Damon Severson has been a point of contention among the People Who Matter. The right-handed defenseman of the New Jersey Devils has this reputation of someone who performs well overall but is marred by remarkable lapses in judgment. In the wake of Dougie Hamilton breaking his jaw in last Sunday’s overtime win over Washington, Severson seemingly excelled as he played a monstrous 29:52 in the win. And, true to the reputation, nearly botched it all in overtime - but it did not cost the Devils so we move on. Since Hamilton has been out, Severson has played at least 25 minutes per night and is now the #1 right-sided defenseman on the team by default. Is this a season where Severson is stepping up? Or is it more of the same?
The short answer: It is more of the same with one stunning twist. Let us go over some data to back that up.
Damon Severson at 5-on-5 or What’s Not Exceptional for Severson
The most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5 play. If Severson is good, bad, average, or whatever, then it will likely show up in this situation. According to Natural Stat Trick, here are the on-ice rates for the Devils when Severson is on the ice this season among all Devils defensemen. Ranks are among defensemen with a minimum of 100 minutes played; sorry to Christian Jaros, Mason Geertsen, Colton White, and Kevin Bahl.
- Corsi For% (Attempts For%): 50.93% - 5th out of 6
- Shots For%: 51.48% - 3rd
- Scoring Chances For%: 52.42% - 2nd
- High Danger Scoring Chances For%: 54.98% - 4th
- Goals For%: 37.78% - 6th
- Expected Goals For%: 51.97% - 3rd
- Offensive Zone Starts%: 45.23% - 4th
Generally, these are pretty good. When Severson is on the ice, the Devils have the edge in attempts and have taken more of a lead when it comes to shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. Plus, he has been doing this while starting mostly outside of the offensive zone. Unfortunately, the reputation of Severson is buoyed by that low GF%. While he does not have the lowest on-ice save percentage of the six defensemen in this range, the Devils’ offensive production sunk with Severson with a low 1.7 goals per 60 rate combined with a not-high-but-not-low 2.8 goals against per 60 rate. There is definitely a sense of poor luck plaguing Severson in 5-on-5. That all stated, other defensemen like Hamilton and Siegenthaler have been superior to Severson by these metrics. It is not a case where Severson has been the best on the team - just that he has been doing well. (And it’s not like the last four games in 5-on-5 have been notably good to make it seem like he’s recently great.)
A deeper look into the rates that create these percentages shows some more positives in favor of #28’s presence on the ice. Severson and Jonas Siegenthaler are the only defensemen on the team who can boast on-ice shots against rates below 30 per 60 minutes. Likewise, those two are #1 and #2 on the team in scoring chances against per 60 minutes and high danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes, respectively. Siegenthaler has the lower rates of the two, but Severson is not dragging things down.
Additionally, Severson’s on-ice rates this season are among the better ones in his career. His 2021 campaign was his best from a 5-on-5 on-ice rate standpoint as he was above 50% in all four rate categories related to shooting. In his 35 games this season, he is on track for doing it again for the second straight season. It is worth noting that Severson’s career has taken place entirely during this re-building era of the Devils from 2014-15 to current. While one could argue his most common pairing with Siegenthaler has helped him this season (and I would agree), his 2021 numbers suggest that Severson may have something to do with it. He was paired mostly with Ty Smith and Ryan Murray in 2021. With Smith, the on-ice rates were great. Less so with Murray, but not enough to drag him into an abyss. Murray is gone and Smith is not at the level he was last season. This makes a case for Severson doing pretty well much stronger.
The production also supports the notion that Severson has been an asset. Again, he is not the leader among blueliners in 5-on-5 points. That would be Hamilton and P.K. Subban, who each have 12 points. Nor is he a leader in shots; Hamilton has a comfortable lead in that stat too. Severson does have four goals and four assists to go with 60 shots. Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model has him scoring three and he has four. That is nice. Severson’s offensive game meshes with Lindy Ruff’s and the coaching staff’s insistence on the defensemen activating and shooting a lot. Is Severson producing more than usual? No. Severson is averaging 0.8 points per game, which is good. Severson is averaging 6 shots per game, which is a large amount and the highest rate of his career so far. However, he has had a higher average of points per game in past seasons in 5-on-5 play alone. While the goal scoring rate and shooting rate is very different, overall production is not. It is good but not exceptional.
Severson on the Power Play and Penalties
What of the power play? Has it been exceptional for Severson? No. The Devils’ power play may not be entirely in the mud at the moment, but it certainly is not clean. Severson is second among all Devils defensemen in total ice time on man advantage situations with just over 65 minutes played. He has 17 shooting attempts, 6 shots on net, 4 points, and 1 goal for it. Until Hamilton’s injury, Severson has frequently been on the second unit. Even with that in mind, the team’s on-ice rates of offensive stats like shots or attempts or goals are all quite low with Severson on the ice. They are also low with the likes of Smith and Subban. Once again: It may have more to do with the X’s and the O’s instead of the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s. But this post is about Severson and not another reason to rue Mark Recchi’s role on the team. Again, the power play with Severson has not been exceptional this season.
Unfortunately, what has been more exceptional is his penalty taking. Severson has been a regular penalty taker as he has averaged at least 0.6 penalties per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play in every season of his career. Even though this season is just 35 games old for Severson, he has 12 total penalties this season. He is averaging 1.2 penalties per 60 minutes this season. Or 2.4 PIM per 60 minutes. Either way, those are the highest rates of Severson’s career. All of them have been minor penalties. This means Severson has put his team down a man quite a bit this season. Which is bad news because the one exceptional thing about Severson this season is his play on the penalty kill.
