The Devils’ acquisition of John Marino this offseason was a bit of a surprise. Defense was not a pressing need, especially on the right side, where they already had Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson. As it turns out, general manager Tom Fitzgerald was right to make a move for the 25-year-old blueliner.
Though the Devils have only played seven games so far, Marino has been one of the team’s best defenders. And not only has he been one of the team’s top blueliners, but he’s also been one of the best in the league. Let’s take a look at what he’s provided the Devils in the early goings of the 2022-23 campaign and why he’s been such a stabilizing force on the back end.
Marino Has Solidified the Devils’ Defensive Depth
While improving their defense wasn’t necessary, it’s not hard to understand why Fitzgerald targeted Marino. In his three years with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he had been a consistent top-four defender capable of playing some relatively difficult minutes. Plus, what he brings as a blueliner are things the Devils lacked defensively. From 2019 to 2022, Marino was one of the Penguins’ best shot-suppressing defenders, averaging 50.21 shot attempts and 2.15 expected goals against per 60 minutes when on the ice.
A significant reason for his defensive success was his ability to defend the rush. Per Corey Sznajder, who manually tracks microstats, Marino graded out well in denying zone entries and preventing scoring chances on zone entries in 2021-22. Though his offensive numbers slipped in each of the past two seasons after a strong rookie campaign in 2019-20, he was still an effective puck-mover, specifically in transition. Aside from Jonas Siegenthaler, the Devils didn’t have a defenseman with that kind of defensive makeup — defending the rush, shot suppression, etc.
It’s still early in the season, but Marino’s best traits have been on display through seven games. His expected goals percentage (xG%) of 69.67 percent is second on the team to Severson among defenders to play in all of the team’s games. The Devils are allowing a mere 1.27 expected goals per 60 with him on the ice, meaning they’re rarely giving up quality during Marino’s shifts.
Those numbers are unsustainable and will level off as the season continues and the Devils’ schedule toughens up. However, it’s easy to see what Marino provides defensively. His ability to defend the rush has been second to none; that became apparent in the team’s first game of 2022-23 against the Philadelphia Flyers when he negated a couple of odd-man rushes.
But what’s stood out most through seven games is Marino’s hockey sense. It’s rare to see him make the wrong decision that leads to an odd-man situation or defensive breakdown. He knows when it’s the right time to jump up in the neutral zone to disrupt a play or stand up at the blue line. He makes the proper reads in the defensive zone, and has an innate ability to make the right decision with the puck on his stick.
Related: Devils’ Defensive Depth Improves With Marino Trade
It’s also worth noting that while offense isn’t his forte, Marino is beginning to contribute in that respect, and we know he’s capable of it based on his rookie season in Pittsburgh. He tallied a couple of assists in a 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals on Monday and had the primary assist on Dawson Mercer’s goal against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.
While the Devils are asking him to do many of the things he did defensively with the Penguins, head coach Lindy Ruff’s system involves his defensemen activating quite often in the offensive zone. That’s a bit different than what the Penguins ask their defensemen to do (aside from Kris Letang), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if his point totals see a bit of a bump in New Jersey.
Marino Among Defensive League Leaders Too
The Devils have been one of the best five-on-five teams in the league to start this season, ranking first in xG% and Corsi for percentage (CF%). That likely has to do a bit with Marino having some of the best numbers in the NHL among defensemen, but that doesn’t take away from the impact he’s having on the team so far.
Marino’s 69.97 xG% ranks fourth in the league, just behind Severson — who ranks second — while his Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 62.28 percent ranks 11th (min. 50 minutes played). When it comes to shot suppression, he ranks first in expected goals against per 60 and sixth in shot attempts against per 60.
Because it’s still early in the season, another metric worth examining is game score, an all-encompassing stat that measures a player’s overall productivity. Through seven games, Marino’s game score average of 1.84 ranks third in the league among defensemen (min. three games played), placing him right ahead of Hamilton.
I’m not really a fan of using average ice time to evaluate a player because it doesn’t tell you much about the effect someone has during gameplay. Plenty of skaters — forwards and defensemen — that log big minutes don’t have the impact they’re perceived to be having. That isn’t the case with Marino, however.
Related: 5 Devils Takeaways From 6-2 Win Over the Red Wings
While Hamilton leads Devils skaters in average ice time at 21:24, Marino is right behind him at 21:03. It’s clear that Ruff trusts him, and he has no reason not to based on his play defensively. He has been a stabilizing force, and if he starts consistently contributing in the offensive zone, that’ll only increase his value to the team.
Devils Were Smart to Acquire Marino When They Did
Before wrapping up this post, it’s worth mentioning what the Devils gave up to acquire Marino in Ty Smith, their first-round pick in the 2018 draft, and how that could’ve impacted the team to start 2022-23. While Smith has begun this season with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre Penguins, he will likely turn into an NHL regular for them sooner rather than later (he is still only 22 years old).
With that said, the Devils would’ve been taking a sizable risk hanging onto Smith in the hopes he would’ve turned it around to start this season after a rough sophomore campaign in 2021-22. Perhaps he could’ve contributed on the third pair alongside someone like Kevin Bahl or Brendan Smith, but that was far from a guarantee.
If Ty Smith had returned to New Jersey and struggled, that would’ve significantly dented their defensive depth. For a team that’s trying to do everything at their disposal to put their goaltenders in the best position to succeed after having the worst goaltending in the league a season ago, that wouldn’t have done Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood any favors. Not to mention that if Smith struggled or spent most of the season in the AHL, it’s unlikely they could’ve dealt him for a blueliner of Marino’s caliber in the future.
That’s why Fitzgerald was wise to make the trade when he did, and the move has paid massive dividends to start 2022-23. The Devils now have three top-four capable defenders on the right side, which is a significant factor in why they’re not giving up much of anything defensively to start this season. His numbers will likely level off as the Devils’ schedule gets more difficult in the coming weeks. But there’s no doubt Marino has been a home run addition and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Stat Cards