When the Devils traded Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall, there was immediately a void created along their blue line. They signed Ben Lovejoy to a 3-year contract when free agency opened up. He’ll be able to eat some of the minutes left by Larsson and can fill in on the PK, but it would be too much to ask of him to take on the ice time Larsson logged. Ray Shero said the team will stand pat for now, so that means one of the Devils young defensemen will have the chance to step up and play in Larsson’s role.
The first name that comes to mind is Damon Severson, who led the Devils defensemen with 21 points last season. While he was in and out of the line up as a healthy scratch from time-to-time, his play may not have been as bad as perceived. The following tableau compares Larsson’s even-strength production to Severson’s in 2015-16.
As you can see, they faired the same in most aspects, but Severson had a significant positive difference in shot generation and possession compared to Larsson, specifically in shot generation. Larsson’s shot generation was close to that of a third-pair defenseman while Severson was closer to the production of a top-pair defenseman. In fairness, deployment probably had a factor in each of their shot generation numbers. Larsson played almost 45% of his shifts in the defensive zone, which was the highest in the league for a defenseman by a good margin. While Severson saw more starts in the offensive zone.
Over the last two seasons, Severson has a Relative Corsi of +3.1, which is 27th best in the league for defensemen with 1000+ minutes logged. Larsson’s Relative Corsi over that time is -1.7, which is not the greatest. Because we’re using two seasons of data, tying in Relative Corsi and quality of competition is not as important. As Eric Tulsky wrote in a 2012 piece on nhlnumbers.com, the effects of QoC tend to have a minor influence over a season’s worth of data to point where it can be ignored. For what it’s worth, Larsson had a higher Corsi QoC than Severson in 15-16. However, Severson faced tougher competition than Larsson in 14-15.
Knowing that, I think it’s safe to say Severson has had more of a positive impact on his teammates’ possession numbers than Larsson has. That’s not to say Larsson is a drag on his teammates, because he’s not, but Severson tends to drive better possession than Larsson, which is what Relative Corsi comes down to.
Most of Severson’s underlying numbers are as good, if not better, than Adam Larsson’s. Is he a top-pair defenseman? On most teams he would definitely be top-four, but maybe not top-two. However, if we look at the Devils current roster, their blue line isn’t anything spectacular. I think Severson would easily be a top-pair defenseman on New Jersey at this moment. Ben Lovejoy is a serviceable defenseman, but definitely not top-pair material. Steve Santini is still an unknown. He could be a very good defenseman down the road, but it’s still very much up in the air if he’ll even be in the NHL this season.
If Ray Shero is to look outside the organization, there aren’t a ton of options left in free agency to help fill the void left by Larsson. James Wisniewksi and Christian Ehrhoff are available, but they both have health issues and could come into training camp as PTOs. Asking either one of them to play regular top-pair minutes would also be a bit much considering their injury history, although they could be good value signings if the Devils do decide to look outside the organization for blue line help. Considering there aren’t much options left, I think it’s a pretty good bet we’ll see Severson start along side Andy Greene to begin the season.