The Glorious Exception: Severson in Shorthanded Situations
The term “hero” may be a bit much. However, Severson has become a regular penalty killer over the last three seasons. His shorthanded ice time average started above a minute in his rookie season in 2014-15 and did not go back to that level until the 2018-19 season. In each of the last three seasons, Severson has averaged over two minutes per game on the PK. This season, he is the current ice time leader among all Devils penalty killers and second to Ryan Graves for penalty kill ice time per game. (This is also why Severson leads the team in total ice time per game, even ahead of Hamilton.) However, the on-ice rates when Severson is on the ice is not second to Graves. Using 20 minutes as a cut-off, here is how Severson ranks at Natural Stat Trick in against-rate stats (which matter more in shorthanded situations):
- Corsi Against per 60 minutes (Shot Attempts Against): 74.27 - 2nd out of 5
- Shots Against per 60: 41.26 - 4th
- Scoring Chances Against per 60: 36.18 - 2nd
- High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60: 10.79 - 3rd
- Goals Against per 60: 5.08 - 1st
- Expected Goals Against per 60: 4.62 - 2nd
Severson plays on the primary penalty killing unit when he is not serving his own penalty. These are great rates with even better results. Subban has the team’s best CA/60 and xGA/60 rate on the penalty kill, Siegenthaler has the best SCA/60 on the PK, and Hamilton has the best SA/60 and HDCA/60 rates while shorthanded. Only Siegenthaler plays a lot shorthanded among those three and he is behind Severson in the other categories. One could argue this means the Devils should use Subban and Hamilton more on penalty kills. My point is that it shows that Severson, in spite of his reputation for big mistakes on defense, has been excellent in shorthanded situations - where you absolutely do not want a big mistake to happen - on a PK that has been improving since a horrific October.
Further, a quick look at his on-ice rates in shorthanded situations in past seasons show that this season has been his best by far. Again, he has only been a regular penalty killer for five seasons and averaged over two minutes per game in the last three - including this season. There is still a lot of hockey left to play, but Severson has really been a great player for the Devils in shorthanded situations this season.
To put this in a larger perspective, 44 defensemen in the NHL have played over 80 minutes of shorthanded ice time this season prior to Sunday’s games. This is a list that includes top defenders like Jaccob Slavin, Aaron Ekblad, and Alex Pietrangelo as well as more specialized (read: defensive) defensemen like Jake Muzzin, Justin Braun, and Derek Forbort. Among this group of 44 defenders, Severson has the 3rd lowest (read: best) CA/60, the 5th lowest SA/60, the 4th lowest SCA/60, the 2nd lowest HDCA/60, and 3rd lowest xGA/60 rates. This is not a mistake. Damon Severson is arguably one of the best defensemen in penalty killing situations in the entire league this season who also play a lot of shorthanded minutes. (Aside: So is Jonas Siegenthaler. Ryan Graves is not too shabby on this list too.) Yes, Damon Severson is a top penalty killer this season. That is exceptional.
It is true that Severson is not the sole reason for this. Alain Nasreddine and the coaches agreed to dump the passive diamond that opponents picked on in October in favor of the wedge-plus-one that the team has had so much success with in recent seasons. The team’s penalty success rate has soared with excellent performances in November and December. Likewise, the play with common teammates such as Jimmy Vesey, Michael McLeod (better with Vesey than McLeod), Graves, Siegenthaler (better with Siegenthaler than Graves) points to the unit benefitting as a group as opposed to one player making it all work. However, it cannot be ignored that Severson on-ice rates with certain teammates as well as his overall on-ice rates in shorthanded situations have been quite low for PK situations. At the least we can conclude that Severson is doing something very right on the penalty kill. Again, a situation where one would think someone as randomly contentious and penalty-happy as Severson would not do well in. But he is, especially in 2021-22. Now he just needs to stay out of the box so he can keep helping the Devils succeed on penalty kills.
Conclusion: The Same Old Severson with a Twist
Damon Severson is pretty much who he always was. He is a capable defenseman who can play quite a few minutes, play in more situations than you may think, and the Devils’ business over the course of many games or a season goes pretty well when #28 is on the ice. He is good enough on the puck and on the attack to be productive. Not enough to be a team leader, but enough to know he is doing more than chipping in occasionally. Severson is still prone to careless and costly errors and taking penalties. This is a typical season from Severson with one glorious exception: the penalty kill. I hope the shorthanded success continues throughout the rest of this season and beyond.
As a larger point, these results should not be so surprising. Severson is 27 and has played over 500 games in the NHL. He is who he is at this point. Yes, some players bloom late but Severson’s bloom was a long, long time ago. It is very difficult for a player to really change for the better at this point. Usually, it is a function of a player being in a different system or role or environment where you may see someone excelling beyond what they did. I can believe that Severson now has more than enough PK experience under his belt that this season may be more than just an aberration. But that is really it. Which is a bit annoying because if he can cut back on the seemingly mindless errors and penalties, then I think he would be more appreciated by the People Who Matter and be a better defenseman for the team. Alas, it is what it is at this point.
However, reputations can always be worked on. Severson will continue to be used more while he is available - he is not right now, he is in the COVID protocol as of Sunday - as Hamilton remains out. Should he have some excellent games, then I think opinion of him will improve. If he stinks, then it will dwindle. If he ends up following the path of his career in New Jersey where he does pretty well but makes a couple of costly mistakes, then it will be the same as it ever was for Severson. And so the arguments and comments and debates will continue over whether he actually is any good. Which, objectively, he is to a point. His penalty kill work this season is the exceptional difference - and a very positive one at that.
What do you make of Damon Severson this season? Or in general? Please leave your thoughts about the defenseman and this post in the comments. Thank you for reading.