The Devils and the Seven Defensemen

This man is not in danger of coming out of the lineup. - Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Spor

Lately the Devils have enjoyed some success using a 7th defensemen instead of a 12th forward. This post will look at how the time on ice and productivity of all 7 has looked over the three games.

If there's one thing we've learned about the Devils this season, they tend to go with whatever works, no matter how unorthodox. Earlier in the year, the Devils won a few games with Cam Janssen in the lineup, so they kept sending him back out there game after game to play four minutes a night and do very little. More recently, the Devils have won a few games with seven defensemen in the lineup. In fact, the Devils are now 3-0 with the extra d-man in the lineup. So I'm wondering if this is going to become a regular feature over the next few weeks and months of the season. One would hope, no. But, hey, you can't argue with results, right?

First, let's take a look at how each defensemen has been deployed over this stretch. The following charts include time on ice in each situation (ES, PP, PK) for each. Additionally, it includes shots on goal, and corsi events (for and against at 5v5). After the three game charts, there is one with the totals, and one with the rate stats. All of the time on ice is taken from NHL.com and all of the corsi event totals are taken from Extra Skater.

Seven_defensemen_stats

Pretty varied deployment of players, in some cases, from game to game. One trend I noticed right away is that it seems the Devils having an extra defenseman has allowed the team to deploy people in more specialized roles.

Bryce Salvador's even strength minutes have declined each of the last 3 games. While the decline on Saturday may be due to the Devils needing a goal, the decline yesterday was due to him being just bad. For the second game in a row on Tuesday, Jon Merrill logged more even strength minutes than Sal.Salvador is clearly one of the main penalty killers, and this is a role that probably will not change anytime soon. The Devils do not seem to feel comfortable using Merill, Gelinas, or Zidlicky on the penalty kill, and as long as that remains the case, Salvador will continue to play a big part.

It will be interesting to see how Bryce trends in the next few games. If he continues to play poorly like he did on Tuesday, it would seem this would motivate the coaches more to keep an extra defenseman in the lineup to bury Bryce on the bench when necessary. For better or for worse, I can't see #24 coming out of the lineup at all, barring an injury. I'm just not aware of any case that comes to mind where an NHL team made their captain a healthy scratch. Since his lineup spot is pretty much cemented, let's hope that we get more of the 'for better' varitey than the 'for worse'.

Jon Merrill has really eaten up the even strength minutes over the last few games, and fared decently well in doing so. It would seem a number of Salvador's minutes have gone to Merrill over the last two games. Strangely enough, Merrill is also logging more time on the power play on average than anyone else - even Gelinas. With the Devils relying on Merrill so much at even strength and on the power play as well, it's easy to see why Pete DeBoer has a hard time keeping him out of the lineup. He did take a step back and sit out Sunday's game against Toronto, and bounced back with a great game on Tuesday in Montreal, exactly what you hope to get out of a young player in this situation. Merrill being so good so soon into his pro career has made the situation on the blue line much more complicated than it would be otherwise, but I'll certainly take this problem over the alternative of not having enough decent quality live bodies to throw out there.

Anton Volchenkov has seen the least even strength minutes out of the top 6 (I see Eric Gelinas as the 7th in this scenario), but he has been rather effective in his matchups. Let me repeat, Anton Volchenkov is generally faaring just about as well as anybody in his even strength matchups Also, Volchenkov is clearly the penalty kill specialist of the group, logging a full 2 minutes more ice time on the PK than anyone else in the group, and doing very well in that role. Volchie, for all his warts, continues to succeed when deployed properly. If he get's reasonable matchups at even strength against players he can handle he's usually fine. His contract may suck, and it may make him a very expensive 3rd pairing d-man / penalty kill specialist, but at least he is winning his matchups.

Marek Zidlicky is seeing a lot of power play time, as he should. But, he is also seeing probably too much even strength time. He had a really rough go of it in the Montreal game, which happens. On the bright side, he was reasonably effective in the other two games referenced, and also scored a huge game winning goal on Saturday night. The offense is that part that comes easily to Marek, and it's the part of his game the Devils most need. Still, he can't be getting run over at even strength like he did in the Montreal game. With Zid, it seems he fares best when he faces a slightly lower level of competition at even strength. If you get him out there too much against the toughs, he's going to be slaughtered.

Mark Fayne and Andy Greene didn't really have their best game against Dallas, but, as John mentioned in the recap last night, they are generally bossing people around. None of their minutes are in jeopardy, and I don't think either players role would change much whether the team decided to use six, seven, or ten defensemen. Keep on rolling, boys.

