Examining Damon Severson’s Rookie Season

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Damon Severson looks to build off a solid rookie season (Ed Mulholland- USA TODAY Sports)

(Editor’s Note: advanced stats were obtained from Puckalytics)

There’s no doubt that one of the few bright spots for the Devils last season was rookie defenseman, Damon Severson. He burst onto the scene after an impressive training camp and preseason. He was one of the top rookie defensemen in the NHL before missing significant time with a fractured ankle he suffered blocking an Alex Ovechkin shot on December 6th, 2014.

Severson’s high-level performance garnered him great attention around the league. Just how good was he last season, especially compared to other rookie defensemen that made their debut at the same time?

Severson was one of the best players on the Devils last season, specifically before he went down with his injury. On the year, he was a 50.1% possession player, trailing only Jacob Josefson on the Devils. In 32 games prior to his injury, Severson had 12 points (0.375 pts per game). Had he continued at that pace in an 82 game season, he would’ve finished with 31 points. He stumbled a bit after returning from his injury, with just 5 points in 19 games and his possession numbers dipped a bit as well, but as a whole, it did not take away from what was a very solid rookie season.

Severson’s play was comparable to other NHL rookie defensemen in 2014-15. His shot suppression numbers were better than those of John Klingberg, another top rookie on the Dallas Stars. Severson’s Corsi Against per 60 (CA/60) was 50.12, compared to Klingberg’s, which was 56.36. A pretty good margin between the two defensemen.

Severson’s shot suppression was just about identical to that of Matt Dumba’s, who was taken 53 picks ahead of Severson in the 2012 NHL Draft. Dumba’s CA/60 was 50.83, just a touch more than Severson’s was in 2014-15. In terms of shot suppression in 2014-15, Severson finished 2nd in CA/60 for rookie defenseman who played 50+ games. The only rookie defenseman with better numbers than Severson was Aaron Ekblad.

Not only was Severson great at preventing scoring chances, as his shot suppression numbers indicate, he was nowhere near a liability in the defensive zone. To analyze his play in the DZ, we’ll take a look at his zone start rate in the defensive zone (DZFO%), which is a good way to measure the toughness of the competition a defenseman is playing against. For the year, Severson had a 34.75% DZFO%, compared to Klingberg and Dumba, who started 30.6% and 30.1% of their shifts in the DZ, respectively.

Klingberg and Dumba’s DZFO% are quite good, especially for rookies, but Severson was off the charts. Of the 7 rookie defensemen who played 50+ games in the NHL last season, only Nikita Zadorov had a higher DZFO% than Severson. Aaron Ekblad, who was arguably the best rookie defenseman in 2014-15, had a 26% DZFO%. Even after Severson returned from injury, the new coaching staff was still starting him in the DZ 34.7% of the time.

Severson’s start rate in the defensive zone isn’t only comparable to rookie defensemen. He also had a better percentage than defensemen such as Jacob Trouba (30.7%), Alex Pietrangelo (32.3%), Kris Letang (27.4%) and had an identical rate to that of Dougie Hamilton’s. Severson was putting up rates comparable to some of the top defensemen in the league, and even better than some players who have been established NHLers for quite some time. Not to mention he was consistently drawing the toughest assignments on defense for the Devils.

It’s clear that Severson was one of the best rookies defensively in the league last season and the Devils coaches, whether it was Deboer or the trio of Lamoriello/Stevens/Oates, were not afraid to place him in situations where he was put into high danger situations. For a rookie defenseman to be facing the toughest competition as consistently as he did is quite impressive.

If we look at Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas’ DZFO% in their rookie seasons, not one of them comes close to Damon Severson’s numbers. Larsson, Merrill and Gelinas were at 29.1%, 26.5%, and 23.3%, respectively, in their rookie seasons. Most coaches try to shelter rookie defensemen a bit in order to keep them out of high danger situations in the defensive zone all the time, but that was not the case with Severson. The coaches had all the confidence in the world with him on the ice.

Not only was Severson a force on defense; he was also creating offense for a team that mostly lacked in creating scoring chances. On average, he was putting 1.8 shots on goal per game. That may not seem like a high number, but for a rookie defenseman that is an incredibly high rate. The only rookie defenseman to average more shots on goal per game in 2014-15 was Aaron Ekblad (2.1) and the next closest to Severson to was Oscar Klefbom (1.6) and Klefbom played in 9 more games than Severson last season. It’s definitely a good thing for Severson to be included in elite company such as Ekblad.

The bottom line with Severson is that he had a very good rookie campaign. The point totals might not indicate that and his plus/minus (-13) may throw some people off, but when healthy, he was one of the best rookie defensemen in the NHL in 2014-15.

Going into the 2015-16 season, Severson will be looking to build on a successful 1st pro season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we see him put up a 30-40 points in his 2nd NHL season. With the Devils looking to get more aggressive on the attack, this will result in more opportunities for defensemen to create scoring chances, which will benefit Severson and if he continues to average around 1.8 shots on goal a game, it will only help. Good things happen when you fire pucks towards the net and it’ll translate into goals and assists for him.

Defensively, Severson was already one of the best on the team. And he’ll most likely continue on an upward trajectory. Even though John Hynes is in his 1st year with the Devils, he’ll undoubtedly continue to lean on Severson defensively. The Devils have a good crop of young defensemen coming up, but Severson may have the highest ceiling of the group right now.

The Devils have a potential top pair defenseman on their hands in Damon Severson. Some players suffer through the dreaded sophomore slump in their 2nd season and there will be growing pains as he continues to develop in the NHL. However, all the signs point toward a successful and productive second season from Severson. We should be in for an exciting season from no. 28 in 2015-16.

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