Surprise! Yeah, in case you didn’t figure it out by the interview with GM Tom Fitzgerald earlier this week, I’m joining the All About the Jersey staff and will write here on Fridays. I’m titling this FanFirst simply because everything I’ve ever done in sports has been to put the People Who Matter, i.e. you, before everything else. I’m first and foremost, a huge Devils fan so I often have many thoughts and concerns that you do.
For my first piece here, I want to focus on an aspect of the New Jersey Devils that has helped carry the team to the top of the standings. Defense. What’s the common thread between this year’s edition of the Devils and the greatest Devils teams of the past? It’s not the stellar offense, though I still say that had the A Line been given a longer time together, they might’ve gone down as a top five line in the NHL of all time. When the Devils were securing Cups on the regular, people will say it was the trap that did it. It may have helped, but teams today deploy the trap on a nightly basis and yet, it doesn’t yield them Cups. It just kind of keeps them competitive. The Devils recently saw it with the Coyotes. The Kings played it in a game last night against Connor McDavid and the Oilers and stuffed that team into a locker.
The reason the Devils could just shut down opponents back in the 90s and early 2000s was their rock solid defense. Obvious names like Niedermayer, Stevens and Daneyko come to mind initially, but there were other guys like Rafalski, Albelin, White and Malakhov who provided shot blocking, sticks in lanes, quick movement to the puck to shut down opportunities. Sure the bone-crunching Scott Stevens hits were the ultimate deterrent, but the team itself was really great in its own zone.
Fast forward to today and the new Devils once again have a fantastic defensive core. Dougie Hamilton leads the way with Jonas Siegenthaler, John Marino with Ryan Graves and Damon Severson with Brendan Smith. Kevin Bahl is anxiously awaiting his turn in the wings. And guess what, Devils fans? Luke Hughes is marinating at the University of Michigan and Simon Nemec is building up his confidence at Utica for the North American game right now, likely both becoming a key part of the team moving forward into the next great era of Devils greatness. And I’ve watched Seamus Casey, a Devils draft pick from this season, play in a couple of Michigan games when I tuned in to watch Luke and Seamus stole the show. He’s not very big, but he has elite edges, can make guys defending against him look silly, and he has a wicked shot. Devils also have Topias Vilen from Finland, who we got a sneak peek at during training camp and looked VERY good. He will likely be on the blue line for the Finnish team during the World Junior Championships as Luke Hughes will be anchoring the United States team. Russian Shakir Mukhamadullin may also be an option in the near future. The team also has potential replacement guys like Reilly Walsh and Nikita Okhotyuk playing in Utica. And yes, the Severson and Smith pairing could be better, but that’s what all this young talent coming will provide. Eventual upgrades.
I know the biggest concern heading into 2022-2023 was goaltending. It was a theme to repeatedly say, “just the goalie, just the goalie, just the goalie”. And in large part, it was true. But don’t underestimate Dougie Hamilton regaining his form after an injury-plagued season and adjusting to a new team and system. Jonas Siegenthaler seems to be getting even better defensively than he was last year when he was possibly the best defenseman in the NHL defensively. And John Marino has been amazing. You knew he was going to be an upgrade over the 2021-2022 version of Ty Smith and PK Subban, but did you know just HOW much better he’d be? I’d be lying if I said I did. I liked the trade a lot when it happened, even with Ty Smith’s immense potential lurking as the great equalizer here, but I’ve come to absolutely love it now even if Ty reaches his high ceiling. Marino is what the team needed now.
I don’t usually go for the, “Guy is great in the room” line with players, but I’m starting to believe it about Brendan Smith. You just hear him talk and his attitude and it appears to rub off on the team. That being said, I still would rather have Luke Hughes eventually replace Smith and NOT Ryan Graves. Graves has been good this year and I think he actually blocks shots and has offensive potential. He also doesn’t take dumb penalties at the clip Smith does. If you can re-sign Gravy at a reasonable rate, do so. Maybe Graves would be willing to do it since he just left another team on the rise that broke through right after he left? Full disclosure: Graves is my son’s favorite player and I desperately want him to stay for him as mentioned in the Fitz interview. As for Smith’s most common D partner this year, I do think Nemec will be an adequate replacement for Severson, so I’m anticipating the longest-tenured Devil to be in his last season. Severson, for all the good he brings with the long-bomb passes, the good physicality in his own zone, the timely pinches to keep plays alive, he also is prone to a lot of brain cramp moments. Moments where, to borrow Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s favorite phrase, his puck management is absolutely atrocious. He will throw pucks around like a hot potato in his own zone or hold onto it way too long and allow forechecks to separate him from the puck and create opportunities.
Here’s the good news. Many thought that Devils goaltending would sink them in 2022-2023. And it’s possible that it may lead to some struggles down the road. But the group the Devils are sending out there, provided they remain healthy which is a big caveat in today’s NHL, should help insulate the goaltending quite a bit. I think a key to it, and it came up in my interview with Fitz, is the ability of this group to move the puck quickly out of the zone after fast puck retrieval and good sticks to break up plays. All of the Devils current crop of defensemen should continue to be very good at this. It’s partly why the shot suppression for this Devils team is amongst the best in the NHL.
It’s fun to listen to national hockey media types try and figure out why the Devils have been so good so far this season. Many are pointing to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Others credit getting saves. But it seems like it takes the people who follow the team the closest to realize that the defensive group that Tom Fitzgerald has put together has as big a hand in this as anything. Dougie being Dougie again. Siegenthaler and Marino being absolute studly steals in trades when people were clamoring (me included) for DeBrincat or Gaudreau or Tkachuk. You only need to look at the past few Stanley Cup Champions to realize that they were built upon a foundation of remarkable blueline play. As much as the NHL has evolved and changed, having those horses on the backend remains as crucial to success as anything.
So when your friends ask you what the difference is between this year’s Devils and say, the Devils of 2019-2020. Tell them this. Hamilton, Siegenthaler, Marino, Graves, Severson and Smith>Severson, Butcher, Subban, Vatanen, Mueller, Greene, Carrick. Basically that was the Devils blueline a mere three seasons ago. Dougie Hamilton has 14 points already. Marino has 8. Graves has 7. The Devils best scoring defenseman that season was Severson with 31 points in 69 games.
It’s an old and tired cliche, but it’s applicable in hockey. Defense wins championships. Devils fans know that better than most. My favorite all-time Devils are Stevens, Niedermayer and Brodeur. They ushered in the golden age of Devils hockey. And while my current favorites are Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, this team may be the strongest on the blueline. At least when they’re on the ice and not running the social media account.
For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I’m actually jumping on a plane tomorrow morning and heading to Newark to see our Devils take on the Oilers and Leafs with my 12-year-old son. Maybe I can catch some of you at the games or at American Whiskey ahead of Monday’s game? Feel free to reach out. Let’s go, Devils!