There are some real superstar defensemen in the NHL. The name everyone talks about is Cale Makar, and for obvious reasons, the dude is a beast. Of course, this year has seen a resurgence from Erik Karlsson, who was leading the NHL in points as of yesterday morning. And not far behind him is former #1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, who is really coming into his own as one of the top d-men in the NHL.
Of course, the New Jersey Devils are not without their stars. Dougie Hamilton has been one of the top defenders in the league for years, as he was dominant during his time in Carolina, and this year he has really proven why the contract the Devils gave to him was worth it. Behind him, the rest of the guys that make up the blue line for New Jersey really do not pack a lot of star power, but they have been successful, and some would argue that someone like Jonas Siegenthaler has been even better than Hamilton.
The cool thing about this unit’s success so far this year is that, while Hamilton might be the star of the group, no one is getting the minutes like a star. The unit, as a whole, is working very well together, and no one has to be out there constantly to give the Devils chances to win. To showcase this, MoneyPuck tracks a player's Share of Possible Ice Time percentage. The cool thing is this tracks for each player, so a player who has only played in 15 games so far this year will still get a percentage based only on those games, not on all of the team’s games. The chart with this info can be found here, and the info below comes from all situations, not just 5 on 5.
Some defenders, like for example, those I mentioned above from other teams, dominate time on the ice. Cale Makar has a 44.5% share of possible ice time, which tops all defenders this year so far. He is out there for nearly 45% of all possible ice time, which is pretty wild. Only 17 defenders are over 40% in share of possible ice time, and those players are clearly given a large percentage of responsibility as compared to other defenders on their team. Dahlin is at 42.5%, Karlsson is at 41.6%, and Adam Fox, who we all hear about being a Norris candidate again sadly, is at 41.4%.
What you will not see, however, is any Devil up there. Despite arguably being one of the best units this year, no one is given a massive share of possible ice time. The tops on the team is, in fact, John Marino, who comes in at 36.1% of possible ice time, ranking him 51st among all defenders with at least 200 all situation minutes (197 defenders qualify). Other Devils, however, are not far behind him. Hamilton ranks 57th and has a 35.7% share of possible ice time, and Jonas Siegenthaler ranks 69th and has a 34.4% share of possible ice time. The chart of all 6 Devils defenders shows this, and data is from before last night’s game:
As you can see, there is a gap between the top 3 defenders and the bottom 3 in terms of usage. Marino, Hamilton, and Siegenthaler are all used a fairly similar amount, being within 20 shifts of each other at this point in the season. Then there is a drop off to Graves, and then another to Severson, and finally Smith ranks near the bottom of qualifying defenders in share of ice time percentage, coming in at 192nd out of 197.
However, I think the story here is that there is no one defender that is eating up ice time in order for this team to succeed. This isn’t like 5 years ago, when the team relied on Andy Greene at times just to keep them in it. This group can rotate from line to line and be confident that the guys on the ice will do a good job. Of course, they are leaning more on the top 2 pairings, and Smith especially takes a seat more at critical moments, but that is to be expected from any team, no team is rolling 6 guys evenly, no matter the scenario. Yes, Smith gets a really low percentage share of possible ice time even compared to most defenders in the NHL, so the point there is valid. But even if you remove him, Severson still gets his fair share of work, and the smaller workload is arguably helping his game this year. Beyond him, Graves clearly has a strong role on this team, and the top 3 are all given similar time.
What this does is make sure everyone stays fresh. You don’t have to worry about the top pairing breaking down as the game gets near the end because they’ve been out there for half of the game. And as the season goes along, they hopefully won’t have to worry about these guys tiring out or losing their legs a little because of fatigue from a long season with a ton of minutes. That could have massive implications for a potential playoff run. Compare this, now, to Colorado, say, where Makar has a 44.5% share of possible ice time. How are his legs going to be come April? And consider that the next Colorado defender on the list, Bowan Byram, ranks 73rd on the list of possible ice time percentage at 34.3%, over 10% less of a share than Makar gets. That is a blue line that clearly showcases one guy at the expense of everyone else. The Devils do not have that issue, at all. And that is a good thing.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how this continues, and if changes are made to alter this. Will Smith retain his 3rd pairing role, or will someone like Kevil Bahl come and take it away? Or will Tom Fitzgerald go shopping before the trade deadline to find another piece? Only time will tell, but for now, the fairly even distribution of defenders is a boon for this team and should keep the blue line more energized each game.