Devils Defense Pairs Worth Testing During Preseason

Earlier in the week, we looked at potential line combos the New Jersey Devils could experiment with during preseason games. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some defense pairs that head coach Lindy Ruff should give a try over the team’s seven exhibition games. With some new faces added this offseason and notable prospects competing for roster spots, Ruff will have plenty of options at his disposal over the next two weeks.  

Jonas Siegenthaler – Dougie Hamilton

We saw Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton paired together a bit in 2021-22. The problem is most of it came after Hamilton suffered a broken jaw against the Washington Capitals in early January. After then, he wasn’t the same defenseman and had a tough close to the season. 

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But even though Hamilton was never 100 percent, these two still fared well as a pair. In about 201 minutes together, they posted a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 50.9 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 52.48 percent. The Devils also controlled 57.21 percent of the grade B scoring chances and 61.64 percent of the grade A chances with them on the ice at five-on-five. And this was with Hamilton not at 100 percent. 

Now entering the new season, Hamilton appears to be healthy. Siegenthaler had a breakout defensive year in 2021-22 and was one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL. He’s not Jaccob Slavin in that regard, but his defensive game is a good fit for an offensive-minded defender like Hamilton. At the moment, this should be the favorite for the Devils’ top defense pair to start the season. Seeing how it could be with a healthy Hamilton should be a top priority for the preseason. 

Ryan Graves – Damon Severson

One of the Devils’ more commonly used defense pairs a season ago, Ryan Graves and Damon Severson could begin 2022-23 as the team’s second pair if Ruff settles on Siegenthaler and Hamilton as his top unit. If that’s the case, Ruff should be in good hands with these two as his second option. 

Damon Severson New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In 386 minutes together a season ago, Graves and Severson put up a 50.85 CF% and 52.21 xG% as a pair. They also had a goal differential of plus-7, which is impressive considering how much the Devils’ goaltending struggled. Though Graves has more of a reputation as a defensive defenseman, his offensive impacts are better than his defensive ones. Both he and Severson are effective puck-movers and should thrive defensively in a second-pair role, as they did last season, behind Siegenthaler and Hamilton. 

Siegenthaler – Severson

Perhaps the Devils’ best defense pair last season, Siegenthaler and Severson stepped up to the plate, especially when Hamilton was out with the broken jaw. Ruff trusted this unit, as they logged 618 minutes at five-on-five, the most of any Devils defense pair a season ago. And their numbers back up Ruff’s usage of them. 

As a combo, Siegenthaler and Severson finished with a 53.28 CF% and 55.26 xG% at five-on-five. The Devils also controlled 56.74 percent of the grade B chances and 58.62 percent of the grade A chances with them on the ice. They were not playing soft minutes either, as Ruff deployed them against opponents’ top lines night in and night out while Hamilton recovered from his injury. 

Six hundred eighteen minutes is not a small sample size, so Ruff knows this pair can work. If he settles on a Graves and Hamilton top pair, getting Siegenthaler and Severson minutes in the preseason to rekindle their chemistry should be in the cards. 

Siegenthaler – John Marino

After acquiring John Marino this summer, the Devils will likely look to get him top-four minutes during the preseason. With Hamilton as good as a lock for the top pair on the right side, that’ll leave one of Severson or Marino playing second-pair minutes. Based on his usage in Pittsburgh with the Penguins, he’ll be more than capable of handling such a role. 

While Marino’s offensive numbers have declined since he was a rookie in 2019-20, he’s a highly effective puck-mover in transition. The Penguins also didn’t ask much of their defensemen offensively unless they were Kris Letang, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if his offensive production improved some with the Devils. 

Jonas Siegenthaler New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But even if his offense ticks up, that’s not where Marino’s value lies. He’s an underrated defensive defenseman who’s excellent at standing up at the blue line and defending the rush. If Ruff wants a legit shutdown pair in his lineup, giving Siegenthaler and Marino some run together makes plenty of sense. They could handle the difficult defensive assignments, freeing up some softer and more offensive minutes for a Graves and Hamilton pairing. 

Brendan Smith – Marino

One of the pairings the Devils used during the team’s first training camp scrimmage yesterday, Brendan Smith and Marino could make for an ideal third pair behind a top-four consisting of Siegenthaler, Hamilton, Graves and Severson. The Devils signed Smith, who’s coming off a solid season with the Carolina Hurricanes, to a two-year contract in free agency this summer to strengthen the team’s defensive depth. 

Related: Devils Line Combos Worth Testing During Preseason

Smith and Marino have similarities, but they also have some differences. Both are excellent at defending the rush, an area Smith excelled in with the Hurricanes a season ago. He can move the puck better than you might suspect, but this is one element where Marino differs and has an advantage. That should make for a balanced third pair, which is not something the Devils have had since Will Butcher and Ben Lovejoy back during the 2017-18 campaign. 

Kevin Bahl – Marino

The centerpiece of the Taylor Hall trade nearly three years ago, it looks like Bahl’s time as an NHLer may be coming. Starting with the Prospects Challenge last weekend and yesterday’s scrimmage, he’s played well ahead of preseason games. 

Defending the rush, which was a struggle for Bahl when he first appeared in NHL games during the 2020-21 season, now seems to be coming along. During yesterday’s camp scrimmage, he had a few notable moments where he either ended the opposing rush or knocked the puck loose in a one-on-one battle and regained possession for his side. 

Kevin Bahl New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Kevin Bahl (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, he skates well for his size. But sometimes, it takes a defenseman of that stature a bit longer to develop the rest of their game (Graves would be a good example). It seems that it may be coming together for him, and that’s a good thing for Ruff and the Devils. If he makes the team, he’ll likely rotate with Smith on the third pair alongside Marino. With that, they’ll want to get him comfortable playing with a new partner and new member of the team in Marino during preseason games. 

Severson – Reilly Walsh

Walsh is in an interesting spot with the Devils. As a right-handed defenseman, he’s stuck behind Hamilton, Severson and Marino on the depth chart. It doesn’t get any easier prospect-wise, as Šimon Nemec — the second overall pick in the 2022 draft — is breathing down his neck for a roster spot too. 

Even trying to come up with a possible defense pair for Walsh during preseason games was a bit difficult. If he makes the opening night roster, he’ll either A) play on his off-hand or B) push someone on the right side to their off-hand. The latter seems like the more plausible scenario, and since Severson played on the left side for a bit when paired with P.K. Subban a couple of years back, giving Walsh a shot alongside him could make sense for exhibition games. 

There’s no doubt that Walsh will be in the conversation for an NHL roster spot. He had a relatively strong Prospects Challenge and was one of the Utica Comets’ (AHL) top defensemen a season ago, totaling 43 points in 70 games. His defensive game has improved, and he’s a mobile defender with a good shot. If he plays well alongside someone like Severson, that’ll help his cause for the opening night roster. His power-play upside could help his case, too, since, after Hamilton, the Devils don’t have an effective quarterback for the second unit. 

Devils Defense Much Improved

The Devils’ blue line is in the best shape it’s been in quite some time. Compared to Ruff’s first season as Devils head coach, when he at times had to play Severson and rookie Ty Smith as his top pair because he didn’t have much choice, he now has a formidable top-six and strong depth to work with entering the 2022-23 campaign. With the preseason about to get underway, he shouldn’t have much trouble finding the pairs he wants to start the regular season. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick

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