Immediately after the first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, many opinions have come out to state what they feel are the real problems and deficiencies of the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils. Among them, the defense has been put up for criticism. It's easy to understand why: the New Jersey Devils did not only not beat the Flyers, but their blueline was led by Chris Pronger who just shut down the Devils' offense.
The Flyers blocked tens of shots, forced tens of missed shots, regularly kept the Devils out of the slot, and made things as simple as possible for Brian Boucher. Since the Devils' offense didn't hit home with their attacks, the Flyers had more possession and forced the Devils' defense to do more and they played a whole lot smarter than the Devils' offense as they didn't just attempt to freely fire pucks through players.
As a result of the playoff loss, I've read bits and pieces like this in Steve Politti's post-mortem column in the Star Ledger:
The defense, once among the greatest in NHL history, is in need of a total overhaul.
And allow me to speak for the 16,000 or so fans in red: Would someone hit somebody?!
Additionally, Lamoriello has never found adequate successors to Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski, defensemen who can make a superior breakout pass or quarterback the power play. No one on the Devils defense matches the physical dimension of Scott Stevens or Ken Danyeko either. They had no one like the Flyers’ Chris Pronger in their lineup.
An elite top-line center, a spark-plug defenseman and a battle-tested shutdown blue-liner remain necessities in the modern N.H.L. and for a manager of Lamoriello’s reputation, it’s surprising his team lacks all of them.
Plus this short line buried near the end of Ken Campbell's call of the fall of New Jersey:
The team’s defense corps for the past couple of seasons has been uncharacteristically thin...
And you can see the echoes of the cry for an improved defense in some of the FanPosts on this very site such as this one. In one of the open FanShots for discussion about other playoff games, I asked about a reason why the Devils' defense isn't good enough and I got an interesting response: a dearth of offense.
However, with references to past Devils teams, let's take a look back at some basic stats to see how the 2009-10 Devils defense stacks up against teams as far back as 1997-98 in the regular season. In the interest of comparing apples with apples, I'm sticking with the regular season numbers. Perhaps from this, we can see whether or not the Devils' defense really does need that supposed "big name" stud defenseman to win anything.
Let's Clear Something Up First
Before I hit you, the reader, with a whole bunch of charts, let's clear something up here. The Devils have had numerous early playoff exits with Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Brian Rafalski on the blueline. The Devils lost in the first round in 1998 and 1999 with Niedermayer and Stevens leading the defense, as well as ending 1997 with a second round loss. The Devils also lost in the first round in 2002 with all three defensemen; and 2004 saw a first round exit with Niedermayer and Rafalski commanding the defense (Stevens was injured). Moreover, Rafalski was the #1 defenseman in 2005 and 2006 and the Devils lost in the second round.
As great players as they are and as much success they brought to the Devils, I want to demystify you, the reader, that nothing disappointing ever happened playoffs with them in the lineup. They were important players for New Jersey, but their presence and performances did not guarantee a first round win every time. Historically, the Devils have largely been a "go deep or go home" team in the playoffs - and that has held true, unfortunately.
If you read nothing else, understand this: getting a defenseman on par of Stevens and/or Niedermayer caliber would be great but it doesn't mean that the Devils would definitely get past the first round in future playoffs.
I decided to record and compare the following regular season stats from 1997-98 through to 2009-10 from NHL.com: goals; assists; points; shots on goal; goals against per game and its league rank; and shots against per game and its league rank. Is this the most complete look at each Devils' defenses? No. But this way I'm comparing a cumulative 82 game performance in each season and highlighting the basic stats. Knowing how each group of defensemen have scored tells us how they have contributed offensively. Ideally, a relatively low goals and shots against per game would indicate how effective they were in their own end.
As a side note, I didn't take real time super stats like hits, blocks, and takeaways into account because they are counted differently throughout arenas across the league. Besides, the point of any defense isn't necessarily to steal the puck, block a shot, or even hit someone (sorry Mr. Politti and the hundreds who yell for it at each game everywhere). The defense's main job is to prevent the offense from taking high quality shots. This means clearing loose pucks and rebounds. This means keeping the offense from being able to flank the goalie or get into high percentage positions. That is the most important aspect, in my opinion. It's not sexy, it's not easily seen, but we've largely just seen it done by the Flyers in 4 out of 5 games - all Devils losses, not coincidentally - so we should all be aware about how important that is.
First, let's check out the goals against per game and shots against per game as well as their rank. Please click on the chart to enlarge the image.
For a Devils defense that doesn't have a big name, they have remained one of the top defenses in the league. The 2009-10 defense shows the lowest goals against and shots against per game average since the lockout. Relative to the rest of the league, the 2009-10 defense ranks the best in goals against per game and only behind Chicago among shots against per game. How is this not impressive? Especially given that Paul Martin, the #1 defenseman in the two seasons prior to this one, was only healthy for 22 games? And that Johnny Oduya, the #2 defenseman prior, struggled so much?
I suppose adding another shutdown defenseman would have made these numbers lower, but given how relatively low they are, it wasn't a need in 2009-10. Not with the coaching staff working well with a defense that generally knew their roles and performed them to a "T."
Was it ever as good as, say, the 1997-98, 2002-03, or 2003-04 teams? No. But those defenses were incredibly tight, among the best ever seen among Devils teams. That shouldn't mean that the Devils' defense this season was bad. It wasn't. By the way, I must point out that it meant little in the 1998 and 2004 playoffs - both were first round exits. So this past season's defense has at least that in common, unfortunately.
