Welcome to part-two of the week-long preview of the 2022-2023 New Jersey Devils. Yesterday, Alex previewed the Devils forward group. In this second installment, we review the Devils’ defense. On paper, this is a unit that appears stronger and deeper than last season thanks to upgrade(s?) on the third pairing. Today’s post will begin by reviewing what happened last season, discuss the changes made in the offseason and what to expect this coming season, and conclude with my thoughts regarding what I would like to see happen. If you want to see what my thoughts were regarding the defense prior to last season, you can read that here.
What Happened Last Year?
Lots of goals against. That’s the short version. Lots and lots of goals against. Plenty of goals for as well, but mostly, just lots of goals against.
The question then becomes, how much blame does the defense (and skater group as a whole) deserve when the Devils couldn’t find a goalie who could stop a beach ball? Let’s dig into the numbers and take a look.
Statistics from Naturalstattrick.
In the table above are some rate stats that I believe are relevant. All of them are for 5 on 5 since special teams will be covered later in our previews. For some additional context I included last year’s league ranking as well. Offense is included because despite the name, defenseman can, should, and do contribute to offense (and vis versa). For simplicity and brevity’s sake, I will focus in on the defensive statistics here, however. We can see these values are much worse than the offensive and overall statistics from last season. There’s a lot more red in this section. But while the Devils were around average to slightly below average last year in terms of shots, corsi, and expected goals against, they were near worst in the league in terms of giving up goals. This disparity is a big reason why, like a lot of Devils fans, I believe the goalies deserve a large part of the blame for last season.
Further supporting this point is that Evolving Hockey has last season’s Devils even strength defense goals above replacement (EVD GAR) ranked 15th in the league, with a value of 7.6, while the Devils goaltending is ranked dead last with a value of -29.7. So while the team defense as a whole wasn’t anything to write home about last season, they weren’t the main reason why the Devils bled goals against. It is encouraging however to see that the group did make a fairly large improvement in terms of expected goals against, moving from 21st to 14th.
For some additional context, let’s look at the Devils defensive microstat data.
I would say this runs counter to my original point, but with microstat data it is important to note that these things only matter insofar as they contribute to the likelihood of a goal for and against. So something like expected goals or expected goals above replacement is far more meaningful than, say, being ranked 26th in allowing rush shots. Even so, this is definitely worse than I expected given the team’s average rating defensively. There is definitely a lot of room for growth. For example, transition defense would seem to be a good area for the coaching staff to address to help out the goalies a little more.
Now that we’ve looked at how the team as a whole did, what about the individual players? Below you will find the list of defensemen who played at least 50 minutes with the Devils last season.
I noted in last year’s preview the importance of roster depth on the blue-line. I do not want to belabor the point too much, but the Devils will likely need to use at least 10 defensemen this season. Last year they used 10, and it was a dozen the year prior. So recent cuts like Okhotiuk, Vukojevic, and Walsh will need to stay ready, because they’ll get in some games.
Last year Fitzgerald completely shook up the Devils blue-line. He traded for Siegenthaler and Graves. And then made an even bigger splash by signing Dougie Hamilton to a 7 year, $63 million deal. Unfortunately, while we saw some flashes of the type of impact Hamilton can have at the start of the year, before long, injuries to the leg and jaw derailed his season. We can see in his player card below that his defensive impact in particular took a big hit last season. Despite this, Hamilton still managed 30 points in 62 games, drove play with a relative CF% of 2.7, and had the best even strength offensive impact (EVO GAR) among the Devils defensemen. So while Hamilton had a disappointing season by his standards, he wasn’t bad, just not quite worth $9 million.
All player cards in this post are via JFresh Hockey.
My favorite story from last season was Jonas Siegenthaler (who signed a contract extension this summer). He was traded to New Jersey because he couldn’t get ice-time with Washington, started the season on the third pair with PK Subban, and ended the season playing top-pair minutes with Dougie Hamilton. And it wasn’t out of necessity. It was because he proved to be an excellent shutdown defenseman. In fact, as I pointed out several weeks ago when I wrote about his season, by Evolving Hockey’s model he was the most valuable player in the league defensively last season.
