Devils Season Preview Part Three: Defense & Goaltending

ICYMI: Here are Part One and Part Two of our Devils season preview series.

 

You typically build a team from the goalie out. This has been a staple of Devils hockey, which has brought them a lot of success over the years. Two of Lou Lamoriello’s most overlooked achievements in the twilight of his Devils tenure were how he quietly retooled the defense, and acquired Martin Brodeur’s successor. The Devils have five defensemen 25 or younger, four of which Lamoriello drafted.

With Schneider starting the first of his seven-year extension (that Lamoriello signed him to), goaltending alone will keep New Jersey competitive over the foreseeable future. Schneider has a continually maturing defense in front of him that for the first time in years, is being properly utilized going into the regular season. Defense and goaltending have always been the cornerstones of success in New Jersey, and while Lamoriello’s 27-year tenure has ended, he left these two sects of the Devils roster poised for long term growth, whose dividends we are beginning to see.

 

Departures…Bryce Salvador (retirement), Peter Harrold (free agency), Mark Fraser (free agency)

Newcomers…John Moore (signed as free agent), David Schlemko (signed after PTO)

 

Three big questions

What to do with Eric Gelinas?

Gelinas' defensive play has struggled under three different coaching regimes. -zimbio.com

Gelinas’ defensive play has struggled under three different coaching regimes. -zimbio.com

The jury still out on the 24-year-old Vanier, Ontario native. He has two 60-game seasons under his belt and made a name for himself with his booming shot. Gelinas’ stats in 2014-2015 were inferior to his rookie season’s numbers, scoring one less goal and having a point differential of -10. Gelinas’ biggest demeanor is his defensive awareness and positioning, two shortcomings that are especially exploited in his own zone. He’s been involved in numerous costly turnovers, miscommunications, and has been on the wrong side of quite a few highlight reel-worthy plays. He’s shown little (if any) improvement in the preseason, at least not enough to earn a regular lineup spot. Since the Devils started practicing with their 23-player roster, Gelinas has been relegated as the seventh defensemen, while first-year Devil David Schlemko occupies the final sixth spot. Between his size and frame (6’4, 215lbs), and long stick reach, Gelinas has to utilize these assets more during game situations if he wants to be seen as more than a one-dimensional player.

How far can this team get if the defense can allow fewer shots on Schneider?

In 2014-2015, the Devils faced the seventh-most shots against in the league (2517). Out of the ten teams that faced the most shots against last year, only three made the playoffs. Schneider faced an average of 28.7 shots a night, and managed to post a 2.26 GAA and .925 SV%. Since most of the defense was retained, they’ll go into this year with another year of experience under their belt, and a whole season to grow with each other. Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, John Merrill, and Eric Gelinas are all in the infancies of their careers, and can only get better. Schneider gave up 148 goals on 1982 shots against in 2014-2015. He would have given up 15 fewer goals if he faced just 200 fewer shots last year (2.9 less shots a game). Considering all the blown leads and how the Devils lost 22 games by just one goal last year, those fifteen goals could have taken last year’s Devils a long way.

How can New Jersey fully utilize their defensive depth?

Outside of the aforementioned four of Larsson, Gelinas, Severson, and Merrill, the Devils have players like Raman Hrabarenka, Seth Helgeson, Reece Scarlett, and Brandon Burlon starting the year in Albany due to lack of roster space on New Jersey’s blue line. While injuries are inevitable with any team, the Devils have the defensive depth in their system to banish any struggling blue liner, whose shortcomings are detrimentally affecting the outcomes of games, to the press box or minors. Speculation has persisted on how Ray Shero (previously Lamoriello) could use this wealth of young defensemen to acquire more offensive pieces. Gelinas is the first player that comes to mind if he fails to earn a regular spot in the lineup. John Merrill has been commonly mentioned in trade speculation, and finds himself in the lineup more than Gelinas. This puts Merrill in a situation where he’s able to showcase his skills, compared to someone like Gelinas whose offensive skillset could appeal to prospective trade partners.

 

Players to watch

John Moore…After signing a three-year, deal with the Devils on July 1st I sincerely hope Moore has found a home in New Jersey. Although he’s played in the league since 2010, people forget Moore is only 24, and has played the second-most games amongst New Jersey’s defensemen (230), behind Andy Greene (559). Moore was brought in to add another young but experienced skater to the young ripening defense. He had a strong preseason performance, registering a goal and three points in four games, where he reminded us of his overlooked puck-moving and passing prowess. Moore only has two full seasons under his belt that were uninterrupted by trade. He has a primal opportunity to undergo a phase of stable growth in New Jersey, which coincides perfectly with the developmental state the majority of New Jersey’s defense is in.

How far could breakout seasons from Severson, Larsson, and Schneider's stellar goaltending take the Devils this year? -photos.nj.com

How far could breakout seasons from Severson, Larsson, and Schneider’s stellar goaltending take the Devils this year? -photos.nj.com

Damon Severson…He had a strong rookie campaign where he quickly established himself as part of the team’s defensive core. Making the team straight out of juniors, Severson showed he could produce points, play an effective two-way game, and be used in all situations. Although his rookie season was interrupted for a significant amount of time by injury, the Devils could have really found a diamond in the rough. Severson demonstrated his retained playing qualities in the preseason, where he posted three assists in five games. There are concerns of a looming sophomore slump, which you could say third-year defensemen Eric Gelinas and John Merrill succumbed to last year. If Severson manages to elevate his play, he along with Adam Larsson could help the Devils achieve unprecedented milestones this season that we might not think are attainable.

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