New Jersey Devils 2013-14 Season Preview Part 2: The Defensemen

Andy Greene enjoys some quality time with Carl Hagelin - Paul Bereswill

The Devils will be returning seven defenders from last season's squad in 2013-14. That means fans should have a pretty good idea what to expect this season from the blue line. But will injuries or a trade thrust one of the Devils' up-and-coming defenders into the lineup at some point?

For what has been decades now, a big part of the Devils' identity has been having a team which plays strong defense. With the team having some questions regarding the amount of offense they will be able to put up, the defensemen will be relied on to keep opposing scorers in check.

So What's New?

Um, not much.

Seriously, Though.

Okay, the Devils situation on defense is a bit different going into this season, in that they will most likely be carrying seven instead of eight defenders. This situation is probably preferable as last season's carousel on the blue line lead to a lot of frustrated players, ultimately. The Devils strong crop of defensive prospects is also one year closer to breaking through and - while it doesn't make sense until someone else is moved - Lou Lamoriello has been pretty adamant about getting one of those young defensemen in the league this year. So one could speculate that a trade could be coming in the not-too-distant future. For now, though, last year's blue line remains largely intact.

Departures
There was only really one change of note among the NHL defensive corps this offseason. Henrik Tallinder was dealt back to his former team, Buffalo, for four hockey sticks and a box of Mallomars Riley Boychuk. The move basically amounted to a salary dump for New Jersey as Boychuk is probably best described as a fringe AHLer. Tallinder was actually a pretty solid defender for most of his time as a Devil, but between injury troubles related to a blood clot in 2012 and being banished to the press box frequently due to a crowded blue line this past season, his trade value had cratered. Tallinder was not a huge fan of the way his Devils career came to an end and made his feelings about Pete DeBoer known earlier this month (hint: they were less than positive).

Returning Players
Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Mark Fayne, Marek Zidlicky, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, and Peter Harrold will all be returning to the Devils' blue line this season. While this group isn't necessarily the most intimidating bunch when looking at its individual components, they were a solid unit which allowed the fewest shots in the league last year.

Every regular defender on the roster, besides Bryce Salvador, had a positive CorsiOn last season. The team was among the best in the league as far as possessing the puck with a close score Fenwick of 55%. Unfortunately, the defense seemed somewhat mistake-prone at times and also suffered from some... we'll call it 'less-than-stellar' goaltending from the Martin Brodeur/Johan Hedberg tandem. Even so, the Devils finished in the top 10 in goals allowed per 60 at 5-on-5 last season, so the unit was clearly pretty strong overall.

Offensively, the outlook doesn't look quite as great along the blue line. Take a look at last season's point output from the defensive corps. Beyond Marek Zidlicky and some half-decent output from Andy Greene, the defense struggled to really get anything going from the blue line last season. The third-leading scorer among the defensemen had six (six!) points in total (tie between Fayne and Larsson). With a group of forwards which will probably end up middle-of-the-pack in scoring this season, the lack of offense from the returning defensemen will be an issue this season barring a big breakout from Larsson and some seriously good luck.

New Faces

Unless one of the Devils returning defensemen gets moved via trade (or goes down with an injury) in the near future, the New Jersey defensive corps will feature incumbents from last season, exclusively. There are several candidates in the Devils system who are lurking just below the surface to step into a role in the NHL, though. Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, and Alexander Urbom all figure to be knocking on the door to the NHL this season.

Merrill made the jump from the NCAA ranks and signed a contract with the Devils' organization late last season, while Gelinas and Urbom have both been honing their skills in the AHL for a few years now. Urbom and Gelinas have both had looks at the NHL level and each seems close to being able to take over a spot in New Jersey if given the chance, though Gelinas has much more of the offensive game the current defensive corps lacks. Merrill also figures to be in the mix for a spot in the NHL if it opens up with his highly-touted two-way game, but he is a bit more green than the other two defenders on the cusp. Many fans (and Lou, if he is to be believed) would really like to see one of the young d-men make the jump this season.

What to Expect This Season

With most of the players and coaches returning from last year's team, I would expect the defense to perform similarly well, overall. This unit - which was the best in the league at preventing shots last year - will not all of a sudden start getting pinned back on a regular basis. I wouldn't expect such an extremely low shots against rate again, but I think them being at least near the top of the league in shot prevention is realistic. Hopefully, with better luck on offense and stronger goaltending with the arrival of Cory Schneider, this team will spend a lot more time with the lead this season.

On an individual basis, some players will be looking to prove themselves and some will be looking to rebound this upcoming season. Among those looking to take a step forward will, of course, be Adam Larsson. Larsson had a forgettable sophomore season in 2012-13, and the 2011 first-round pick would like no doubt like to solidify himself as a cornerstone of this franchise's defense going forward. That means he will have to pick his game up at both ends of the ice and start to be a guy the Devils can lean on instead of someone along for the ride. If Larsson can pick up his play this season, a top pairing of him and stalwart Andy Greene could be terrific for the Devils.

Outside of Larsson, there are others who will be looking to have a big season as well:

  • Mark Fayne, who has been very good more often than not, will be striving to prove he deserves to be a regular big-minutes forward for this team. Fayne doesn't necessarily turn heads when he plays, but he is rarely out of position and he can handle the puck well despite lacking much of a scoring touch. He has consistently had strong possession numbers in his career and was among the best in the league at exiting his own zone in some preliminary research done by Corey Sznajder at Hockey Prospectus. Expect to see more solid play from Fayne and hope that if the Devils do trade someone, it isn't him.
  • Salvador and Volchenkov need to prove that they can be serviceable NHL defenders. Both players looks slow and unable to handle the puck at this point in their careers, and they won't be getting any younger. Possession-wise, Volchenkov was mediocre in easy minutes and Salvador stunk in tough minutes last year so both need to play better to bounce back this season. They also show up at the bottom of the list in that same (again, preliminary) zone exit study that reflected well upon Mark Fayne. It's hard to project a big season from either, but fans should at least be hoping for some improvement.
  • Marek Zidlicky was the one dynamic offensive force operating on the blue line this past year, but he is fairly mistake-prone at times. Though he is sheltered in terms of his zone starts, his possession stats are still strong compared to the general perception of his defense. He is what he is at this point in his career, but cleaning up a few of those mistakes could make him a big asset to this team given his offensive abilities.
  • The young trio of Urbom, Gelinas, and Merrill will all obviously be looking to break through this season. If given the opportunity, it will be exciting to see what whoever makes the jump can do.

A prediction of the defensive pairings to start the season:

Greene - Larsson

Salvador - Zidlicky

Fayne - Volchenkov

Harrold

At least in the early going, it seems reasonable to expect that the lineup on defense will be largely the same as it was last year. While it would be nice to see one of the Devils' young defensemen get called up at some point, I think this lineup will still be a good unit, even with its shortcomings.

So how do you feel about this year's defense? Do you think they can continue to prevent scoring opportunities like they did last season? Do you think someone does end up getting moved to make room for a rookie? Can anyone besides Zidlicky provide offense? Comment below with your thoughts on this seasons defensive corps. Thanks for reading.

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