Welcome back for the second part of our roughly week long New Jersey Devils season preview here at All About the Jersey! With the start of this year’s series yesterday, Alex took a look at the front lines of the team, and how the forward group has evolved to be the powerhouse it appears as on paper. He was right to call expectations high for the forward group, and the team in general. Today, I will continue the preview by looking at a group that has a few more concerns than the forwards due to some of the changes made this past summer: the Devils defense. While a number of the key components have returned, there is still change and uncertainty to be addressed, which I will attempt to do today.
Similar to yesterday, I will also start by reviewing how the defense did last season and then moving on to departures, re-signings, additions and the expectations for the group as a whole. If there is anything you feel I’ve missed, or looked past, please feel free to add that contribution in the comments section at the end. Also, to continue to chart how the Devils defense is shaping up, you can go back to Stephen’s preview of the defense from last season. Now, let’s take a look back at how the defense did in 2022-23.
What Happened Last Season?
Taking a look back at the previous season, as well as all of the ones back to the last time the Devils qualified for the playoffs, the goals against, specifically per game, had a large impact on the team’s overall standing:
The product on ice helped the numbers as well, and while it is important to mention that goaltending also factors in to goals against, having a competent defense in front of those tenders is just as important. Who knew that surrendering almost a full goal fewer against per game could lead to a historical improvement in the standings? It also seems as though letting in fewer than 3 goals per game (almost 4 last season) correlates with the Devils making the postseason. The goal for 2023-24 will be to have a similar strong output, and with many of the pieces in place, they stand a good chance to achieve that, but we’ll get to that more later in this artcle.
Next, we have the individual stats from each defender who appeared for the Devils, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. The images below only show some of the data, as it is quite an extensive list of statistics. If you’re interested in the full set of categories, please click the link to see some of the omissions from the images below:
I’m still learning and not the best at breaking down individual advanced statistics performances from players, but go back and compare what the team did last year versus previous years (like we did above with 2022-23 versus 2021-22 in terms of goals against) and the numbers speak for themselves. In terms of the on ice viewing impact, the addition of John Marino helped to improve the team’s defending overall. Any time the Devils needed to defend a lead or kill an important penalty, it seems that “Johnny Hockey” (as the Devils social media team has dubbed him) would make his way onto the ice to help hold the lead.
Offensively, Dougie Hamilton had a season to be remembered for the Devils, as he appeared in all 82 contests and finished third on the team in scoring with 74 points. Hamilton seemed to be back to the player he was prior to joining the Devils, and the sheer number of overtime winners he contributed alone left a lasting impression. Jonas Siegenthaler quietly had a very strong defensive season as well from the crop of players who will be returning and Kevin Bahl started to ease himself in as a regular the more the season went on.
The defense, of note, did have their struggles come playoff time, more so against the Carolina Hurricanes. Hopefully, the changes being made on the back end can help the team to avoid that fate again should both teams meet in the postseason again. Speaking of those changes...
This Year’s Squad: Departures
Two pieces who were playing key roles with the Devils on defense left via unrestricted free agency this past summer. Let’s start with a man who was part of the defense for a while in Damon Severson. A 2012 second round Devils draft choice, Severson came into the NHL on a pairing with Andy Greene in 2014-15. He would play important minutes for the team, especially in some of the “darker years” and often was a scapegoat for the team’s poor play with many fans due to the fantastic blunders he would make. At the same time, he wasn’t as bad as some would have you think:
Damon Severson, acquired and signed 8x$6.25M by CBJ, is an analytical darling offensive defenceman with excellent passing ability whose tendency to make the occasional Big Mistake often earned him the ire of Devils fans. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/nN46AcHw1F— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 9, 2023
His offensive output declined after Dougie Hamilton joined the team, and when John Marino, a superior defender, was acquired, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Sevs. The player and team both knew this, agreeing to a sign and trade this summer with the Columbus Blue Jackets. I will miss the stretch passes he was capable of that would spring some of our speedier forwards on breakaways; all the best to a player who was a good soldier for a long while on some bad Devils teams.
The other big name would be Ryan Graves, who came over in a trade with Colorado prior to the 2021-22 season. Known more for his defensive acumen, Graves and the aforementioned Marino would be placed together by Lindy Ruff to form a pretty effective shutdown pairing for the Devils. Graves would occasionally find his name on the scoresheet, but again more of his impact came in his own zone.
There were some fans, myself included at times, who wanted to see Graves back on a short term deal so as to balance youth and experience on the back end. The end of last season, however, saw more fans (myself included again) sour on him to an extent, as he began to have more gaffes in his own end leading to prime scoring chances and at times goals against. His six year deal agreed upon with Pittsburgh gave him the long term deal he was seeking and that the Devils couldn’t offer given the plans surrounding their younger defesemen.
In terms of depth departures, Reilly Walsh, a 2017 Devils draftee who appeared in one NHL game for the club in 2021-22, was moved to Boston. He brought back center Shane Bowers who will be starting the season in Utica. Walsh had been surpassed on the depth chart by a number of other defenders, so a fresh start here was best for both sides.
This Year’s Squad: Re-Signings
Unlike the forwards, who had some big, flashy names signing new deals, the defense only had one re-signing, although technically he is big in his own way. 6’6” Kevin Bahl was a restricted free agent, who signed a new two year deal with the team at the very end of July.
