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Putting One or Even Two Rookies on the New Jersey Devils Blueline May Not Be a Big Risk

Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec are young, inexperienced defensemen and both of them could make the New Jersey Devils. Plus, Kevin Bahl also has less than 100 NHL games played and he could be a regular. Is this a big deal? This post goes in length as to why it may not be.

New Jersey Devils v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five
Already running down Luke Hughes?
Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils pre-season is upon us. Training camp began yesterday with scrimmages and practices. Exhibition games begin on Monday for the Devils with a split-squad game in Montreal and in Newark against Philadelphia. Content about the team is flowing like water after the traditionally quiet month of August. As we enter the low 20s in terms of the number of days away from the start of the regular season, narratives are beginning to take root. I would like to take issue with one of them: that the the Devils’ inexperience on the blueline is going to be an issue. I do not think it is going to be the big deal you may think or feel it could be.

It is not specific to this article by Ryan Novozinsky at ($) whereupon he picked Ken Daneyko’s and Bryce Salvador’s brain about it. It is something I have seen commented here and there by the People Who Matter here and elsewhere. I expect more to be made of it as the season gets closer. The thinking is straight-forward. With Luke Hughes and possibly Simon Nemec making the New Jersey Devils roster in place of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, the defense and the team may suffer. Luke Hughes and Nemec would be rookies and a position like defenseman benefits greatly with experience. They could make mistakes that could be costly as defensemen who make mistakes often see them in the back of the net. This is a Concern.

I am not arguing it is not a potential issue. However, I do not think it is that concerning. I certainly do not think it is going to be something that will undercut the team. I would like to provide three main thoughts about this.

The Non-Stat Argument: Relax, You Survived Damon Severson

I know that young defensemen may be at risk of making costly and/or silly mistakes on the ice. Errors that may travel with them legitimately or as part of their reputation in their careers. For the People Who Matter worried that Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, or even Kevin Bahl - he of just 77 total NHL games played - will hamper the Devils, I would say to relax. After all, you survived several years of Damon Severson. You do remember Damon Severson, right?

Damon Severson was and is a talented defenseman. Someone who can play significant minutes, handle all kinds of situations, and do well in all three zones. He is also someone capable of committing some absolutely stupid mistakes. Own goals - yes, multiple. Completly misplaying even obvious-to-the-eye situations like a 2-on-1 rush against? You bet. Penalties? Severson was not as bad as Miles “Offensive Zone Penalty Risk” Wood or Brendan Smith last season but he is no stranger to the box. Severson is capable of doing great things on the ice, generally provides great value over the course of the whole season, and does enough memorably stupid things in spots to make you wonder how memorably stupid he can be at times. It is a duality, as Gerard once explained.

What I want to point out is that this continued as Severson became an established Devil. He had hundreds of games under his belt when he committed these goof-ups. Severson was a veteran when he did these; he was not a rookie. Which leads me to this larger point I really want to emphasize:

Everyone in this sport will make mistakes.

Everyone. Yes, young, inexperienced defenders have inherent risk because they are getting used to a new league, a new schedule, new environments, new teammates, new coaches, and new systems. The thing is that even the very experienced and very best in this sport are capable of screwing up royally. Again, if you are here, then you have probably endured multiple seasons of Damon Severson doing this. And I can pick some other names too, but he is a defenseman and appropriate for this.

An example from another team to highlight this concept is more appropriate. Let us go back to one of my favorite goals from the dismal 2021-22 season: Nico Hischier’s impressive goal in Dallas. Look at the names involved for the Stars on this play. Miro Heiskanen is one of the best defensemen in the world. He got his attention pulled away and bodied up by a far-shorter Swole Swede, Fabian Zetterlund. Vladislav Namestnikov had over 500 games of NHL experienced and he did squat on the whole play to help out. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, both all-stars at points in their long careers, were just beat. Ryan Suter was well past 1,000 games played in his career and he was a floater on this play that sunk Dallas in the midst of a playoff race. On paper, you would have expected the Devils with a younger Bahl, an inexperienced Zetterlund, a somewhat experienced Yegor Sharangovich, and Mr. Occasional Catastrophe himself Damon Severson to have been the victims. No, it was the far more experienced team that had something to play for that looked like chumps as Hischier styled and profiled for a score.

