New Jersey Devils 2013 Season Preview Part 2: The Defensemen

Just Adam Larsson sniping the series changing goal...nbd, sea of dejected orange shirted onlookers - Bruce Bennett

The Devils have a lot of defensemen going into this 2013 season. Who will play and who will sit? Who will stay and who will go?

The questions facing the Devils defense heading into the 2013 season are pretty much the opposite of those facing the forwards. There are spots to fill up front, but the back line is slightly overcrowded. While they may lack elite, top-end talent, they make up for it in some respects with numbers. Right now, there are no superstars on the Devils blue line. What they do have is 8 capable, NHL quality players fighting for 6 open spots. Everyone on the back line is healthy going into camp, so the big question for the Devils defense is, which six will play, and who are the two on the outside looking in? The other question (potentially) is, who will stay and who will go? It is always possible the Devils could leverage some of their blue line depth in a trade for depth up front.

One thing is sure - the New Jersey Devils blue line this season will look strikingly similar to the defense core that finished out the 2011-2012 season. 11 defenseman took the ice in a New Jersey uniform last season, and 9 are still with the organization (Matt Taormina and Mark Fraser are gone). Alexander Urbom, who appeared in 3 games last season, will most likely remain in Albany for the time being to continue his development, since 8 is already a crowd in New Jersey.

Bryce Salvador, who ran hotter than I thought possible in the playoffs, was re-signed to a somewhat puzzling three year extension. Peter Harrold was also brought back on a one way , one year deal, something I really don't have a problem with at all, since he proved a fairly capable fill-in as an extra defenseman, and he comes cheap.

Henrik Tallinder, who missed most of the 2011-2012 season with a blot clot in his leg, returned to the ice near the end of the Stanley Cup Finals, and should be ready to resume a key role on the blue line.

The oft -injured Anton Volchenkov has recovered from his ankle injury suffered earlier in the KHL season and will be healthy going into camp.

Mark Fayne, who had off-season wrist surgery, has also had more than enough time to heal up. Fayne re-signed with New Jersey in the off season as well, and provides good value with a $1.3 mil cap hit.

Add Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky, and Adam Larsson, who all remain under contract for at least this season, and you have a crowded blue line.

Now, having eight capable defensemen is not necessarily a bad thing. The reality of the situation is, barring a trade, all eight of these guys will probably contribute to varying degrees on the blue line in 2013. For one, Salvador and Zidlicky are both over 35, and Tallinder turns 34 this week. Can these players be expected to play every game in a more grueling compact schedule? Probably not. Also, there will always be injuries. Possibly more than usual based, again, on the increased grind of a shortened season. Volchenkov throws himself in front of way too many pucks not to miss any time. He managed to play 72 games last year, the most he has played since the 2006-2007 season. Both Larsson and Greene missed significant chunks of time to injury as well last season.

Let's begin to take a look at how all of these players fared in 2011-2012, so we can begin to speculate who fits where. Then, we will also look at the possibilities of who will be in New Jersey this year for certain, and who could be moved if Lou makes a deal.

How they performed in 2011-2012

Just like with John's Forwards' preview, I put together two similar charts to compile the defensemen's stats for last season. The first consists of basic stats from NHL.com and the second is their advanced stats at even strength from Behind the Net. I included just the eight players that we know right now will be in New Jersey to start the season. I'm not forgetting Alex Urbom, it's just that barring injuries or trades, there is simply no room for him to even compete for a spot on the NJ blue line right now.

Nj_devils_2011-2012_stats_-_defensemen_medium

One thing that stands out right away when looking at the scoring numbers – the Devils have a lack of offensive production from their blue line. Mark Fayne led the team with 4 goals. Now, I quickly glanced at the counting numbers for all 30 NHL teams’ defensemen last year, and Fayne leading the team with only 4 goals was tied for 30th / 30 in the league. We’ll call it 29/30, because he was tied with Kurtis Foster (MIN) for last among team leaders, and I remember at least 2 of those Foster goals being scored in the beautiful Kovalpunch game against Philadelphia last season. Fayne also scored all 4 of his goals at even strength. There is no reason to think he won't produce at the same level this season.

