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?
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.
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
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
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.