Are there going to be growing pains for Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec? Possibly, yes. Is it going to be a new challenge for Bahl as he will be expected to stay in the lineup instead of coming in for Brendan Smith like last season? Possibly, yes as well. There are also going to be bad nights, cold streaks, rough breaks, and all sorts of misgivings that you, I, and the other People Who Matter will lament, complaint, groan, and gripe about from virtually every player on the roster. If they are truly not ready, then that will show up in much more than a bad play here and there. Yet, a more experienced blueline that has Smith and Colin Miller in place of those two would not necessarily be a better or even a safer one. I would like to think the organization may agree with that. After all, Smith lost his spot to a rookie Kevin Bahl and the Devils were willing to sign-and-trade Severson away to a division opponent.

The Stat Argument: Short of Sabotage, This Team Isn’t Likely to Fall Apart on Defense

Of course, I cannot just leave it with logic and reasoning. We must have objective facts beyond memories, clips, and on-ice events. Let us recall how the Devils did defensively last season. As a team, they were quite good when it came to on-ice rates against the Devils in 5-on-5 play (the most common and therefore important situation in hockey). Here are their team stats and how they ranked (lower is better, of course) per Natural Stat Trick:

  • Corsi (Shot Attempts) Against/60 Minutes: 54.11, 7th in the NHL
  • Shots Against/60 Min.: 27.31, 5th in the NHL
  • Expected Goals Against/60 Min.: 2.42, 4th in the NHL
  • Scoring Chances Against/60 Min.: 26.16, 4th in the NHL
  • High Danger (Slot & Crease) Chances Against/60 Min.: 10.32, 1st in the NHL
  • Goals Against/60 Min.: 2.29, 10th in the NHL

While the last one may be more of a reflection of the goaltending, the other five are influenced by how the team plays defense as a whole. They did a rather good job. No, they were not the very best in the NHL across the board outside of HDCA/60. Yet, the Devils were very good at limiting their opposition relative to other teams. There is some room for improvement but not a ton of it. And, again, this is a function of everyone on the ice contributing. After all, when defensemen can activate and forwards can rush down opponents, then the other team is certainly not on offense.

Still, how the defensemen play definitely contribute to this. Here are the 5-on-5 on-ice rates for each of the individual defensemen from Natural Stat Trick. At a glance, you can see that Severson did quite well and played more than third-pairing defender Brendan Smith, who also had good numbers. Plus, Ryan Graves was solid as well. The worst rates came from the first pairing that played more than everyone else, Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler. Even there, an on-ice SA/60 of well under 30 and an on-ice xGA/60 below 2.5 is really, really good. In this respect, it appears that Severson and Graves will be missed.

However, a little closer look shows that Bahl provided on-ice rate similar to Smith. A little worse in some areas but not significant enough of a different from Smith to warrant Smith playing ahead of Bahl. It also shows that John Marino has the best on-ice rates among the defensemen, which, again, was on a really good Devils team in this respect. And, again, those on-ice rates when Hamilton and Siegenthaler are on the ice are more than acceptable for a big-minute pairing that plays against top opponents at home. Sure, Severson and Graves were quite good but they were not critical to the team’s success in this respect.

More importantly than that, it would take Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, and a whole lot of other Devils returning to the team to really, really, really stink to drag the team’s rates down. Yes, Luke Hughes and Nemec both coming into the roster at the same time would add risk due to their inexperience. It is also a blueline that is returning its top pairing in Hamilton-Siegenthaler, its best performing defender in terms of on-ice against rate states in Marino, and Bahl proving in 42 games that he can at least perform about as well as Smith while being younger, bigger, and a bit more disciplined. This is a blueline that will play behind a forward corps that is also returning its core players (e.g. The Big Deal, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer) and useful-to-some-point depth players (e.g. Erik Haula, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Ondrej Palat). On top of that, Lindy Ruff is still the head coach and Ryan McGill is still the assistant coach in charge of the defense. The team is not likely going to suddenly change their philosophies on defense, their strategy without the puck, and how they defender their own end by a large amount. And why would they given that the numbers resulting from their play last season were as excellent as they were?