There are a couple of reasons to be mildly optimistic about the Devils blue line being slightly more productive this coming season. And, I’m not talking about Bryce Salvador racking up the points like he did last playoffs. First, Adam Larsson should take the next steps in his development and produce more offensively. Larsson has 3 goals and 14 assists in 31 games in Albany so far this season. Marek Zidlicky also had a very productive time in the Czech Extraliga, putting up 1 ppg (3 g 22 a / 25 gp) while he was there. Both players should enter the season in good form since they have not been sitting around idle.

Volchenkov and Salvador should not be expected to contribute at all on offense. Greene and Tallinder are slightly more capable, but neither is an offensive defenseman. Greene has the capability to chip in a few more points than Tallinder, but, as I said, the Devils should not count on either for offensive production. Peter Harrold is not going to light up the scoreboard either.

Now, fortunately for the Devils, there is much more to defense than scoring goals. They certainly lack overall offensive talent as a unit, but the group contains some capable defenders. It will remain a workmanlike group without a real stud, or top pair, that the team relies on to log exceptionally heavy minutes. What we can see is that both time on ice and even strength time on ice is pretty evenly distributed among the top 4, for the most part.

There is one more number that sticks out on this chart, and that is Bryce Salvador’s penalty minutes. Bryce certainly needs to keep his temper in check and play more disciplined. He logged very close to twice as many penalty minutes as the next closest defenseman. He took his share of dumb penalties last season. I have no examples to prove that statement, but I think most people who watched the Devils last season with regularity will agree.

Since defensemen (and Devils defensemen especially) don’t stand out in a chart of scoring statistics, the advanced stats should potentially tell us much more about who fits in where.

Nj_devils_2011-2012_advanced_stats_-_defensemen_medium

It might be surprising to some that Adam Larsson actually led the team as a rookie in even strength time on ice per game, and by a decent margin at that. If you look at the TOI %, you can see that Larsson was on the ice for 37 % of the game at even strength. This is pretty impressive stuff for an 18 / 19 year old rookie. Another very noticeable trend in the ES TOI /60 and TOI % is that Volchenkov and Harrold saw way less time than anyone else, both under 15 minutes a game. They are the only two who played under 30% of the game at even strength. DeBoer distributed everyone else’s minutes pretty evenly.

Last Season, DeBoer deployed Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, and Henrik Tallinder (when healthy) against the other team’s toughest competition. If Tallinder stayed healthy, I think those minutes mostly go to him and Fayne. Tallinder’s injury showed us that Andy Greene is also very capable of facing the toughs. This was a nice revelation.

Andy Greene came off a very disappointing 2010-2011 season, but then again, so did most of the Devils. In 2011-2012, I definitely think he earned his contract. He missed some time with an injury, but when in the lineup he was an anchor on the back end. He is not flashy, and has turned out to probably have less offensive upside than many originally thought, but he is steady, reliable, and provides solid value for the money.

With Tallinder back and presumably healthy, I expect him and Fayne to do the heavier lifting on the Devils blue line this upcoming season. Tallinder’s numbers are actually quite impressive when you look across the board. He faced the most defensive zone starts of anyone on the team, faced some of the toughest competition, had the lowest PDO on the team, and still came out above water in his matchups. To me, there are strong signs here that Tallinder can be a big contributor on the blue line this season.

Mark Fayne has become a very reliable shutdown defender for the Devils. He was given tough, unprotected minutes, mostly alongside Greene and Tallinder. In fact, Fayne faced the toughest competition of any Devils defender last season, and won his matchups, for the most part. Fayne was very steady and reliable, if unspectacular, in his second season, and he has fully proved that he can and should be a big contributor for the Devils defense. Not to mention, his contract provides a great value to the organization, which is sorely needed to offset the Volchenkov, Salvador, and to a lesser extent, Zidlicky contracts.

