When the Devils line up on opening night for the start of the 2022-23 NHL season, they will do so with the best blue-line the team has boasted (on paper) since… well, it’s been a long time. Actually, I think this year’s version of the Devils defense will be very good and has a chance to be one of the strongest units in the league if everyone remains healthy.
This may seem like a bold statement considering the team’s only additions to the current roster are John Marino and Brendan Smith and neither will come close to even sniffing the Norris conversation next year. However, these additions only further bolster the depth of a unit that Fitzgerald has completely remade over the last couple seasons. Turnover on a professional sports team is generally fairly regular, particularly when the team in question is bad. Even so, it is noteworthy how quickly GM Tom Fitzgerald has turned around a blue-line from a unit of Severson, Greene, Vatanen, Subban, Mueller, and Butcher in the 2019-20 season (Shero’s last as GM) to the current group of Siegenthaler, Hamilton, Severson, Graves, Marino, and Smith. While both Shero and Fitzgerald have mostly looked outside the organization to bolster the blue-line, Fitzgerald has done a much better job of acquiring talent than his predecessor did, partly because of opportunity (Hamilton), partly because he just made smarter bets (Siegenthaler vs Mueller), and partly just plain old luck (Subban’s swift decline, Siegenthaler’s ascension). Regardless, the result is that the Devils now have arguably the deepest right side in the league with 3 top-4 caliber defenseman, including one of the best blue-liners in the league in Dougie Hamilton.
So let’s look at the unit a little more closely.
As I mentioned above, the unit starts with star defenseman Dougie Hamilton. Although the 29 year-old free agent acquisition is coming off of a pretty forgettable season (for him) where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time since his rookie year and was played at merely a top-pairing level instead of at an all-star level, we still got a taste for what he can do when he’s healthy and at his best at the start of last season, before a series of injuries seemingly derailed his season. I suspect we’ll see a better version of Hamilton this coming year.
What I am really looking forward to seeing is a full season of a Siegenthaler - Hamilton top pair. While Hamilton is known for being an offensive powerhouse, Siegenthaler is the inverse.
Jonas Siegenthaler, signed to a 5x$3.4M extension by NJ, is a strong top four defensive defenceman. He put up excellent chance-suppression results in his first two seasons in a small role and then proved himself in a tough top four spot this year. #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/lItin7vsIO— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 26, 2022
The Devils had been missing a high-end shutdown defender since Andy Greene’s decline, and while Siegenthaler doesn’t get the job done in the same way as Greene, last season’s performance was as impressive as anything we saw from Greene at his peak. It’s just too bad it happened in such a forgettable year for the team overall. If you think I am over-selling things, former AATJ writer CJ Tutoro pointed out this stat from Evolving Hockey.
Here are the list of skater-seasons in the @EvolvingHockey's xGAR database (2007-current) that were more valuable defensively than Jonas Siegenthaler's 2022 season:— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) July 26, 2022
1) Niklas Hjalmarssom's 2018-19 season
It’s not treading any new ground since the two did spend over 200 minutes together last season, but this happened after the season was already lost and injuries had hampered Hamilton’s performance. A full season of the two together could be something special.
Even if the two don’t work out though, the Devils have some other strong options. Natural Stattrick (see the link in the previous paragraph) has a Graves - Hamilton pair putting up a CF% and xGF% both over well over 52% in more than 450 minutes together at 5 on 5. Siegenthaler and Severson were even more effective in over 600 minutes at 5 on 5, with a xGF% north of 55%, which is superb.
Speaking of Severson, the man may have his brain farts here and there, but there is no reasonable argument against him being a top-4 defenseman. Coming off of a 46 point season where he led all Devils skaters in TOI while posting positive CF% and xGF% values, his overall impact on the team is clearly positive.
This brings us to the newest editions to the Devils defense. John Marino was the key player added to the Devils blue-line this offseason in a trade with Pittsburgh involving former 1st round pick Ty Smith. Marino profiles similarly to Siegenthaler in that he is a very capable defensively however isn’t going to give you very much offensely. I’d call him a new age defensive defenseman, but this player type isn’t really all that new at this point, we’re just better at identifying it these days.
Brendan Smith, the other, defenseman Fitzgerald added this offseason, is probably the only question mark I have on the blue-line. After some very good years in Detroit he is now more of a depth option. However, the Devils also have several defensemen who will be attempting to challenge for a roster spot (Bahl, Okhotyuk, Walsh) so he may end up in a 6th/7th rotation rather than an every day player for the Devils.
So, in the last couple years the Devils have gone from not having a blue-liner who is strong in their own end to having two of the better such players in the league (Siegenthaler, Marino), they’ve added a star number one defenseman, and another top-4 guy in Ryan Graves. Thus, they now have 5 top-4 defensemen on their roster. This is a unit that I can’t wait to see in action come October.
The best part of all of this is that it is completely reasonable to assume that the Devils blueline will be even better in a couple years. A lot will depend on how player’s age and develop, but prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec should help infuse the Devils blue-line with the type of home-grown, high-end talent that the team has been missing during their rebuild. If you want to get really hyped about the future of the blue-line, check out Scott Wheeler’s recent article on the top 50 prospects ($). And if someone like Ethan Edwards or Seamus Casey or one of the other 100 defensemen they drafted this year hits, they will have an abundance of talent at the position, which isn’t something I ever envisioned saying about the Devils blue-line a month ago. When the Devils won their Stanley Cups the blue-line was a big key to their success, maybe in a few years we’ll be saying the same thing about the current Devils squad.