Siegenthaler played most of his time with Damon Severson, however near the end of the season it was Hamilton who played with the Swiss blue-liner. In 200 minutes together, the two posted a 50.9 CF%, 52.48 xGF%, and the Devils scored 60% of the goals when those two were on the ice. These are very good numbers, and could potentially look even better with a healthy Dougie Hamilton.
Ryan Graves was the other big (both figuratively and literally), addition last offseason. Graves was seen as a more physical, hard-nosed defenseman who could inject some toughness into the blue-line. I don’t know or care if he did that. But Graves was fine. I think his player card aligns very well with what I thought of his performance last season.
Pretty average. He made his fair share of both good and bad plays, and ultimately, he isn’t someone I have strong opinions about. His xGAR data has a more favorable outlook, rating his performance as worth 4.9 expected goals above replacement. Interestingly, both sets of data rate him as being a poor penalty killer. It is worth paying attention to see if this trend continues since I expect he’ll probably get a lot of pk time this season. Overall, I think Ryan Graves was perfectly fine as a number-four defenseman last season.
Graves was partnered with Damon Severson. Together, these two played nearly 400 minutes together, and posted eerily similar numbers to Graves and Hamilton (50.85 CF%, 52.21 xGF%, and 60.61 GF%). It bodes well for the Devils that they have two pairings that demonstrated the ability to control shots, expected goals, and actual goals.
Speaking of Severson, he had a career year production-wise last year. He put up 46 points in 80 games, once again led all Devils skaters in average TOI, and was second only to Siegenthaler in xGAR. Yetbhis even strength impacts took somewhat of a hit last season.
This is something else to watch for given Severson is a pending UFA and the Devils have to decide whether or not to give him a big contract extension.
The Devils third pairing last season mainly featured former superstar PK Subban and second-year pro Ty Smith. In a more sheltered role they managed to be pretty solid, despite probably being the slowest pairing in the league. In 480 minutes together, the two put up a 51.46 CF%, 54.05 xGF%, and 51.11 GF%. I was expecting to write about how terrible they were so this was a little bit of a revelation for me.
Also playing games for the Devils last season were Colton White and Christian Jaros, as well as prospects Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk. None of these players were particularly effective. The latter two are notable for being prospects who are still with the organization. I also want to mention that Reilly Walsh did get one game but obviously did not hit the 50 minute cut-off to be included in the table above.
Mainly the third pairing. The emergence of Siegenthaler’s as a high-end shutdown defenseman last season helped solidify the Devils top four. Early indications are that Ruff will start the season with the same pairings. With the defensive-minded Siegenthaler allowing Hamilton more freedom to focus on running the Devils offense from the back-end. Slotting behind the Devils top pair are Graves and Severson, who played significant minutes together last season, and as I noted above, put up pretty good results in that time. So unlike last offseason, where the Devils added Hamilton, Graves, and Siegenthaler (75% of the their current top-4!), most of the change this time around was at the bottom of the depth chart.
PK Subban’s disappointing 3 season stint as a Devil ended with a whimper when they simply let him walk in free agency and subsequently into retirement. This decision was made and announced by the Devil’s front office prior to last season’s trade deadline. PK probably played his best hockey as a Devil last season, but unless Subban was willing to sign a one-year deal for a lot less money than he was previously earning, the GM Tom Fitzgerald rightly decided to move on. Particularly considering who he replaced Subban with…
On July 16th, the Devils made their third trade of the offseason, moving Ty Smith, the former 17th overall selection back in the 2018 NHL draft and a 2023 3rd round pick to Pittsburgh for John Marino. Marino is a 25 year-old American-born right-shot defenseman standing at 6’1” 181 lbs. So he just barely meets Fitzgerald’s height requirement for defensemen. Marino, importantly, is under contract for 5 more seasons at a $4.4 million AAV. Don’t expect him to put up a ton of offense however. His career high in goals and points came as rookie in the 2019-20 season, when he put up 6 goals and 26 points in 56 games. He came one point shy of matching this total last season in 81 games. Despite his lack of offensive production, Marino was given big minutes on the Pittsburgh blue-line, and averaged 20:33 per game in his 3 years with the Penguins. While they were likely disappointed he wasn’t producing more for the money they gave him, Pittsburgh should’ve probably seen that coming seeing as neither the 9.8% shooting percentage, nor the 102.2 PDO he had in his rookie season were very repeatable. But realistically the Penguins were forced to trade Marino in order to keep their own core together. Cap space for the win.
