When you think of the New Jersey Devils and their style of play, what’s the first word that pops into your mind? Defense. Since the early 90s the New Jersey Devils have always been predicated on strong defensive play, and the 2014-15 season will be no different. Last year the Devils were once again one of the top defending teams in the NHL, leading the league in shots against per game (25.5/g) and ranking 6th in goals against per game (2.38/g). The defense is the unit that I am most looking forward to watching this season, in large part due to the potential for huge growth with a few key younger players.
The Devils’ blue line is anchored by veteran Andy Greene. 2014-15 will be Greene’s 9th season with New Jersey, and I believe that he is one of the most underrated defensemen in the entire NHL. He led the team in ice time last year averaging 24:34 minutes per game, and plays prominent roles on both the power play and penalty kill. Greene has some scoring ability, notching 8 goals and 32 points last season, but it’s his strong play in the defensive zone that is so valuable for New Jersey. He’ll never get the notoriety that most team’s number one defensemen get, but Andy Greene has steadily progressed into a very good NHL defenseman and someone who the Devils have the utmost confidence in every time he steps on the ice.
The other two veteran defensemen on the Devils roster are Marek Zidlicky and captain Bryce Salvador. Zidlicky was New Jersey’s best offensive defenseman last season, recording 12 goals and 30 assists, which was good for third on the entire team. He quarterbacked the first power play unit that helped the Devils rank 9th (in a tie with Chicago) in the league. Zidlicky will never be a great lockdown defender, but he did do a solid job cutting down on his turnovers and playing a better defensive game over the course of last season. Bryce Salvador is the prototypical stay at home defenseman. Other than his magical playoff run in 2012, where he somehow scored four goals and 10 assists, he has no ability to produce offensively. His biggest asset to the team is on the penalty kill, which once again was the best in the NHL at 86.6%, and his leadership. In 5-on-5 situations last year, the 38 year old Salvador was regularly exposed for being too slow to handle forwards that have even above average speed. That is a major problem for someone playing in today’s NHL. If it wasn’t for the fact that he is the captain of the team, I don’t believe that he would be on the roster. If any of the Devils’ prospects on defense make major strides this off-season and prove that they belong in the NHL, Salvador could very well find himself a healthy scratch on most nights.
This offseason saw the Devils part ways with two of their regular defenseman. Mark Fayne left via free agency to play in Edmonton, and Aton Volchenkov had the last two years of his $4.25 million contract bought out. These moves open up the chance for more playing time for the young defensemen Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas. All three of them are 23 years old or younger, and they all have the highest ceilings of any defenseman on the roster. Larsson, the 4th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is the youngest but actually has had the most NHL experience to this point. The first three years of Larsson’s career have been a roller coaster ride. He’s had stretches of playing very well, but then those have been followed up by games where he continually made mistakes that would get him sent down to Albany for long stretches. Despite all of the ups and downs, I’m looking for Larsson to have a breakout year. He was playing the best hockey of his young career to begin last season before a knee injury against San Jose caused him to miss significant time, and he was never able to crack the lineup again. The skill set is there for him to be a top four defenseman in the NHL, and if he is fully recovered from the knee injury he’ll have a great chance this season to play a ton of minutes and really show everyone what he can do.
Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas each got their first taste of NHL action last year. Like Larsson, both defensemen struggled with rookie mistakes and they found themselves constantly moving around from New Jersey to Albany. Towards the end of the year Merrill really settled in and found himself regularly playing in a top four role. His offensive game is still developing, but Merrill showed that he is NHL ready in terms of the defensive zone.
Eric Gelinas is the most polarizing defenseman that the Devils have. When he’s good, he’s really good. The video below shows just what Gelinas can bring to the table.
Gelinas’ shot can be a game changer. Having someone on the blue line that can score from virtually anywhere in the offensive zone gives a team such an advantage and brings a new element to the power play that the Devils haven’t had in a very long time. He played so well at times that it prompted future hall of famer Jaromir Jagr to say, “”He might be a superstar in this League if he keeps working.” Unfortunately for the Devils, Gelinas certainly needs to keep working on his defense. The reason that he kept finding himself moving between the NHL and AHL last season was he looked lost on defense at times. Getting caught pinching in when he shouldn’t have, poor coverage around the net, and other types of rookie mistakes plagued Gelinas all year. Hopefully he can earn the trust of the coaching staff by the time opening night comes, because he is too talented and too valuable for this offensively starved team to not have him in the lineup.
The other names that fans may hear a lot of this season are Damon Severson and Peter Harrold. Severson was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, and projects to be a top four defenseman in years to come. I think it would be a real stretch for Severson to make this team out of camp this year, but should injuries strike it would be very interesting to see how the 19 year old would handle playing in the NHL. Peter Harrold is the seventh defenseman on the team, and that’s all he should be. He doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he can fill in adequately for a short time if an injury occurs. There were so many times last year where Harrold would be in the lineup over guys such as Larsson or Gelinas and it was beyond frustrating. The Devils cannot let the development of their defense prospects suffer again this year due to Peter Harrold playing.
The key word for the 2014-15 defense corps will be “consistency.” By relying heavily on so many young players, having them play consistently night in and night out is crucial. We’ve all seen the flashes of greatness from each one of them at points last season, but successful teams get those types of contributions every game. I’m very optimistic on the potential of these defensemen, and I look forward to watching them grow and develop as a unit. The defense will once again be the key to success for the Devils this season and for many seasons to come.