I think we saw two different Marek Zidlicky’s last season. At times, he looked like a shutdown guy on the back end. At other times, he was not good. Now, Zid will contribute on the offensive end of the ice in a way that no other Devils defenseman is capable of right now. This alone is worthy of a spot in the lineup every night. Zidlicky actually faced easier competition than Adam Larsson on average last season, and did not fare as well in possession. Still, he came out ahead in the matchups he faced overall.

In fact, all of the Devils defenders had a positive corsi value except for Bryce Salvador. Salvador was given middle of the road matchups last season, with a good amount of defensive zone starts, and he generally got beaten like a drum for the most part. All this, while having the highest PDO on the team. Sure, there were guys that faced easier matchups – Volchenkov, Larsson, and certainly Harrold. The thing about that is those guys won the matchups they were given.

Maybe Bryce’s role on this team as a second pairing defenseman needs some rethinking with the added depth around this season. If he is consistently losing his matchups, maybe those are not the right matchups for him. He’s certainly getting paid like a second pairing guy, but hey, at least the Devils have shown that when necessary, they won’t hesitate to give a third pairing role to a guy getting paid top-4 money (*cough* Volchenkov *cough*).

Speaking of A-Train, he certainly had an up and down year. Yes, he struggled mightily at times in the playoffs, especially in the first round against Florida. I will say he played very well overall in his role during the regular season. His time on ice shows him as a bottom pairing guy, but he at least won his matchups against weaker competition. The only two Devils defensemen who had a higher corsi value last season were Harrold and Larsson, and both faced easier matchups and protected (in Harold’s case, severly protected) zone starts. There is something to be said for performing in the role you are given, and that’s exactly what A-train did. I’m sure the Devils are hoping he can return to that form this regular season. When you are paying a guy over $4 million dollars a season, you would prefer he contribute somewhere on the ice, and I think Volchenkov can do that this upcoming season. Let’s hope he can, because with his basically immovable contract, he is probably not going anywhere.

Harrold and Larrson also were successful in that they were put in positions to succeed, and did so. Larsson’s numbers are more impressive than Harrold’s, for several reasons. First, he was not as protected. Secondly, he faced slightly better competition. No one faced weaker opponents than Peter Harrold last season. And, third, he accomplished this as a 19 year old, in his first year in North American pro hockey.

Let’s talk a bit about Larsson first. I’ve watched him play quite a bit so far this season for Albany. He looks good. He is contributing on offense, and generally pretty solid on defense, all while hauling Jay Leach around with him for most of the game. He basically was starting to play very well last season before his injury on the P.K. Subban hit, and he seems to have regained some of his swagger in Albany. This is really no surprise, because he played very well in the few limited opportunities DeBoer gave him during the playoffs. The Devils should, and, in my opinion, will, get big minutes out of Adam Larsson this season, especially at even strength.

Peter Harrold only appeared in 11 games, so his advanced stats need to be taken with a grain of salt. He was given a whopping 60% offensive zone starts over that time. He won his matchups handily, however, and proved capable of performing adequately well in a protected role as a 6th or 7th defenseman. This is almost certainly why he was re-signed for one year at the league minimum. Harrold often saw time over Adam Larsson last year during the stretch run, but that will not be the case this season.

What Will the Defense Look Like This Season?

There are so many possible combinations of pairings among the eight players fighting for time. A few are given to be in the lineup every night. So, we’ll start with those and try to sketch out some possible pairings that we could see. First, barring injury or a day of rest, or a trade, Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, and Henrik Tallinder will be in the lineup every game this season, playing top 4 minutes. This is where DeBoer has some options. All three of those have proven they can play on a shutdown pairing. My guess would be Fayne-Tallinder , but it could just as easily be Greene-Tallinder or Greene-Fayne.