What Marino brings to the Devils is a mobile blue-liner who can take care of his own end.
We can see from his player card that not only does Marino excel on defense at 5 on 5, but he does so while taking very few penalties. I consider this move a big upgrade, both in terms of swapping him for Ty Smith and as a replacement for the departing Subban.
You may also notice that Marino is a right shot defenseman. Given his salary and ice-time, you’d think he would slot in the top-4, and I wouldn’t rule it out on some nights. However, he’ll likely slot behind both Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson unless the coaching staff is willing to play Marino on his off-side. The result is that the Devils will have arguably the deepest right-defense in the league. And speaking of right-shot defensemen…
Technically, the first major move on the blue-line this offseason happened on July 7th, when the Devils drafted Slovakian defenseman Simon Nemec 2nd overall. Nemec, who is, in fact, another right-shot defenseman, signed his 3-year entry-level contract on July 14th. He comes over to North America from the Slovakian league, where he put up 26 points in 39 games and followed this up with a dominant playoff performance, tallying 5 goals and 17 points in 19 games. The young Slovakian came to training camp with very high expectations given his draft status and the hype surrounding him.
Not a single player profiles exactly like Simon Nemec in the model. Nemec has had outlier production in both his DY and pre-DY which is rare enough. But reaching this type of production in a pro Euro league this young has never happened for any dman ever drafted in the NHL. pic.twitter.com/yc3XGlB2Tk— Byron Bader (@ByronMBader) December 28, 2021
As of this writing, Nemec is still on the roster. More on this later.
The Devils did make one other free agent signing for their big club. With the departure of Ty Smith, a hole on the left side of the defense opened up and they inked 12-year NHL veteran Brendan Smith to a 2-year deal with a $1.1 million AAV to help fill his spot. Smith is, of course, another big boy (6’2” 200 lbs), so anyone worried about the Devils being pushed around can rest easy. Who am I kidding, those people would find a way to make any problems the Devils have about not being big or tough enough even if everyone on the roster was Zdeno Chara’s size. But I digress. Brendan Smith is, at this stage in his career, no more than a bottom-pair defenseman (which is what he’s being paid to be). He doesn’t provide much offense, but he can hold his own in a sheltered role. Last season with Carolina he appeared in 45 games and averaged less than 14 minutes a night, but put up a 57.1 CF%. It’s worth noting that Carolina is known for being shot-happy and are generally near the top of the league in CF%, but even his relative CF% is positive, if just barely so at 0.4. If we look at his player card below, we also see that he is a very solid penalty killer, which is always nice to have.
The Devils made one other addition on the blue-line in free agency, signing Tyler Wotherspoon to a 2-year contract. Wotherspoon spent last season in Utica, and hasn’t appeared in the NHL since 2017 with the Calgary Flames. We likely won’t see Wotherspoon in New Jersey unless there are a catastrophic number of injuries, so I don’t have anything else to say about him. Departures include former Devils 4th round pick Colton White and Christian Jaros.
What To Expect This Season?
After their latest round of cuts yesterday, the Devils are down to eight defenseman on their NHL roster. The following players are locks to win a roster spot: Jonas Siegenthaler, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, Damon Severson, and John Marino. Brendan Smith is likely to stay in New Jersey as well, although it isn’t out of the question that the Devils decide to waive him. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, but teams have done stranger things. Finally, there are the two prospects still vying for a spot: Kevin Bahl and Simon Nemec.
At this point, based on their respective performances in training camp, I don’t really see this as much of a competition.
