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Can the Strength of the Defense on Paper Translate into Results?

It would be nice if a group that looks decent on paper would turn out to be that for once.

NHL: MAR 31 Devils at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All of a sudden, training camp for the 2022-23 season is under a month from opening and the Devils roster appears to be just about set. It was another long offseason in New Jersey and another fairly eventful one, with a second overall pick plus a few trades and acquisitions bringing in new faces for the roster and depth chart. The Devils shook up their coaching staff as well, keeping head coach Lindy Ruff but bringing in three new assistants behind the bench to hopefully fix some structural issues on the ice for the team.

The Devils’ defense has been (at times fairly) maligned over the past several years as, whether due to leaky goaltending or not, the team has let up a substantial number of goals. Since 2018-19, the Devils are 31st in goals against, with the similarly struggling Red Wings being the only team that has allowed opponents to score more often. In 289 games over that stretch (per Stathead), the Devils have yielded 1006 goals, Those nearly 3.5 goals per game have led to a parade of losses over the past four seasons, very many of them being of the blowout variety. The Devils have yielded 5+ goals 82 times over that stretch (again second to last in front of only the Red Wings), meaning that if you sat down to watch a Devils game at any point in the past four years, you had close to a 30% chance of watching a defensive catastrophe.

Heading into 2022-23, the hope will be that this grim trend does not hold up. In years past, the Devils’ defensive unit has not looked spectacular on paper but has at least generally seemed passable. The results have not tracked with anyone’s idea of passable, at least not at the base “the point of hockey is to score more goals than your opponent” level. These poor results have absolutely coincided with a continuous train wreck at the goaltending position where an oft injured and inconsistent Mackenzie Blackwood has been the closest thing they’ve had to an ‘NHL goaltender.’ Even so, the Devils have lacked the sense of a team that actually has any ability to take over a game defensively and on the rare occasions when they did manage to stake themselves to leads, were prone to blowing them in short order.

Per HockeyViz, the Devils defense should not have necessarily been so horrid from an underlying numbers standpoint, either. Their 5v5 results have been pretty solidly average in terms of expected goals allowed, aside from a somewhat poor 2019-20 where they were 7% higher than average in xG allowed. The PK has been acceptable (even good at times) from an xG standpoint too, aside from a disastrous 2020-21 version of the unit on that front. But despite this and, particularly in 2021-22, despite a roster that seemed like it had enough to keep opponents at bay, the Devils have (as previously mentioned) allowed over 1000 goals since October of 2018.

If the Devils want to exorcise the demons of the past four years (and really the past 10 years aside from the 2017-18 anomaly), it will have to start with giving up a lot fewer goals. The good news is that, from a personnel perspective, it seems like they should be able to do that in 2022-23.

At the current moment, the defensive unit shakes out as follows:

Right side: Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson, John Marino

Left side: Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, Brendan Smith

Other options: Simon Nemec (RHD), Reilly Walsh (RHD), Kevin Bahl (LHD), Nikita Okhotiuk (LHD), Shakir Mukhamadullin (RHD)

Aside from Smith, that seems to be a pretty strong main defensive unit, and Smith is at least passable as a number six. Ideally, one of the young players forces their way into the lineup and makes Smith more of a 7th D type, but that’s not necessarily always something you want to count on, especially considering that the best (currently signed) up and comers are largely on the right. That’s not to say someone can’t flip and around play their off hand if necessary, but it’s clear the Devils are thinner on the left for now than the right (at least until Luke Hughes leaves college, hopefully next year).

I would say the Devils have at least five capable top-four defensemen in their starting group and, if Hamilton can recover from a uneven first year in New Jersey, they have options to create great pairings for creating offense or chasing the game and also pairings that can be defensive stalwarts in times when a lockdown is needed. Can they actually make that happen? Well, that is the question we are all dying to see an answer to. I think most of all, it hinges on three things: Dougie Hamilton regaining his form as an elite play-driver and offense-generator, Jonas Siegenthaler maintaining his form as an elite suppressor of opposing offense, and one or more of the Devils’ young defensive prospects stepping to play a substantial role, even if it is mostly on the third pairing. I think all of those things are very possible, it’s just that they have to break the right way for once (and, oh yeah, the goaltending needs to also be not terrible) instead of everything going wrong seemingly the moment it can.