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From Strength to Weakness: The Current Story of the New Jersey Devils Defense

For a franchise known for their defensive prowess, the Devils defense has been uncharacteristically lackluster this season. Today we look at why that is as well as some potential bright spots for the group going forward.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils have had an up and down 2023-24 season to say the least and nowhere was that more apparent than last night’s 3-2 loss to Montreal. The team fell down 2-0 early before two quick power play tallies tied the game. With momentum on their side, the Devils proceeded to blow the game with under five minutes left, failing to secure even one of a possible two points in what was a winnable game. Unfortunately, this is not unusual this season, with the team seemingly playing down to their opposition on many nights, and leaving points on the table when they really can’t afford to.

It’s fair to make mention of the goaltending not being what it needs to be. It’s fair to mention the sheer volume of injuries this season affecting the lineup. However, the defense needs to be called into question and be held accountable for their deficiencies this season. Again, injuries are at work here, with Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler and Brendan Smith all currently out, but even when the team was at full strength, defending was a struggle earlier this season.

Personnel changes can lead to some rocky transitions at times for hockey teams, and that’s also been the case for the Devils. Last season, the team had two other seasoned defenders in Ryan Graves and Damon Severson and while both were not without their warts, they had experience and fit well within Coach Lindy Ruff’s system. While the team’s younger defenders of Luke Hughes, Kevin Bahl and even newest addition Simon Nemec are doing well within the system, there’s still many facets of the NHL game that they’re learning. Add this to the fact that the injuries have forced some of these players to take on expanded roles and it results in a few more mistakes per game, which then get magnified by other issues that are currently affecting the team, such as below average goaltending and offensive struggles.

Of additional concern is that some of the defenders, both injured and not, are not playing to the level that they were last season. While Nemec wasn’t exactly great on last night’s game winner, John Marino completely missed tying up Cole Caufield in any way, shape, or form, leading to him putting the puck behind Nico Daws. Now Daws also could have covered up the initial shot, but you want one of your defenders who is known specifically for defending to make that play. Siegenthaler is another defensive defenseman who should be able to be relied upon to shut opponents down, yet time after time in watching games this year he’s either been out of position or making a poor choice that leaves someone open.

Not necessarily known for his defense, Hamilton was also struggling prior to going down with injury. When your big name (and big money) defenders are all struggling, it makes it harder on the younger players and the rest of the roster as well. While Graves and Severson’s departures were necessary both from a salary cap standpoint as well as a desire to incorporate key young pieces standpoint, it does magnify the growing pains and other mistakes. When a vet had a bad game last season, others could step up and bring the needed stability. With less vets this season, and even fewer now due to the games being lost, the Devils overall performance has decreased.

There are, however, some bright spots to take from this. Firstly, while Hughes and Nemec have made some mistakes, they’ve also both shown off why they were high first round selections in their respective drafts. Both look like they belong in the NHL already, which is especially impressive for Nemec as he is still just a teenager. With plenty of time and room to grow, it’s only a matter of time before both blossom into bona fide studs for the team. Additionally, while injuries are never helpful, perhaps it will be a way for Hamilton, Siegenthaler, and to a lesser extent Smith to get their games straightened out and bring more of what they brought last season upon their return.

Right now, the Devils will have to make due. Areas of the game that were strong for them last season are not this season, including the defense. The Devils still have a chance to be competitive and to make the playoffs this season. Whether they do or don’t we as fans need to remember that Jersey’s Team is trying to essentially work three rookies into their defense corps right now. Once they adjust? Well, let’s just say the reputation of this franchise for being a defense powerhouse will be applicable once again.

What are your thoughts on the Devils defense this season; do you think it has become a weakness? Are you concerned over the way a few veterans have seemed to regress this season? Are you forgiving of the rookie mistakes being made? Leave any and all thoughts and comments below and thanks as always for reading!