Preseason hockey has evolved over the years. It used to be you could punch your way onto a team (Mason Geertsen says hi!), but I’m not quite sure that is the case any more. Regardless, there has been a lot of overreacting to elements to games during this Devils perfect preseason thus far (I’m writing this prior to the Rangers-Devils FWIW). Some fair, some not as much. Jared Moore did a wonderful job of covering a few of these things.
But I want to focus on one element in particular. It’s something I’ve talked about a lot. The defense. Lots of people were naturally talking about the loss of Ryan Graves and Damon Severson this summer and how it will impact the team. Even Greg Wyshynski brought it up on the Point the other day, saying it’s really the reason he thinks that the Leafs will make the SCF and not his New Jersey Devils.
The preseason has me higher on Bahl than ever. Not merely because he’s an imposing human, listed at 6’6” and 229 pounds but because he can sometimes execute moves like Jesper Bratt. The guy was mohawking in the zone during a preseason game. He sees the offensive part of the game better than people give him credit for and he doesn’t just aimlessly blast it into shin pads because he loves his own clapper (I’ll just ignore that that sounds kind of dirty). Now I’m referencing that in particular because as much as I loved Ryan Graves (loved in the past tense because he’s a division rival now), the guy had a one-track mind in the offensive zone. And it really hasn’t gone away.
Remember I talked about Ryan Graves never seeing an opportunity to take a clapper he didn’t take? Yeah well it backfires here as it’s blocked and it leads to a quick break for the Sens and Graves doesn’t catch up to Tkachuk as he puts in the rebound. #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/cDt7F29B9o— Tyler Bleszinski (@papiblez) October 2, 2023
This happened the other night in Nova Scotia during the Pens-Sens game. Huge blast off a shin pad, leads to a breakout by the Sens and then he’s slow to catch up to Brady Tkachuk, who slams in a rebound of the original shot. I’m not claiming Bahl is any faster than Graves or anything like that because I don’t know, but Bahl seems to have much better poise and decision making in the offensive zone. He’s made some pretty passes that led to goals already this preseason and his defense hasn’t suffered.
Speaking of suffering, the Devils defense itself has had a bit of an up and down preseason. Luke Hughes had a decent game at MSG and struggled a bit more in his last game against the Islanders. Course that could’ve been a product of his partners struggling that game. First, Colin Miller and then later, Simon Nemec both had plays where Luke thought the puck would be kept in the offensive zone and in both cases, it was not kept in the zone. Luke also seemed a tad more panicky than I’ve seen him in his own zone, including a cross ice pass that looked intended for a New York Islander rather than a teammate. Bahl and Marino as a pairing have been absolutely stellar, but even Jonas Siegenthaler has been a bit inconsistent thus far. It’s probably wrong to overreact to much of what veterans do during preseason just because you never know how seriously they take preseason games or whether they’re just going through the motions waiting for the real puck drop. That and someone like Colin Miller, who was the alleged answer to the Damon Severson bolting to a different division rival conundrum, is likely learning a very different system. Granted he had assistant coach Ryan McGill in the past, but my bet is that he’s never played anything like the fast paced, quick puck-moving Devils style. And that takes time. Damon Severson learned it from the second Ruff was hired.
All that being said, if the third pairing of the defense is something that we are going to have to talk about for words upon words upon words, I’d say the Devils are better off than 95 percent of the rest of the NHL. I just think it was even more exacerbated because the Devils never played their best groups together. There was always a Cal Foote or a Daniil Misyul in there.
But I look at it this way. Everyone has basically said that it’s going to be up to Luke Hughes to replace Severson and if we’re talking mere points, I don’t think Luke will have a hard time reaching 33, for that matter. Severson was great at getting the puck out of the zone quickly and he absolutely excelled at hitting long bomb passes to his speedy forwards. It was his special skill and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sending Johnny Gaudreau for at least four or five breakaways this year if not more. But I think Luke should be able to do things in the offensive zone that Severson just couldn’t. Leg-breaking moves at the blueline that leave defenders in the dust and open up opportunities in the zone for both himself and his teammates. He’s got more tools in the toolbox in terms of skating and shifting gears than Severson ever did. Bahl also is a significant upgrade on Graves offensively. Graves only hit 26 points last year. Course Graves was also very solid defensively and good at clearing the puck out of his zone quickly.
I’m just saying that if Bahl can be stellar defensively, no matter who his partner is, then perhaps switching Luke Hughes to the Marino pairing makes a lot of sense. Marino is so good defensively that he could probably make up for any shortcomings that Luke might have in his own zone. I get stacking two defensive studs to go against the opposition best line nightly. But spreading that wealth to have Bahl with Miller or Smith should also be a decent pairing if Bahl’s numbers from the latter half of last season and his early preseason performance are any indication.
I just think that Luke Hughes and Kevin Bahl probably won’t be as consistently effective in their own zone as Graves and Severson (though Graves slipped significantly towards the end of the year and especially against the heavy forechecking Carolina Hurricanes). But we sort of knew that going into this year. It’s possible, no quite likely, both of them are better in the offensive zone than the two dearly departed Devils. The issue is them being good enough in their own zone to get it there. Bahl is likely very close to being there already. Luke will have rough stretches because he takes a lot of risks as very gifted players do. He’ll have to learn what he can and can’t get away with in the NHL. Perhaps the Devils get a bit weaker in their own zone, but I think they can also be better in the offensive zone and that’s a scary proposition for the rest of the league. The Devils should be able to easily outscore any defensive issues in their own zone in the regular season. The playoffs are different and we can discuss that much later on during FanFirst Friday.
The Devils should want to win the division because, avoiding the Rangers or Canes in the first round could be advantageous to a long run in the playoffs. But they could also use the 82 games to help a rookie defenseman and a very young defenseman who is going into his first season as a starting NHLer to figure out how to cope with their first venture. Ultimately the organization will benefit greatly over the long haul for it.
What do you think? How concerned are you over the defense? Are we being fanatical in overreacting to preseason?