Scoring chances were 5-0 in the New Jersey Devils’ favor in Thursday’s (Oct. 20) 4-1 win over the New York Islanders when Kevin Bahl was on the ice. The 6-foot-6 defenseman recorded the second least amount of time on ice (TOI) amongst Devils’ players but finished top five in many advanced statistical categories. As a result, he should see much more ice time if he is able to build off his impressive season debut.
Bahl’s Impressive Debut
Bahl was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes in the blockbuster trade that sent Taylor Hall and Blake Speers to the desert in exchange for Bahl, Nate Schnarr, Nick Merkley and two draft picks. The former second-round pick developed mostly in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Comets, but after the offseason subtractions of Ty Smith and PK Subban, Bahl made the full-time jump to the NHL this year but was scratched the first three games of the season before finally making his season debut against the Islanders.
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Bahl recorded 0.19 expected goals against (xGA,) which measures the number of goals an opponent is expected to score given the number of unblocked shot attempts made, which was fourth amongst all Devils’ skaters in the game. As a result of his good defensive play, he was also fourth on the team with 79.35 expected goals for percentage (xGF%,) which compares the number of goals a team is expected to give up versus how many they’re expected to score when a specific player is on the ice. An xGF% over 50 signifies that the players’ team is expected to score more goals than it is expected to give up with that specified player on the ice.
The Devils also only gave up three scoring chances when Bahl was on the ice, second-best on the team. Although he played less than 10 minutes and played a simple, mistake-free game, these results are extremely impressive for a player only playing in his 25th career NHL game.
Where Does Bahl Fit in the Lineup?
Bahl is currently listed as the seventh defenseman on the Devils’ roster, meaning he will only play if there’s an injury or under the uncommon circumstances when New Jersey chooses to only dress 11 forwards, making room for a seventh blue liner, which was the case against the Islanders. He was paired with John Marino, who double-shifted, for 4:31, which was just under half of Bahl’s total TOI for the game.
If Bahl is going to crack the lineup more frequently, he should slot in for fellow lefty Brendan Smith. The 33-year-old was brought to New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent to provide the physical, steady veteran presence on the backend that the team was missing. Although he has done a good job of being physical and vocal in the locker room, Smith has been a slight disappointment on the ice so far.
Smith has 13 penalty minutes in four games this season which is more than double the next closest Devils’ player. He also has a minus-2 rating, which is the second-worst by any New Jersey defenseman. Although he is expected to commit penalties as an enforcer, his penalties have come at costly and unnecessary times.
Smith also hasn’t done a great job in tilting the ice in the Devils’ favor as they had originally hoped. His 54.84 Corsi Percentage (CF%) is the lowest on the team through four games. That means the Devils record slightly more shot attempts than they give up when he is on the ice, so this is a still positive stat, but when the team averages a league-best 67.03 CF%, it’s hard not to notice his shortcomings.
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Bahl performed much better in his limited TOI than Smith has in his four games, so Bahl deserves to be in the lineup. Although he isn’t as physical as Smith, at 6-foot-6, he is more than capable of fulfilling a similar shutdown, shot-blocking role as him but without all the penalties.
Bahl’s Future Projection
Bahl is only 22 years old and is still learning the NHL game. The best way for him to do that is to gain valuable experience in the NHL, and as the seventh defenseman, he isn’t getting that. He projects to be a huge part of the Devils’ future, while 33-year-old Smith does not. His development is more important than Smith’s playing time and if Bahl deserves it, as he has, then Smith’s benching is justified in favor of him.
If head coach Lindy Ruff doesn’t think Bahl deserves to play more than Smith, or one of the other defensemen, then he should be sent back to Utica where he can log top minutes with the Comets. However, this shouldn’t be the case after his last game.
Bahl was in a nice groove at the end of last season and has continued that momentum into 2022-23, even after being scratched for the first three games. He further proved that he is valuable enough to log regular minutes in the NHL, even if it comes at the mercy of Smith’s playing time and spot in the lineup.
Advanced Stats from Natural Stat Trick