Having Struggled, Santini Can Ease Into More Suitable Role With Acquisition Of Sami Vatanen

Steven Santini has been used in a shutdown role this season, but should find himself in a more suitable role with the acquisition of Sami Vatanen (Photo by Ed Mulholland/USA TODAY Sports)

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Coming into the season, the New Jersey Devils had a number of questions facing them, one of which was how their defense would hold up given the makeup of their blue line. As a unit, they’ve expectedly struggled, but with the acquisition of Sami Vatanen, are hoping to find improvement as the season progresses. While there’s no one person to blame for the Devils’ defensive struggles this season, there is one player who’s had a particularly rough go in the role he’s been given.

That player would be Steven Santini, who’s struggled mightily in a heavily defense-first role that John Hynes has been using him for a majority of the season. While Santini’s traditional numbers might not seem to indicate much wrong, a deeper dive into his numbers show a different tale. The following table lists a handful of advanced stats (at five-on-five) that show the struggles Santini has gone through (via Corsica Hockey).

Stat Results Team Rank
Corsi For% 36.1% Last
Corsi Against Per 60 min. 68.3 Last
Relative Corsi For% -15.7% Last
Expected Goals For% 37.7% Last
Expected Goals Against per 60 min. 2.65 13th
Relative Expected Goals For% -17.6% Last

The Devils have been caved in when Steven Santini has been on the ice this season. He ranks dead last in almost every advanced stat shown above and in many cases, it isn’t even close. For example, Jimmy Hayes has the next worst relative Corsi For% on the team at -7.8%, which is almost a full eight percent better than Santini’s. Most concerning are Santini’s relative stats, which indicate how much better or worse the Devils are when he is on/off the ice. The Devils Corsi is a full 15.7% percent worse when he is on the ice. Likewise, the Devils expected goals is a full 17.6% worse. Bottomline is that the Devils aren’t generating a whole lot and most importantly, they’re giving up a ton of quality shots when Santini is on the ice.

Santini’s defense partner, Andy Greene, has struggled some on the season, but not to the extent that the former has. It can also be argued that some of Greene’s struggles could be attributed to being paired with Santini. The following table shows some of Greene’s numbers when paired with and away from Santini (via Natural Stat Trick).

Stat Greene W/ Santini W/O Santini
Corsi For% 38.1% 47.8%
Scoring Chances For % 37.6% 49.7%
High Danger Chances For % 43.8% 67.2%

I highlighted Greene’s numbers without Santini and as shown, there is a significant improvement when he’s paired away from him. Judging by the stats in this table, it wouldn’t be wrong to infer that Santini has had some affect on Greene’s numbers. It also shows that Santini is nowhere near ready to handle the minutes that come being paired with Greene.

With the acquisition of Sami Vatanen, the Devils have significantly improved the right side of their blue line. Vatanen, along with Damon Severson, gives them two legitimate top-four defensemen who will be able to handle those minutes. With this being the case, it gives John Hynes the option to move Santini into a role more suitable for him. Santini has a 44% zone start rate in the defensive zone and it’s usually come against the opposition’s top lines. He has been getting caved in on most nights and while he has been given rather difficult usage, there isn’t any excuse for his five-on-five play while being paired with Andy Greene. Even with the tough minutes, he has to be better than he’s been.

Santini’s usage will change going forward as was the case over the weekend, where Vatanen had already taken over his spot alongside Andy Greene. With Vatanen and Severson going to log a majority of top-four minutes available, Santini can now play in a third-pair role alongside Will Butcher where he will get more favorable minutes and should help him find his game once again. He showed last season that he has promise and can be a capable defenseman. Once the Devils find the right role for him, I’d expect his numbers to start to improve. It’s just not as a first pair defenseman at this point in his career.

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