The stats show that the Devils were very good at keeping the other team from attacking. The additions of Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec would not be enough to drag those numbers down. It would take about a team effort or a wave of misfortune (or both) to turn a top-ten or top-five defensive team in the NHL into a middling or weak defensive squad. Sure, Marino may not have an xGA/60 of 2.35 next season but that does not mean it is going to balloon to about 3 either just because Luke Hughes is next to him. Likewise if Nemec joins Bahl on a pairing.

Also: The Rewards are Going to be Greater than the Risk

My frustration with this narrative/concern/conceit is that it points to a root issue of perspective. It is not that there is nothing to worry about. It is not that Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec cannot possibly struggle. I know they may have their issues. Yet, why is this the main perspective? Should we not also consider what could go right with Luke Hughes and/or Simon Nemec being on the Devils in 2023-24 along with Kevin Bahl playing a full season?

Sure, concerns and potential issues about a player or the team could be better for discussion ahead of a season where a lot of the good results that happened last season may not happen again. I know that. I respect it. I get it. It is also an incomplete discussion. This is a part of it. Luke Hughes, Simon Nemec, and Kevin Bahl are far from being “Just A Guy” players filling out a roster here. There are rewards to their inclusion in the New Jersey lineup for next season.

Let me start with Bahl. The team found out that Bahl can actually hang at this level last season. So much so that when the playoffs came along, the team opted to play Bahl ahead of Smith, who appeared in just three playoff games. While Bahl will never be confused for someone who can play well in all three zones, he was an effective defender in the postseason for 10-13 minutes with the occasional spurts into 16 minutes, which happened thrice in the postseason. He is large. He does not throw his body around recklessly. He can take calls at a better rate than Smith. Sure, Colin Miller may be better than him at this very moment. Yet, Miller is who he is at this point. The 23-year old Bahl can grow further into a third-pairing role with an emphasis on defense. Bahl will likely be here after next season. Miller and Smith, perhaps not.

This has its own value as the Devils are likely going to be a cap ceiling team for the next several years as they contend for the Cup. Developing a player even in a “depth” role speaks well of the development process as well as saves money. It could mean one less contract for Tom Fitzgerald to find in an offseason. It could mean one less constraint on the salary cap. Not to mention the other side: Bahl succeeding as a regular defensemen could even make Bahl a tradeable asset to bring in someone the team would need in the future. It is not as tantalizing as Hughes or Nemec, but I think it can be worth giving him the chance to show how he can handle 60-70 games in 2023-24.

Of course, the potential rewards for Nemec and Luke Hughes are massive. They could potentially become all-three zone threats. We saw some of that in the five appearances Luke Hughes made with the Devils in 2022-23. The edgework, the skating, the movement on and off the puck, and the offensive mindset. You really cannot teach something like this. And I do not think Ruff just did Luke Hughes a solid by giving him 24:55 of ice time in Game 5 in Carolina. It took just a handful of games for the head coach to just let the kid ride and did so in a win-or-go-home game. While that would be the last game of the Devils’ campaign, Luke Hughes was far from a disappointment in that game. He absolutely belonged. Nemec, on the other hand, jumped right into the AHL as a 19-year old. An uncommon occurrence given that most 19 year old players are in major juniors or college. Nemec more than showed he can hang in professional North American hockey, he was among the best young players in the ‘A’ last season. Similar to Luke Hughes, Nemec is a wonderful skater with an offensive mindset with the puck. He has talents that cannot be easily taught.

