for reading!