So, who will round out the top-4? I am hoping more than anything it will not be Bryce Salvador. I would love to see Adam Larsson step up and take top-4 minutes, but that is unlikely, and also might be asking a little much of the 20 year old at this point. I don’t think its entirely out of the question, however, and here’s why: Larsson is in game shape, while Salvador, Harrold, Greene, Fayne, Tallinder, and to a lesser extent, Volchenkov are not. He is in mid-season form, and perhaps could capitalize upon his game readiness to make his transition back to the NHL level a little smoother. One thing is certain in my mind : Adam Larsson will play every night as long as he is healthy. There is just no reason to scratch him in favor of anyone else at this point. Unless he somehow proves wildy incapable of handling an NHL workload (which I doubt – he already proved he can do it last season), there is just no foreseeable reason for Peter DeBoer to scratch Larsson in favor of Harrold, or even Volchenkov or Salvador at this point. Larsson is the Devils future, and he can also be the Devils present. He needs to be, to a certain extent, to become their future. Sitting on the sidelines and watching will do him no good at this point. He needs to learn on the ice in the trenches. He should be mostly free of special teams duty and can focus on his even strength ice time. I expect Larsson to log a lot of time, just as he did last season.

Rather than Larsson in the top-4, I think it’s more likely Zidlicky and Greene make up the second pairing to start the season. Zidlicky, as mentioned, has an offensive upside that no one else on the team has right now. I say right now, because Larsson can get there with some more experience. Zidlicky is in the last year of his contract. Larsson needs to learn as much from him as he can this season about how to contribute most effectively on the offensive end. If Zidlicky struggles at any point this season with his defensive game, I don't think DeBoer would hesitate to cut his minutes and use him as more of a power play specialist. That won't be his role to start the season, however.

So, let’s pencil in Tallinder – Fayne, followed by Greene-Zidlicky, and then Larsson. That leaves Volchenkov and Salvador essentially battling for the final starting spot. Will the Devils be willing to scratch either a $3 or $4 million dollar defenseman on a nightly basis? I sure hope so. Now, there is certainly a chance Salvador could be a candidate for an "A" this season. If that is the case, he is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the lineup most nights.

Also, they most likely didn’t just re-sign Salvador to sit him on the bench either. If I was making the lineup, however, I would tentatively pencil in Volchenkov over Salvador. I feel like Volchenkov at least won his matchups against weaker competition last year. Put him back in that role you know he can achieve in. I would perhaps consider rotating them in and out of the lineup to keep them fresh. Maybe Sal can win similar matchups as well. That way, out of a 48 game schedule, you could probably sit Tallinder occasionally, sit Zidlicky occasionally. A-Train and Sal could take spot duty stepping in for whoever is resting that day, and otherwise rotate on the back pairing.

I think it’s a pretty safe bet Peter Harrold is one of the extra defenseman. Regardless of DeBoer’s proclivity to use him for the stretch run, there are just too many compelling and expensive reasons for him not to play. Harrold will be on the sidelines looking in, for the most part. I will speculate that Harrold has as good, or possibly a better chance of filling in at times as a 4th line RW as he does a defender, due to the Devils lack of depth up front. His versatility in that respect is another reason he is a good guy to have around near the bottom of the roster.

So, we are left with something that looks like this:

Tallinder – Fayne

Greene – Zidlicky

Larsson – Salvador / Volchenkov

Could there be a trade in the Devils future? A buyout? If so, who?

Yes, no, and, if so, it will probably not be someone you would like to see traded. There are certainly a few people I can say with confidence won’t be traded, for various reasons. Adam Larsson is untouchable. Mark Fayne is too valuable with the level of play he provides on the ice for the price.

Anton Volchenkov has no trade value due to his contract and performance level of late. Now, under the new CBA, there is some sort of clause where teams can trade a player and retain a portion of his contract, up to 50%. That could make Volchenkov's contract less of an albatross, but I still see finding a trading partner and an acceptable deal for A-Train highly unlikely. Chances are to find a buyer, Volchenkov would need to be playing well, and the Devils would need to eat the full 50% allowable. So, they would still be on the hook for around $8.5 million dollars anyway. If Volchenkov is playing well enough to garner interest from another team, it probably just makes more sense to keep him on the ice than pay him to go away.