Data from Naturalstattrick
Kevin Bahl came into camp and has looked legitimately good, while Nemec looks like an 18 year-old rookie. I have to wonder if wouldn’t have already been sent down if it weren’t for him being the 2nd overall pick. Nemec has very good offensive instincts, but he needs a good amount of work at the other end of the ice to round out his game and I expect that to mostly happen with Utica.
Based on what we’ve seen in camp and in preseason games, I expect the Devils opening night blue-line to look like so:
- Siegenthaler - Hamilton
- Graves - Severson
- Bahl - Marino
- Extra: Smith
And I would be pretty satisfied with this line-up. This is an upgraded group from last season. Marino is a top-4 defenseman playing on the 3rd pairing, the top pair could potentially be dominant, and both Graves and Severson are entering contract years, giving them some extra motivation to perform well.
The Athletic put out their season preview for the Devils on September 25th. Here is their projected line-up, with the data here coming from Dom Luszczyszyn’s GSVA model:
Their line-up is similar to what I have projected, with the only real difference being that they give the edge to the veteran Brendan Smith over Kevin Bahl. I feel confident that they’ll go with Bahl over Smith. My thought is that Smith was signed as depth and insurance in case none of the defensive prospects looked NHL ready in camp. Since Bahl has stood out in a positive way, I think the Devils front office and coaching staff will start the season with Bahl as the 3rd pair left-defenseman.
Dom’s model gives the Devils a B- for their blue-line. I think the defense pairings are listed in order they are based on ice-time last season. Since Siegenthaler didn’t earn more minutes until a few months into the season and Hamilton was in and out of the line-up, the model sees this pair as the Devils 2nd pair. But if this unit was swapped with the Severson pair, I wonder how that affects their grade. Additionally, I believe the model uses a weighted average of multiple seasons, so if Siegenthaler repeats his performance from last year, he will outperform his projected value listed here. I’m certainly more positive on the Devils defense unit than the GSVA model is.
Past the top 7, I think the Devils will have some healthy competition in Utica for the first call-up between Okhotiuk, Walsh, Vukojevic, Nemec. I don’t think any of them really looked that ready in the preseason, but as we saw with Zetterlund last season, first impressions aren’t everything. We will probably see most of, if not all of these players get at least a game or two in New Jersey. And speaking of prospects, the Devils best defensive prospect isn’t at camp. Luke Hughes is the brother of Devils superstar forward Jack Hughes, and the Devils first round pick from last season. He’s currently playing NCAA hockey for the Michigan Wolverines, and is coming off of a superb rookie season. When his year ends in Michigan, he will likely sign his ELC, and potentially get some games in down the stretch with the Devils or Comets depending on how the Devils season goes.
I am optimistic about the Devils blue-line this season. I should, perhaps, be less so given how last season went, but I think this is the year the Devils finally climb out of the cellar. And it will be in no small part thanks to their blue-line. As always, health will play a big part of how their year goes, but I expect John Marino to really play a big role on the blue-line and that added depth will allow the Devils to roll 3 pairings when necessary and more easily absorb an injury or two.
If I have any concerns, it’s whether or not Dougie Hamilton will rebound from last season. As players get older they generally do not get healthier. However, the jaw injury was a pretty freak thing and Hamilton doesn’t exactly play a physical game, so perhaps he’s less likely to breakdown than, say, a PK Subban type. If healthy, I expect Hamilton will be the player we saw for most of October last season. This will be a huge boost to the Devils blue-line, because that player is absolutely worth the money. If I’m wrong, then that contract starts to look like an issue going forward.
Now that you’ve read my thoughts on the Devils blue-line, let me know what you think. How do you think this defense group stacks up versus the rest of the league? Do you agree that they are a better unit than last season? What are you expecting from John Marino? Will Siegenthaler maintain his stellar defensive play this season? Do you expect Hamilton to rebound from a disappointing first year in New Jersey? Will the Devils extend Damon Severson? What about Ryan Graves? Should they extend either of them? And if not, do you think they should trade them now, or wait to see how things play out this season? Are you excited about this year’s team? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.