New Jersey Devils first half report card: Defense

The New Jersey Devils will play their first game of 2014 calendar year tomorrow against one of the best teams in the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks.  It will also mark the beginning of the second half of the Devils’ season.  I have evaluated the three major components of the team as a whole, and given out grades on how I feel they have performed up to this point in the season.  Here is my grade for the New Jersey Devils’ defense.

See offensive grade here

Final Grade: A-

The defense has been the most pleasant surprise for the Devils this season.  Coming into the season, there were a lot of question marks surrounding this defensive unit regarding their age and ability.  The Devils have also suffered a number of injuries to key members of the defense during the first half of the year, but have done an outstanding job of filling those holes with young and talented players.  New Jersey leads the league in shots allowed per game (24.9/g), and is fifth in the Eastern conference in goals allowed per game (2.37/g), behind only Boston, Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. Ultimately, their stellar defensive play has allowed the Devils to remain in contention for a playoff spot through 41 games this season.

When talking about the New Jersey Devils’ defense, everything starts with Andy Greene.  He is undoubtedly the Devils’ best defenseman, playing in every situation night in and night out.  Greene leads the Devils in ice time per game by over three minutes, and he is currently tied for third on the team in points with 20 (6 goals, 14 assists).  I truly believe that if Andy Greene played for a team in a larger market and had a slightly higher point total that he would be considered in the running for the Norris Trophy.  He has been that good defensively all season for the Devils.

Andy Greene

Andy Greene (NY Daily News)

The other veteran defensemen on the team have contributed very well so far this season.  Marek Zidlicky certainly has his flaws when it comes to turning the puck over and playing a defensively sound game every night, but he has been a major key for the Devils when it comes to providing offense from the back end.  He is tied with Andy Greene in assists, and sits just one behind him in both goals and points.  Zidlicky’s ability to rush the puck up the ice and quarterback the first power play unit has also been extremely important to the Devils.  The one area where he MUST improve is staying out of the penalty box. He leads the Devils in penalty minutes with 42 this season, and has a 20 more minutes than the second place Dianius Zubrus.

Bryce Salvador, Aton Volchenkov, and Adam Larsson have all battled injuries this season.  Salvador missed 30 games with a fractured left foot, and just recently returned two games ago against the Islanders.  He logged 23:36 minutes of ice time, and it appears that his foot has completely healed.  Salvador’s “defense first” style of play will certainly be a welcomed addition to the Devils’ lineup, especially on the penalty kill.

Volchenkov has missed a total of 10 games so far this season, dealing with a number of nagging injuries.  He has battled through the injuries and I have been fairly surprised by how well he has played this season. Once Salvador went down with his foot injury, Volchenkov’s physical presence on defense was needed even more. He and Greene are also two of the main reasons New Jersey has the third best penalty kill in the NHL at 86.8%.

Adam Larsson hasn’t played since injuring his knee November 23rd against the San Jose Sharks.  It seems as though Larsson will return to the lineup sooner rather than later, which is great news for the Devils.  In my opinion, Larsson was playing some of the best hockey of his young career before the injury, showing signs of finally adjusting to the speed and pace of the professional level.  If he can return to that form once he is fully healthy, it will be a major boost to the defensive corps.

Due to all of the injuries suffered on defense, the Devils have gotten to enjoy the future of their blue line earlier than expected.  Rookies Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill have stepped into the lineup and have played as well as anyone could’ve anticipated.

Gelinas in particular has made a serious case to be considered a Rookie of the Year candidate.  He averages just under 20 minutes of ice time a game, and has totaled 15 points (4 goals, 11 assists) in 32 games this season.  Gelinas is featured prominently on the power play, and his shot is one of the hardest the Devils have had on their team in quite a while.

What has impressed me most about both Gelinas and Merrill is that they have never seemed intimidated by the bright lights of the NHL.  Ever since they were called up from Albany they were thrown right into key situations immediately.  Whenever they have had a bad shift or a bad game, they have shown the ability to put it behind them and go out the next game and continue to play very solid hockey.  Gelinas and Merrill, combined with Adam Larsson, have given the Devils very high hopes for the future of their defense moving forward.

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Overall, the New Jersey Devils have relied heavily on their strong defensive play this season to carry them when the offense has struggled to score goals. Despite suffering injuries to key members of the defense, the team has been able to get great play from their younger players.  The big question moving forward is what will the Devils do once everyone is healthy?  They realistically have eight NHL caliber defenseman when everyone is at full health, and the only option that makes sense is to make a deal for a forward to help bolster the offense.

My biggest fear is that the team will elect not to make a trade, and send down either Eric Gelinas or Jon Merrill.  Both players have had very good seasons up to this point, and I feel that each has earned a spot in the lineup moving forward.  Only time will tell how the roster will be handled before the trading deadline, but for now the Devils are in great shape defensively.

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