However, we can see where the 2009-10 defense stands out in a class of it's own on offense. And it's not a good one. Please click on the chart to enlarge the image.
Now, offense was definitely the 09-10 defense lacked. Not bad in terms of goals, but the assists are dreadfully low in comparison to prior years. Even worse, the shots on goal sank like a stone. Even if Martin was healthy the whole season, short of Martin having an absolutely fantastic time in production, the defense would likely remain among the least productive since 1997. Maybe it would have done better than 2001-02.
A quick aside for the 2001-02 defense, Rafalski and Niedermayer were the only ones on the Devils' blueline to put up more than 5 goals and 20 points. Scott Stevens finished in third with only one goal and 16 assists. Since Niedermayer and Rafalski didn't have as significant additional contributions from Stevens and Colin White (combined for 51 points in 2000-01) and White and Paul Martin (37 total points in 2002-03), there's a big dip in the middle of this chart.
Interestingly enough, the scoring peaked in 2005-06, when Rafalski and Martin led the blueline - joined in by surprising contributions from Sean Brown (12 points in 35 games), White (17 points), Vladimir Malakhov (4 goals, 9 points, 29 games), and trade deadline acquisition Brad Lukowich (8 points, 17 games). Overall, the key to having good production - relative to past Devils seasons - is that two defensemen are fairly productive with enough contributions below the top two to boost things.
That brings me to 2009-10. Since Martin was out for most of the season, Andy Greene's ascent led to him leading the D in scoring with 37 points. However, he was truly the only other two-way defenseman on the roster other than Martin, and so he was the only one with more than 20 points. As a whole, multiple defensemen chipped a few goals in which yielded a decent total of 24 goals - the second most since the lockout. However, the lack of assists were dire. No wonder Lemaire tended to use 4 or 5 forwards on a power play, the defense wasn't producing much as it is.
What really hammers home that point are the low shot totals on the 2009-10 team. Niedermayer, Rafalski, and to a point Stevens made a point of it in earlier season to put pucks on net. From 1997-98 through 2002-03, Niedermayer and Stevens put up at least 85 shots on net per season; and Rafalski has always had at least 120 shots on goal as a Devil. They were the main drivers of earlier seasons in this comparison where the defense could put up over 600 shots on goal in a season. It's should be no wonder that the shooting has dropped off since the loss of Niedermayer and Stevens. But not even 400 shots from this group? Wow. I understand why the power play went without the use of many defensemen. I also understand how big Martin's loss - and Oduya's struggles - was despite how well the blueline have collectively performed in terms of shots and goals against per game.
I wouldn't go as far as to say shoot more and the points will come, but it's certainly something worth trying. I would go as far as to say that the Devils need to seriously upgrade the offensive skills of their blueline. 2009-10 featured the lowest shot count and the lowest assist total of the last 12 seasons.
One Additional Comparison
Now, I'm a big fan of the on-ice/off-ice stats recorded and stored at Behind the Net. Since the big concern about the defense comes after a loss to the Flyers, how did the Devils defensemen individually stack up with the Flyers in the 2009-10 season?
Quite well, actually. While the Flyers had the "name" in Chris Pronger, the Devils were definitely on par with them - perhaps better than them - based on their seasons performance. So I don't believe the notion that the Devils defense was not good enough.
So what happened? The Flyers figured out the Devils offense first, defended them accordingly, and when the Devils lost possession (bad pass, blocked shot, missed shot, etc.), the Flyers could attack and were smarter about it. They were patient enough to read where the Devils were and didn't repeatedly make poor decisions like stupidly forcing shots through players. The Devils defense ultimately had to deal with a Flyers team that adjusted their tactics accordingly and had the puck more often because of the problems the offense kept having. They were overrun.
I'm not sure how a "big name" stud defenseman - like a Stevens or a Scott Niedermayer - could have prevented that. I doubt a few more "big hits" would have changed the nature of the series. As much as I and others have praised Pronger for their series, Matt Carle and Kimmo Timonen also stood out and players like Braydon Coburn and Ryan Parent had solid performances. As good as they are on their own, they had the right strategy and New Jersey couldn't work around that.
The notion that the Devils defense this season was thin or badly needs a stud defenseman or isn't even that good doesn't really hold up when looking back at this season and even in comparison to prior seasons.
Given that the Devils struggled so mightily against the Flyers in the playoffs and weren't exactly lamplighters throughout the 2009-10 season, another offensive defenseman or two definitely would help in that regard. Even if Paul Martin is retained - and he should be, in my opinion, but I'll save that for another post - he can't carry the team's production. If Greene can follow up 2009-10 with another strong season, that would help; but I would think that adding another two-way/offensive defenseman into the top 4 would be not only ideal but reasonable.
Looking for the next Scott Stevens or the next Scott Niedermayer or even the next Chris Pronger is nothing but a fool's game. Oh, sure, it'd be great if there was one out there that the Devils could get. But it's not as necessary as you may think. Those players are rare enough as is (especially in this summer's pending FA market) and to say that this team needs a stud completely ignores how well this blueline already is at defending. Through comparison to prior seasons, the stark difference is in how the defense has contributed less and less on offense. That is what should be addressed through the new coach and any new acquisitions, not going out and getting a "name" guy that may or may not exist.
The key word is help because no one player or one improvement is going to guarantee success in the first round, nevermind going further in the playoffs.