When trading Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall, the Devils had to find a replacement to help eat some of the minutes that were left open by Larsson’s departure. Their prime free agency acquisition was the signing of Ben Lovejoy to a 3-year deal, with a cap hit just above $2 million a year. Lovejoy has been a third pair defenseman for most of his career and Ray Shero is familiar with him from his time as GM in Pittsburgh. It seemed like a decent option to fill some of the minutes Larsson left behind.
Unfortunately, things haven’t entirely worked out that way. Through the first half of the season, Lovejoy has just a 43.7% possession line. That’s 3rd worst in the league for defensemen who have logged 400 minutes or more at even-strength. Lovejoy has never been a big driver of possession, but he does have a 50.1% Corsi for his career, so needless to say, he’s underperforming compared to where he’s been previously.
Lovejoy’s relative Corsi, which shows how many shot attempts New Jersey averages when he’s on the ice compared to when he’s off the ice, lags compared to where he’s been previously in his career, too. For his career, he has a -1.7 relative Corsi, which isn’t great to begin with. This season, he’s even far off from that pace with a -5.8 relative Corsi, which puts him in the bottom 10 of the league for defensemen with 400+ minutes at even-strength. Lovejoy’s shot generation and suppression numbers are also among some of the worst on the team. He averages 43.6 shot attempts per 60 minutes as opposed to 57.3 shot attempts against per 60 minutes (via Hockey Analysis).
It’s pretty clear that Lovejoy’s underlying numbers are not very good. The Devils have been far better with him off the ice rather than when he’s on the ice. However, he’s performing well below his career averages. He was never a top pair defenseman, but he was always a serviceable third pair player. This year, his numbers have been borderline replacement level and he continues to average around 20 minutes of ice time a night, which is more a testament to the make up of New Jersey’s defensemen than anything else.
With the upcoming expansion draft, the Devils will be in an interesting position. They’re allowed to protect three defensemen from being exposed. Two of those spots will undoubtedly go to Andy Greene and Damon Severson, so that leaves one spot left. Considering the current roster, that last spot will most likely come down to Jon Merrill, Ben Lovejoy and perhaps John Moore.
Of those three defensemen, Merrill has the best underlying numbers this season, although they’re still not great. He has the best relative Corsi at +0.7 and his shot generation and suppression numbers are the best, even though he still gives up a bit more than he generates. Merrill has shown some signs of improvement this season and while he may never live up to being a top pair defenseman that the Devils once hoped he would be, he seems to have a little more value than Lovejoy and Moore based on their performances to this point in the season.
There’s still a long way to go before the season comes to a close, and the Devils have been playing better hockey since the turn of the calendar year. Unlike other players on the team, Lovejoy has yet to see an uptick in his numbers. He has seen heavy defensive zone usage against opposing team’s top competition since January 1st; more specifically since Andy Greene’s injury. Once Greene returns, John Hynes may be able to put Lovejoy back into a role he’s more suited for. If that happens, that may allow Lovejoy to find his game and turn around what has, so far, been the worst season of his career and affirm his position with the Devils for the long-term.