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Devils Defense Did Not Focus on Hits

The Devils defense certainly had its bright spots last year, but one area that the entire blue line really did not focus on was hits, where they were one of the least hitting groups in the league.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at New Jersey Devils Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, there were some big positives and improvements that happened on the blue line for the New Jersey Devils. The biggest of those, of course, was the absolute arrival of Jonas Siegenthaler, which was only just discussed by Stephen the other day. Dougie Hamilton played fairly well when healthy, and Damon Severson continued to be Damon Severson. With the eventual arrivals of Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec, it has the makings of what could be a solid or even great group.

One area that this defense completely ignored last year, however, for better or worse, was hits. The Devils defense, in fact, was one of the least-hitting blue lines in the league last year. Check out this information from Natural Stat Trick. When you look at all defenders last year with at least 500 minutes at 5 on 5 play (there were 213 of them), the top 50 defenders in terms of hits per 60 minutes represented 29 different teams in the league. That means that there were only 3 teams that did not have one defender crack the top 50 in hits/60 last year at 5v5 action. Those teams were the New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, and your New Jersey Devils.

And to go a step further with that, those other two teams, Detroit and the Isles, still managed to have at least one defender in the top 100 on the list of hits/60 at 5v5, while New Jersey did not. Zdeno Chara ranked #61 on the list, making the Isles the 30th team to make the list. Moritz Seider ranked #85 on the list, putting Detroit as the 31st team to make the list. And finally, coming in all the way down at #102 you will find Dougie Hamilton finally giving the Devils a spot on the list. No Devils defender cracked the top 100 in hits/60 at 5v5. Hamilton managed to record 4.51 hits/60 at 5v5, and that was tops among Devils defensemen. This is in comparison to Nashville’s Mark Borowiecki, who put up 17.07 hits/60 to lead all defenders on this list. That is a massive difference. The top Devil in hitting barely managed to get 25% of the hits that the top defender was getting per 60 minutes.

Now, hits are not the end-all-be-all statistic for defensemen. This isn’t like talking about possession, points, or even zone exits. Hits are not the coveted statistic to determine who is a successful d-man and who isn’t. So this isn’t to say that New Jersey’s blue line was bad last year because they didn’t focus on hits. It definitely isn’t telling us that Dougie Hamilton isn’t good and Mark Borowiecki is. But what it does tell us is what this Devils defensive corps focused on as a team, how they set the tone on the ice, and what identity they created. When an opposing team entered the zone and the Devils were playing defense, the opposition did not really need to worry about getting hit by defenders down low, it was not happening that much. The fear of getting lit up like Scott Stevens would do to players at times was simply not there, as the team was not hitting. Of course, no one can hit as Stevens used to anymore, they would take a penalty and possibly be suspended, but the general idea remains. Opposing teams were afraid to play against Stevens because of his tenacity and physicality. The Devils defensive corps of 2021-22 did not display much physicality, and in fact, might have been the least physical among all blue lines in the NHL.

You might think that comparing last year’s squad to Scott Stevens is a poor comparison given how things have changed over the last 10-20 years, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. So, let’s compare last year’s Devils and hits to the 2017-18 iteration of the team, the last one to make the playoffs. Here is a quick chart of the top four Devils defenders in hits/60 at 5v5 for both the 2017-18 team and the 2021-22 team, again from the same Natural Stat Trick link above. The ranking is from all NHL defenders that year who played at least 500 5v5 minutes.

The difference is clearly pretty stark. Even from Severson, who is the one player from both lists, he clearly was hitting more back in 2017-18 than he was last year, almost 1.5 more hits per 60. That just goes to show the philosophical difference between the different coaching staffs. But the others are massive in their differences. Steve Santini was a top 10 defender that year in terms of hits per 60 at 5v5 with well over 10 hits per 60, a very big number. John Moore and Ben Lovejoy were also pretty consistent hitters that year, both around 5 and a half hits per 60, well within the top 100. And it isn’t like there were just more hits that year than last year. The #100 person on the list in 2017-18, Dmitry Orlov, had 4.41 hits per 60. The #100 person on the list in 2021-22, Mike Reilly, was at 4.60 hits per 60. Those are fairly similar numbers, with the 2021-22 number being slightly higher than in 2017-18. Of course, the top guy on the list in both years is the exact same. Mark Borowiecki has that spot on lockdown.

All-in-all, this is just an interesting look into how the defense has changed philosophies with the current coaching staff as opposed to previously, and what that means for the blue line. This group focuses less on the physical aspect of the game, and it shows in the numbers. Again, it doesn’t mean that this is a bad group of defenders. In fact, I think the group should be improved this year, even more so when Luke Hughes and/or Simon Nemec become NHL regulars. But it isn’t a group that is focused on physicality or establishing the defensive zone through hitting and checking. You might think this is a good thing because it means that the focus is instead on more important aspects of the game. Or, you might think this is a bad thing because opposing teams that are too comfortable entering and maintaining the zone will inevitably score more goals. It will be interesting to see if the lack of hitting is noticeable in the numbers once again this year, or if there is more of a focus on that aspect of the game moving forward.