I sincerely doubt anyone would take on Bryce Salvador in a trade either. Perhaps if he had only a two year contract, but that extra year is going to make him a very tough player to move. Peter Harrold doesn’t have much trade value.

That leaves Tallinder , Greene, and Zidlicky, all of who have some degree of value on the trade market. Andy Greene probably has the most trade value of the three. He has only two years remaining on a very reasonable contract, and he can jump right into a top four role probably just about anywhere. He is also only 30 years old, much younger than Tallinder or Zidlicky.

Tallinder still has trade value because he is a good and capable player whose contract is pretty reasonable. His value is almost certainly diminished somewhat due to his age and the blood clot in his leg that caused him to miss over half of the 2011-2012 season. Still, he has value and could probably fetch a capable NHL forward as a return in a trade. If one or the other, I think, unfortunately, Greene gets moved, because he could bring more in return. But, that decision could also hinge on who the Devils are acquiring, and that particular player’s value.

Another option for the Devils would be to potentially trade Marek Zidlicky at the trade deadline to a team looking to shore up their blueline for a playoff run. I find this scenario somewhat doubtful for several reasons, the main one being the Devils are almost never sellers at the deadline. Also, with a short season, its hard to imagine this Devils team won’t at least be competing for a playoff spot at the deadline, unless the forward depth is such a big problem they can’t compete up front. If that’s the case, the deadline is then too long to wait to address the problem anyway.

The most likely scenario in a trade is that Andy Greene or Henrik Tallinder are leveraged to acquire forward depth. Is this a good move? That remains to be seen. In my opinion, it’s certainly not a good move right now. So many things can happen – a position of strength can be compromised by injuries. The forwards could pan out better than expected. I will say this, while I don’t think it’s a good move right now, if a player becomes available that can help this team up front, and nothing else changes, I think Lou pulls the trigger. There really is no reason to rush into a trade right now, however.

I want to quickly touch on another concept - addition by subtraction, or a potential buyout. As part of the new CBA, each team will have authority to buy out two existing contracts for two thirds of their remaining value. Are there any candidates on the Devils blue line for such an honor? Anton Volchenkov would certainly be one. While this is a possibility, there are a few reasons why I think it doesn’t happen. For one, Volchenkov is still owed $17 million dollars over the next 4 seasons. That means they would have to pay him $11.33 million dollars just to go away. I don’t see that happening unless Volchenkov proves unusable this year. The Devils are still not cash rich, even though their ownership situation is much, much improved. As long as they can get some value out of Volchenkov on the ice, they will keep him around and try to do so, especially in a shortened season. Also, if they are planning on making a trade, A-Train would be needed in the lineup every night for sure, crushing weaker competition like he did for most of last season. I think the potential of buying out Volchenkov is much greater before next season, if at all. If he proves unusable or very disappointing this year, then I think the Devils take a good long look at buying him out prior to the 2013-2014 season, not before that.

So, What Does That Leave Us?

A defense by committee- a committee which is right now about 1 member too big. All in all, I feel I have reason to be optimistic about the Devils blue line this season. It’s pretty much the same group as last year. No one, outside of Salvador, benefited from an excessively high PDO or anything like that. So, it’s not like they were unusually lucky and rode that luck to success. They should be able to, for the most part, repeat their performance from last season. It leaves the question in my mind, will Peter DeBoer be willing to scratch one of his expensive veterans on a nightly basis? I am cautiously optimistic that the answer is yes. Will he start Adam Larsson on a nightly basis? Again, I am cautiously optimistic on this question too. Will this defense corps look the same at the end of the season as it does right now? That, I am not so sure about.

So, now I would like to know how you are feeling about the Devils current group of defensemen. Are you optimistic they can perform capably this year? Do you agree with my potential depth chart? Do you think Peter DeBoer will consider the possibility of not playing Bryce Salvador on a nightly basis? What do you expect out of Adam Larsson this year? Will he get the opportunity to play every day? Do you see a trade in the future? How about a buyout? Please leave all of your answers and other ideas, thoughts, and comments about the Devils defensemen in the comments section below. Thank you for reading.

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