Devils Missing Key Piece of Rebuilding Puzzle

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For most Devils fans, the reality of the New Jersey Devils acquiring all-star left wing Taylor Hall is still setting in. As we emerge from the opening weekend of free agency, the Devils already look like a much different team compared to the roster that played in their final regular season game. With that said, the acquisition of Taylor Hall came at the expense of top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson, who logged big minutes on the penalty kill, five-on-five play, and was a top contributor in categories like hits and blocked shots. The Devils would subsequently lose David Schlemko on July 1st when he signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the San Jose Sharks. In 2015-2016, Schlemko had the second-highest points among Devils defensemen (19), led in goals (six), and was the most-used defender on the power play. Even before these losses, the Devil’s defense wasn’t that enchanting to begin with. However, one of the glaringly recurring need on New Jersey’s blue line that the losses of Larsson and Schlemko strongly extenuated is the absence of a genuine identifiable Number one defenseman.

The Devil's defense suffered some major blows that may have been overshadowed amidst the hype of acquiring Taylor Hall. -Getty Images

The Devil’s defense suffered some major blows that may have been overshadowed amidst the hype of acquiring Taylor Hall. -Getty Images

Although captain Andy Greene is considered the team’s technical No. 1 defenseman, he’ll be 34 this October, and largely specializes in the defensive end while still possessing that mobility to amply trail the rushes coming out of the Devil’s zone. Our Free Agency Report cites how the signing of Ben Lovejoy will address the defensive voids and penalty kill time left by Larsson, but won’t replace the mobility both Larsson and Schlemko possessed, since Lovejoy plays a more stay at home game. Since Schlemko was the top Devils defenseman on the power play, there still lies the issue on how to reassign the glut of power play time that was designated to him last season.

We all know the Devils haven’t had a world-class blue liner since their cup days when the defense was manned by the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Bruce Driver, Ken Daneyko, and Brian Rafalski. It’s no coincidence how New Jersey’s postseason fortunes ended as these longtime assets retired or played for other teams. When you take the defensive foundation of New Jersey’s championship teams into consideration, it makes the need for an identifiable No. 1 do-it-all defenseman mandatory for a team that wants any chance at a championship in the NHL. While this was definitely the case in the pre-salary cap NHL, the trend has gone unchanged over the years.

The chart below maps out every Stanley Cup champion and finalist since 2009, along with each team’s top defenseman.

Season Champion Top Defenseman Finalist Top Defenseman
2015-2016 Penguins Kris Letang Sharks Brent Burns
2014-2015 Blackhawks Duncan Keith Lightning Victor Hedman
2013-2014 Kings Drew Doughty Rangers Ryan McDonaugh
2012-2013 Blackhawks Duncan Keith Bruins Zdeno Chara
2011-2012 Kings Drew Doughty Devils Andy Greene
2010-2011 Bruins Zdeno Chara Canucks Christian Ehrhoff
2009-2010 Blackhawks Duncan Keith Flyers Chris Pronger
2008-2009 Penguins Sergei Gonchar Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom
2007-2008 Red Wings Nicklas Lidstrom Penguins Sergei Gonchar
2006-2007 Ducks Chris Pronger/Scott Niedermayer Senators Wade Redden
2005-2006 Hurricanes Glen Wesley Oilers Chris Pronger

The correlation is evident, and is further proved upon comparing the list of top defensemen of the finalists. The only two that stand out on this list are Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver, 2011), and our own Andy Greene from the Devil’s 2012 Stanley Cup Final run. Although Ehrhoff did have 50 points in 2010-2011, he was flawed defensively, and tentatively used in shorthanded or tightknit situations. His best years were also those in Vancouver, after which he’s had stints on four different teams. We all love our captain, but he just reached the skill level his game currently is at during the Devil’s 2012 playoff run. Although he’s currently the team’s best mobile defensive defenseman, he’s always lacked the offensive skill to gain the league-wide recognition many of us feel he’s currently entitled to.

Ray Shero still has lots of work to do on the Devil's backend. -Getty Images

Ray Shero still has lots of work to do on the Devil’s backend. -Getty Images

The level of skill between the Devil’s current top defensemen like Greene, Severson, and the blue liners on each of the Stanley Cup champion teams above is simply eons from comparison. This isn’t taking anything away from the tremendous offseason Ray Shero has had, however Devils fans shouldn’t start jumping the gun based on the sole acquisition of one player. The Devils are still in the midst of an articulate rebuild and if there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s a reminder of that.

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