Eric Gelinas is clearly the power play specialist of the group, and he showed why on Tuesday night in Montreal with a trademark blast. With the Devils power play so inefficient, it's hard to not use Gelinas in the lineup at this point. He continues to have some struggles at even strength, evidenced by his undressing at the hands of one trick pony David Clarkson and his one trick (the toe drag) Sunday evening. Gelinas is clearly the player the Devils trust least at evens right now, and I can't say I totally blame them. He adds so much to the power play, that it may be more beneficial to have him in the lineup as almost a pure specialist compared to what some of the current forward alternatives bring to the table.

In general, I am not a fan of the usage of 11 forwards and 7 defenseman. It's really not an ideal strategy for a long stretch of time, and kind of seems like something that should more be used as a temporary stop gap. I have, however, noticed an upside - having the extra player allows the coaching staff to hide each of the players shortcomings much better than normally, if they choose to do so. On top of this, it's easy to forget that just a few weeks ago, this final lineup spot was going to Cam Janssen. So, when Cam would inevitably get stapled to the bench for the second and third periods, the forwards would be playing down a man anyway. I have come to realize that the 7th defenseman, although not ideal, is a superior strategy to having a less than useful 12th forward. The team is at least getting useful minutes in specialty teams, specifically the power play, which is a huge need for this group.

Most recently, those 4th line minutes had gone to Andrei Loktionov. Although he did fine in terms of not giving up too much and creating a few chances here and there, the Devils coaching staff clearly does not feel comfortable using Lokti in close score situations with the game tied or protecting a one goal lead. So, with that being the case, Loktionov hasn't really produced anything, and doesn't really add anything that the Devils are missing right now. He isn't getting on the scoresheet. He doesn't play great defense, and Mike Sislo has already proved more useful on the penalty kill than Andrei. In his return to the lineup Sunday, Loktionov logged 6 minutes, all at even strength. To make room for him, the team sat Jon Merrill, who is averaging almost 18 minutes of ice time a game over this recent stretch. That's a pretty big loss for the Devils in terms of useful minutes. Also, the Devils have not shown any more or less willingness to use Sislo and Boucher late in games either way. What I'm saying is, if the entire fourth line was going to sit pretty much the entire third period anyway, maybe it's more beneficial to have a player the team will actually use, even if it is another defensemen.

I think it's possible that Jacob Josefson gets one more shot in this role as the 12th forward once healthy. I think he could provide a little more value in situations protecting a lead or with the score close. But quite realistically, the coach really has no impetus to put him in the lineup right now. For one, DeBoer and his coaches are clearly not happy with the young Swede, evidenced by the fact that he is continually scratched in favor of Cam Janssen, Andrei Loktionov, extra defensemen, and AHL callups. The team is winning, and the defense as a unit is playing well. They are doing enough, in fact, to hold the opponent to one goal or less in each of the three games. As we've seen earlier this year, when a strategy works, no matter how unorthodox or unsustainable it might be in the long term, the Devils seem willing to milk it for all it's worth, as they did with the Janssen run earlier this season.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Patrik Elias is healthy. If Elias returns as a twelfth forward, then it would seem like the alternate lineup is somewhat of a statement of the coaching staff's feelings right now regarding Josefson and Loktionov. It's already somewhat telling that both players are continually scratched in favor of AHL callups, but if Elias returns and the Devils still decide to keep just 11 forwards, and rather scratch Boucher or Sislo, then it's more of a short term (to medium term?) strategy that the Devils coaching staff feels the most comfortable with right now. A little further down the line (but if estimated timetables for his recovery hold) Damien Brunner should be ready to return in the not too distant future. Again, it will be interesting to see if this brings about a strategy shift. I think, if not sooner, by the time Brunner returns to the lineup the Devils will probably go back to rolling four forward lines. Of course it could go in the other direction too - Brunner and Elias could merely slot in for Sislo and Boucher, and everything else could stay par for the course. I personally don't think much is going to change right now, as long as the Devils keep winning. But, pretty much every time I write an article about who the Devils should call up or put in the lineup, the team ends up doing exactly the opposite. Go figure.

The Devils are winning hockey games, and no surprise, they are doing so in a slightly unorthodox manner. Should they keep the same formula rolling as long as they can keep getting wins? Does having the extra defenseman in the lineup allow the team to better utilize the strengths and mask the weaknesses of certain players? Is this lineup a statement towards the overall lack of forward depth within the organization? Is it a sign of unhappiness or a lack of satisfaction with certain players? Please jump into the discussion with your thoughts on the issue, and thanks for reading.

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