Before I start my weekly column, I just want to wish congratulations to Sean Burke, the goaltending coach of the Vegas Golden Knights who will soon have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. He was my first favorite New Jersey Devil and I worshipped the man for his time in Devils red, as brief as it was. Was amazing to see him lift the Cup high and boy, did he earn it...the Knights had like four dressed goalies going through the handshake line and he helped them all have fantastic years.
Speaking of the Knights, one thing was talked about repeatedly during the Final was just how big and imposing the Knights defense was. Nic Hague - 6’6” and 230 pounds. Alec Martinez 6’1” and 210 pounds. Brayden McNabb 6’4” and 215 pounds. Alex Pietrangelo 6’3” and 215 pounds. Shea Theodore 6’2” and 197 and Zach Whitecloud 6’2” and 207 pounds. That isn’t the only place where Vegas is big and imposing. The only forward that had a big role for their team that was under 6 feet was Jonathan Marchessault, who just happened to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. The Avalanche the year before had a team that was also built with size on the backend with Cale Makar being the only major component of the defense who was under 6 feet tall and he’s listed at 5’11”. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who were the Avs opponent, happened to win the Cup in 2020 and 2021. And their defense was built on almost exclusively monsters, Victor Hedman being the biggest at 6’7” and 244 pounds.
So where am I going with this? Well some are boiling it down more simply than this.
You simply don’t win a Stanley Cup without an elite top-pair defenceman:— Drew Livingstone (@ProducerDrew_) June 14, 2023
Try and ignore the fact that he badly misspelled Scott Niedermayer’s name. But lots of hockey folks say you need that elite guy in order to be able to compete for the Cup. Pietrangelo isn’t exactly an elite offensive defenseman. He only had one goal this entire Knights Cup run. But he and his giant trees back on the Knights defense were very good at moving the puck quickly out of their zone and defending with long reach and body positioning, thanks in many ways to them having very long and large bodies.
For all the criticism that the Devils face for having a smallish forward group, and it feel like it’s largely centered around Hughes and Bratt being under six feet because the rest of their group is NOT that small, the Devils had a monstrous defense of their own this year. Kevin Bahl and Dougie Hamilton are both 6’6”. Ryan Graves is 6’5”. Damon Severson, Brendan Smith and Jonas Siegenthaler are both listed at 6’2”. And John Marino is 6’1”. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec, who will probably be replacements for Severson and Graves are listed at 6’1”. Now it’s debatable whether this group actually played to its size or not. I would argue that guys like Hamilton, Siegenthaler and Graves aren’t particularly physical guys. They often use their bodies and sticks together to force offensive players to the outside and are very effective at it. Siegenthaler, in particular, has a remarkably good stick and Hamilton has an incredibly long reach so both are good at disrupting play without being punishing to play against. Graves seemed to wilt against the Hurricanes aggressive forecheck and struggled to consistently get the puck out of his zone.
Now just so we are clear, I’m not saying that the Devils need to get bigger and punish opponents more. To me, I believe that having a defense that can recover pucks quickly and move it out of your zone quickly with a crisp first pass that eludes the forecheck is better than a plug who is going to run around and nail people. If you look at the stats, the Golden Knights defensemen didn’t even crack the top 20 in terms of hits in the playoffs. I think for the Devils, since they are likely moving on from both Severson and Graves, Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec will need to be able to make smart and quick plays in their own zone to break through a relentless forecheck for them to be successful. The NHL becomes challenging to create offense as the postseason ticks along. The Devils found that out against the Carolina Hurricanes, who again, also have a ton of larger defensemen. Burns is 6’5”, Pesce is 6’3”, Skjei is 6’3”, Slavin is 6’3” and Chatfield is 6’1”. The only regular for them under 6 feet was Gostisbehere and he’s 5’11”.
I’d say one thing that all of these teams also have in common is that these behemoths can all skate extremely well. You aren’t going to be successful in the NHL at that size without being able to keep Jack Hughes from dancing around you every possession. And that’s why I’m confident in the Devils defense despite the lack of physical play from them. Nemec and Hughes will be able to skate with anyone in the league. I’ve been saying for some time now that I believe that if the Devils are able to be on that producer list of Cup winners above, it will be Luke Hughes that will be listed as the main horse to get them there, as I laid out last week. I like the Devils defense moving forward. I think they have good size, good reach and most importantly, good skaters. Kevin Bahl is a remarkably good skater for a guy his size. Hamilton may be the slowest skater of the bunch. Nemec is a good skater and has run power plays before. Luke Hughes is a remarkable skater with phenomenal edging. The Devils will have size and mobility on their backend with a touch of physicality from Kevin Bahl. And while Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino aren’t particularly physical, they use their sticks incredibly well and skate very well. Marino is a fantastic passer to top it off.
With the style that Lindy Ruff deploys, getting the puck quickly up to your speedy forwards and then joining the rush will be essential in 2023-2024. Perhaps the defense isn’t close to as physical as the Knights defense, but they share the ability to move the puck effectively and support the offense. Much like the Knights. And Avs. And Lightning.
I don’t think the Devils will be easy to play against because they will likely be constantly going and pushing the offense. Especially with Hughes and Nemec replacing Graves and Severson. To me, people have talked for years about positionless hockey being the future. With the Devils defense changing into this group, the future may be now. I couldn’t be more excited. What do you think? Do you believe the Devils defense looks like it is shaping into a championship blueline? Or do you fear the lack of physicality on the backend? Me, I don’t think it matters as much if the team can work the puck to the other end and keep it there most of the night.
For what it’s worth, I’m taking a vacation with my family the next two weeks so I won’t be bringing you FanFirst Friday for the time being. Yes, I’m going to miss draft weekend and the opening of free agency. Poor me! I’ll miss you good folks and I have one thing to leave you with. LET’S GO DEVILS!!!