When training camp opens for the New Jersey Devils, it will be interesting to see how the forward lines and defensive pairings take shape. On offense, there is a good amount of continuity from last season, so we might expect to see some similar line combinations at the start. Might see either Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier center Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovitch for a top line, and the other on a second line with the newly acquired Tomas Tatar and perhaps Jesper Bratt. With Tatar as the only true addition to the Devils forward corps, there might not be too many shakeups outside of one winger dropping out of the top six to make way for the Slovakian.
The defense, however, will be a different matter. Only half of the really consistent defenders from last season remain, those being Damon Severson, PK Subban, and Ty Smith. Otherwise, you bring in Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves this offseason, and then you have Jonas Siegenthaler who only played 8 games with the Devils last season. So really, the pairings could go many different ways. Hamilton, Subban, and Severson are the RHDs, while Graves and Siegenthaler are the LHDs, with Smith most likely to also play on the left side given this current lineup.
With that in mind, it seems to me like an ideal top pairing for this team could easily be Smith and Hamilton. There’s almost no doubt that Hamilton will anchor the top pairing, so you’re looking at either Graves, Siegenthaler, or Smith playing with him, and for me at this point, I don’t see why not for Smith. His numbers last season, despite being a rookie, were some of the better numbers for a defender on the team. His 5v5 CF% ranked second among all defenders with at least 200 minutes played, second in 5v5 relative CF%, third in 5v5 relative xGF% and relative SF%, and he had the most power play points and minutes among all defenders. Those are numbers you want from a top pairing defenseman, and they prove that he would be a worthy partner for Hamilton. He wouldn’t be dragging him down, and instead they could really work well together, forming into a formidable pairing.
The most exciting part about that is the potential long term positive effects of that pairing. Hamilton is signed until the end of the 27-28 season, and Smith is only 21 and should be around for a long time as well. If all things go well, he will be with the team for at least that long. That would be many years to work together and grow, develop, and improve. They could become one of the more dominant pairings in the NHL for a half decade if all went right. The potential is clearly there: Hamilton is one of the best all-around defenders in the NHL, and Smith has the potential to be an all-star in this league. They would be able to produce points at a good clip together, both also being power play quarterbacks, but they would also do a solid job in their own end, with the ability to tilt the ice back in New Jersey’s favor.
The other positive about this is that Smith, in the short term, would be learning from one of the best. If you want Smith to improve and get better in year 2 and beyond, as Gerard discussed the other day, then what better way to do that then to pair him up with the best defender on the team, one who could show him the ropes both offensively and defensively. Smith can see up close and personal how things are done properly on the ice, and what needs to be done to be successful in a first pairing role. Of course, Hamilton would also make him better by default, locking down his end of the ice, so that couldn’t hurt right there.
Now, to mention potential issues, if you look at that Natural Stat Trick link from above, you will see that Smith was the most sheltered defender last year. He had an offensive zone faceoff percentage of 54.66% at 5 on 5, highest of any defender with at least 200 minutes. The only other defender above 50% was Will Butcher. So if he wants to become a true first pairing defender, he will have to showcase that he can produce similar, if not better, numbers despite receiving more defensive zone draws. Of course, Lindy Ruff will want to put Hamilton and Smith out there for as many offensive zone faceoffs as possible too, as both are excellent at producing points and working in the offensive end. So maybe being sheltered this past season is not really a concern here.
But in reality, who else is the coaching staff throwing on the top pairing with Hamilton? The other LHD options are Siegenthaler and Graves. Graves had a -2.13 relative CF% last year on Colorado to go along with a -5.01 relative xGF%. He was not a driver on the Colorado defense, but more of a passenger in these scenarios. This isn’t to say that he is a bad player and the team shouldn’t have traded for him, but it also implies that maybe he would not be the best option to play heavy minutes on the top pairing. The other option, Siegenthaler, only played in 15 NHL games last season, 7 for Washington and 8 for the Devils. Is that really the person you want to put on the top pairing over Ty Smith, who had a very quality rookie season? I would think not.
So in the end, barring other roster moves, I would think that Smith should be the current shoe-in for top pairing minutes with Hamilton, and I think that this would be the right move. Give him some serious learning opportunities this season to grow and develop. If we look at this season as the one to load up, and next year when we are really serious about seeing the birth of a perennial playoff contender, then it makes sense. This is the year for Smith to learn how to be a top pairing guy, and this is the year for Smith and Hamilton to gel together and learn how to be a dominant pairing together. Then, if all goes well, you’re looking at a pairing that could work wonders for the Devils for several seasons to come, and that is an exciting prospect indeed.