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Even a defense unit as questionable as New Jersey’s is seeing a select group of players fight over one or two roster spots. For the most part, New Jersey’s defense isn’t hard to figure out. Andy Greene, Damon Severson, and John Moore are shoe-ins. Bearing some kind of trade between now and next Saturday, the fourth through sixth spots will likely be allocated from a combination of Will Butcher, Steve Santini, Mirco Mueller, Ben Lovejoy, and Dalton Prout. In total that gives Coach Hynes eight defensemen to compose a final roster.
As mentioned above, the trio of Greene, Severson, and Moore are the only indisputable guarantees. I doubt the Devils traded away two draft picks (including a second) for Mirco Mueller to not play. Fortunately, he’s had a fruitful preseason with two goals in three games, and hasn’t played in a losing lineup- all factors that work in his favor. The same goes for Will Butcher, the 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner. While he’s yet to register any points, Butcher has been used frequently by Coach Hynes in games, mostly on the power play where the 22-year old leads the team in preseason ice time (6:02). He’s done a great job breaking out of his own zone, and looked very confident with the puck on the point. Throw in how Butcher signed here as a highly coveted free agent, I’m sure one of the reasons he came to New Jersey was the promise of regular playing time.
This leaves one lineup and an extra spot to be determined out of three players- Ben Lovejoy, Steve Santini, and Dalton Prout. Lovejoy has been costly for the Devils dating back to last season, and has played in one winning preseason lineup. He’s the ideal pick to come off the roster, but with two years and about $5.5 million in remaining salary, we’re more than likely to see Lovejoy start 2017-2018 with New Jersey.
Coach Hynes could very well go with eight defensemen to start the season, but is more likely to take advantage of his team’s forward depth instead. Between Santini and Prout vying for an extra or rotating spot is a sort of purposeless achievement. With that said, I could see Santini becoming a victim of numbers and (at the very least) beginning his season in Binghamton, where he’ll at least play top minutes until his eventual call-up. While Prout’s play has improved considerably this preseason, he’ll likely start rotating in and out of the lineup with one of Mueller, Butcher, or Lovejoy.
Nonetheless, the framework of New Jersey’s season-opening defense will keep young first-year players like Butcher and Mueller on their toes, since they can be readily replaced by two veterans, and other Devils prospects waiting for their chance in Binghamton. While Lovejoy’s play has been concerning, hopefully strong play by the likes of Moore, Butcher, and Mueller can sway Coach Hynes into using him less. With that said, we should see a similar (to last season) yet refined Devils defense to start the 2017-2018 season, where every player has a lot to individually prove.