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Public Service Announcement to Devils: You can be a good D-man, and not freakishly tall

The Devils acquisition of Ryan Graves and rumored interest in other oak trees indicates a perceived need for size. Is that warranted?

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Colorado Avalanche v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Four Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

When this offseason began, Tom Fitzgerald answered questions about what his offseason wish list was — “size” and “hardness” on the blueline were towards the top of the list.

I definitely think we need to look at the back end ... Size, and some hardness, with the ability to move pucks ... I do believe we need to look at that and become a bigger and harder defense corps to play against.

He’s given us no reason to think that he’s interested in anything other than this on the blueline. The Devils list of “protected” players for the Seattle expansion draft was released yesterday, and the defencemen who were chosen were the tallest regular defender on the team (Damon Severson, 6’2’’) and two guys that weren’t even on the team as of the 2021 trade deadline — Jonas Siegenthaler (6’3’’) and Ryan Graves (6’5’’) — voluntarily exposing P.K. Subban (6’0’’) and Will Butcher (5’10’’) in the process.

And if we dial it back to the 2020 draft, we can be even more confident in Fitzy’s mindset. The first defender he drafted as GM of the Devils was the 6’4’’ Shakir Mukhamudullin. Mook was widely agreed upon to be the first shock of the draft as he was projected as a likely 2nd rounder and was left out of the top 100 in several rankings.

And to top this, the Devils have been reportedly interested in Rasmus Ristolainen, a move that they DEFINITELY SHOULD NOT DO. But, it shouldn’t be surprising that an NHL GM like Fitzy wants him because, after all, he’s 6’4’’ and hits things.

It’s still early and we haven’t made any sort of franchise defining move based on this sort of philosophy so, hopefully, the voices in the room that seek things like “talent” and “goal prevention” out of their blueliners will continue to drown out the superficial bio seekers in the quest to build the team. But, just in case that battle is being lost behind the scenes, I thought it’d be important to remind everyone of a couple things.

You can very much be a good defenceman and also not freakishly tall.

Most people, I think, would agree that the 3 best young defencemen in the game are Cale Makar (5’11’’), Adam Fox (5’10’’), and Charlie McAvoy (6’0’’). The most valuable per-minute defender at even-strength in terms of Goals Above Replacement is Ryan Ellis. Even some teams that have the reputation of being “tough to play against” are led by reasonably-sized defencemen. The Islanders are probably one of the most popular examples of “heavy hockey,” but their top pairing are Ryan Pulock (6’2’’) and Adam Pelech (6’3’’).

Are there some teams led by size on the blueline? Of course. Tampa Bay has Ryan McDonaugh (6’1’’), but the rest of their top 4 is 6’3’’ or taller. That extends to the previous cup winner, St. Louis, as well — their top 4 was exclusively 6’3’’ or taller. And certainly, facts like this are likely going to perpetuate fallacies like “you need tall defenders to win a cup” but you know what was also true about those defenders? They’re good. Colton Parayko wasn’t just 6’6’’, he was a top 3 defender in terms of on-ice value over the two seasons preceding his cup — behind only Victor Hedman (6’6’’ 2 Cups) and Kris Letang (6’0’’ 2 Cups).

What I’m trying to say is the the problem with the Devils blueline isn’t that they’re small, it’s that they’re bad. And getting “bigger” and adding “hardness” is great insofar as it helps contribute positively to on-ice results in the form of goals and shots.

I think Ryan Graves is likely to be valuable defensively, and I’d like to see if Jonas Siegenthaler can grow into a bigger role. And, in this upcoming draft, it’s certainly debatable that the “biggest” of the top defenders (Owen Power, 6’5’’) is also the “best”. The next two — Luke Hughes and Brandt Clarke — aren’t shrimps either at 6’2’’ each. They should avoid Simon Edvinsson, though, who is by far the least productive of the 4, but happens to be 6’5’’.

But broadly, this article isn’t a knock on either of the Devils acquired defencemen or the potential draft acquisitions, in particular. It is just on an overall commentary on what has the feel of something that may become a sub-optimal approach to team-building as we move forward into our contending years. It’s worth it to acquire big, good, defenders. But the fact that they’re big is superficial window dressing that is decorating the much more difficult-to-find feature of being actually good at hockey.

Here’s hoping the Devils are able to find the former without sacrificing the much more important search for the latter.

What do you guys think? Do you think the Devils need size, grit, talent, or all 3 on the back-end? How does that impact your opinion of the moves we have made or will make in the draft and free agency? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below!