While goaltending has been the cornerstone of success in the Devils organization, the team has always abided by a defense-first playing philosophy that still lives on in the post-Lamoriello era. This was a big year where defensemen like Adam Larsson and Damon Severson made remarkable progress in their development, while first-year captain Andy Greene showed that he’ll make a fine addition to the organization’s storied collection. Between their lopsided possession timeand general lack of offense among other notable factors, New Jersey’s defense has no exemptions from being subjected to improvement this offseason. Although they’re forming a solid long term core and have amassed a promising collection of young blue liners, the pains of rebuilding were strongly felt on the backend, but are easily identifiable and improvable.
Larsson, Severson making progress…In different fashions, these two vital pieces of the Devil’s defense core made significant strides this year. After showing much promise last season, Adam Larsson firmly established himself on the Devil’s top pairing. He was one of four players to appear in all 82 games, and averaged 22:30 of ice time, which was just second on the team behind his defense partner Andy Greene (by 27 seconds). His offensive numbers weren’t flashy, but Larsson vastly improved his defensive play. He led the team in hits, had the second-most blocked shots, and third-most takeaways amongst Devils defensemen. Damon Severson had trust issues with Coach Hynes, but proved very capable of becoming an ample two-way blue liner. He hit the 20-assist mark in his second NHL season, and was the second-most played defenseman on the power play. One of our previous articles cited Severson’s accomplishments in what’s been a pleasant sophomore year for the 21-year old that was largely uninterrupted by injury like his rookie campaign. While his overall consistency and the defensive end of his game needs improvement, he’s given plenty of reasons to keep him in the long term fold.
A bountiful pipeline…Outside of goaltending, the Devil’s defense is perhaps the closest section of the team to emerge out of the rebuilding phase. We’ve talked about homegrown talents already making an impact like Larsson and Severson, who could only be the tip of iceberg in the coming seasons for emerging talent. We saw 2013 second-round pick Steve Santini make an impressionable NHL debut in the Devil’s last game of the season. The rugged, hard-hitting, stay at home defenseman is expected to make a huge push for a roster spot in September. Santini, along with 2014 second-round pick Joshua Jacobs, were two defensive prospects general manager Ray Shero signed to entry-level contracts last week. 20-year old Jacobs completed his first OHL season with the Sarnia Sting (teammates with Pavel Zacha), where he registered four goals and 24 points in 64 contests, along with five assists in seven playoff appearances this year. Jacobs is still young and would benefit from another season in Sarnia. His offensive prowess and puck-moving abilities are two big components the Devils defense has lacked for years. Like Severson did two seasons ago however, Coach Hynes might not have a choice but to award Jacobs a roster spot if he impresses in training camp.
Containing opponents…One of the most frustrating aspects of Devils hockey this season was the amount of time they spent in their own zone. New Jersey’s blue liners were getting outshot on a gamely basis, spent most of their time chasing the puck in their own zone, lost countless battles along the boards, corners, and were constantly blocking shots. The Devils had the 23rd-most takeaways in the league, out of which their defensemen only accounted for about 25%. The other major stat that reflects how poorly the Devil’s defensemen maintained their own end were the team’s shot differentials. The Devils had the second-most wins and fifth-most losses where they were outshot out of all 30 NHL teams. Their differential of total shot attempts (blocked and unblocked) between them and their opponents this season was -454, which was the second-lowest in the league.
An offensive defense…While hopes are high players like Adam Larsson and Damon Severson can continue developing more of an offensive upside, the Devils haven’t had a legitimate point-producing defenseman in years. That showed this year for the Devils, whose defense corps scored the fewest goals in the league. This shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise when you take the numbers into consideration. David Schlemko led the team with only six goals, while John Moore and Andy Greene followed up with four apiece. Although he led defensemen in points (21), Severson never quite regained last year’s scoring touch, along with third-year defenseman Eric Gelinas who was eventually traded to Colorado. In addition to scoring the fewest goals in the league, 86% of the Devil’s 184 goals came from their forwards. There are teams with greater disparity between goals scored by their forwards and defensemen, but any of those teams outscore the Devils in both categories or are preparing for round one of the playoffs.
Hopes and Needs
Another top-four defenseman…General manager Ray Shero hinted this was something he would address this offseason. Outside of Greene, Larsson, and Severson, they lack true top-four depth. John Moore and David Schlemko were decent fill-ins on the second pairing, but are better-suited for a 5-6 slot. Especially while Severson’s game continues to mature, the Devils need another two-way regular in the lineup. Shero could try to find another big point shot, which will compensate for the apparent plunder of highly-touted young defensemen Eric Gelinas. Although Steve Santini can potentially be on next season’s opening night roster, adding another defensive defenseman with keen positional awareness, could help reduce the amount of time the Devils spend in their own zone and number of shots that get on net.
Merrill and Schlemko – low risk returnees…? Both defensemen are respectively restricted and unrestricted free agents this offseason. It remains to be seen if one or both players have played their last games in Devils uniforms. While most fans hope the latter of the two return, Merrill shouldn’t be so readily dismissed. He played the fewest games (47) out of his three NHL seasons, where he tallied just one goal and five points. In addition to a whopping -15 for his plus/minus, Merrill was on the ice for .93 goals per game, which is the second-highest next to Schlemko (.95). While Merrill averaged roughly over a hit and blocked shot per game, he was the lowest shooter on the Devils defense. Let’s keep in mind that the 23-year old has only appeared in 165 contests in his young NHL career, and had this season cut short due to injury. You have to figure there’s justifiable reasoning behind why Merrill was always favored over Gelinas by three different coaching staffs. Schlemko’s numbers were impressive this year and while he may have led the defense in goals (six) and shots per game (1.6), he disappeared after the all-star break. Since February, Schlemko registered two goals and seven points in his last 25 games, failed to register a goal in his last 23 contests, and a point in his last ten. Either player can justifiably be re-signed by the Devils for different reasons.