Devils Have the Defensive Depth to Overcome Hamilton’s Injury

A season ago, an injury to a defenseman of Dougie Hamilton’s caliber would’ve been a devastating blow to the New Jersey Devils. They’ll still feel the impact of losing their best all-around defenseman on the team. But unlike 2020-21, their blue line is better equipped to handle losing Hamilton, who’s out indefinitely with a broken jaw

There are a couple of reasons for that. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald went out and spent to make the Devils’ defense better. Not only did he sign Hamilton in free agency, but he acquired Ryan Graves in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche just before the expansion draft in July. 

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Even before then, Fitzgerald’s acquisition of Jonas Siegenthaler before the 2021 trade deadline is proving to be one of the biggest steals of the last year. Add improved play from Devils veterans, and there’s reason to be optimistic they can overcome Hamilton’s injury. 

Siegenthaler & Severson Have Raised Their Game

With Hamilton out of the lineup for the last week, Siegenthaler and Damon Severson have taken over as the Devils’ top defense pair. So far, the results have been impressive. But it didn’t start with Hamilton going down with an injury. They were playing quite well before then.

Siegenthaler and Severson have been a pair for a little more than a month now, and they’ve thrived at five-on-five. They’ve played 250 of their 290 minutes together since Dec. 1, posting a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.79 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 54.49 percent. For the season, they have a 52.31 CF% and 55.48 xG% as a tandem, the best numbers among the team’s most common defense pairs. 

Damon Severson
New Jersey Devils defenseman Damon Severson (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Both Severson and Siegenthaler have played great hockey, but each are very different defensemen. We’ll start with Siegenthaler, who has been quite the pleasant surprise. He didn’t play much with the Capitals because of their defensive depth, but he always had solid underlying numbers. Still, it would’ve been hard to predict he’d be this good with the Devils. 

Siegenthaler has, without a doubt, been the team’s best defensive defenseman. But it doesn’t stop there; he’s also arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league right now. His even-strength defense has been worth an expected goals above replacement (xGAR) of 5.7, the best in the league among all blueliners. He may be a bit of an offensive black hole, but he’s had a significant positive impact defensively at even strength, as the dark purple and blue bars below indicate:

Jonas Siegenthaler
Jonas Siegenthaler’s had a strong defensive impact at even strength (via Evolving-Hockey)

As for Severson, he’s been solid defensively, too — his even-strength defense has been worth an xGAR of 1.3. But unlike Siegenthaler, Severson is the team’s best puck-moving blueliner after Hamilton. He has 11 points in his last 15 games since Dec. 1, when he and Siegenthaler became regular defense partners. The two contrasting styles seem to complement each other quite well. 

Severson entered COVID protocols yesterday. But with only one game on schedule between now and Jan. 19, he shouldn’t miss much time. That’s a bit of good news for the Devils, as they’ll need him and Siegenthaler available as often as possible since they’re the backbone of the team’s blue line without Hamilton.  

Graves & Subban Have Something To Add Too

Siegenthaler and Severson are the Devils’ clear-cut top defense pair at the moment, but let’s not forget about the rest of the blue line. Graves had played mostly top-pair minutes before Hamilton’s injury, and he’s having a good season to this point. 

Known as more of a defensive defenseman, too, Graves’ even-strength defense has been worth an xGAR of 1.6. He’s excelling in that regard, but his offensive game has gone up a notch this season. He has 13 points in 31 games — a 34-point pace over 82 games, which would be a career-high. The Devils are using him in a second-pair role with P.K. Subban at the moment. But there’s no reason he can’t handle softer minutes after playing against tough competition alongside Hamilton. 

Speaking of Subban, it’s obvious he’s not the player he used to be before the Devils acquired him in 2019. He was a below-replacement-level player in his first two seasons in New Jersey. But so far in 2021-22, he has a goals above replacement (GAR) of 2.3. 

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Subban’s defensive game has declined significantly, but he still contributes offensively. His even-strength offense has been worth a GAR of 2.9 and xGAR of 1.3 in 2021-22, both of which are solid. His 13 points in 33 games would put him on pace for 32 in 82 games, the most he’s had since 2018-19 when he had 31 with the Nashville Predators. 

Subban’s on-ice results at five-on-five have been above water too. He has a 51.22 CF% and 50.6 xG%, so the Devils aren’t getting caved in during his shifts, even though his defensive game has declined. Graves has more offensive upside than Siegenthaler, but he’s still a defensive defenseman first. Like Siegenthaler and Severson, his and Subban’s contrasting styles suit each other well. 

Smith Turning It Around Would Go a Long Way

The Devils’ top-four is in good shape with Siegenthaler, Severson, Graves and Subban. That wouldn’t have been the case in 2020-21, but they still have some depth concerns with their third pair. It starts with Ty Smith, who’s having a tough, tough go of it nearing the halfway point of the season. 

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Smith had a solid rookie season, posting 23 points in 48 games, which would have put him on pace for 39 points in 82 games. The defensive game wasn’t there, which isn’t a surprise for a 21-year-old defender, but he made up for it offensively. This season, Smith has been one of the worst defenders in the league. His offense has dried up, as he only has nine points in 31 games, so he’s not adding much to the lineup right now. 

Smith missed training camp and the start of the regular season with an injury. It sure looked like that affected him for the first few weeks, and he’s yet to recover from that. Since he’s still on his entry-level deal, the Devils can send him to the Utica Comets in the AHL. But that doesn’t seem likely at this point, so the best they can hope is he turns it around. Head coach Lindy Ruff isn’t going to play him against elite or even mid-level competition, so he needs to find a way to take advantage of that, specifically offensively. 

Ty Smith New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Ty Smith (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With Hamilton out, Smith will likely have a combination of Christian Jaroš and Colton White as defense partners. Neither moves the needle significantly, but they’re reliable and have played well in limited minutes when called upon by Ruff. At worst, they should be able to allow Smith to activate offensively, which is his biggest strength. 

All in all, the Devils’ defense is in a good spot, even without Hamilton. Siegenthaler has emerged as an elite defensive defenseman to form a shutdown pair alongside Severson. Graves and Subban can fill the second pair adequately, and their depth could get a lift if Smith starts to figure it out. As long as players can stay healthy, the Devils’ defense should be able to overcome Hamilton’s injury. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey