While the New Jersey Devils have been one of the stingiest teams in the league on defense, there has been a consistent impression that the defense isn't all that good. It's easy to see why. On paper, the Devils don't have a top player. Significant ice time and roster spots are given to older players like Marek Zidlicky, who has been known to be soft in his coverage and not smart in his decision making a time, as well as Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov, two slow, physical defenseman who are in trouble when speed comes into play. Adam Larsson has yet to blossom into a top defender, Mark Fayne can't seem to get a break, and Peter Harrold is what he is and nothing more. There's some excitement over Eric Gelinas but it remains to be seen whether that will last for a while. Repeatedly, when the Devils get burned or pinned back, it seems like the defense is at fault. Sometimes, they are.
However, I am here to tell you that the Devils do have a top defender. He's not a star player. He's not a big name. He's not being touted to represent his country in February, and if he is, then it's quiet. He's not even physically big with an official listed height of 5'11". But he's someone you know. He's Andy Greene. And he's been doing his job well for quite some time now.
Last season, we at In Lou We Trust unanimously agreed that Greene was the top defenseman on the team. But those who own a copy of the Hockey Prospectus 2013-14 (and that still could be you!) know that we weren't alone in thinking that. While I wrote up the profiles for the Devils (and some rival) in that book, I didn't calculate, generate, or have anything to do with the player tables in the back. By their standard of goals versus threshold (GVT), Greene was the fifth best defenseman in the league last season. By way of defensive-value goals versus threshold, Greene was first. While I don't necessarily put a lot of stock in to GVT, much less DGVT, it's a sign that he's been doing something right.
That has not changed going into 2013-14. While I can't tell you his GVT, it's easy to see that he's clearly the #1 defenseman on the Devils right now. His overall average ice time per game of 25:01 is the highest on the team. He also has averaged the most even strength minutes per game on the team at 19:01. While he's not a minutes-per-game leader on special teams, Greene has averaged over three minutes of shorthanded ice time per game as well as close to two-and-a-half on the power play. Anyone who gets used that much is clearly the coaches' first choice on defense.
Let's go deeper into his even strength play as it's the most common of situations in hockey. Over at Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract, the Player Usage Charts for the Devils' defensemen shows only one defenseman has played harder minutes than Greene and only one defenseman has had less favorable zone starts than Greene. For the former, it's Bryce Salvador, who still has a generous zone start percentage and doesn't do much going forward himself despite a strong possession number. For the latter, it's Mark Fayne, who hasn't been a regular for reasons unknown but hasn't done all that well in terms of possession. Greene's got the best of both worlds. However, those charts are based off Behind the Net's data as of November 5. Things have certainly changed since then, so let's go to Extra Skater to continue showing how good Greene has been this season.
Greene's possession rate is strong at 55% Corsi in 5-on-5 play. It's third on the team behind Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson, but those two have played less than Greene. They also have received better situations. According to Extra Skater, Greene has the second lowest offensive zone start ratio at 49.7%. Only Fayne is lower, but again, Fayne hasn't been a regular. In contrast, Gelinas and Larsson have the two highest, which makes it easier to have a positive possession rate. Extra Skater doesn't use quality of competition based on relative Corsi like Behind the Net does, they base it on ice time of opponents against. Greene's third on the team at 29.2% behind Jon Merrill, who played all of two shifts this season, and Salvador, who's only a little bit ahead of Greene. Larsson and Gelinas have lower figures. What this means is that Greene has had to start in his own end a little bit more than in the other team's end, he's faced more big-minute players in 5-on-5, and he still comes out ahead in the run of play. He's used as if he was a top defenseman and he's been very successful from a possession standpoint. Suffice it to say, he's very good for this team
Incidentally, Greene's 55% Corsi in 5-on-5 play ranks 33rd among all defensmen in the league prior to Friday's games. If we filter out those who have played less than half of the season, Greene's rate is as high as twenty-second in the league. Some of the players ahead of him are some of the best defensemen in the league such as Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo. For the moment, Greene's ahead of P.K. Subban, Zdeno Chara, and Erik Karlsson. Others ahead and behind him have not played as much as Greene (e.g. Larsson, Nick Leddy) or in difficult spots. This isn't to say that Greene is an elite defenseman but he's in some very good company at the moment from a possession standpoint.
From a production perspective, Greene's season can be seen as encouraging. Before Friday's game, he had one goal and five assists in 18 games. That doesn't seem like much but if he can maintain that pace for a whole season, he'll have 27 points. That would be the second highest season total in his career behind his 37 in 2009-10. Should he get hot, he could come a little closer this season. In addition, Greene has 24 shots on net this season. He's currently on pace for 109, which would the most he's ever shot in a full season. It's evidence that Greene's involved in the offensive effort and while he's not going to be a big producer, it's not unreasonable to think he'll be a contributor on the team this season.
In summary, Greene has been great for the Devils following another great season from him. I never would have expected an undrafted defenseman out of Miami University to be this good way back in 2006. But he is. The proof is in the numbers and how the coaches use him. He may not be your traditional "#1 defenseman" in that he wouldn't be able to suit up for every team's first pairing right away. But he would definitely be there for a lot of teams (e.g. Edmonton fans would probably run, not walk, to demand Greene at this point) and, more importantly, he's there now for a Devils team that has been remarkably good on defense in the big picture. By the eye test, he normally isn't flashy (Aside: there are always...exceptions) and his play isn't thrilling. But the position doesn't require flashiness; it's to limit the opposition from attacking. It's to clean up rebounds, keep opposing players from dangerous parts out on the ice, hustle back to cover other players, make good zone exits and breakouts, and support possession from the back among other tasks. It's a position of "Doing the Little Things" and the good numbers and high amount of ice time per game strongly suggest that Greene's very good at accomplishing them.
So appreciate #6 for what he's done and what he's been doing. Appreciate that he's one of the best undrafted players to suit up for the Devils. Appreciate that he's leading the blueline right now and he'll likely continue to do a good job. Thanks for reading.