Kevin Bahl has re-signed with the New Jersey Devils to a two-year deal with an AAV of $1.05M. This is very fair deal for both sides in our eyes. Bahl is good third-pairing defenseman for New Jersey. pic.twitter.com/q7tagZ6tYc— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) July 31, 2023
Bahl is still young, and can grow his game further, but as Andy & Rono’s player card above was captioned, he is a third pair defender for the time being. Thankfully, with Jonas Siegenthaler set to be part of the blue line for the next five seasons and one other player in front of him who I will get to in a moment as technically an addition, Bahl doesn’t have to worry. He can bring solid defending and physical play on the bottom pair, which still gives the Devils variety and versatility on the blue line.
This Year’s Squad: Additions
The biggest addition to the Devils back end this season, is a player who has already appeared in two regular season contests and three playoff games for them: Luke Hughes. While he technically arrived at the end of last season, this is going to be his full NHL rookie campaign and the team has him seemingly locked in to play a big role in 2023-24. There will be moments of greatness for him (like his first career goal was) and there will also be growing pains this season. Luke is, however, a very high end prospect with potential to be a big piece of this team for a long time; we want big things right away but we fans will need to be patient.
The other addition this offseason is veteran defender Colin Miller, acquired from the Dallas Stars for a fifth round pick in the 2025 draft. Miller has been an NHL stalwart, having played in 466 games to this point in his career. His price point and deployment (third pair on the right side) made him an enticing asset for the Devils, who seemingly want a one year stopgap before adding Simon Nemec to the right side.
While Miller made 79 regular season appearances for Dallas, and dressed for 10 playoff games, he was also healthy scratched a bit as the postseason went on. This has me a bit wary, however if he struggles for the Devils, Brendan Smith can slot in, or the Devils can call up Nemec. Miller is here to be the stopgap as I mentioned before, so if he falters, it’s not as if he was brought in to be a key piece going forward. The hope here is good defending in a third pairing role to help keep the puck out of the net.
I took a look at the Devils’ defense a few months ago in early July, and made my picks for projected pairings there. I also looked at a group that I thought the Devils could try if they wanted a pure shutdown pairing like they has in Graves/Marino. Based on what we’ve seen so far though from the preseason, I think the original pairs I had in that article are the ones we may see, which are:
Siegenthaler - Hamilton
Hughes - Marino
Bahl - Miller
This set up gives the Devils one player on each pair of the Top 4 who is more offensive minded and one that is more defensive. The balance could help in terms of having someone back to cover and prevent multiple rushes toward our net from happening every game. The bottom pair additionally allows the Devils to have two players who are more known for defending and who can bring a bit more grit to the table. With this group also though there will probably be some shuffling depending upon who has the lead in the third, or if a penalty needs to be killed for an extended period of time. There is room here for flexibility and for guys to move up and down as needed, which I think could be advantageous for the Devils as the season progresses.
Expectations This Season
I don’t think we should be expecting a huge undefeated streak that propels the team high into the standings and I’m not sure we should expect Dougie Hamilton to replicate his individual stats from last season either. As I mentioned above, there’s going to be some growing pains this season, both individually and with the defense as a group. Losing two veterans such as Severson and Graves isn’t easy, however the Devils have the pieces, both internal and acquired externally to be able to reformulate their defense.
I do expect Hamilton to contribute offensively, even if he doesn’t breach the 70 points mark again; he could, but that’s not to say we should expect it. What do I expect? A solid team effort, with each defender on a pair being mindful of where their partner is and not letting teams send odd man rushes towards our goaltender on a regular basis. Colin Miller is already drawing the ire of fans for letting that happen in a preseason contest, and that’s from a game that for all intents and purposes doesn’t count! I also expect less dumb penalties from the defense...looking at you Brendan Smith! In seriousness, veterans need to not be making rookie mistakes this season, because if they are, why are they earning ice time over youngsters with more potential?
Seigenthaler and Hamilton are a good enough pair to match up with most lines around the league. Luke should get a good opportunity to showcase his skills and to bring offense from the blue line, especially with Marino by his side to help alleviate any errors. The bottom pair could be solid against lesser opponents (especially as Bahl has looked very good in the preseason) or they could wind up being an adventure. If the latter is the case, the Devils could find a way to make a roster spot for Simon Nemec, as again in limited preseason minutes, he hasn’t looked out of place.
The most important takeaway about the defense for me? The potential. If everything goes right with my projected lineup accompanying the projected forwards from yesterday, this could be one of the scariest Devils teams for opponents to face since the 90s. If things don’t go well? There’s enough youth in the system showing promise to help correct it, both for this season and in years to come. Nemec and Santeri Hatakka looked good this preseason, and Daniil Misyul and Topias Vilen are also growing themselves in hopes of an eventual NHL role. Not all of them may have that impact, but the potential is there. The Devils have options, and that’s the biggest strength of the defense, which is why expectations of them should continue to be high.
Closing Thoughts and Your Take
The Devils go into this season a little less seasoned on the back end, but with just as much depth as last season. With expectations around the team the highest they’ve been in over a decade, the defense will need to play to their strengths to maximize what they bring in hopes of putting this Devils group over the top.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Devils defense group; do you think the loss of two veterans will affect them? Do you think injecting more youth into the lineup through players such as Luke Hughes is the answer? What are your expectations overall of this set of players? Leave any and all comments below, thanks as always for reading, and be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 3!