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One of the biggest issues facing the Devils this preseason will be composing their blue line. While the addition of Will Butcher certainly helps, it’s no guarantee he starts the season in the NHL. At this point in the free agent market, there are limited to no remaining options that could help the Devils improve their defensive game.
That leaves the Devils looking to fill their defensive pairs from within the organization, where (much like the remaining free agent market), the options are limited. The recently acquired Mirco Mueller will get a chance to occupy a regular role, but it’s no guarantee he’ll become a lineup regular. The one candidate who makes the most sense to step into a regular role is 22-year old Steven Santini, who totaled seven points in 38 games last season.
While Santini’s numbers may not grab your attention at first glance, he posted solid underlying numbers in the limited games played last season. The following chart shows some of Santini’s five-on-five figures.
While Santini may’ve not played against elite competition a whole lot last year, he certainly held his own against what he faced. Santini had solid goal and primary assist rates, although his shot generation lagged compared to what you’d expect a from second pair defender. Santini will probably never be a high-level offensive defenseman, so his goal and assist rates are to be taken with a grain salt. Nonetheless, he was still able to contribute with the minutes he played.
On the defensive side of things, Santini fared well. His shot suppression numbers were quite good last season; averaging 52.6 shot attempts against per 60 minutes, which was fourth best among the team’s defenseman. While his possession wasn’t great (46.9%), his relative possession was only -0.4%, which means the Devils barely fared any worse with him on the ice compared to when he was off. The Devils will look to rely on him for tougher defensive minutes and the penalty kill, where his strengths will be of the best use, especially if he can continue to limit shots against.
While the term “defensive defenseman” may not have the greatest reputation these days, it doesn’t mean Santini can’t have success at the NHL level. Although most defensive defenseman are perceived to be better than they actually are, there are a few that thrive exceptionally (Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chris Tanev to name a couple). That’s not to say Santini will reach their level, especially this coming season as he’ll only be 22, but there certainly is reason to be optimistic.
Santini’s underlying numbers weren’t poor last year, especially on a team with immense struggles to close out the season where he saw a lot of his minutes. Is he ready for a regular role with tougher minutes? He fared well enough last season to warrant an opportunity for a greater role in 2017-18. There’s going to be a lot of competition for the few final spots on defense this preseason. Santini should have the upper-hand, having already played almost half a season for the Devils.
With New Jersey still in the midst of a rebuild, giving big minutes to some of their younger players (especially on defense), should be in the cards this season. The Devils need to see if these youngsters are truly part of their future, and Santini is one of them. He should be on the opening night roster and while he may not log top-pair minutes, he should find himself on the third pair at worst, when the Devils face off against the Avalanche on October 7th.