The Devils are a team that has had some struggles on defense over the past several years. They have been consistently near the bottom of the league in goals allowed, and even given the obvious impact of often terrible goaltending on those numbers, it has been pretty hard to frame the defense as anything much better than mediocre. A significant portion of those difficulties have arisen from the lack of a clear top-pairing in New Jersey and the resulting need to frequently play everyone essentially a spot above their pay grade on defense. Having a reliable top pairing is a luxury that has largely eluded the Devils over the past decade or so. Even during the Devils’ last run to the Cup finals ten long years ago, the thing that passed for a top pairing was Mark Fayne duct taped to Andy Greene.
The Devils have attempted to rectify this situation multiple times since the 2019 offseason. First, they brought in PK Subban as a bounceback candidate coming off a down year in Nashville. The results were not a bounce back for the former Norris Trophy-winner, but rather a continuation and perhaps even acceleration of his decline. The Devils had traded for a #1 defenseman and, in 2019-20, Subban was probably playing at more of a #4 defenseman level. Subban was one disappointment among many in a 2019 season that saw the end of John Hynes, Ray Shero, and Taylor Hall in New Jersey.
The Devils ran it back in 2021 with a more straightforward strategy to get a number-one defenseman. The strategy from Tom Fitzgerald was not to bring in a reclamation project and hope for a rebound, it was “sign a guy who just finished top-five in Norris Trophy voting.” The result was a big ol’ contract for Mr. Dougie Hamilton. Surely, this time the Devils would be getting what they hoped and finally have an indisputable top man in their defensive lineup. For a time, it looked like they had gotten just that. Hamilton looked as-advertised when he started the season, being a dominant play-driver and offensive spark. The results on the power play weren’t there, but surely those would come...
It didn’t play out that way in 2021-22, as Hamilton started to pick up injuries, including a broken jaw after a puck deflected into his face right around the New Year. When he returned from the jaw injury, he didn’t look quite the same, failing to drive the play as he normally would and lagging in offensive production. Taken as a whole, the season was a major disappointment for everyone, despite the promising start.
This season, the Devils are hoping that a healthy Hamilton can look like the one that started out last season with the team. And they will be hoping that there is another player who can consistently help Dougie drive results and pick up the defensive slack when Hamilton is, uh, we’ll say fully engaged in the offensive zone. In 2021-22, it seemed like Hamilton’s main partner, Ryan Graves, was probably positioned a little bit over his head at times and is capable but also not the soundest on the defensive end.
Enter Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler was on a bit of an island last year as by far the Devils’ most effective defensive defenseman. His impacts on defense could be matched by few players in the league who played the type of minutes he did. By some metrics (such as Evolving Hockey’s GAR and xGAR ratings), nobody in the league provided more value on defense last season. Siegenthaler was confident and composed in his end and was the type of player who is constantly making the right decision in his own end. That gave him few peers around the league and put him far above the rest of his teammates in defensive acumen.
Its common thinking that putting together a pairing where one guy can push the pace on offense and the other can clean up the messes in the other direction is the way to go, but it doesn’t always seem to work out quite so tidily. For the Devils, they have a guy long considered one of the best defensemen in the world at generating offense, and another guy trying to carve out a reputation as a truly elite defensive blueliner. In an ideal world, you can’t ask for much more out of a pairing.
If Hamiton and Siegenthaler can do the job and be the mythical yin and yang that make up the ideal offensive/defensive pairing, it could go a long way toward pulling the Devils out of their doldrums this season. Hamilton has looked offensively sharp so far this preseason, putting up four points in two games, and Siegenthaler has been invisible in the best sense possible, having yet to witness a goal against while he’s been on the ice. If they can build some chemistry together, with Siegenthaler shutting down opponents and Hamilton making teams hurt at the other end, this could be the best pairing we have seen in New Jersey for a while.