Those talents come at a premium in this league. I know that defense is in the name of the position, but many teams in the league have blueline-leading defensemen to be great in all three-zones. They can and have and will pay a lot to get those offensively skilled defenders. The Devils did so when they got Dougie Hamilton. Carolina, who had arguably the best blueline in the NHL, gave Dmitry Orlov $15.5 million over two seasons to give them that additional element. An element that Washington greatly enjoyed for years as opponents had to deal with John Carlson on one pairing and Orlov on another. Even Columbus made recent moves in that respect with the getting Damon Severson in a sign-and-trade and acquiring Ivan Provorov around the same time. Want two more examples? Consider the last two Cup winning teams. Colorado’s defense was led by Cale Makar and got boosted from the back end further with Devon Toews and Bowen Byram. Las Vegas had Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo as two-way defenders leading the way. It is not set in stone that all good teams must have at least two quality offensive defensemen. But it is not a coincidence that teams have and/or want that.

And that points to what I think is more legitimate concern with the Devils defense. It is not that it is younger and less experienced. It is that the offensive capabilities have become Hamilton and whatever contributions you get from the rest. While Ruff’s plan of having defenders activate gave someone like Jonas Siegenthaler some more opportunities than just hurling 50-60 foot shots from the point and hoping for the best, the blueline became less dynamic. The answer to make it more dynamic is in the organization with Luke Hughes and Nemec. They have the skills. We have seen flashes of it in just five games of Luke Hughes and those who have followed Utica absolutely saw flashes of it in Nemec. They just need the opportunity Yes, they are young. Yes, they may have much to learn. Yes, there may even be some mistakes. But if they can provide what they are capable of, the Devils defense will become that much more threatening and the team will become a much more difficult team for opponents. In other words, they become even more of a contender.

There is also the money aspect to consider. Luke Hughes’ ELC has already started. Nemec can slide for another season, but he is on his ELC. Since the Devils are going to be cap ceiling team as a contender, then it is in their best interest to get the most out of their young players while they are on cheap contracts. This will mean space may have to be maintained in the future if and when they get a massive second contract. But I think Fitzgerald already knows this. Should they play like they deserve it, then it means they have done very well during their ELC years. This means they would have to get minutes, get situations to perform in, and get gains should those growing pains happen.

This goes back to my main point in this section. Those potential gains are going to be much greater than mistakes made. Should there be too many mistakes, then that is one thing. But that has to happen first and it is not a guarantee it will due to their experience. As we have seen from Severson, among other players, experience alone will not mean a game filled with fewer and/or less costly mistakes. Also, as we have seen from Severson, you may begrudgingly accept those groan-worthy errors and reputation hits if he provides a lot of positives. And I suspect Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec could be better than Severson one day. And the Devils will be better for it if they find start to find this out sooner rather than later.

Your Take

I understand this is a lot to say for a narrative that has yet to get into regular-season mode. But it is a common one for young players. I think it is worth addressing it now. The concern is more about what could go wrong instead of considering what could go right. Understandable as that it is, it is not the full picture. Further, we can take solace from what we have seen from past Devils. Experience is not going to mean the player will make fewer mistakes as we have seen experienced NHLers make mistakes regularly in a sport that is often about who can punish the other team more for their errors. We can take solace from the stats last season that the Devils were quite good in 5-on-5 play in terms of limiting their opposition. A full season of Bahl, Luke Hughes, and/or Simon Nemec is not likely to suddenly flip that and turn the Devils into one of the weakest defensive teams. Not with how many players are returning, the same coaching staff, and the fact that if those players are that bad, then they would likely be benched or demoted before doing any lasting damage.

The gap that the blueline had from the loss of Severson was in terms of its offensive skills. The Devils have two players who can fill in that gap either right now or real soon in Luke Hughes and Nemec. I do not think it is helpful to be worried about their lack of experience or mistakes that have not happened yet. Especially when that ignores all the good they can do that can lead to more offense, less time in their own end in the rink, more transition play, more goals, and more wins.

Still, that is my take on all of this. Clearly, I had a lot to write about it to explain why I do not think inexperience on the blueline in this case is a big deal. Now I want to know what you think. Are you worried about the Devils defense with Luke Hughes and possibly Simon Nemec being regulars on it next season? Or Kevin Bahl’s expected role as a regular defenseman for 2023-24? Do you think inexperience is that big of an issue for a defenseman? Do you think the potential rewards of including Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec on defense - along with more games for Bahl - is worth the perceived and actual risk? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these three defensemen and the defense as a whole in the comments. Thank you for reading.